Book Review by Brad Jenkins
As I tried to make sense of what was happening, I stumbled across the Twitter feed of Jemar Tisby, a Christian historian, author and speaker who studied theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. An image of his most recent book, “The Color of Compromise,” caught my eye. The subtitle caught my attention, too: “The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.”
I’ll admit my first response to that subtitle was skepticism: complicity, I thought; isn’t that a bit strong?
But with that question what’s happening still bothering me, I gave the book a try. Not even a whole chapter in, Tisby had me hooked. “The goal of this book is not guilt,” he wrote, seemingly knowing that I thought perhaps this was a book that was out to make me, a middle-class white man, feel guilty about what had been done in the past. “The purpose of tracing Christian complicity with racism is not to show white believers how bad they are. It is simply a fact of American history that white leaders and laity made decisions to maintain the racist status quo. …These words may cause some grief, but grief can be good,” he concluded, referencing Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians that godly grief leads to repentance, a repentance that leads to empathy and love for those whose experience is vastly different than mine.
Tisby spends 10 chapters tracing the history of Blacks in America from the Colonial Era to the present, and each chapter shows how Christians of those times either participated in, ignored or stayed silent on matters of race. “Reading ‘The Color of Compromise’ is like having a sobering conversation with your doctor and hearing that the only way to cure a dangerous disease is by undergoing an uncomfortable surgery and ongoing rehabilitation,” Tisby writes. “Although the truth cuts like a scalpel and may leave a scar, it offers healing and health. The pain is worth the process.”
Indeed, Tisby’s book is sobering and uncomfortable. Space doesn’t allow a complete retelling of the many stories Tisby tells about racism in America, but a few examples stand out:
- During the transatlantic slave trade, some 10 million Africans were kidnapped and shipped to the Americas, a journey during which 2 million died and the rest were subjected to awful pain and indignity, treated as property rather than people;
- 18th Century Christians rationalized about the morality of enslaving Africans, telling themselves that enslaving Blacks would help them better care for them than allowing them to be free;
- Even after slavery was outlawed, former slaveowners and Southerners found new ways to discriminate against Blacks. Some were radical in their hate, forming the KKK, and as Tisby notes, “some of the same men who conducted night rides on Saturday ascended to the pulpit to preach on Sunday,” with some 40,000 ministers estimated to be part of the Klan. As lynchings happened, “the majority stance of the American church was avoidance, turning a blind eye to the practice.”
And of course, as we have seen lately, racism still exists. In one of the more astute observations from this book, Tisby reminds us, “Racism never goes away; it just adapts.” We, Reformed Christians who believe in the depravity of man, should be the first to say “amen.” This world is sinful and broken, not operating in the way it was meant to, and all manner of sin will continue to infect it until Christ returns and completely restore it all.
Racism in the 21st century may be less overt than in past eras, but it is no less real, and it is no less painful to our fellow image-bearers whose skin is darker than ours. Reading the stories of racism and the ways the church has been silent or complicity grieved me. It gave me a deeper understanding of the pain that is behind the protests.
Listening to that pain is a good place to start fighting racism. “The Color of Compromise” helped me hear that pain in some new and profound ways. At the end of the book, Tisby offers some suggestions on how to turn empathy into action. Not everyone will agree with his ideas; some of them are controversial. Some, though, are not: finding ways to build interracial relationships; voting for candidates who take justice seriously; engage with Black Christians and the Black church so you can learn from them about what it means to be a Black Christian.
Reading a book like this can be the beginning of a greater journey toward justice. (And, by the way, the book is featured on Right Now Media, and where you can watch Tisby discuss each of the chapters. Our church has a subscription.)
“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote and Tisby quotes in this book, “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure created, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Brad Jenkins is a Commissioned Lay Pastor and Elder at First Presbyterian Church.