The Color of Compromise

The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism

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Jemar Tisby
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , January
     2019.
     256 pages.
     $21.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780310597261.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The last time I read a book published by Zondervan was probably my senior year of high school, when I was studying one of M.R. DeHaan’s books on eschatology from a dispensational pre-millennial perspective. So, I am surprised that such a conservative publisher has released a powerful book on racism in the American Church.

No American with even the slightest bit of historical knowledge of what African Americans have suffered at the hands of white people could in good conscience call the United States a Christian Nation. Jemar Tisby’s remarkably clear and surprisingly thorough historical narrative gives millions of Americans no excuse for remaining ignorant of the story of white-black interaction in America, and the role white American Christians have played in creating and sustaining it. It is not a pleasant journey. But Tisby, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Mississippi, has done American churches a monumental service in bringing that picture into sharper focus.

In The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Tisby argues that racism, America’s “original sin,” never goes away; rather, it adapts to its changing environment and takes on newer, subtler, and more complex forms. One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most popular quotations was that the real story of the Civil Rights Movement was not the evil done by the bad people, but the silence of the good people. There is more than enough of both in this accessible survey to make morally sensitive readers sick to their stomachs.

Tisby’s narrative begins in America’s colonial and revolutionary periods as the ministers who came to the New World worked actively to convert the “heathen” sons and daughters of Africa into Christians. First, however, they had to convince slave owners that allowing their slaves to be evangelized would be in their financial interests. Once granted access to the African-born slaves, with mixed success they converted the slaves into more diligent and efficient slaves who worked for their masters “as unto the Lord.” Then these ministers had to ensure the planters that the conversion of their slaves did not imply or require that these Christian brothers and sisters be set free. Anglican missionary Francis LeJau provided their answer by developing baptismal liturgies in which the baptismal candidates vowed that they sought baptism for spiritual, but not earthly freedom.

Later, when the “peculiar institution” came under fire from the Abolitionists, another generation of Christian (oh, the urge to set this word in quotation marks) ministers penned the lion’s share of formal defenses of slavery more popular and more convincing than those produced by southern lawyers, politicians, or economic theorists (Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (University of Georgia Press, 1987).

Moving to the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, Tisby makes audible the silence of good Christians by illustrating their unwillingness to speak up to denounce the rise of the “Christian” terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan.  The silence continued into the 1930s through the churches’ inability to rein in the perpetrator of new outrages, disfranchisement, the convict lease system, or lynching. Nor could the average minister summon the courage to denounce the bombing of black homes and churches during the Civil Rights Movement. Tisby also takes note of the silence of Christians in the North so that he posits the problem as American rather than exclusively Southern.

In perhaps his strongest chapters, the author turns his spotlight on recent history by tracing racism’s adaptations in both the post-Civil War and the post-Civil Rights eras. For almost two decades, in describing the responses of both white racists and white Christians, I have told my students, when you’ve been king all your life, equality feels like a demotion. The resentment these Americans feel, and their fervor to “take back their country,” are reflected in Tisby’s perceptive treatment of the racist roots of the Religious Right, their shift to non-racial but color-coded language, their almost complete allegiance to the Republican Party, and the race-baiting rise of Donald Trump. The urge to “make America great again,” Tisby argues, is what angry white Christians (especially the evangelicals) have done when demoted to equality with African Americans, non-Christians, and other minority groups.

In his last chapter and conclusion, Tisby “keeps hope alive” with some prescriptions for racial healing and a fervent admonition for white American Christians to begin the work of racial reconciliation. If every predominantly white church in America were to study this book, that hope might possibly become reality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew M. Manis is Professor of History at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jemar Tisby is President of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also the co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast.  He has spoken nation-wide at conferences and his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, CNN, and Vox.  Jemar is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the twentieth century. 

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