The story of relationship between ethnicities in the U. S. is typically thought of by white Americans as something of a three-act play.
Act I starts 400 years ago, when English colonists in Virginia bought 20 or so men and women from Africa. These people had been stolen from their homes (likely in Angola) by the Portuguese before being seized by English pirates on the high seas and then traded unceremoniously for food on the shores of a strange land. They, their descendants, and millions of other captives would spend the next 246 years being defined down from human beings to chattels, governed not by inalienable rights but laws concerning property, treated with all manner of cruelty and made to extract untold wealth from North America for their captors. Even at that, we’re pretty sure it was mostly a Southern problem, and the national figures from that region that “owned” humans (like 5 of the first 7 presidents) were at least deeply unsettled about the morality of it, though they almost never felt the need to actually act on that feeling.
While we’re all (mostly at least) pretty certain that Act I is evil, we’d rather not really talk about it much. Act II begins with the Emancipation proclamation, the sainted martyr Abraham Lincoln, and the virtuous northern states defeating the menace of slavery in a fair contest on the cathartic battlefields of the Civil War. This is where things began to get particularly fuzzy. As the institution of slavery gave way to other forms of oppression, with the emergence of Jim Crow and the sharecropper system, we tend to localize blame in the South. And even though Southerners spent those decades mythologizing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, that must’ve been just remembering martial glories (and maybe licking their wounds a bit), so it’s probably OK that this habit continues into the present even though I’m not willing to participate in it personally. Because this was the time period that gave the world the Harlem Renaissance and DuBois and Hughes and Hurston and Jazz, though, life in the North must’ve been tolerable, right?
Act III looks like Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and we’re all fine now, right? Sure, Martin (and Malcolm, and Medgar, and…) was killed in the fight, and sure, some of my black acquaintances still talk about the ways their concerns aren’t being heard, and sure, the news keeps talking about the deaths of innocents, and sure, it seems like the legal system can’t wait to ruin a black man’s life. But racism is just an attitude, and if I don’t have that attitude personally, I’ve done all I can for the struggle (never mind the things Grandma says at Thanksgiving). Can’t we all just get along?
Of course, if you can’t tell from the tongue-in-cheek tone there, this isn’t a terribly accurate or complete telling. But it’s not all that different from a general narrative I absorbed growing up in the 90s, and one I’m sure I’ve parroted in full or in part until fairly recently. The real story starts long before 1619, and it’s not over yet, but to speak even these simple facts can stir controversy.
This is why, one of the best tools for shining a light on the African American experience (which is inextricably intertwined with systemic sins on a massive scale in the United States and the general history of this continent) is to look into the past. In the prudent exercise of history, the issues of today can be given context, and thus, their proper weight and understanding.
This is of particular value to the church, where most discussions of cross-cultural reconciliation have been carried on in the realm of theology, sociology, or personal narratives—all of which have tremendous value (would that we had all believed Galatians 3:28 and countless other passages firmly enough to avoid the mistakes of the past!). To avoid the roots of why there hasn’t been “conciliation” all along, though, it is necessary to understand the breadth and depth of sins committed in the past—sins of individuals and evil or cowardly actions taken by groups that flowed out of those sins. Only in this way can we really begin to build toward a humble, honest, unity in the family of God.
This is the task that historian (and trained theologian) Jemar Tisby sets his hand to in The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. If that provocative title invites a spark of indignation, it’s already doing some of work of the book as Tisby sets out to disabuse us of the notion that the church somehow floats above the historical currents in a society, untainted by the fray. Moreover, he pushes hard into examining how the church oftentimes shaped, not just reflected, the culture’s attitudes toward racial distinctions and white supremacy and the systems that have propped them up over the past four centuries.
Covering so much ground in a slim volume is ambitious, and Tisby, for the most part, pulls it off. He starts off with a short discourse about the discipline of history and acknowledges that his project here is to offer a survey, a necessarily shallow introduction to a massive subject. His goal is to illuminate the big arc of the story and encourage readers to go “upstream” into the multiplicity of deeper sources he cites.
Along the way, Tisby invites readers to consider the origins of chattel slavery in the Colonial and Revolutionary period, and how theories of racial stratification took hold in the Antebellum era as a way to justify continued enslavement and brutality. He critiques the ways that powerful outpourings of the Spirit during the First and Second Great Awakenings were channelled away from applying the Gospel’s implications toward justice for enslaved people, even as God raised up African American preachers, churches, and denominations. He excoriates Southern churches for their support of slavery and secession during the run up to the Civil War and their support of segregation during the development of the Jim Crow system (not to mention their damning silence on lynchings and KKK terrorism). At the same time, he breaks down the narrative of Northern virtue, detailing institutionalization of racism through redlining, real-estate covenants, etc., following the Great Migration.
Tisby is at his strongest in exploring the second half of the 20th century. His overview of the Civil Rights movement looks at how the church (North and South) began to shift from overt racial attitudes to a “moderation” (with Billy Graham and the beginnings of modern evangelicalism standing in as representatives for this phenomenon) that too-often shied away from supporting justice. His chapter on the development of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 80s carefully explains how there was much more continuity with segregation than the received narrative of the pro-life movement has been willing to acknowledge. This part is most helpful, perhaps because it has been most under-examined.
He concludes the book from there, tying together the political shift of much of the church toward the Republican party with a growing tone-deafness of American Christians toward the real-world concerns of our African American brothers and sisters in an age of mass incarceration, police brutality, poverty, and other systemic injustices from the 1990s to the present. His closing argument is for the church to stare this history in the eye, repent of the ways that we continue to ignore it, to lament the sins of our fathers, and learn anew to weep with those who weep so that we can also rejoice and glorify God together.
As a whole, Tisby succeeds admirably in his aims, producing a very accessible popular-level introduction to a vitally important topic. It is very engaging, and overall strikes a much more humble and conciliatory tone than I imagine that I would be able to muster covering such painful facts. If anything, though, I think the book’s length may be a slight disadvantage, as its attempt to be thorough in scope leaves many aspects of the story so abbreviated as to undercut some of the dramatic force of his arguments. My hunch as an editor is that there was a lot left on the cutting room floor—a few minor mistakes that slipped into the finished copy (i.e. last names stated before people are introduced, chopped sentences, etc) seem to indicate content removed and rearranged.
I know that publishing is a tricky game, and testing readers’ appetites for such a hard subject probably makes brevity the path of prudence. Still, I hope that Tisby (or others) will continue this project in greater detail. I would have enjoyed seeing a hundred more pages in this volume, and would gladly pay for a much more in-depth book from Tisby on the history of the Religious Right alone.
The audience that most needs to hear this story—theologically conservative Christians who profess a reticence to engage with justice issues and insist on a personally “colorblind” outlook on racial issues—may not receive it well, but I hope many among that group give it a hearing and respond with reflection and prayer. Public and private lament requires a knowledge of the depth and breadth of sins committed. We need to learn the story before we can bring it to God in the fullness of sorrow and hope, and experience the godly grief that leads to “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).
Tisby very effectively asks why this subject tends to stand out as a blind spot for the majority of American Christians and urges us to look into the abyss not just to convict but to rejoice in the ways that God has preserved the witness of Christ among a people who had every reason to reject the religion of their oppressors. In particular, he asks readers to hold in tension the contributions of our ancestors and an honest reckoning with their sins.
Christians of all people should be able to understand this, for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and it’s always possible to turn the orthodox religious observance into a sacrifice that God does not desire (see Isaiah 1, for instance). In many ways, we are denying the essence of the Gospel when we refuse to acknowledge that God has used, does use, and will use imperfect vessels (e.g. slaveholders like Whitefield and Edwards) to proclaim His truths—one can both appreciate and critique public figures whose sins become as well-known as their accomplishments, but continuing to whitewash their participation in evil as a way of “protecting” their reputation ultimately leads to people rejecting both message and messenger.
There is more I could say, but this is already a long review and I’d rather people read the book for themselves than have me explain it all. Perhaps the unstated message of The Color of Compromise is that we lose a lot when we fail to listen to our brothers and sisters from other cultures. Few if any of the insights Tisby lists here are unique to him. The evidence has been in plain sight all along, if we were willing to hear the voices that were calling out for us to listen. The fact that a book like this still needs to be written in 2019 is proof enough that hard hearts and stopped ears are more common in our houses of worship than we want to admit.
Image: Aaron Douglas, Harriet Tubman, 1931, oil on canvas. On loan to North Carolina Museum of Art from Bennet College for Women Collection, Greensboro, N.C. Photo by me, January 2019.