The Color of Compromise

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.

TTisby Coverhis 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.

Cultivation vs. Coercion

Third of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2.

Even if the unjust treatment of women by men is not a result of our faith (rightly considered), Scripture certainly still has much to say about it. Right there in the Garden, at the moment of our descent into sin and shame, God pronounced a curse on the very works of cultivation for which He created us. Because we trusted the word of the serpent over the design of the Lord, the ground would no longer respond well to the man’s tending, and the man would no longer respond with love to the work of the woman in his life.

A key component of this curse toward the woman is that the man will not only resist, but that he will “rule over” her (Gen. 3:16). Relationships crafted to demonstrate God’s goodness and creative spirit are instead handicapped by a visceral power dynamic—one more expression of our central sin of pride. Our confidence is no longer in our submission to God, but in the strength and wisdom we think we possess.

As Andy Crouch has pointed out in his excellent work, Playing God, our call to cultivate and care for all God had made was enabled by His gift of power; power meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused.

Unjust power is an audacious grift, an attempt to usurp God’s authority without the foundation of His omniscience and lovingkindness—in other words, an idol. And we are so, so slow to give up this false god of coercive power over others. Its tentacles weave through our works, allowing mankind to create unspeakable evils and corrupting even our best efforts. Such is the root of our mistreatment of women and the church’s ignorance or toleration of a broken status quo. The same can be said of racism, abortion, marginalization of the weak, disabled, and elderly, perpetuation of poverty, proliferation of war, and every other systemic sin.

In this light, pornography is revealed as an extension of sexual abuse, warping desires and feeding the beast of consumption for those who lack the social power to do such unspeakable things in the real world and get away with it. Women appearing in that footage are often paid next to nothing or, in many cases, actually held in some form of slavery, making the visual delivery of their bodies as a “product” a direct result of their actual abuse at the hands of others. As the Avett Brothers sing in “True Sadness”: “Angela became a target / As soon as her beauty was seen / By young men who tried to reduce her down / To a scene on a x-rated screen / Is she not more than the curve of her hips? / Is she not more than the shine on her lips? / Does she not dream to sing and to live and to dance down her own path / Without being torn apart? / Does she not have a heart?

Perhaps the epidemic of pornography in our churches (that now swallows up women, in addition to men) both contributes to and flows from the softer dehumanization we’ve grown accustomed to. Brokenness is always cyclical.

A healthy feminism is the staunch opponent of all such coercion, but much of what passes under that name has instead been a cheerleader for the same sorts of acts, provided that they are perpetrated by women instead of against them. If gender is merely a social construct, then difference itself is the only injustice. A feminism aimed there, that encourages women to seek equality by acting in the same sinful consumption that men have gotten away with—striving for social, cultural, and sexual dominance—misses so many of the deeper evils.

I’d argue, in fact, that our present moment is a much the death of that movement as it is the death of silent suffering at the hands of pigs and patriarchs. The emergence of a what has been described as “rape culture” on university campuses suggests that men still hold the balance of power in any pitched battle for sexual freedom.

What of Marriage?
In such a cycle of coercion and abuse, what value can there be to marriage? Is it not just one more social structure in which women are forced to subsume their person and will to the desires of men?

Going back to Genesis, we see marriage described not as a display of power, but an act of mutual care and cultivation: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24-25). When Paul takes up this matter in Ephesians 5, he calls it a “profound mystery” that does not merely reflect God’s good design of Creation, but portrays God’s mercy in repairing what has been broken through Christ’s “marriage” to His church.

For most that object to this reading, though, it is Paul’s words a few verses before that cause them to stumble: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:22-23). Some see this as proof positive of the evil of marriage, and others tie themselves in hermeneutical knots trying to explain how Paul unfairly introduces a hierarchical structure to a beautifully egalitarian institution. It seems clear, though that we have to interpret this instruction in light of the “profound mystery,” and not the other way around.

Submission is only submission if it is an act of will cutting against the grain, just like the counterpart command for men to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). We are to emulate Christ, not Pharaoh, who used the people to make him wealthy and comfortable; Christ, not Solomon, who multiplied pleasures to himself; Christ, not even Elijah, who abandoned his calling when he was discouraged. Any other model of marriage is not only dysfunctional, but diabolical, in that it mars a God-ordained portrait and sends a false message about Christ.

Loving my wife as Christ loved the church is not a “natural” act, and certainly not a “masculine” one (at least in the cultural sense). It is something that I would never conceive of, let alone attempt, without the transforming power of Christ. Likewise, submission is not the normative state of “femaleness”, but the conscious entering in to a Christ-like act of sacrifice by a strong, free, individual. It is a call to mutual obedience (within the marriage covenant) not a ratification of the world’s status quo. What spiritual value is there in submitting to your husband if you live in constant dread of all men everywhere? Only a strong woman can submit well. What spiritual value is there in leading your wife if you are called to lord your privilege and power over all women? Only a weak man needs to be so propped up.

Of course, marriage is meant to mirror Christ redeeming the church, but not to the exclusion of his redeeming love toward His daughters themselves. In this picture, a groom is a reflection, not a replacement, of Christ. Our brothers and sisters who pursue full lives of godly service in singleness are no less powerful images of God than those called to participate in that particular re-enactment of redemption. I’ve seen so many single women among my friends and family* offer brilliantly faithful service to the church, in the face of immense cultural pressure to marry, serve outside of their gifting, or abandon the way of Christ to seek their pleasure in the world. Such a life is not second-class, but boldly sacrificial and worthy of praise.

Part 1: Tasteless, but Excusable? Dehumanization, Women, and the Church
Part 2: Men and Women, Image-Bearing, and Scripture
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

*Why I’m not similarly acquainted with very many young single men is a sociological conversation for another time.

Image: Samaritan Woman Meets Jesus, Byzantine Icon

Tasteless, but Excusable?: Dehumanization, Women, and the Church

The first of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church.

“Because I’ve been catcalled and leered at twice just while walking to work this week, #MeToo. The worst part is that the safest option in those moments—on foot, on the street—is passivity as people consume me and treat me as property. And the past year…shows that far too many people—even in the church—think [sexual abuse & harassment] is tasteless, but excusable sin.”

Seeing these words last fall in a series of Tweets from a good friend called my attention to what the #MeToo moment was dredging up—a breadth of pain, fear, filth, violence, and injustice endured by women on a daily basis. Many had been reluctant to speak out, cowed by threats or simply exhausted from responses of disbelief, but the growing groundswell of shared stories has helped them bring all manner of individual and institutional offenses to light. More troubling, such attitudes show up and seem to hold sway in far too many corners of the #ChurchToo.

As multitudes of women have broken the silence of shame, the rest of us (i.e. men) have been given an opportunity to reflect on all the implications of a side of life and culture that far too many of us had previously had the privilege and position to ignore. Their stories have shaken the foundations of companies and institutions that covered up such things and protected the powerful men who perpetrated them.

I want to respond to the courage of my friend and so many others both by digging into the higher-level cultural phenomena they’ve uncovered and in trying to help plot a path for a different future.

Dignity vs. Consumption
Blatant evils like sexual harassment and assault can only become, as my friend said, “Tasteless, but excusable,” when we deem victims as somehow less than human. Her choice of words there is telling: dehumanizing people always leads to their consumption or disposal, replacing inherent dignity and worth with cold value-assessment or “taste”.

As was often the case, novelist and essayist Walker Percy sniffed out this tendency well in advance of the cultural mainstream. In his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, Percy crafts a revealing exchange between his protagonist, Will Barrett, and Kitty, the suburban Southern girl he thinks he loves, who he thinks might finally help him find a “normal” life. Will is concerned with the on-again-off-again nature of their relationship and can’t seem to figure out how to relate to her as person. He nervously recounts a story of how his grandfather took his father to a brothel on his 16th birthday to avoid having him “worrying about certain things.” Kitty responds to that grotesque thought by trying on different personae to get Will’s attention and affection. She first offers, “I’ll be your whore,” which he ruefully accepts (to her dismay), leading her to say instead, “Very well. I’ll be a lady.”

Later, Will is lost in thoughts of existential angst, musing: “But what am I, he wondered: neither Christian nor pagan nor proper lusty gentleman, for I’ve never really got the straight of this lady-and-whore business. And that is all I want and it does not seem too much to ask: for once and all to get the straight of it.”

Percy’s jarring either/or reveals more than we may be comfortable with about our culture’s understanding female personhood. What Will couldn’t “get the straight of” while lying awake that night, it seems, is that we (in the rich, comfortable, “liberated” echelons of the Western world) still don’t know how to appreciate women as humans qua humans. We perpetually want to classify them in relation to men. In this telling, women exist for men as a sort of “consumer product”—either in marriage and polite society (as “ladies”) or in sin and secrecy (as “whores”), and various shades between the two extremes—rather than as fully formed persons and citizens of God’s kingdom in their own right. Both categories demean, measuring every woman’s worth not by the content of her character, but by the man that chooses her, or doesn’t.

As a result, we don’t know how to understand men as humans either. We can never dehumanize others without also losing a proportional part of our own humanity. This is also a part of Will’s question above. Is there a path to fully formed manhood aside from becoming the “proper, lusty gentleman” his family and culture expected him to be?

Church: Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?
That this pattern of dehumanization shows up in the wider culture seems like a given. And if we are struggling, in the midst of an open, liberal culture, to welcome women as full participants in humanity, how much more in other parts of the world. Under Islam? Under Hinduism? In poverty? In slavery?

When it shows up just as vividly in the church, we’re left with two ways to interpret this tendency (and I should emphasize that it is a tendency, a general bent from which many, many men faithfully dissent and diverge). Is it a holdover from a fallen, unconverted world? A brokenness and sorrow from which we should flee, repent, and repair? Or is it, like in so many other religions, just the logical outworking of an understanding of the world shaped by its ancient text (with a simple caveat that the lustful side of the consumer coin should be avoided)?

I’m tipping my hand in the way this question is phrased, for I do believe repentance is called for as the only biblical response—even from those whose ministries and churches have not willfully engaged in these patterns. If #MeToo, #ChurchToo (and #YesAllWomen before that) have shown nothing else, they’ve shown that half the image-bearers in the world have routinely been given a lesser status than the other half. This is a systemic sin, often as invisible to its perpetrators as it is pervasive. Time does not heal sin. Injustice may fade in its visibility, but when the Spirit brings conviction, we have no choice but to see, grieve, repent, and restore, and then call others’ attention to the sin so that they may do likewise.

Lastly, lest we think that the church—the embodied family of Christ on earth—has better things to worry about than what gets hashed out on the Internet, my friend adds: “There is a reason the corporate lament and community of [this moment] happened on social media, even for your sisters in Christ. It’s because, as a general trend, that corporate lament isn’t happening in our churches.” With that in mind, what follows in these next few pieces is, to be sure, a theological and social reflection, but with a firmly pastoral focus. How we think through these things should inform how we weep with those who weep.

Part 2: Men, Women, Image-Bearing and Scripture
Part 3: Cultivation v. Coercion
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

Image: Madonna di Campagna, 15th-Century Italian painting

The Example of Jonah

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 2014. Part 5 of 5

At last we come to the great “showdown” of this story—when Jonah finally speaks honestly with God and, in spite of his rage and despair, the Lord teaches him graciously yet again who is sovereign and just.

Jonah (after taking a rather, shall we say, circuitous route) obeyed God, delivering a fiery warning of coming judgment to the people of Nineveh. To his surprise, they listened and repented, and, “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10).

Far from the reaction you might expect after what looks like a “successful” delivery of his prophetic message, Jonah reflected bitterly on Nineveh’s repentance: “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry” (4:1). In his grief and anger, Jonah cried out to the Lord: “He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’” (4:2-3). Continue reading