The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby is at times infuriating, convicting, compromised, deeply insightful and much needed. It is not an easy read at all but it is a necessary one. Tisby’s basic premise is the silence of the church in America has not just allowed racism to survive but has given it the opportunity to adapt to the point of sophistication now where race relationships may just be the worst they have ever been in our country. And that is saying something.
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Tisby walks us through this history by visiting the majoring eras of American history: Colonial, Revolutionary, Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, End of the Twentieth, and The Age of Black Lives Matter. Tisby deftly illustrates how key decisions and personalities confronted or contributed to the issue of racism in each of these eras. Along the way, he offers sharp, detailed, and mostly balanced critique of the American church.
The Problems of The Color of Compromise
That is not to say that the book is without its problems. Tisby takes particular issue with how the Religious Right movement of the 1980’s married itself to the Republican Party. The Republicans used its pro-life and anti-crime stance to win their votes and in turn win elections. As they went to to institute policies that had devastating results in the African American community, the Religious Right remained silent about that. I think the criticism is far – this isn’t the problem.
The problem is that Tisby doesn’t seem to use that same standard when it comes to dealing with the Democratic Party. The Democrats played in the same sandbox with the same toys for the same reasons during the Clinton Administration with even more harrowing results. Clinton doubled down on the crime policy with the infamous “three strikes, you’re out” policy and in turn more African Americans were incarcerated under his administration than any other in American history. Later in his life, Clinton would apologize for his actions to the African American community. Side note: For a more thorough handling of this issue, I’d point to the Netflix documentary 13th. It’s a fascinating, fair, and critical look at how politics and the justice system have actually help racism become more sophisticated.
The second problem is a bit more complicated and nuanced. Tisby makes the point that Christ-followers ought to partner with other organizations (specifically Black Lives Matter) for the purpose of pursuing justice on the issue of racism. He questions the Christian community when they criticize other leaders who ARE doing this. After all, should not the church be leading on this issue of racial reconciliation?
Therein lies the rub. I think Tisby is absolutely right when he decrees that the church should be leading in this area as well as partnering with other organization on this issue. The problem is when some organizations tie other issues to the cause – such as abortion and homosexuality. Tisby appears to under-estimate how polarizing those two issues are to both organizations and the church.
This cuts both ways. Most churches are not going to partner with an organization that also pushes abortion and homosexual right. And it’s equally true that those organizations don’t want churches that are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage. For both sides, marrying racism with these other two issues has made partnership practically impossible for all parties involved.
It seems as if Tisby never really seems to address the intensity of the dilemma. The ongoing issue with churches partnering with non-Christian organizations is that at some point, there will be conflicting values. This is the definition of compromise. Racism has traditionally been on the wrong end of that equation but does it make it more right if now the church compromises on other issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, to address racism?
Tisby writes this:
Ultimately, the organizations with which one chooses to affiliate in the cause of antiracism is a matter of conscience. The only wrong action is inaction.
To which I say – maybe. Yes, it’s wrong to do nothing. But to join an organization to solely focus on racism at the expense of other issues is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Is it too much to ask that the church not be compromised at all?
The Bigger Picture
In spite of all this, a more important point needs to be made. Tisby deftly cuts to the core of the issue and paints a haunting picture of avoidance, inactivity, and complacency of the American church on the issue of racism. He is pointed and clear in his assessment. He blasts the easy and incorrect conclusion that this is mainly a Southern problem. He rightly declares that this is a human problem.
He expertly illustrates how both the North and South actively pursued and implemented racist policies, how both sides benefited from slave labor, and how neither northern or southern churches did much in terms of advocating for people of color. Tisby reminds us that while there were heroes who stood for equality and how for the most part they came out of a Christian tradition, these were few and far between. They constantly found themselves on the wrong side of the numbers.
Tisby’s insight on how racism has become more and more sophisticated is spot on. His thoughts on how fear is what is keeping the church irrelevant and on the sidelines in this discussion. He urges churches to face this fear and instead risk getting it wrong at times. That, in his opinion, is a better alternative than doing nothing. He lays out a simple matrix for churches to get involved using ARC. Awareness. Relationships. Commitment.
For leaders who are trying to engage in this issue, this will give you some much needed historical background and perspective. For those who are on the fence – pick it up. Let Tisby challenge you.
In my life, this book has spurred multiple conversations with my friends. I’m continuing to learn and being pushed to go deeper.
And that’s not a bad thing.