Book Review: The Color of Compromise

What if I am grieved by America’s legacy of racism… but tend to distrust governmental solutions? What if I agree that the American church has been complicit in racism… but tend to see preaching the gospel, rather than “antiracist social action,” as the church’s primary mission? What if I agree that Christians should work for racial justice… yet am wary of the ways that the language of “justice” is being weaponized in our cultural dialogue?

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019)

Readers who can relate to these tensions won’t be greatly helped by Jemar Tisby’s new book The Color of Compromise. Though it offers an excellent historical overview of racism in the church, Tisby’s book falls prey to some key weaknesses that diminish the force of his overall argument.

The Color of Compromise is an important book. It’s a necessary book. It’s a meaningful book. Tisby is a first-rate historian, and he has compiled a thorough and sobering account of racism in America and the church’s sad complicity in it. The book is divided into eleven chapters: an introduction and a conclusion, with nine chapters of historical survey in between. Beginning with the colonial era and ending with Black Lives Matter, Tisby traces the story of race in America. Throughout the journey, he comes back to one central point: “nothing about American racism was inevitable.” The story could have been different. At countless moments in history, Christians could have courageously stepped forward to combat racism and change the narrative. But they didn’t.

Overview

For white Christians specifically, Tisby’s book is important in two regards. First of all, it gives historical context. For years, I personally was ignorant of why certain social and political issues tend to elicit a strong response from my black brothers and sisters in Christ. Many of my white friends share that ignorance. But when we understand key events from the slavery and Jim Crow eras, we gain insight and clarity. For instance, when we remember that Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877, leaving newly freed blacks to fend for themselves, we can make better sense of “ongoing disputes over the role of the federal government in proactively ensuring civil rights” (p. 98). To meaningfully engage issues of race, we must know our history. Tisby’s book is massively helpful in that regard.

Second, Tisby’s book is important for white Christians because it confronts false narratives. For example, chapter 6 addresses the “Lost Cause” mythology that persists throughout the American South to this day. “According to the Lost Cause narrative, the South wanted nothing more than to be left alone… but it was attacked by the aggressive, godless North, who swooped in to disrupt a stable society, calling for emancipation and inviting the intrusion of the federal government into small-town, rural life” (p. 94). Having attended college in the South, I can affirm that this explanation for the Civil War is alive and well. Certainly numerous other issues were bound up in the causes and justifications of the Civil War – but every one of those issues was connected in some way to the institution of slavery. Tisby helps us reckon with the hard truth. He shows how Christian denominations split over the issue of slavery, how theologians and preachers used the Bible to justify slavery, and how Christian leaders failed to act courageously to end slavery. White Christians of all persuasions need to reckon with these facts. As Tisby points out, “American Christians have never had trouble celebrating their victories, but honestly recognizing their failures and inconsistencies, especially when it comes to racism, remains an issue… The Color of Compromise undoes the tendency to skip the hard parts of history and… [challenges] a triumphalist view of American Christianity” (p. 20).

A Work of History & Persuasion

As a historian, Tisby excels. He writes with cogency; he acknowledges complexity; he documents his sources well. Yet he seeks to offer more than just a historical survey. The Color of Compromise is a work of persuasion on two levels. First, Tisby hopes to persuade readers that “the American church has been complicit with racism.” At this level, in my opinion, he succeeds. When Southern preachers used the Bible to defend slavery; when denominations divided over it; and when theologians used the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9 to justify the subjugation of black people, it’s impossible to argue that the church has NOT been complicit in racism.

Second, Tisby seeks to persuade American Christians to “feel the weight of their collective failure to confront racism in the church… [and take] immediate, fierce action to confess the truth and work for justice” (p. 24) And it’s here that the book fails, in my opinion, for two reasons.

First, Tisby assumes that readers share his vision of what “working for justice” looks like, rather than persuading readers that his particular set of prescriptions are both necessary and just. Second, he gives the impression that anything less than “immediate, fierce action” (action, presumably, that accords with his own set of prescriptions) amounts to ongoing complicity with racism.

At this point, I’ll put all my cards on the table. I’m a white Christian reader who’s willing to be persuaded. I’m grieved by the historic injustices done to black image-bearers of God in this country. I’m willing to acknowledge and repent of the sins of my forefathers. I want to identify any overt or covert racism in my life. And I desire to take meaningful action to heal the racial divides in our churches and our society. As such, I imagine I’m exactly the kind of reader Tisby had in mind when he set out to write this book.

At the same time, I also lean in a politically conservative direction; I have a conviction that personal conversion to Christ is foundational to any meaningful change; I think the main task of the church is to preach the gospel and call people to surrender to Jesus Christ; and I am generally skeptical of some of the ways that the language of “justice” is used in our modern political dialogue.

Call me “willing but wary.” Challenged but critically-minded. I imagine that in this regard, I’m representative of a fair percentage of the American Christians whom Tisby hopes to persuade. But his book displays four key weaknesses that will end up hindering its rhetorical effectiveness among the very audience he seeks to influence.

Weakness #1: dismissive treatment of a mainstream theological conviction.

In chapter 8, titled “Compromising with Racism During the Civil Rights Movement,” Tisby contrasts “two approaches to religion and justice – moderation and activism.” Throughout the chapter, Tisby assumes that his own position – activism – is the obviously correct one. He asserts that Christian moderates “played it safe, refusing to get involved in the civil rights movement” (p. 132).

His example of moderation is Billy Graham; of activism, Martin Luther King Jr. Using Graham’s own words, Tisby explains the convictions behind his “moderate” position:

Graham stated, “I believe the heart of the problem of race is in loving our neighbor.” While few Christians would object that racism is a failure to love one’s neighbor, Graham did not carry that statement any further into the realm of institutional racism. Like many evangelicals, Graham believed race relations would gradually improve – one conversion and one friendship at a time… Ultimately, Graham made it clear that his primary goal was evangelism… Graham never relented from the belief that “the evangelist is not primarily a social reformer, a temperance lecturer or a moralizer. He is simply a keryx, a preacher of the good news” (p. 135 and 149).

Leaving aside the question of Billy Graham’s engagement in the civil rights movement, Graham’s stated conviction that “the evangelist is… simply a preacher of the good news” is one shared by many Christian leaders and activists today – of all races and nationalities. One notable example is the Chinese dissident Wang Yi, who wrote recently upon his imprisonment: “I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime… But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.” Tisby fails to treat this conviction as a serious and cogent expression of Christian obedience and mission. Rather, he writes it off as evidence of “complicity with the status quo of institutional racism” (p. 135) and a “failure… to respond to the evils of segregation and inequality” (p. 143).

If Tisby wishes to assert that “activism” is the only properly Christian option, he needs to make a cogent argument to that end. There remain many Christians who DO care about racial justice, but who share Billy Graham’s conviction that the preaching of the gospel is the primary means to that end. Tisby appears to write such people off as lacking a serious commitment to racial equity. This is a core weakness in his book, and one I hope to see him remedy in future writings.  

Weakness #2: an unclear (and seemingly malleable) definition of racism.

In the first chapter of the book, Tisby puts forward Beverly Daniel Tatum’s definition of racism: “racism is a system of oppression based on race.” He points out that racism includes both “personal bigotry toward someone of a different race” and also “the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people.” This is a good, clear, and helpful definition. Historically speaking, it’s quite obvious how deeply entrenched this kind of racism has been in the American story.

But then, toward the end of the book, Tisby seems to expand this definition quite dramatically. He offers these tenuous examples of modern-day racism: “sharing the works of people who practiced slavery without context or criticism; continually hosting panels, conferences, and other events that feature only white men; Christian schools making peace with the presence of buildings named after racists or featuring their statues on campus grounds…” (p. 211).

It’s hard for this reader – and others, I imagine – to see how these modern-day examples reflect “a system of oppression based on race.” Each one certainly could be evidence of such – if we are knowingly avoiding the negative aspects of someone’s history, intentionally excluding minority voices, or proudly celebrating a racist past. (And it’s important to acknowledge that these kinds of things can and do happen). But none of these examples, in and of themselves, amounts to de facto racism. To take each one in turn: If I don’t mention Jonathan Edwards’ slaveholding when I quote him, am I guilty of racism? If my panel or conference features only white men, does that mean it’s racist? Is every Christian school with a building named after George Whitefield guilty of racism?

Some of our white forefathers believed that black people were property, not persons. That’s a grievous, sinful offense against human dignity – and it was part of a system of oppression based on race. I’m not convinced that a bust of Thomas Jefferson in the school library is the same thing.

Weakness #3: unjust prescriptions for “justice.”

In his final chapter, Tisby urges Christian leaders to use their platforms to “call out” racism. In so doing, he violates biblical principles of justice that would make such efforts truly just.

Public offense calls for public opposition. Too many Christian leaders refuse to use their platforms to speak publicly against racism. Those who do tend to speak in generalities. “Racism is wrong,” they say, but they refrain from naming individuals or situations in which racism is at play. Moreover, they use euphemisms like “racial tension” or “racially charged” instead of simply naming words or actions “racist”… If someone has been called out for racism, and they refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused – whatever their intent – then that person should not enjoy continued credibility and attention. Refuse to go to their conferences, buy their books, quote them on social media, or share their work.

Note carefully the process this paragraph condones. If someone has been “called out” for racism (which makes the accusation of racism the operative principle)… and if they “refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused” (making subjective “harm” the determining factor of guilt or innocence)… they should lose public credibility. An accusation of racism, and anything less than immediate capitulation to that accusation, is grounds for denouncing someone as a racist. This is a dangerous prescription that substitutes shame in the court of public opinion for true justice before God and man.

We’ve seen this script play out time and again on social media and in our cultural dialogue, and it’s unfortunate to see a Christian leader condoning these sorts of “shame storms.” Biblical justice demands more. I understand the importance of (especially white) Christian leaders speaking out boldly about issues of race. But when they do so, it’s imperative that they do so biblically and truthfully. If they follow Tisby’s prescription as stated, they may gain followers on social media… but they will not be acting justly in the eyes of God.

Weakness #4: a lack of gospel distinctiveness in the solutions proposed.

At the beginning of the book, Tisby makes an important point that’s foundational to any thinking about racism:

Skin color is simply a physical trait. It is a feature that has no bearing on one’s intrinsic dignity. As the following chapters show, people invented racial categories. Race and racism are social constructs.

This is exactly right. “Race” is an invented category – a social construct used to divide people from one another.

Therefore, we might expect a Christian treatment of racism to use the Scriptures to critique the very idea of race. A Christian approach might start with a survey of the doctrine of the image of God; fast-forward to Revelation’s vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” gathered around the throne of God; and then explore how the gospel of Jesus Christ has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” and “reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14-16). Such an approach might show how the gospel critiques the very idea of race (as a category constructed by sinful humans to divide us from one another), and how Christian baptism welcomes us into one new family where identity in Christ and not skin color is our defining feature.

It’s odd, then, that in the final (and prescriptive) chapter of Tisby’s book, he doesn’t mention the gospel at all. His suggestions for addressing racial injustice include: reparations; taking down Confederate monuments; learning from the black church; starting a new seminary; hosting freedom schools and pilgrimages; making Juneteenth a national holiday; participating in the modern-day civil rights movement; publicly denouncing racism; and starting a civil rights movement toward the church.

In his defense, Tisby’s goal is to offer practical advice – things Christians can DO to combat racism. Action steps are good and necessary. But my question is this: if race itself is a social construct, why prescribe remedies that operate within that social construct? Why not show how the gospel dismantles and redeems the whole construct in the first place?

Tisby’s prescriptions aren’t inherently bad (though I expect robust debate on their various merits and demerits); but none of them are distinctly Christian either. Each of them can be pursued without the gospel and without the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that reflects a self-conscious authorial decision; it could be that Tisby was aiming at a common-grace approach to furthering racial justice. But it seems to me that he missed a powerful opportunity to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ gives a totally different set of tools – and a totally different empowering grace – to address racism. If some Christians reject his ideas as “too liberal” – a charge he anticipates in his first chapter – I suspect this is why. It’s not because he’s an unreliable narrator; it’s not because his ideas are unworthy of consideration; it’s not because his audience is importing their own “implicit bias.” It’s because none of his solutions require the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit.

Summary & Conclusion

In summary, The Color of Compromise is an important book. It makes a meaningful contribution to the conversation about race in the church and in our society. I anticipate using it with my own children to help them understand (and lament) the church’s history of racial injustice.

However, it’s not a flawless book. It treats dismissively a well-established theological conviction. It offers a fuzzy description of modern-day racism. It fails to uphold biblical justice in some of its prescriptions for justice. And it misses a chance for clear gospel application. As a result, it fails to be as persuasive as the author hopes.

Jemar Tisby is a young scholar with many years of productive writing and activism ahead of him. I’m thankful for his voice, his influence, and his love for the church. I trust he will choose to address some of these weaknesses in his future work. And even if he disagrees with these critiques, I hope they serve to advance this important and fruitful conversation in the church at large, for the healing of our nation and the glory of God.

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