Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise is a difficult book to read. The difficulty does not result from a complex argument or dense prose, for the book’s argument is simply and straightforwardly made. Rather, the book is difficult to read because of its subject matter, namely, white Christian complicity with racism throughout American history.
“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”
Tisby makes his case by means of a historical survey of people and events from the colonial era to the late-twentieth century. “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality,” Tisby quotes historian Carolyn DuPont in summary, “they often labored mightily against it.” Did you know, for example, that…
- George Whitefield—the famous evangelist — urged the colony of Georgia, which had been founded as a free territory, to allow slavery. A large part of his motivation was the financial viability of his Bethesda Orphanage, which could be run more cheaply with slave than with paid labor.
- Prior to the Civil War, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations split into Northern and Southern branches because of the issue of slavery. Leading Southern theologians, such as Robert Lewis Dabney, defended white supremacy and slavery on providential and biblical grounds: “Was it nothing, that this [black] race, morally inferior, should be brought into close relations to a nobler race?” (emphasis added).
- According to historian Linda Gordon, “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.” She’s referring to the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which began in the early twentieth century and spread throughout the North as well as the South.
- A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, spoke in opposition to desegregation at the 1956 South Carolina Baptist Convention. Desegregation was “a denial of all that we believe in,” Brown v. Board of Education was “foolishness” and “idiocy,” and anyone who advocated integration was “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” First Baptist was the largest Southern Baptist church at the time. For many decades, its most famous member was the evangelist Billy Graham, whose personal views were more moderate than Criswell’s but who stopped short of advocating civil rights for black Americans.
These are but four examples of white Christian complicity with racism, which I have chosen because of their relevance to white evangelical Christians. There are many other examples from across the spectrum of American Protestantism. It is sometimes forgotten, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to mainline Protestant ministers and a Jewish rabbi. If you’re looking for a searing indictment of white moderates, consider King’s words:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Of course, there were white Christians throughout American history who opposed racism. But Tisby’s disheartening survey suggests that they were exceptions rather than the rule. As a Pentecostal, for example, I am unaware of any leading white American Pentecostals who publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement during the crucial decade between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
I don’t always agree with Tisby’s reading of the historical evidence. The closer in time he drew to the present day, the more I found myself saying, “That’s not how I would read that particular incident.” The value of Tisby’s survey is that he places those incidents in the light of larger historical forces, showing continuity between them and the past. As a white reader, I found this broader historical perspective forced me to go back and take a second look at how I had been interpreting those more recent events.
So, why bring up this history of white complicity with racism now? While great strides in civil rights have been made over the decades, racism still exists and disfigures American society. “History and Scripture teaches [sic] us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance,” writes Tisby. “There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.” The Color of Compromise tells a hard truth, but one necessary to hear if racial equity is to be achieved in the Church or in America.
Tisby closes his book with practical suggestions. I don’t agree with all of the particulars, but his thoughts about “The ARC of Racial Justice” are an “entry point” for those on a journey to racial equity. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. Become aware of the issues. Build relationships across lines of race and ethnicity. And commit to concrete action…such as reading this thought-provoking book.
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
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