A field manual for racial justice
Review of 'How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice' by Jemar Tisby.
Following the critical success of The Color of Compromise (2019), an exploration of white Christians’ participation in racism and white-dominated churches’ complicity, silence and tacit approval of racism throughout the history of the United States, Jemar Tisby offers this eminently practical exploration and application of his “ARC of Racial Justice” in How to Fight Racism.
Those who read Color will recognize the “ARC of Racial Justice” from the closing chapter of that work, titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” Color surveys the historical data and lays out the argument for why a Christian response to racism is needed and necessary, and Fight operates as a sort of “how then shall we live?” response. How to Fight Racism is focused in its scope and clear about what it intends to accomplish. It wastes no time attempting to convince skeptics that racism is a real problem or that a Christian response is urgently needed, recognizing that there are other resources for that purpose. This is a field manual for those who are committed to the fight.
The book itself is structured in three parts, modelled after the ARC of racial justice: Awareness, Relationships and Commitment. These three areas of justice work are not chronological or incremental but rather interconnected. There is no “right path” for an individual Christian to grow in their understanding of and commitment to justice. For some, it may start with awareness of the issues and educating oneself on the history of racism. For others, it may arise out of a relationship with someone who has experienced racism or is involved in anti-racism work. For others, as was the case this past year, it may begin with commitment – attending a rally, vigil, protest or community meeting in response to a traumatic event.
In “Part 1: Awareness,” Tisby begins with an exploration of race and the imago dei, giving Christians language, concepts and actionable practices that expertly weave together biblical and theological principles with learnings from history and sociology. This chapter will be particularly helpful for Christian pastors and educators. From there Tisby moves from the conceptual to the personal by encouraging his readers to explore their own racial identity, not simply in terms of ancestry and heritage, but by exploring and recording one’s own journey of understanding and awareness around issues of race and racism. Finally, Tisby encourages careful study of the history of race and racism, offering helpful and practical advice for laypeople trying to navigate the troubled waters of contemporary historical scholarship.
In “Part 2: Relationships,” Tisby tackles head-on the sacred cows of anti-racism work in Christian evangelical circles: a focus on “reconciliation,” making friends across racial lines, and the emphasis on establishing multicultural churches. Reconciliation is a worthy goal, Tisby maintains, but if it is to recover its transformational and divine power, we must rediscover its true meaning. All three chapters invite the reader to move beyond surface-level diversity to deeply engage with the suffering, harm and sin that racism has wrought on our relationships with one another through the individual and corporate practices of lament, confession, humility, hospitality, submission and repair. Tisby even devotes a subsection to “How to Talk to Racial Justice Resisters,” encouraging his readers to engage in meaningful conversations through respectful, humanizing, loving, imago-affirming dialogue and action.
“Part 3: Commitment” offers practical methods and avenues for engagement in racial justice work. This will likely be the most controversial (and contextual) chapter, since on-the-ground work for justice differs from place-to-place and is not neutral with regard to politics, economics or social dynamics. The chapters in this section tackle areas as diverse as democracy, education, criminal justice, reparations, and use of resources – all areas that, while not explicitly about race or racism, have disproportionate impact on people and communities of colour. Both personally and communally, Tisby exhorts his readers to use the plethora of gifts God has given them (budget, investments, land, facilities, time, talents, authority, platform) to pursue racial justice.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Each section of the book had a distinctly different flavour, even while maintaining a cohesive thread of unity. “Part 1: Awareness” most clearly flowed from Tisby’s training as a theologian and historian, and was understandably more ideological than the rest of the book. “Part 2: Relationships” had a personal bite to it, and it was easy to see how many of the recommendations and reflections in this section flowed out of the profound pain and loss that Tisby has faced in the evangelical circles that once embraced him. I was moved by Tisby’s reflections on evangelical action around racial reconciliation in this section. “Part 3: Commitment,” in wading into contemporary political issues, will naturally be the most controversial and divisive section of the book for people, regardless of their political convictions.
One of the possible weaknesses of the book is that it doesn’t try to convince or argue with a reader at odds with the premise of the work. Tisby assumes that people who read How to Fight Racism are interested in fighting racism. While he names the reality that there are some who are not interested – who even reject racial justice work as a deep-state Marxist conspiracy spearheaded by the Radical Left and the New World Order – he does not address these conspiracies. People who think that racial justice work is communist and satanic will find nothing to love in this book.
But for Tisby, that’s okay. This book is not for them. This book is for those interested in justice work, but who may not know where to begin. It is for those who are seeking to grow ever deeper in their work toward a more just society that reflects the beloved community of the people of God. And for those on that journey, it offers a helpful paradigm for justice work and practical steps to take in the fight for what is right.
I think that the greatest strength of this work is that its paradigm is applicable for justice work far beyond the area of racial justice. Awareness, relationships and commitment are vital areas of growth for any area of justice, from gender and age to ability and class. I found myself often, as I read through these chapters, remembering with appreciation the Tuesday night Friendship Ministry at Community CRC in Kitchener, where I used to serve as pastor, marvelling at the ways that program, through its mentoring and teaching ministries, invited people to grow in their awareness of, relationships with, and commitment to adults living with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. Through a single program, thoughtfully planned and faithfully implemented over 50 years, an entire community of worshipers has been mobilized to work for justice, and grown to reflect the Kingdom of Heaven. Tisby’s thoughtful work gave me categories to better appreciate that gift.
How to Fight Racism is highly recommended for anyone interested in growing in the area of racial justice, both in their churches and in their personal lives.