Assessing the Arc of History

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby Zondervan, 2019.

Jemar Tisby has quickly become a household name for those in the Reformed tradition who follow conversations about race and religion in the United States. Founder and president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective (formerly the Reformed African American Network), Tisby is a Christian lecturer, writer, and podcaster, focusing on the history of race and Christianity in the United States of America. He also co-hosts the podcast “Pass the Mic” with Rev. Tyler Burns, which has just in the past few months tackled topics as wide-ranging as R. Kelly, multi-ethnic churches, anti-racism, abortion in the black community, and online trolling.

In his heart of hearts, though, Tisby is a historian. Currently completing his PhD in history at the University of Mississippi, Tisby brings a wide-eyed, piercing, big-picture view to every topic he addresses. Context, subtext, narrative, and background are necessary aspects of any conversation, and to Tisby, they are second nature.

In that vein, “sweeping historical epic” may be the best categorization for Jemar Tisby’s authorial debut. The Color of Compromise, published by Zondervan earlier this year, is an “historical survey” of the American church’s complicity in racism. From colonialism to the #blacklivesmatter movement, Tisby outlines the history of the intersection of race and Christianity in the United States of America. Tisby’s account is unique finding its focus and overarching argument not only in villains and heroes, in egregious acts of racism and heroic voices who bravely called for and enacted change, but in the silent, unquestioning acceptance of the status quo by ordinary, everyday Christian folk. In every chapter, from the beginning of racial ideology in the colonial era through slavery and the civil rights movement to twenty-first century conversations about racial reconciliation, Tisby draws from lesser-known historical resources to demonstrate the complicity of “ordinary” Christians in the racial narratives of the day.

Prophecy and Apocalypse
In that sense, Tisby’s writing is both prophetic and apocalyptic. The Greek word “apocalypsis” (often translated “revelation”), refers to an “unveiling” or “unfolding” of things previously unknown. Many of us have grown up with a “heroes and villains” narrative of race and racism – our racial imagination is filled with heroes like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Newton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and villains (often faceless and unnamed) like slave traders, slaveowners, and the Klu Klux Klan. Many of us imagine that, given the chance, we would have fought for the abolition of slavery or marched with King on Washington. Tisby powerfully unveils this lie, showing throughout the book that white Christians who stood up against slavery and segregation were very much in the minority. “Ordinary” white Christians preferred not to involve themselves in things that they did not see as their problem.

Tisby’s book is also prophetic. The Greek word “propheteis” means “to speak ahead” or “to speak forth.” And Tisby speaks forth truth in a way that cannot be ignored. “The festering wound of racism in the American church must be exposed to the oxygen of truth in order to be healed”. At every point along the way, Tisby demonstrates that if only Christians exercised their faith in a courageous, convicted, and holistic manner, the arc of history could have gone differently. 

In the face of such overwhelming horror, it is easy to fall into despair. I have to be honest, parts of this book are so raw and brutal that I had to put the book down for a time to mentally process what I had read. But Tisby does a masterful job of weaving throughout the book a thread of hope. If Christians can courageously face the truth of history, be convicted of historic and ongoing sins, and wholeheartedly work to repair what has been broken, there is hope for the church. Tisby’s historical survey ends with a surprisingly practical chapter titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” in which he provides “a useful framework for taking decisive action against discrimination”: the ARC of Racial Justice. Referencing a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., Tisby makes ARC a framework for different levels of action: Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment. We begin our fight against racism with awareness: watching documentaries on the history of race, diversifying the voices we listen to on social media, reading books and articles about racial justice. We deepen our work through relationship: intentionally establishing and deepening friendships with people of other races. We join the fight through committed, concrete action: writing an article, teaching a class, joining or donating to an organization that advocates for racial justice, speaking with our elected officials. “Many Christians today say they would have been active participants in the civil rights movement fifty years ago. Now, in the midst of a new civil rights movement, is their chance to prove it.”

What has Canada to do with America?
I am an American pastoring a church in Kitchener, Ontario. The issue of race and racism in the church is important to me, but I don’t always know how it translates across the national divide. Many Canadians approach the conversation about race and racism with an attitude of superiority, which I understand. Canada was an early abolitionist state, provided refuge for runaway slaves in the antebellum period, and markets itself across the world as a tolerant and diverse immigrant society where people of all backgrounds are celebrated and affirmed. So why should Canadians read a book about the complicity of the American church in the sin of racism?

First, despite the progress Canada has made in the area of race relations in recent years, Canada is not free of racism. About 85% of the population of Canada is of European descent (compared to about 75% of the population of the United States), and Canadian minorities regularly report instances of racism, oppression, and discrimination. The church remains as segregated in Canada as in the United States. Disparities in health, employment, income, education, and opportunity across racial and ethnic lines are comparable between the United States and Canada. And issues of indigenous reparations and justice taint the histories of both countries. Tisby’s book offers a helpful rubric for facing these injustices honestly and constructing a way forward in hope and truth.
Second, Tisby’s book critically reveals the ways in which “ordinary” Christians who benefit from societal structures that afford them power and privilege all too often find ways to justify their privilege by accepting and even defending the status quo, rather than using their power and privilege to challenge injustice and work toward the transformation of society. In the face of a society that builds walls along racial, ideological, political, and national lines, we follow a God who “has torn down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). In the face of fear – fear of the unknown, fear of how others might react, fear of getting it wrong – we follow a God who tells us to “be strong and very courageous, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). 

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