Author: Jemar Tisby
Publish Date: January 22, 2019
Pages: 256 pages (Hardcover)
If you have ever been in physical therapy, you understand the complex process of both dread and payoff, of pain and relief. For the uninitiated, an explanation: the physical therapist discusses goals regarding mobility, pain relief, and strength. He or she evaluates your current physical limitations and then sets a course of exercises to learn and re-learn how to move correctly. Whether you are in recovery from surgery, an injury, or bad posture, there is one certainty: unless your physical therapist isn’t doing his or her job correctly, you will be in extended physical pain.
Dealing with scar tissue, atrophied or overextended muscles, and recent wounds is no small thing, and it is not accomplished in one sitting. There may even come a time when you wonder if your physical therapist really knows what they are doing—whether they are truly qualified or just “making it worse.” But then things will finally start to make sense as your body works more as it was designed, when those 20 repetitions of lunges and wall squats start to get easier. You will be making true progress, little by little, proud of yourself and perhaps even a little cocky. And then, your physical therapist will re-assess your progress and limitations, teach you a more difficult exercise, demand 40 reps, and hand you an elastic resistance band to make your now-easy exercises difficult again. Strong words will ensue; grunts and groans will definitely surface. You will go through the entire cycle again: pain, doubt, a little progress. And after doing all of that work, you will wonder when Jesus is coming back.
While reading The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby, I realized that it bears some striking similarities to going through physical therapy: facing reality about one’s limitations, pushing through pain, perhaps doubting the process, but also—the joy of incremental progress and knowing that Jesus is our true source of strength.
The Color of Compromise is not an easy book to read, but not due to a lack of quality. Mr. Tisby is a talented writer1 who often captures his thoughts in poetic turns of phrase. The book is well paced, neither too long nor too short, and organized well. The subject matter, however, is painful and difficult. Looking at the American church’s “complicity in racism” is a grim task. Of the three main sections, the second, a presentation and analysis of historical accounts from Colonial times to the present, is the majority of the book, comprising three-fourths of the book. Tisby introduces the topic in chapter one and ends the book with a whole chapter dedicated to exhortation for the reader to repentance, healing, and action. Perhaps it is not so surprising that he takes nine chapters in between to give a survey of 300-plus years of racism and church complicity, which is rather impressive. And despite the historical bent and academic integrity of the book, it is still quite readable and powerful prose.
Throughout the book, Tisby maintains a fairly balanced tone that neither glosses over the realities of racial issues nor offers a hopeless view of inevitability—even within the dregs of a painful national history. For some readers, both black and white, much of the history will be new. In addition to his careful exegesis and application of several Biblical texts, Tisby draws from many original sources, instead of merely relying on secondary sources or other historians’ interpretations. The first-hand accounts of the brutality of the slave trade are hard to argue with; quoting former slave Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, Tisby does not mince words to describe slave ships containing “tubs which held human excrement ‘into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated’” (25). He mentions these gruesome details not for shock value but to paint an accurate picture of the horrors faced by enslaved Africans. And he showcases the discernment and perseverance of those who lived under the brutality of institutionalized rape, family separation, beatings, and murder, yet “went directly to teachings of Jesus” (ibid) to affirm their dignity and worth as image bearers and siblings in the Kingdom of God. Lest anyone think that the church’s complicity in brutality and racism is limited to the days of slavery, Tisby provides plenty of solid evidence from every era, including our current time period.
For those who have studied history more, or perhaps even read books in this same vein, some of the information may not be new, but the perspective will be. From the beginning of the book, Tisby is telling truth about the ugliness of racism and how the American church has fostered it, while maintaining that “the goal of this book is not guilt” (14). Rather, he says, we must face historical reality head on, so as to be able to find ourselves filled with the penitent, Godly grief of 2 Corinthians 7:10. Tisby reminds us that “the ability to feel along with others is necessary for true healing” (ibid). In honestly examining such luminaries as George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, and even Billy Graham, Tisby shows how even American stalwarts of the faith were neither fully angel nor devil.
His nuanced arguments pre-suppose and answer many common challenges to his perspective. For those who would say that the Northern states and many white churches were merely neutral at worst, the chapter on “Northern Complicity” provides clear research and explanation that “compromised Christianity transcends regions. Bigotry obeys no boundaries… [and] this is why Christians in every part of America have a moral and spiritual obligation to fight against the church’s complicity with racism” (157). For those who would excuse past complicit actions as mere ignorance, he presents a clear, historical case documenting the many times that the White American church made choices for prosperity or influence in full knowledge of the harm it caused. To those who might say that those things are all in the past, and should no longer affect our country today, Mr. Tisby shows how “racism never fully goes away, it just adapts to changing times and contexts” (189) as he skillfully quotes politicians and church leaders alike who made little effort to hide their disdain of blacks and other minority groups. And though “since the late 1960’s, the American church’s complicity in racism has been less obvious… it has not required as much effort to maintain. All the church needs to do is cooperate with racially unequal social systems” (197).
And for those who would even cynically categorize the church in America as a lost cause, and especially her white/majority culture members, he winsomely proclaims the truth that “very rarely do historical figures fit neatly into the category of “‘villian’” (13). Tisby has nuanced treatment of significant American events such as the Great Awakening and the Great Depression, showing the direct links between seemingly racially neutral events and the harm to black and brown bodies. He provides a new paradigm for examining the past with clear eyes, rather than rosy-tinted glasses or the scales of sin and unbelief which plagued Saul’s eyes. Tisby invites the reader to re-examine what we have been taught about American history, and to think in broader terms. Rather than Evangelical individualism, he offers a viewpoint which takes entire churches, denominations, communities, and systems into account. Rather than seeing history as a series of discrete, unrelated events, we are encouraged to look at the synthesis of the last 300-plus years. And rather than allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the reality and the horror of sin, or even to slumber in complacency, we are encouraged to look to what God is doing as we head toward that eternal kingdom where “our skin color will no longer be a source of pain or arrogant pride but will serve as a multihued reflection of God’s image” (14).
Though relatively slim compared to the main portion of the book, the final chapter (“The Fierce Urgency of Now”) and the conclusion (“Be Strong and Courageous”) alone are worth the price of admission. Filled with practical, challenging paradigms and suggested steps, the last part of the book is as well-researched and thought-provoking as the preceding chapters. As Tisby himself says, the “solutions are simple though not easy… obvious though unpopular” (238). The power in the final section of the book comes from and builds on the power of his unflinching historical work in the previous section. “This much is clear—” Tisby preaches, “the American church has been complicit in racism. Countless Christians have ignored, hidden, or misunderstood this history. But the excuses are gone. The information cannot be set aside” (265). His ideas and suggestions for next steps, in the face of the history he has so painstakingly set forth, are reasonable and necessary.
I have little criticism of The Color of Compromise—except perhaps the need to push further into two areas of intersectionality: gender and racial categories beyond black/white. Tisby unabashedly quotes from several women historians, theologians, and other authors throughout the book, and I am seriously considering having a t-shirt printed with his assertion that “… women have always been the backbone of resistance movements” (261). Tisby is a truly good brother, and he often champions for the inclusion of women’s voices in the church, sometimes at the exclusion of his own. But I would love to hear more about the specific women in previous centuries who resisted so well, beyond the excellent example of Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer. And being a multiethnic/multicultural blend of European American, Asian American, and African American myself, I want to know more about those “gray areas” in which a variety of Christians of Color have existed throughout American history. It is perhaps outside the scope of the book, but his gracious quoting of one Asian author and passing mention of the perils faced by Native Americans and other minorities made me anxious to hear how the church can truly be one body beyond a black/white dichotomy and reconciliation.
Overall, The Color of Compromise is embodied theological therapy for broken, hurting people, and sorely needed. Beyond the passive goal of the book not to create guilt, is a proactive goal to find the:
New possibilities for justice and relationships [which] await on the other side… not… easy reconciliation… [but] a sobering conversation with your doctor that the only way to cure a dangerous disease is by having an uncomfortable surgery and ongoing rehabilitation. Although the truth cuts like a scalpel and may leave a scar, it offers healing and health. The pain is worth the progress. (13)
The American church needs this surgery and subsequent soul therapy, and Tisby is both urgent and gracious, professional and understanding, as he leads us in learning new ways of moving and being that will initially hurt to go through. There is much gangrenous, rotted thinking that needs to be cut away from individual lives and the American church as a whole; there are many muscles that are atrophied from lack of exercising true love for our neighbor and many slouched postures of turning a blind eye to injustice. But the author reminds us that we can commit to push through pain and embrace lament, to trust Tisby and other prophetic theological therapists, and to remind the church again and again that we are one—Jesus’ broken but prevailing body—and that the Great Physician is in the business of healing and raising the dead to life.
Disclaimer: I know Jemar Tisby personally, but my love of writing and good literature would not permit me to promote anything that I didn’t truly believe was excellent. ↩