Magazine

Why Talk About Racism and Religion?

Why Talk About Racism and Religion?

Fall 2020

Jemar Tisby

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Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” This study is not about discrediting the church or Christians. I love the church. My concern for the church and for the well-being of its people motivates my exploration of Christian complicity in racism. The goal is to build up the body of Christ by “speaking the truth in love,” even if that truth comes at the price of pain.

The church has not always and uniformly been complicit with racism. The same Bible that racists misused to support slavery and segregation is the one abolitionists and civil rights activists rightly used to animate their resistance. Whenever there has been racial injustice, there have been Christians who fought against it in the name of Jesus Christ. Christianity has an inspiring history of working for racial equity and the dignity of all people, a history that should never be overlooked.

The Black church, in particular, has always been a bulwark against bigotry. Forged in the fires of racial prejudice, the Black church emerged as the ark of safety for people of African descent. Preachers and leaders in the church saw the truth of the gospel message even as slaveholders and white supremacists distorted the message to make more obedient slaves. Black churches looked to the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt as a model for their own exodus from American slavery. Black Christians saw in Scripture a God who “sits high and looks low” — one who saw their oppression and was outraged by it. Through the centuries, Black people have become the most religious demographic in the United States. For instance, 83 percent of Black people say they “believe in God with absolute certainty” compared to 59 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of whites. Through their religious heritage, Black people have passed on a tradition of struggle, liberation, and rejoicing to every generation. Black Christians have played a vital role in shaping the history of America, and they have much to share with the church universal.

But the examples in this book do not present a positive picture. The focus is mainly on racist acts and actors. This emphasis is purposeful. 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. All too often, Christians name a few individuals who stood against the racism of their day and claim them as heroes. They fail to recognize how rarely believers made public and persistent commitments to racial equality against the culture of their churches and denominations. Jumping ahead to the victories means skipping the hard but necessary work of examining what went wrong with race and the church. That can lead to simplistic understandings of the past and superficial solutions to racial issues in the present. The Color of Compromise undoes the tendency to skip the hard parts of history and directs the reader’s attention to the racist realities that challenge a triumphalist view of American Christianity. …

Reading The Color of Compromise is like having a sobering conversation with your doctor and hearing that the only way to cure a dangerous disease is by undergoing 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.

Taken from The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby. Copyright © 2019 by Jemar Tisby. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness, a Black Christian collective, and co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast.