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The Color of Compromise: Summary and Analysis

Color of Compromise

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby is a book focused on the historical role of the American church in compromising its gospel witness by failing to speak out against racism and even promoting racism in many cases. Before we can consider the victories of racial equality that Christians have promoted, we must take time to recognize what went wrong with the church in America concerning race.

I wanted to begin by including brief chapter summaries to help remind us of the main focus of each chapter. This might also be helpful for those who did not get a chance to read the book. I’ve included the following chapter summaries (unedited) from the study guide for this book.

Chapter Summaries

In Chapter 1, "The Color of Compromise," Tisby introduces his interests in examining the Christian church's involvement in racist American systems and customs. He identifies himself as a Christian believer and a lover of the church. He holds that his faith inspires his profound investment in issues of social justice. He outlines his explorations and arguments to come, while also posing possible counterarguments to his writing. Instead of cowering before these dissenting viewpoints, Tisby boldly proceeds.

 In Chapter 2, "Making Race in the Colonial Era," Tisby shifts back in history, describing Columbus' arrival in the Americas. He uses Columbus' writings to illustrate early evidence of white supremacy. Even before chattel slavery, white Christian Europeans used the Bible to create racial divides. As colonial economics grew, colonizers looked for more labor to support their farms. Colonizers invaded African nations, kidnapped their people, transported them across the ocean, and enslaved them. Meanwhile, the church continued defending these practices as moral, seemingly constructing theological stances to support their egregious behaviors.

In Chapter 3, "Understanding Liberty in the Age of Revolution and Revival," Tisby examines the pre- and post-Revolutionary War period in America. Though colonists were fighting for independence from imperial British power, they had no intentions of extending this liberty to enslaved blacks. They actively sought the conversion of blacks to Christianity, yet used these paternalist principles to disempower blacks and demand their submission to white masters. After the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence equated liberty with whiteness, bondage with blackness. Converted blacks could not help but note the hypocrisy in white Christian principles and practices.

In Chapter 4, "Institutionalizing Race in the Antebellum Era," Tisby describes the increasing frustrations of enslaved Africans. Realizing the hypocrisy of white Christians, and the seeming impossibility of securing their freedom, they began staging insurrections. Countless slaves began organizing, only to have their plans foiled by a nervous member of their effort. Nat Turner's Rebellion was one of the most historic such uprisings. He and his followers murdered their master and his family and avoided capture for several months. Turner's story empowered blacks and terrified whites.

In Chapter 5, "Defending Slavery at the Onset of the Civil War," Tisby argues that the Civil War conflict did not merely occur on the battlefields; it occurred in the Bible and the church as well. Northern and southern states began to divide over different Biblical interpretations. Northern Christians said Jesus' teachings proved slavery immoral. Southern Christians pointed to the story of Ham in Genesis to suggest the opposite. Denominations thus began dividing over state lines.

In Chapter 6, "Reconstructing White Supremacy in the Jim Crow Era," Tisby details the events and movements following the end of the Civil War. Though chattel slavery had effectively ended, Jim Crow laws created a new social order which consigned emancipated blacks to a new form of bondage. White supremacists rose to power and used violence and terror to enforce segregation statutes.

In Chapter 7, "Remembering the Complicity in the North," Tisby argues that racism was not just limited to the southern states. He cites how discriminatory government orders further marginalized blacks. Attempting to escape the oppressive southern climate, many blacks flocked to Midwestern, western, and northeastern cities. This influx of black citizens angered whites, inspiring blockbusting trends and white flight.

In Chapter 8, "Compromising with Racism during the Civil Rights Movement," Tisby compares the teachings and work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham during the 1960s civil rights movement. King took an assertive and active role in the movement, mobilizing the black middle class and Christian community. While he marched in the streets with his supporters, Graham assumed a laissez-faire stance. He hid behind tepid claims of love, and argued racial change had to start in the heart of the individual; he thus excused the system's fault and blamed the citizen.

In Chapter 9, "Organizing the Religious Right at the End of the Twentieth Century," Tisby shows how the rise of the Religious Right, effectively equated evangelicalism with whiteness and the Republican party. Conservative politicians, like Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump, gained power by winning the vote of the Religious Right. The policies of these presidents have thus excluded the concerns of black citizens.

In Chapter 10, "Reconsidering Racial Reconciliation in the Age of Black Lives Matter," Tisby describes the inception and foundation of the Black Lives Matter movement and organization. He cites Black Lives Matter as a source of contemporary division in the American Christian church, arguing that little has changed. Trump's election three years after the organization's formation, seemed to reverse many of its efforts.

In Chapter 11, "The Fierce Urgency of Now," Tisby uses the ARC (Awareness, Relationships, Commitment) model for racial justice to propose a thorough series of possible actions to promote change. He identifies a wealth of tangible forms of activism, encouraging his reader, and the church to pursue racial reform as soon as possible.

Helpful Insights  

I appreciated this book for several reasons. Perhaps like no other book I have read, the sharp focus on racism in the church in America was jarring and eye-opening. Tisby has a way of communicating history succinctly; he covers a wide range of historical events in an easily digestible manner. While I have taken a few American history classes in high school and college, I have never read a book that gave this much space to the dark parts of American history. While I remember slavery and segregation being touched upon in my classes, most of the historical material in this book was new to me. I want to share a few insights that I found helpful from his book.

1. Complicity of the Church

This book is written from a unique perspective since its focus isn’t as much on laws and policies that deprived the equality of black Americans, but primarily on the role of a majority of the American church in perpetuating racism through their action and inaction. While some might contend that the book is solely focused on the dark side of the American church and leaves out those in the church who were abolitionists and fought slavery and racism, Tisby suggests that this emphasis on the racist complicity of the American church is intentional. He says,

“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.” (p.20)

This book unravels our tendency to skip the hard parts of history and challenges a triumphalist view of American Christianity. To learn about the racist complicity of the major denominations of the day including Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and later Pentecostals is hard to swallow. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was created specifically by southern Baptists who disagreed with the anti-slavery activism of the Northern Baptists. The number of examples Tisby highlights are numerous. Which leaves me to wonder, how can those with the same Bible, the same gospel, and the same hope for salvation for all people succumb to such grievous sins? And why is it that we rarely acknowledge these deep compromises that were perpetuated by those in even in our own theological tradition? This is something we need to reflect upon.

2. Complicity Even through Revivals

We often celebrate the role of God’s Spirit in bringing genuine revival to this nation as pivotal points in our history. The First Great Awakening (1730-the 40s) came at the heels of growing secular rationalism which had taken root since the Enlightenment made its way to the American colonies from Europe. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield were key figures in this movement that brought about a renewed focus on preaching a message of salvation from our sins and experiencing joy through the gospel. The Second Great Awakening (1790-the 1840s) later led to the founding of Christian schools, seminaries, and several global mission movements. These movements focused on the preaching of the gospel, personal conversion, and a personal relationship with God through Christ. However, many of the heroes of these movements, including Whitfield, Edwards, and later Charles Finney, either held slaves or did not acknowledge the full equality of black persons. These men were not complicit out of ignorance but knowingly were preserving and perpetuating inequality between blacks and whites.  As I read this, I wondered how the gospel could be preached to both slaves and freemen and yet the preachers to hold to racist views? Tisby suggests the following as a potential cause:

“More deeply, though, the particular brand of evangelicalism developing in America during the Great Awakening made an antislavery stance unlikely for many. Mark Noll (an American Church historian) explains, “As a revival movement . . . evangelicalism transformed people within their inherited social setting, but worked only partial and selective transformation on the social settings themselves.” Evangelicalism focused on individual conversion and piety. Within this evangelical framework, one could adopt an evangelical expression of Christianity yet remain uncompelled to confront institutional injustice.” (p. 50).

I’m sure there were many reasons, but one that Tisby repeatedly highlights throughout his book is how the personal nature of the gospel that was preached may have brought about an over-emphasis on the individual and allowed them to eschew their Christian responsibilities to their communities and society in general. Today, it is shocking to consider the cognitive dissonance of our evangelical forefathers and theological heroes. How could they be so blind to not see and cherish the image of God in their black brothers and sisters? How could genuine revivals occur and the basic truth of the image of God in black persons not be recognized by those who preached during these revivals? This is a sobering reality for us to think about today. Not only should we be careful to not view history of our heroes through rose colored glasses, but we should be open to reflect on potential blind spots we might have today. Regardless, the gospel reminds us that we fall short of God’s law in more ways than we can conceive, yet in God’s mercy he has made us righteous through the death of Christ. I am thankful that God uses crooked sticks to make straight lines for his glory.

A Few Criticisms

This book isn’t perfect, and Tisby has his interpretive grid laced through this book. Let me just share a couple. I share these not to detract from the helpful historical insights from this book, but just to be aware of the some of ways this book interprets and analyzes current events. 

1. A Flawed Understanding of Reconciliation

There is a particular framework through which Tisby is writing this book and he sets out his cards from the outset. Consider the following quote,

“History and Scripture teaches us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth. The Color of Compromise is about telling the truth so that reconciliation—robust, consistent, honest reconciliation—might occur across racial lines. Yet all too often, Christians, and Americans in general, try to circumvent the truth-telling process in their haste to arrive at reconciliation. This book tells the truth about racism in the American church in order to facilitate authentic human solidarity.” (p.15)

While we can agree that true reconciliation cannot happen without repentance, there are underlying assumptions in this quote that are problematic. Tisby assumes there is a barrier between whites and blacks today that whites must overcome through confession and repentance to achieve reconciliation. He further assumes that white people today must somehow repent for the guilt of their ancestors before there can be true reconciliation with our black brother and sisters. It is one thing to suggest that a person must repent for their own personal acts of racism before reconciliation can be achieved with another brother or sister, but this goes beyond what I believe Scripture demands.

Scripture tells us that Christ has done everything necessary through the cross to remove the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles to create “one new man” in Christ. (Eph. 2:14-16). In Christ, there already IS reconciliation between ethnicities even though we struggle to live up to that reality. This gospel truth must be the foundation for any reconciliation that we hope to achieve between any number of ethnicities today.  

2. The Complicity of the Church Today?

Another aspect of the book I struggled with is Tisby’s repeated claim that American church today is just as complicit in racism today as it was historically. Tisby asserts throughout his book that “racism changes over time… racism never goes away; it just adapts” (p. 19, c.f. p. 110, 154, 155, 160, 171).  This assertion is fundamental to his thesis that the church today is just as complicit in racism (p.191). I understand that the church today remains largely segregated and there remains significant work to be done, but I struggled to see how the church is just as complicit today as it was when it promoted chattel slavery or segregation under Jim Crow. Later in the book, Tisby will propose activism according to his ARC (Awareness, Relationships, Commitment) principles to fight “our own complicity in racism.” (p.194).

I tried hard to understand what Tisby was trying to say. Some of his examples of complicity include dismissiveness and indifference to the concerns of our black brothers and sisters. On this point, I think there is room to grow for all of us. However, many of his concerns include particular political and economic policies that he asserts hurt black communities today. I certainly am no expert in many of the economic policies he suggests and am eager to learn from other brothers and sisters in Christ who hold differing views on some of these political and economic issues. Nevertheless, I still struggled to understand his fundamental assertion that the complicity of the church today is at the the same level as the complicity of the church in the past.

Encouragement for our Church

I’m sure people might wonder why we read this book. Maybe it seems too divisive to consider these issues. I know there might be differing views on the interpretive lines in Tisby’s book. While one may disagree with him on some of his conclusions, I do not want to let that hinder us from feeling the weight of the jam-packed history in this book. The historical evidence is thorough, carefully footnoted, and undeniable. At a minimum, we need to be able to grapple with the weight of injustice against a people group in this country at the hand of many who claimed the name of Christ and preached the same gospel that we do. Knowledge of history helps us better understand the present. Much of the racial strife today is undeniably rooted in our history as a nation.

A book like this should cause us to lament the complicity of the church in the past and to fight with God’s help today to be faithful in word and deed to the gospel that we preach today. There is much work left ahead of us to overcome our segregated churches today. I pray that this book would help us grow in our understanding and respond with sympathy and gentleness to those who are affected by racism today as well as by the the lingering effects of historical racial injustice that might lead some to have a different perspective on these issues today.

 Reflect

  • What specifically about the role of the American church in perpetuating racism was hard to swallow in this book?
  • What areas of interpretation did you agree or disagree with in this book?
  • Is it possible that we might have blind spots today concerning racism?
  • What insights stick out to you from MLK Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail?”

 Pray

  • That the Lord would expose any blind spots we might have concerning our prejudices against people from other ethnicities
  • That we would humbly learn from others with whom we disagree