Commentary

Book Review of Jemar Tisby’s “The Color of Compromise”

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby is an appeal to the American church to not only realize the appalling history of slavery, racial segregation, and events leading up to the Civil Rights Movement but to actively change its attitude regarding current racial issues. However, while the book offers a painfully deep discussion of how the historical American church has operated on race, many of the conclusions and inferences in The Color of Compromise warrant critique, especially on its understanding of the Gospel and current-day Christianity.

Given the vehement discourse surrounding the topics in The Color of Compromise, it is appropriate to lay out my presuppositions before I begin this review.

First, I am approaching the book with the belief that the canon of Scripture is the authoritative, inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. Thus, I affirm that it is the only way for us to know the radical freedom found in the saving work of Christ, and in all things pertaining to living earthly lives to His glory. 

Second, I firmly believe that academic dishonesty through the distortion of history, quotes, and arguments produces illegitimate contentions. Fallacious logic not only makes irrelevant points seem sound, but it also undermines the truth. As a Christian committed to logical coherence and integrity, I see it as imperative that my critiques come from those two premises.  

It is important to note that The Color of Compromise does offer its readers several positive items. It is written quite eloquently. Jemar Tisby writes with a compelling narrative not often found in historical academia, especially one that seeks to embrace difficult topics such as race. He does a fine job of showing the horrendous nature of the slave trade, lynching, and American society during the Jim Crow era––including the psychological effects of systemic rape, abuse, brutality, and violations of human dignity. One new discovery for me was the tragic conclusion made by Christians that enslaved African Americans could participate in the church and baptism but not be seen as fully “human.” I am thankful that I was able to read the book and introspectively think about these parts of history.  

That being said, there are several problematic statements and assumptions made throughout the book that should be carefully evaluated. 

  1. The gospel is nowhere explained nor defined, yet the word and concept are mentioned throughout the book. 

In addressing this book primarily to modern-day Christians who are some of the “compromised” when it comes to racial issues, Tisby asserts that his central thesis “is about revealing racism. It pulls back the curtain on the ways American Christians have collaborated with racism for centuries. By seeing the roots of racism in this country, may the church be moved to immediate and resolute anti racist action” (15).   

However, to make his book relevant to the audience, he mentions the word and concept of “gospel” at least twenty-one times, with sentences such as “Preachers and leaders in the [African] church saw the truth of the gospel message as slaveholders and white supremacists distorted the message to make more obedient slaves” (18-19) and that “people who will reject this book… will charge that this discussion of race is somehow ‘abandoning the gospel’ and replacing it with problematic calls for ‘social justice’” (20-21). Tisby frequently uses the call of the gospel in explaining why American Christians must reckon with their past in the current day. 

The first problem is an analytical one: nowhere is the gospel message explained or defined. In dealing with a word that holds an extremely strong meaning within Christianity, we must be able to know exactly how the message of the gospel has been hurt and distorted by American Christians. The closest we get to a definition of the gospel in The Color of Compromise is through these two quotes: 

“The gospel of Jesus Christ planted seeds of resistance and liberation in the minds and hearts of oppressed black people” (66). 

“Cone goes on to explain ‘The cross helped me to deal with the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.’ Cone showed that black people could better understand Christ’s suffering by recalling their own sorrow as it related to the lynching tree. At the same time, the cross provided comfort because black people could know for certain that in his life and death, Christ identified with the oppressed” (110). 

While Tisby mentions Ephesians 2:14 on page 23 to argue that Christ brought down the dividing wall of hostility, he merely uses the phrase in the context of how we should seek racial and ethnic reconciliation “not [as] something Christians must achieve but a reality we must receive” (23). He offers it as the reason why there should not be Christian complicity even though “the work of racial justice is difficult” (22). Tisby also states in the conclusion of the book that because Jesus crossed every barrier and is Himself our peace, “we have the power, through God, to leave behind compromised Christianity that makes its peace with racism and to live out Christ’s call for a courageous faith” (214). 

Thus, the second problem is a Christian one: nowhere is the gospel presented as faith in the saving act of Jesus on the cross. His subsequent resurrection bringing reconciliation between humanity and God is not mentioned. While Christ arguably lived His entire earthly ministry aiding marginalized and oppressed groups, the objective work of Jesus coming to earth was to save people from their sins (Matt. 1:21, Rom. 6:23, John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, 2 Cor. 5:21). Even though Tisby sometimes relies on specific Scripture references–such as Eph. 2:14–to rightfully argue for the work of racial justice, he presents the verses in the context of rescuing racially-discriminated groups and achieving Christ’s kingdom on earth––not in a context of defining what Christ has done for us or what Christ’s kingdom is. It seems as if Tisby’s definition of the gospel (while not exactly defined in the book) is that its message of hope refers to liberation from oppressed circumstances––and if so, an absolutely key focus of the Gospel is lost.  

  1. Tisby relies on an imprecise definition of racism which allows complicity in racism to fit extremely broad categories. 

Tisby provides this definition of racism:  

“What do we mean when we talk about racism? Beverly Daniel Tatum provides a shorthand definition: racism is a system of oppression based on race. Notice Tatum’s emphasis on systemic oppression. Racism can operate through impersonal systems and not simply through the malicious words and actions of individuals. Another definition explains racism as prejudice plus power” (16). 

To Tisby, racism is a systemic abuse of power. One can have racist actions without any intentionality on their part because “white complicity with racism isn’t a matter of melanin, it’s a matter of power” (16). Due to this definition, Tisby argues multiple times throughout the book that “racism changes over time… racism never goes away; it just adapts” (19, 110, 154, 155, 171). In addressing “Why The Color of Compromise May Be Hard to Read,” Tisby argues that “the people who will reject this book will level several common objections… the same arguments that perpetuated racial inequality in decades past get recycled in the present day” (20-21). He also mentions frequently that the solution to racial injustice in America has to “focus on structural and institutional methods to combat inequality” (192-193, idea referenced in 21, 27, 39, 68, 205). He also spends several chapters tracing how the “political connections between theologically conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics, namely through the Republican Party, have supported racial inequities” (171). 

To a large degree, Tisby is right that racism can be systemic. Since institutions are composed of sinful individuals, I absolutely would contend that there can be racist institutions and cultural biases embedded within structures. People can arguably be ignorant in whether their actions are racist; thus, I do think it is important to evaluate our beliefs and the ways we treat one another. 

However, Tisby’s definition of racism, as developed in the book, reveals that racism is not chiefly a series of thoughts, words, and actions that are racially discriminatory, but political beliefs and policies that create or maintain racial disparities. He directly cultivates his conception that racial disparity is itself racism throughout the references listed above. While racial disparity can be the result of racism, I contend that this definition is too imprecise to be useful because disparities cannot automatically be tied to injustice. There are potentially numerous factors that produce inequity; its mere existence based on the demographic of race does not entail systems are “racist.” Inequities must be evaluated contextually. With his unnuanced assertion, conservative political beliefs and policies can simply be written off not due to the merit of the argument, but because they tend to consider the reason put behind the status quo before enacting new legislation (as indicated in chapters 8-10).  

Tisby states later: 

“One of the challenges we face in discussions of racism today is that the conversation about race has shifted since the civil rights era. Legislation has rendered the most overt acts of racism legally punishable. Hate crimes of various forms still occur, but most American Christians would call these acts evil. Yet the legacy of racism persists, albeit in different forms” (174). 

Tisby admits that racial segregation, biases, slavery, brutality, etc. are considered unjustifiable by most American Christians. Yet, because racism never goes away, but adapts, the racism of 20th century Christians who beat black men who walk through the wrong door can be equated, under Tisby’s definition, with the racism of 21st century Christians who “focus on individual relationships” (190) instead of systemic solutions to racism. Christians who distance themselves from the Black Lives Matter organization because it “includes a strong platform advocating for gay, queer, and transgender rights” (179) are portrayed as not being as strongly for racial justice because they have “yet to form a movement as viable and potent” (180). He thus gives a list of actions for his readers to take to be a part of the movement, including: “Contact the nearest Black Lives Matter chapter and speak with representatives” (183) because “ultimately, the organizations with which one chooses to affiliate in the cause of antiracism is a matter of conscience. The only wrong action is inaction” (183-184).   

I contend that to equate historical instances of racism with Tisby’s definition of racism grossly undermines how horrendous the former was. Racism is a strong and powerful word: to associate it lightly with the modern “contexts” he provides not only does a disservice to the legal and structural racism found in American history, but to his argument as well. As previously indicated, if racism is reduced simply to the existence of racial disparity, we lose an essential part of what makes racism so horrendous–the condemnation and prejudice of people solely based on the color of their skin. His lack of definitional precision makes it difficult to ascertain the validity of his arguments because it lacks the empiricism needed to evaluate them effectively.  

Along the same thread, it is also highly problematic to state with Tisby that “Christian complicity with racism does not always require specific acts of bigotry. Being complicit only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo” (181). It fails to seriously consider that there are conflicting claims to the violation of justice. What Tisby advances as an injustice to be rectified could well be seen as doing an injustice to another party, even if it were not to whites. So, while we should seriously consider what are principles of justice, there must be an acknowledgement in the public square that all principles of justice deal with conflicting claims that we use to evaluate and justify differential treatments. 

  1. Tisby dismisses objections to his arguments by asserting that opposition is “to deny or defend racism” (21), thus repudiating intellectual engagement with opponents.  

Tisby writes: 

“The people who will reject this book will level several common objections. What stands out about these complaints is not their originality or persuasiveness but their ubiquity throughout history. The same arguments that perpetuated racial inequalities in decades past get recycled in the present day. Critics will assert that the ideas in ‘The Color of Compromise’ should be disregarded because they are too ‘liberal.’ They will claim that a Marxist Communist ideology underlies all the talk about racial equality. They will contend that such an extended discussion of racism reduces black people to a state of helplessness and a ‘victim mentality.’ They will try to point to counterexamples and say that racists do not represent the ‘real’ American church. They will assert that the historical facts are wrong or have been misinterpreted. They will charge that this discussion of race is somehow ‘abandoning the gospel’ and replacing it with problematic calls for ‘social justice.’ After reading just a few chapters, these arguments will sound familiar. These arguments have been used throughout the American church’s history to deny or defend racism” (21-22, italics mine). 

Instead of engaging with factual disagreements with his case, Tisby seems to label opposition to his argument as racist. It is problematic to disregard opposing arguments because it asserts that differing interpretations are wrong solely because of disagreement, rather than through rationality or logic. Christians and non-Christians alike have been given the common grace to use speech, rhetoric, logic, and rationality in discussing the world around them. Many might agree with Tisby’s characterization of the American church or even his initiatives for action about it, but they might disagree with some or all of how he comes to his conclusion. To haphazardly characterize opposition to one’s differences in interpretation by using a conversation-stopper such as “racist” is to effectively call into question the entire argument being presented by Tisby.  

Particularly within the previous section to the above quote titled “What a Historical Survey Is and Isn’t,” Tisby asserts: 

“A high degree of selectivity goes into a historical survey, and more gets left out than put in. So it should come as no surprise that important leaders, events, and stories may not even get mentioned in this book” (17). 

Why is it impermissible to critique his historical survey? He himself admits that important historical events are left out, yet he argues not even 5 pages later that people who reject his book deny and defend racism if they offer alternative historical analyses. Arguably there are many things about the American history of racism that do not need contention. However, no one is unbiased as a historian. It is epistemologically arrogant to assert that one’s argument within their field is the ultimate be-all-end-all of the discussion.  

Some problematic historical assertions I found where these: 

“William Wilberforce was influenced by John Newton, who encouraged the young Parliamentarian to remain in his post and fight to end slavery. Yet abolitionism did not arise from purely altruistic motives. The decline of slavery coincided with the rise of the Industrial Revolution” (32). 

Should we make such an accusation about abolitionists who were repeatedly shunned, violently confronted, and even killed for their beliefs in slavery being a national sin? Abolitionists were seen as the bane of society. So, if we do make the assertion Tisby makes, we should be able to provide solid sources and be open to criticism.  

Another point is the correlation made between the decline of slavery and the rise of the Industrial Revolution––while his analysis could be true, the same timing of two events does not equal correlation of the events. 

And the next two: 

“So from the beginning of American colonization, Europeans crafted a Christianity that would allow them to spread the faith without confronting the exploitative economic system of slavery and the emerging social inequality based on color” (38). 

“Black Christians did not always meet in secret. Sometimes they worshiped in the same congregations as white Christians, albeit under segregated seating. This was a pragmatic decision on the part of white believers. Controlling and monitoring slaves was easier if they were in the same building” (51-52). 

Did Europeans purposely craft such a Christianity? Did their missionary work truly begin as a way to not confront oppressive systems, or was it a manifestation of what they already believed and brought over from Europe? Was it really a pragmatic decision on behalf of white believers to control slaves in their congregations, or was it thoughtless and hurtful ignorance? Again, while difficult to understand people’s motives, thoughtful evaluation of primary sources and even simply citing more peer-reviewed analytical sources when making such declarations are crucial to developing historical analyses. 

Evangelical Christians can and should carefully evaluate the painful situations that Tisby elaborates on in The Color of Compromise. However, the logic and inferences Tisby makes are problematic at best and false at worse. It is grievous on his part as a historian to unjustly prescribe racism without being careful and precise in his definition and application of historical grievances. Humility should pepper all our discussions, even ones that are uncomfortably close to our hearts, for it is with humility will we be able to discern truth.  

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

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ROBERT A MCKISSICK

Thank you for your review. When discussing racism and and the church it seems important to distinguish between those members who left their farms and houses to move north because of the institution of slavery. That is not to say that they didn’t bring racist traits with them, but they did sacrifice their place and some of their earthly goods to advance the anti-slavery cause. The resulting north-south church split lasted for decades and may still be on-going. I wonder if any such distinctions were made in the book? Your thoughtful review was refreshing.