Interview: Jemar Tisby on Reformed African American Network’s Transition to ‘The Witness’
The Reformed African American Network (RAAN) has been rebranded to “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective.” The organization’s president, Jemar Tisby, explains the transition in an exclusive interview.
As Christians around the world commemorated the 500th anniversary of German theologian Martin Luther’s start of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, a group in our day and age joined in the spirit of reform by announcing a change of its own.
— The Witness (@TheWitnessBCC) November 2, 2017
The Reformed African American Network (RAAN) was founded October 31, 2011, originally as a Facebook page devoted to addressing core concerns of African Americans from a Reformed theology perspective. Reformed theology, rooted in the 16th Protestant Reformation, holds particular distinctions on God’s grace, the condition of mankind, the status of believers and on other matters of Christian doctrine. Over the years, RAAN expanded to a full-blown movement with the weekly “Pass the Mic” podcast and a web presence that garnered millions of page views.
Yet, as RAAN remained outspoken on important topics, such as race, social justice and other issues impacting African-American faith and life, the organization began getting pushback from “what about the gospel?” Evangelical and Reformed corners of the church.
Jemar Tisby, founder and president of RAAN, grew increasingly concerned with the amount of indifference White Christians showed toward issues of police brutality and racial justice. In his Yahoo News profile on Tisby, Jon Ward explained:
As [Tisby] gradually become more outspoken about racial justice, he saw [W]hite Christians responding negatively, often insisting that he should talk about “the gospel” rather than race. “It’s the idea that if you start talking about so-called social issues, which—how do you define that?—then you automatically have stopped talking about spiritual or ‘gospel issues,’ salvation and things like that,” he said. “And we get a lot of that. I get a lot of that.”
As Tisby and his colleagues realized that their time and efforts had become swallowed up by the constant need to provide an apologetic or defense against White Christians’ accusations, RAAN regrouped and prayerfully chose a new name and identity. They chose the name The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and with it, a new mission.
In addition to Tisby, other staff members include: Beau York (podcast producer), Elodie Quetant (managing editor), Tyler Burns (“Pass the Mic” co-host) and Earon James (social media manager).
Faithfully Magazine spoke with Tisby on the day of the organization’s public announcement to learn more about its new name and course, and his hopes for the future. The interview, conducted over the phone, has been edited for clarity.
Do you have any initial thoughts as you have officially “pulled the trigger?” Is the transition going how you expected?
There was some trepidation because this was an act of faith. There’s no blueprint for what we’re doing—we can’t predict the ramifications for such a drastic shift. … [But,] the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. New folks are seeing The Witness and reading what we’re about—and they’re saying, “This is something for me.” That was the intent. We wanted to broaden the doorway so more people can access it.
Do you think The Witness is ultimately a return to your original purpose, an evolution of your mission or perhaps a mix of both?
My initial thought is that it is both a return and a refining.
First, it’s a return. “African American” was in the name [for RAAN]. We’ve always been about addressing the core concerns of African Americans. But now, we’ve moved to “Black,” moving more toward the global scope of the African diaspora. We wanted [The Witness] to be accessible to those around the globe. The Witness is a return from what had become a diffuse kind of approach, spending a lot of time being a racial apologetic. There’s a place for that, but it’s not our primary focus.
Second, it’s a refining. What we are doing is intentionally drawing upon the Black church tradition… We’ve been seeing a resurgence amongst Christians about issues of social justice. We want to remind people that the gospel is holistic. It’s not just about the fate of your eternal soul but also about your present circumstances. And that includes issues of justice.
As Christians of color, like Lecrae for example, have made moves out of White Evangelical spaces, there have been discussions about White legitimation—the idea that they need the approval or permission of White Christians to still be considered Christian, Reformed, biblical, etc. How would you respond to this idea of White legitimation?
In the initial launch there has been very little critique, but the critique was predictable. We were already getting these accusations of not being biblical, Marxist, etc. Letting go of the label “Reformed” allowed both self-proclaimed “defenders of orthodoxy” and our ministry to be free. We don’t have to hold one another to a particular theological standard. We can simply go about our business and lean into our liberty as Christians.
Do you think your ministry’s tone will change given the new name, now that you’re no longer in a posture of defense and apologetic?
I do think the tone will be different. Now, we can try to have conversations as if we didn’t have to meet the approval of the dominant White culture, which is very hard to do because in most spaces we have to be acutely aware of the perceptions of White people.
What The Witness is doing is carving out a space where Black Christians are free to express the fullness of who they are. And that can be about something as trivial as shoes and fashion to something as weighty as identity, significance and justice… with a tone that is affirming of our embodied selves and our lived experience as Black believers.
You changed your name on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I’m sure that wasn’t unintentional. Can you comment on how The Witness fits in the stream of the Reformation?
First, we don’t see ourselves so much in contradiction or opposition to White Evangelicals. This is more about discovering our own identity as Black Christians. The big milestone for me was realizing our name was more than just a name. Our name was a matter of identity. So, what we wanted to do by taking “Reformed” out of the title had less to do with distancing ourselves from Evangelicals or Reformed Christians. It had more to do with exploring the freedom of our identity and experiences on our own terms as Black people made in the image of God.
Secondly, we do have to evaluate critically what American Christianity has become. I think in particular of White Evangelical allegiance to the Republican Party and what we can term “civil religion.” This is what the Bible calls syncretism. God warns his people not to worship the idols of the land because it will result in an ungodly mix of religion and a loss of the true faith. We have to consider the concept of syncretism as it comes to American Christianity. We need to devote ourselves to reformation—a return and obedience to the Word of God.
“My biggest hope is that minorities will lead the church in America in a way they never have before. I long to see racial-majority people submitting themselves to Black people, Latino people, Asian people and all kinds of racial and ethnic minorities. …”
One of the institutional issues for Christians of color is the fact that many do not hold any positions in leadership in Evangelical and Reformed schools, institutions, churches, etc. Do you believe that amplifying voices of Black Christians is ultimately to empower them into these predominantly White spaces, or to create alternative spaces for them to thrive?
I hope The Witness will empower all people to be fully and authentically themselves in whatever space God has them. This means that there will be some racial and ethnic minorities who are called to stay in predominantly White settings. But, I hope The Witness will embolden them to be who they are without apology as minorities in these settings. For others, that means they will carve out their own spaces because they can’t be themselves in predominantly White spaces.
Statistics show that the church in the U.S. will become less and less White in the coming years. What is your hope for the future of the church in the U.S. as it continues toward greater diversify?
One fact we need to press is that diversity is already here. While it’s true that national demographics will change, the reality is that our children are already majority-minority. … We need to treat the demographic diversification of the nation as an already established fact, not a future possibility. What that does is it increases the urgency for change around issues of diversity and unity.
With that in mind, my hope for the church has changed. It is not so much that majority White churches would become integrated—though I hope that’s the case. My biggest hope is that minorities will lead the church in America in a way they never have before. I long to see racial-majority people submitting themselves to Black people, Latino people, Asian people and all kinds of racial and ethnic minorities. That kind of minority-led reformation, as you will, is a truly 21st century application of the gospel.
What encouragement would you give for people trying to create a platform our an outlet like The Witness in their own contexts?
In no sense have we arrived or are we in a position to give advice because we’re in progress. What I can say that has encouraged me along the way is that you don’t have to have big numbers to have a big impact. Many people feel isolation because they’re the only person in their church who is talking about race or justice, and they feel alone. What I often tell people in their isolation is that you only need a couple other like-minded people to start something significant. For church members, for example, you don’t need to start a big movement in your congregation. You can just invite people to a meeting and hear their thoughts and experiences. Gather together with like-minded people no matter how small and see what kind of synergy might occur. You never know how God might use a small group of people. A movement is made up of many small motions. If you make that motion, it could result in some very positive outcomes.
Any final thoughts or comments?
What we are presenting is by no means a finished product. We are “in process,” and this process is going to be messy and it’s public. We’ll make mistakes and we’ll do it in front of people. We pray for patience and grace for those who engage our content. We move forward in faith knowing that it’s the right move for us and helpful for others along the way.
Support Faithfully Magazine’s mission to amplify conversations impacting Christian communities of color by making a secure financial contribution via PayPal: