Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective and co-host of the “Pass The Mic” podcast. Tisby is also a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the 20th century. He takes on those subjects in his debut book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
This is part one of Faithfully Magazine’s interview with Tisby, conducted by phone. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can read part two of the interview here.
You wrote The Color of Compromise, a book that is intentionally trying to take a good, hard look at history to see the church’s role in racism. Why is history so important for Christians to learn and know?
The more you study history the more you see that when it comes to race and Christianity, it’s a story of compromise rather than courage. What I mean by that is, throughout U.S. history, when there have been opportunities in the church or in the broader society to stand against racism, to promote the equality of all people—particularly of Black people—many times, the church institutionally has shrunk back in that critical juncture. So, I’m always wary of highlighting instances when Christians have in fact pushed back against racism, not because they’re not important but because we like to latch onto those positive stories and make a blanket assessment of the entire American church narrative. So, we’ll look at—he’s not even an American—but, we’ll look at Christians like Wilberforce and say, “See! We are the heroes of our own story.” But the reality is that the Christians who’ve been against racism were in the vast minority. And when they did stand against racism, they faced incredible opposition from their own brothers and sisters in Christ.
History is about a narrative. There’s a Nigerian author named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she has this viral Ted Talk video on YouTube, and she talks about the power and the danger of a single narrative. Now she’s talking about having a single narrative about Africa and all these stereotypes that people have about folks who live in Africa. I think the same thing can be applied to religion and Christianity in America, that when you’re talking about the predominantly-White theologically conservative church tradition, there’s a danger of having a single narrative. There’s a single narrative that’s mainly White, from Euro-American theologians, pastors, thinkers, authors, leaders. But there’s also the danger of a single narrative about race in America and a single narrative about our sort of heroic history as Christians who stood against racism. And the problem with all of those single narratives is that it’s not being informed by others, particularly people on the margins such as Black Christians and others.
What happens when Christians in America don’t know their history—both of the American church and U.S. history in general?
Many predominantly-White Christian circles have yet to fully reckon with how America has been crafted as a White supremacist society. And a lot of people don’t like to put it that bluntly, but White supremacy means both the centrality and the superiority of whiteness, which is a myth at the end of the day. It’s an idol and that’s why it’s so hard to dislodge. We don’t like to dislodge our idols. We don’t like taking our idols down from their pedestals. But, to put it that way evokes a lot of anger and defensiveness among White people because they don’t like to think of themselves as racists or benefiting from White supremacy. But what happens is that White supremacy operates so pervasively that it becomes almost invisible to those who are embedded in it.