Interview: Jemar Tisby Talks White Supremacy and Theological Heroes

Jemar Tisby
Jemar Tisby (Photo: Facebook/Jemar.Tisby

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 two of Faithfully Magazine’s interview with Tisby, conducted by phone. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can read part one of the interview here.

From your research, have you found if there were Black Christians who were able to make change within predominantly-White denominations, or were most of them pushed out from these circles?

Typically, if you’re Black in a predominantly-White denomination, it’s on a conditional and provisional basis. So, you can sort of look throughout Christian history and in the sort of rare instances that there were biracial or interracial congregations or leadership, it’s always kind of been predicated on the minorities towing the party line on race and politics. To the extent that Black people spoke out more vociferously for Black civil rights and human rights, they got pushback, along with their allies.

In my opinion, and others may disagree, there was a guy named Howard O. Jones who was Billy Graham’s first Black associate evangelist. Now, Howard O. Jones did talk about race. He wrote a whole book about it. But, it tended to be more toward the interpersonal, individual aspect of “we need to let go of our hatred and be friends with one another” as a solution to racism as opposed to, like Martin Luther King (Jr.), who was coming out of an historically-Black denomination speaking much more forcefully about systemic and institutional racism and injustice. So, you could maintain a presence as a minority within White circles so long as you sounded pretty much just like them. In fact, over time it became an advantage because then, as a White denominational church, you could claim diversity and not really be challenged to change.

“I would say, as far as theologically-conservative Christians, the majority of them are in that mushy middle where they’ve inherited ideas that Christianity is legit if it comes from Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin or John Piper. It’s less legit or illegitimate if it comes from most Black people, especially the ones you’re not familiar with who come out of predominantly- and historically-Black denominations.”

If many of our churches in America are founded upon White supremacy, how can we move forward? What is the solution?

Well, the solution is death. If White supremacy and racist ideology are idols, then we have to die to our idols and die to self. And it’s sort of like the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler where he asks what must he do to be saved. Jesus says, “Sell all your possessions, give it to the poor and come follow me,” and in a very real way, whiteness is a wage. Historian David Roediger has a book called The Wages of Whiteness. And so, there’s definitely cultural value to whiteness and what Jesus calls us to do is “Go, sell all your whiteness. Leave those privileges to those who don’t have them, and go follow me.” So that means aligning yourself with racial and ethnic minorities who have experienced marginalization and injustice in our society. That means flipping the institutional tables of our churches and our para-church ministries which were founded maybe not intentionally on whiteness or the centrality or normativity of whiteness but nonetheless operate that way. It means rewriting our founding documents in these organizations starting from the ground up with leadership that reflects the diversity that we want to see, staying in low-income communities or investing in them.

It’s not just a church solution either because the church is a part of society, so it means adjusting the way we interact on a day-to-day basis with people, whether that means where we live, whether that’s a homogeneous community and we seek to be in a diverse community where we send our kids to school and taking on the burdens of low-income schools where our kids may not get the best education but only our presence there would possibly ensure that more money would flow into these schools.

So, it’s a death, so that’s why it’s hard. And then there are a lot of people who are blind and spiritually hardened to this. I’m convinced that issues of race and racism are spiritual issues and that we need to approach them like we do evangelism. When we are seeking to commend the gospel to someone we know, we can marshal all the right facts, we can have the most persuasive conversations, and folks still might not believe, and that’s not something we did wrong. They’re not ready yet. And so, we pray that God would replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh and give them eyes to see and ears to hear. I think it’s the same thing with racial awareness. We need to be praying against the spiritual roadblocks that prevent progress in this area, both for individuals and for institutions.

And then lastly, I think history has a massive role to play in all this. I think there’s a sort of a spectrum of people in terms of racial awareness. There are those on one extreme who are completely resistant to the idea. They will argue and fight you if you even bring up the word “race” in Christian circles. They’ll call it “not a gospel issue,” a “distraction,” call you “Marxist,” all those things. There are folks on the other extreme who are just ready and raring to go. They believe it, they have no issues with acknowledging the place of white supremacy not only in our nation but in our churches, and they want to do something about it.

I would say, as far as theologically-conservative Christians, the majority of them are in that mushy middle where they’ve inherited ideas that Christianity is legit if it comes from Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin or John Piper. It’s less legit or illegitimate if it comes from most Black people, especially the ones you’re not familiar with who come out of predominantly- and historically-Black denominations. They’ve inherited an idea that Christianity and the Republican party are virtually synonymous. So, it’s really hard to bust out of their voting patterns their parents had or their pastors taught them.

But, at the same time, these folks in the mushy middle are aware that there are problems with racism. They’re aware that the leaders that they may have grown up looking up to may not be strong in this area, to put it nicely. And they’re looking for more information. They’re looking to be a part of the solution, but they don’t know how. And they don’t know where to go, and they don’t know who to trust, and they’re very fearful of wading in because they might get it wrong. And I’m sympathetic because that speaks to a humble heart, that speaks to a heart that is open to learning and being persuaded. For those folks in the middle, history would be a massive and important tool of education to fill in the yawning chasms of knowledge that have yet to be filled with good information about what actually happened in the past and those narratives that are so important.

I’ve noticed that certain people in theologically-conservative Christian circles get upset when a disturbing truth about their theological heroes gets brought into the light. Or, much of the “dirty laundry” is kept tucked away from the knowledge of average laypeople. Why do you think that is?

Well, there’s an ideological thing going on here where people want to preserve their heroes as heroes, and everyone does this right? There are lots of heroes of the Civil Rights Movement who certainly weren’t perfect, and we’re sort of hesitant to bring those ideas to the fore because we want someone and something to believe in. When that’s happening, again, that means dying to self and realizing that our only true Savior is Jesus, and if we’re looking for anyone else to be perfect, then we’re looking to an idol. Our doctrine of total depravity should make us very readily accepting of the imperfections of our heroes, and I think that people believe that in theory, but when it is your personal hero and when it’s information that contradicts your narrative, that’s when you get the defensiveness.

I think along with that, history is about telling the truth, and I think what we do oftentimes is, in an effort to avoid conflict or to try to seem nicer, we blunt the truth. I think of our hesitancy to call people “racists” when they are clearly being racist. Why can’t we say that? It’s not because they aren’t racist. It’s because we want to sort of soften the blow. But, Jesus makes clear that the truth cuts. It divides. Obviously, there’s “big T” truth about the gospel and salvation but there’s “little t” truth about accurately reflecting reality. To the extent that we hesitate to do that, we will actually hamstring ourselves in this “strive toward freedom,” as King said, and I think that it’s incumbent upon historians or anyone who’s fighting for racial justice to tell it like it is and to let the truth hurt and to let the history be heavy because it is. You can’t take that away and we can’t make progress unless we go through that pain.

One common response people will bring up to defend their theological heroes is to say that it is anachronistic to expect people from the past to have the same moral standards that we do in the present. What is your response to that?

The argument that these folks are people of their time and we shouldn’t impose modern standards on them, that’s true. But, just because a lot of people practiced the particular sin, doesn’t mean it wasn’t sinful. We may have an advantage now that public opinion has changed, but they had access to the same Bible. They in some way had better access to know that slavery and racism was wrong because they saw it much more blatantly. Whether this is in the antebellum era and you’d see the scars on the backs of slaves or you hear their groaning. Whether this is in the Jim Crow era when literally thousands of lynchings are happening and no one’s getting prosecuted. There’s photographic evidence of burned and charred bodies, of hanging bodies, of women and men and even children sometimes getting swept up in bloodlust. You know that stuff was much more apparent then than it is now, so it should be a lot more obvious in some ways.

Even though these sorts of men were reflecting popular opinion at the time, there were still people who knew this was wrong. Even their contemporaries. Certainly, Black people had a certain perspective on it, which, if folks had taken the time to listen and sit under the authority of marginalized people, that would have been clear. But, there were even other White people, not a huge group, and even many times non-Christians who were more righteous than the ones who claimed Christ. And abolitionists saw the wrongness of slavery and racism… although, being an abolitionist didn’t necessarily mean you were egalitarian. My only point is that there were contemporaries with these historical figures who saw it as wrong. So, that leads me to believe that the people who promoted slavery and racism and segregation and even lynching had the opportunity to rethink their position and come to a more righteous one.

I’ve heard in the past claims that certain Christian leaders who had racist views—Robert Lewis Dabney, James Henley Thornwell, J. Gresham Machen, etc.—repented later in life or on their death beds. Does this fact—whether true or not—help undo the systemic wrongs that they committed?

One of the fundamental dilemmas with mainly White Christians understanding racism accurately is that they tend to think of racism in terms of interpersonal rather than institutional terms and individual rather than systemic terms. And so, if someone repents on their deathbed, then they’re doing their part to dismantle racism. And you know, the reality is, that’s nice for them. That’s nice maybe for the handful of Black people they know, or that one instance, but what did they do to alleviate the conditions that led to this unequal distribution of opportunity based on race? It does nothing. And we see this today. For pastors and church leaders or church members who really want to do something about race, oftentimes their solution is to grab a Black person or a person of color and say, “Hey let’s grab a cup of coffee.” It’s as though a conversation is going to transform society, not recognizing that there are laws and policies at the federal, state, and local levels that create whole classes of who Jesus calls “the least of these” in Matthew 25. So, you know, by and large, the poor are not poor simply because they’re poor or bad with money. They’re born into a system that makes it monumentally hard to rise out of their economic position. So where are Christians in that?

The other thing I would say is that this sort of a death bed confession and the claim that they repented and they were sorry… that’s a matter between them and God. That’s great. But in racial justice terms, they talk about being racist, non-racist, and anti-racist. Often time, they’ll use a pedway analogy, like when you’re at the airport and there are those moving walkways. And they’ll say that that walkway is on a destination toward all-out racism. You can be on that walkway and be sort of running with it, moving right along with it, and that’s being a racist. They’re headed in that direction and purposefully moving with it. You can be non-racist, which is when you’re simply standing still on that pedway, but that pedway is still moving in the same direction. So, even though you’re not making intentional steps toward racism, just being on that pedway and going with the flow, you’re promoting it, you’re heading there. And then there are anti-racists. You are actually turned around and you’re running against the grain in the other direction. And obviously you’re facing resistance because momentum is pulling you backward, but you’re trying to run the opposite direction. And so, I think in these conversations we’re trying to commend people, “Well, hey, they’re not actively racist. They’re not running around in hoods or saying the N-word. So, bravo!” And what we’re really doing is saying, “Well, they’re actually non-racists.” In other words, they’re marginally better than a lot of the worst figures. A non-racist is not enough. In a racist society, you’re still going to end up at the same spot. You need to be anti-racist.

So, my question is, what did these men do to actively deconstruct—not just be silent or passive—but actively deconstruct racism? And you can think of it in Christian terms too, right? Jesus calls us to make disciples. In other words, it’s to evangelize. You can be anti-Christian or a non-Christian on one extreme. You can be Christian but sort of passive and not actively sharing your faith. Or you can be evangelistic and telling other people and showing other people about Jesus on purpose. And it’s that “on purpose” part that we’ve got to get to. Because just going with the flow in a society founded with white supremacy is just going to lead to more racism.

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Written by Timothy I. Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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