I just finished reading The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, written by Jemar Tisby. As its name suggests, the book provides a historical survey of the many ways in which the American church has been, at times actively supportive and at other times, complicit in racism over the last several centuries.
The book is a sobering read. It is also a necessary one; in the words the author quotes of Martin Luther King, Jr., “[l]ike a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Tisby explores facts we are not accustomed to facing head on, such as:
- The extent to which Christian churches in the eighteenth century did not oppose the enslavement of blacks, preferring instead to focus on evangelization of the slaves and some efforts to ameliorate the harshest punishment of slaves.
- At the onset of the Civil War, Christian denominations, especially in the South, aggressively defended slavery based on the Bible. Many found slavery not only morally acceptable but praiseworthy as a way to introduce Africans to Christianity.
- During the era of Jim Crow, white churches failed to unequivocally condemn lynchings and other acts of terror against freed blacks. “[T]he majority stance of the American Church was avoidance, turning a blind eye to the practice. It’s not that members of every white church participated in lynching, but the practice could not have endured without the relative silence, if not outright support, of one of the most significant institutions in America – the Christian church.”
- In the post-World War II era, the American church cooperated with residential segregation of blacks, actively participating in the relocation of whites from cities, themselves relocating to the suburbs along with whites. They also started segregated private schools to keep white children separate from black ones. (Indeed, while many associate the rise of the “religious right” with abortion, racial integration in schools was a much more central impetus.)
The book continues its survey through the current day, including the elections of both Obama and Trump and the rise of Black Lives Matter. It also discusses how certain cultural aspects of, particularly Evangelical, Christianity – including accountable individualism – perpetuate racial problems.
As with any survey, there is a certain amount of selectivity in what events, persons and stories an author chooses to include, but that does not diminish the value of reading the book and facing the history of Christian churches.
The book ends with a chapter of ways to both individually and communally try to address our country’s racism. As with most difficult problems, they are both simple and difficult. I highly recommend the book, including a consideration of what each of our individual roles is in addressing the racism that still plagues our country.