“I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion.” That line from black historian John Hope Franklin captures well the heart of Tisby’s motivation in writing this bleak and yet deeply insightful book. The full story of racism in this country, and particularly the role that the Christian church has played in its maintenance, has rarely been told. Tisby aims to tell it afresh, specifically for Christian audiences. This is the story that all American Christians need to hear because it is our story.
The Color of Compromise tells the story of the Christian church’s complicity in American racism throughout the decades. That story starts with the role Christians played during the slave trade and the founding of America, and moves up through the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He explores the rooted racism of the South during these periods of history, and the more subtle racism of the North. He explores the active aggression against blacks by religious groups, as well as the more passive inaction of ministers and churches. The story is grim, gruesome, and depressing. It is hard to read at points, specifically as Tisby details the mutilation of black bodies and the hateful lynching of men and women. It’s also hard to read because this is a story about men and women who believed the gospel, who believed the same truths about Jesus and the Bible that I profess to believe. The men who wore white hoods and murdered little boys are men who attended church on Sunday mornings. The ministers who wrote MLK letters rebuking him for impatience in the Civil Rights cause, were men who hold the same role and position as I do. It’s a hard story to read because it’s the story of us – white Christians in America. It is our legacy running up from our “heroes” (Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield), into our modern day. It’s hard to read, but it is necessary to read.
The book is largely a work of historical narration. Tisby is developing his expose across the major temporal landmarks of racial injustice in this country, showing along the way, how Christians participated in it. He speaks about their theological arguments, their political policies, and their ethical neglect. But the book is not simply a historical survey – the goal is to understand this history in order to be more informed about how to actively resist racism today and fight for proper racial justice. More to the point, Tisby is not interested merely in guilt, but rather in moving white Christians in America towards repentance. In Tisby’s words:
The goal of this book is not guilt. The purpose of tracing Christian complicity with racism is not to show white believes how bad they are. It is simply a fact of American history that white leaders and laity made decisions to maintain the racist status quo. Even though the purpose of this work is not to call out any particular racial group, these words may cause some grief, but grief can be good. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (ESV). This kind of grief is a natural response to the suffering of others. It indicates empathy with the pain that racism has caused black people. The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing. (22-23)
This hard-to-read history is good for us if it causes us to consider more carefully the legacy of the church in America and the pain that our African American brothers and sisters have experienced.
The value of reading this book is that it does have the potential to soften hearts and inform minds. There is so much about the history of the church’s complicity in racism that I did not know. It was heartbreaking to read and unsettling to think about how “righteous” many of these Christians saw themselves at the time. The book caused me to wonder about myself and our current cultural context. It caused me to think afresh about what we are doing now that decades from today others will look back with dismay at the obvious sinfulness of our ways. It caused me to think afresh about how the church in America is actively caring for our black brothers and sisters today – or how we might be repeating the mistakes of the past. In this regard, The Color of Compromise had its intended impact.
Surely, not all will agree with or appreciate Tisby’s work. There will be plenty who find his proposed solutions simplistic or unreasonable (see Chapter 11). But Christians have a responsibility to participate in the conversation, not to simply dismiss proposed solutions without dialogue and without humble consideration. Tisby offers great insight into our past with the intended goal of impacting our present and future. All of us will do well to read his work and dialogue with it. As uncomfortable as the story is, it is our story, and we can grow from reading it.