The images of the insurrectionist invasion of the United States capitol on January 6, 2021, are saturated with Christian symbols and words. From the erection of a large wooden cross on the capitol grounds to that of one of the terrorists holding a Bible for the camera to the numerous banners proclaiming “Jesus saves” (and some declaring “Trump saves”), this disgusting display of systematic hatred was wrapped in a veneer of Christian nationalism.
The immediate reactions were denial and disbelief. “This is not America,” some said. “These are not Christians,” some said. Those reactions are understandable but false. This is not all that is America, but it is some of it. This is not the kind of Christianity I embrace or practice, but it is that for some. Denial is debilitating. Examining reality is actionable.
“I think that [the demonstrators and rioters] believe that God has a specific plan for this country,” noted Andrew Whitehead, co-director of the Association of Religion Data Archives and professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, “and that their vision for the country has been given to them by God. Christian nationalism at its core,” he concludes, “is this desire to see Christianity be privileged in the public sphere.”
I am grateful for the work numerous scholars and journalists who help us to see beyond the denial and disbelief and who equip us for both deeper analysis and realistic responses. I have written before about the work of Robert P. Jones in White Too Long and Jennifer Harvey in Dear White Christians. The collusion of institutional Christianity (not only of the “evangelical” type, I’m sorry to say) with the systems and structures of White supremacy continues to be documented and derided.
I want to review and recommend the work of Jemar Tisby in this regard, both for his clarity and his courage in speaking and writing. I have read two of Tisby’s works – The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, and his more recent work, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice.
The first book has more of the character of a diagnosis of the illness. The latter has more of the character of some modes of treatment. Together they offer a potent primer on how we White Christians got here and how we might move in a different direction.
In The Color of Compromise, Tisby charts the complicity and collusion of White Christians with the institutions and actions of White supremacy from our earliest days on this continent. More than that, he describes how White Christians have participated in the active construction of White supremacy as the ideology that undergirds slavery, Jim Crow, the covert institutional racism of the last sixty years, and the active prosecution of the “cold Civil War” which we currently face. Like racism itself, this White Christian involvement and leadership has never disappeared even though it has evolved and adapted over time to changing conditions.
“The festering wound of racism in the American church must be exposed to the oxygen of truth,” Tisby writes, “in order to be healed” (page 15). That’s the burden of The Color of Compromise. It’s not just the pornographic misuse of Christian symbols by a mob of ignorant fools searching for selfies and souvenirs. Those arrogant and ignorant jackasses are symptoms of far deeper problems in White churches in general.
“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict,” he asserts, “and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice” (page 17).
Tisby notes that “complicity” is far too gentle a description for the role we white Christians have played in the ongoing obscenity of Christian nationalism. “Complicity connotes a degree of passivity—as if Christianity were merely a boat languidly floating down the river of racism,” he writes, “In reality, white Christians have often been the current, whipping racism into waves of conflict that rock and divide the people of God” (page 17).
What happened at the United States capitol was not like a passing weather front. It was the result of centuries of policies and practices, decisions and deeds, heritage and hatred, embedded in White Christian churches across the country. The fact that White supremacy inside and outside the church has been chosen is, in part, the good news. As I have learned from numerous thinkers in this area, what has been chosen can be unchosen.
“One notable theme is that white supremacy in the nation and the church was not inevitable,” Tisby reminds us. “Things could have been different. At several points in American history—the colonial era, Reconstruction, the demise of Jim Crow—Christians could have confronted racism instead of compromising” (page 18). This is the opportunity White Christians have in the present moment – to confess and acknowledge, to repent and repair, to make different choices in order to be different people. “Christians deliberately chose complicity with racism in the past,” Tisby notes, “but the choice to confront racism remains a possibility today” (page 19).
Tisby is realistic about the possibilities for a full recovery. White supremacy appears to be a chronic and long-term malady that will require ongoing vigilance and treatment. “History demonstrates that racism never goes away,” he reminds us, “it just adapts” (page 19).
In The Color of Compromise we get a concise history of our pernicious path to the present. If you don’t know that history and you’re a white Christian, then read Tisby’s book or one like it. He also offers a crisp diagnosis of the malady. For the prescription, he has written How to Fight Racism. His latest book is targeted to churches seeking a different path forward, but it has broader applications in other organizations and groups.
If you can only read one of the two books, then read the second one. You will get some brief reminders of the pathological history of White supremacy in and through Christian churches. You will also get suggestions for concrete actions you might take as a member of a Christian church, as an individual Jesus follower, and as a member of the larger American society.
I appreciate the many polarities that Tisby is able to hold in tension as he writes. Of course, they are largely false dichotomies created to give White people an out for their racism. But White people embrace them nonetheless, and Tisby understands that they must be addressed. For example, he rejects the notion that one either sees racism as systemic or individual.
“In this book, I am not seeking to pit the personal against the systemic,” he declares. “Individual agency matters significantly, even in a world where institutions wield enormous power. And institutional policies and practices can limit the personal choices and the number of good options that individuals have available to them. Racial justice must occur,” he asserts, “at both the individual and the institutional level” (pages 12-13).
The heart of his analysis and response is the model he calls the “ARC of Racial Justice.” “ARC” is an acronym of Awareness, Relationship, and Commitment. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear that Tisby had me at “acronym.” He uses the model to structure the sections of the book and of his chapters as well. The chapters unfold with “Essential Understandings,” that lead to “Racial Justice Practices” for each of the dimensions of the model.
Tisby is clear that this is not a checklist or a linear model. The various practices are highly contextual, and readers need to pick and choose for their settings. I can see this as an extremely helpful book for White Christians to read in congregational groups and then to enact in concrete changes in practice and culture in congregations.
Every day I hear the plaintive longing to “go back” to some mythical time when things weren’t so hard, so complicated, so fraught and fearful. Of course, “going back” is only good news for those who benefitted from the previous status quo. If White Christians “go back” to normal, we will continue to construct and underwrite the ideology of White supremacy and Christian nationalism that got us a ransacked capitol and a crippled government.
“Going back” is not an option. But it is precisely what will happen without a set of different decisions. We can’t keep making the same choices and expect different results. A wise person I know says regularly that nothing changes until something changes. Tisby’s books can provide one set of tools for ongoing reflection, repentance, and repair. That’s as far as we’re going to get for a while, but that would be a long distance for White churches to cover.
I am deeply fearful that the moment will once again pass after the glass has been swept up and some new fencing has been installed. I am deeply fearful that most White Christians will be neither touched nor moved by this moment. Please don’t let that happen.
In my tradition this Sunday we will remember the Baptism of Jesus. In that reading, we also hear about folks who streamed to see John the Baptist, confessing their sins. We White Christians have much to confess if we are to be faithful to our baptismal identities. And we will need to continue that confession for the rest of our lives. The good news is that repentance and repair are possible when we come clean about our brokenness. Tisby’s books help with that process.