The Color of Clarity — Two Books by Jemar Tisby (Read them!)

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.”


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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.

Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines: “Delighted!”

Baptism of Our Lord, 2021, Mark 1:4-11

How often have you longed to hear it? “I am delighted with you.” Some of us crave that affirmation from parents and rarely receive it. Some of us search for that approval from a spouse and end up disappointed. Some of us hope for that applause at work or at school, on a team or in a friendship. And we walk away still wanting it. Some of us look for that adulation in the public praise of elections and editorials. And we’re left sadder and wiser.

Delight these days is in short supply.

Sometimes a person important to us bestows the blessing. When that happens, it’s like being wrapped in a favorite blanket. It’s like sitting in the warm sun on a cold winter afternoon. It’s like being held in the arms of another and seeing the smile. The gift of delight makes me feel bigger, better, more alive, more…well, more “me”!

Is it any wonder we are desperate for someone, anyone, to be delighted with us?

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Some would say this is a foolish wish. Others would say it is a childish need. Still others would say it is a sign of pathetic weakness. Get real. Grow up. Sprout a pair – as the crude and popular talk would have it. No one is paid to notice you, appreciate you, make you feel better about yourself. Delight is what happens in fairy tales, not in the real world. Delight in yourself if you must, but don’t expect it from anyone else.

In the face of that bleak barrier to blessing, we pull into ourselves. We get protective, defensive, and distant. We grow hard shells and thick skins. We armor up and hunker down. We stiffen our spines and our upper lips. We go it alone rather than risk rejection.

I’m not talking merely about personal and individual feelings, although that matters a lot. The number one mental health issue in our country is loneliness. The Pandemic has made a bad problem that much worse. But I’m also talking about life in the grocery store, on a Zoom meeting, in a political campaign and the halls of government. We live in a first-strike culture where the strategy is reject before you get rejected.

Delight these days is in short supply wherever you go.

I wonder if God’s baptismal words to Jesus catch your attention the way they do mine. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” The translation is too tame by half. God sees Jesus passing through the waters of the Jordan from the wilderness to the land of promise. And God says to Jesus, “I am delighted with you.”

God, I wonder, could you be delighted with me too? Even in the asking I feel bigger, better, more alive, more…me. But, no, it doesn’t last. I know me all too well. There’s far too much in me, in my past, in my heart, in my head – far too much that is anything but delightful.

I get the first part of the gospel reading much better than the second. People streamed out to the Jordan to confess their sins. They had to come clean before they got clean. They had to repent before they could repair. Maybe they felt better for a while, but they went home. And I imagine they found themselves in the same muck and mess as before.

Not much reason to delight in that.

A small girl had recently learned how to dress herself.  One day her mother found her crying on the edge of her bed. “What’s wrong, dear?” the mother asked.  “Do you feel sick?” The little girl shook her head.  “Do you know,” she wailed, “that I have to put my clothes on every day for the rest of my life?”  She fell back on the bed in tears.

That little girl had seen the lifetime of shirts and skirts, of dresses and pants, of socks and shoes.  The enormity of it all was more than she could bear. When I confess, and even when I repent, I find the enormity of it all more than I can bear. Someone may call me delightful, but I have a hard time hearing it.

I had a seminary professor who began every class the same way. “Beloved in Christ,” he would say, “God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway!” Most days I have trouble remembering that. Perhaps you do too. But that’s part of what I hope we can hear today.

God delights in you! All evidence and experience to the contrary, God delights in you! I can’t make you believe it or accept it, but there it is. God delights in you!

I know this because God delights in Jesus. Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan, and the sky is torn open. What seems like an impossible barrier between us and God is removed. The loving Spirit of God comes and rests on Jesus like a favorite blanket, like the warm sun on a cold winter afternoon, like the arms of a loving parent, like a peaceful dove.

Jesus’ baptism reminds us that God’s delight is not Plan B. It’s not some detour or deviation. In the beginning God created all things. And God called everything that God had made “very good.” The Hebrew of Genesis 1 and 2 is far more expressive. When God was done making it all, God clapped God’s metaphorical hands and said, “Very good!”

God delights in Creation. Jesus comes to restore that delightful relationship, no matter what it takes. That includes you. Beloved in Christ, God knows you better than you know yourself and loves you anyway!

God delights in you!

But there’s all that stuff we talked about in the beginning of this conversation. My life doesn’t feel very delightful most of the time. What about that?

God’s delight is not just talk. Love is much more than a feeling. God’s love is action, the action of taking on the pain and problems, the vanity and violence, the despair and death that are so much a part of our lives. God focuses all that killing power into one point in cosmic time and space. That one point is the cross.

With that cross God absorbs in Jesus the worst that sin, death, and evil can dish out. On the other side is delight without end. We Christians call that Resurrection. We Christians call that the New Creation. We Christians call that life in Christ for all.

God delights in you…and you…and you…and you! It would seem that God delights in difference.

Just look at Creation. How many different kinds of bugs are really necessary on this planet? In fact, we don’t know precisely how many bug species there are, because scientists keep discovering more of them.

Whether all these bugs are necessary or not is beside the point. God the Creator finds them delightful in their buzzing and clicking, hopping and crawling, flying and swimming diversity.

God delights in you…and you…and you… and you! God delights in difference! Do we?

If we are telling the truth about ourselves as Christian churches, the answer must be no. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described 11 a.m. on Sundays as the most segregated hour of the week in American society. King was talking about the time Christians spent in worship. That time was rarely spent worshipping with people of another race.

King offered his critique nearly sixty years ago. It’s still the case today. Before we get too far along, we must acknowledge that our congregations simply reflect how we live our lives. It’s not that if we could just make Christian churches more diverse, then our lives would be more diverse as well. That’s backwards. If we are unwilling to take delight in diversity Monday through Saturday, we won’t find it delightful on Sundays either.

You are made in God’s image. God delights in you. All human beings are made in God’s image. God delights in all of us. “God’s fingerprints rest upon every single person without restriction,” Jemar Tisby writes in How to Fight Racism. “The image of God extends to Black and white people, men and women, rich and poor, incarcerated and free, queer and straight, documented and undocumented, nondisabled and disabled, powerful and oppressed. All people equally bear the likeness of God,” Tisby concludes, “and thus possess incalculable and inviolable value” (pages 28-29).

God is delighted to death with you…and you…and you…and you! “God does not mistake unity for uniformity,” Tisby writes. “God celebrates diversity” (page 29). If we are going to live out the image of God renewed in us through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will celebrate diversity too.

That’s what love looks like, and love is an action – not just a feeling. Delighting in diversity is hard work for white Christians. It costs us to make it real. Our white privilege, position and power will have to die. Our white supremacy and white centrism and white fragility will have to die. Like the people who came to the Jordan, we have come clean before we can get clean. We have to repent before we can repair and reconcile. But we have to start somewhere.

God delights in us, and longs for us to be bigger, better, more alive, more…well, more “us”! So, we’re not in this on our own, thank God! Next week, we’ll talk some more about how we can grow out of our despair and into God’s delight. Amen.

Backwards Again

Did you ever have one of those moments when a thought is out there in the fog of awareness, just beyond any clear vision? That’s my state of consciousness most of the time, but right now it’s a bit more pronounced.

I keep thinking about the ELCA plan for the future and the plan’s identified priorities for restructuring and renewal in the denomination. Just for a review, those priorities are:

  1. Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.
  2. Unite all expressions of the church (congregations, synods and the churchwide organization) into one church—together.
  3. Align decision-making, accountability and leadership where best suited.
  4. Operate in agile, flexible and speedy ways.
  5. Act based on data and measurable impact.
  6. Eliminate silos and divisions.

The only one that really interests me is the first one. If you play the “one of these things is not like the other” song, then #1 is the answer. Priorities two through six are all management issues. Number one has the potential to be a mission issue. But I think it fails in that regard (I hope I’m as wrong as I usually am). I find myself in a fog because just as this announcement came, so did several pods and articles that speak directly (at least in my little brain) to this issue.

“Throughline on NPR” features an episode called “The Invention of Race.” It’s an excellent and troubling reminder of how race, eugenics and class warfare combined in the early twentieth century to produce deadly consequences and how Franz Boas almost singlehandedly dismantled the “scientific” basis of structural racism.


Of course, whiteness was invented long before the early twentieth century. In 1619 in Jamestown African and Irish laborers were treated as indentured servants. There was an immediate distinction between the “less white” Irish and the “black” Africans, but legislation took time to develop. The original system did not guarantee a steady flow of cheap and malleable labor for the wealthy landowners in Virginia.

By 1691, slave laws had been enacted in several of the colonies to remedy the situation. The slave laws had a dual impact. They insured a permanent supply of slave bodies to provide free labor to the wealthy. And they established a racial caste system that gave poor whites just enough status to keep them mollified. So rich people had plenty of free labor to hand and a cheap police force to keep the slaves in their place.

It was genius level social engineering through policy. That social engineering persists to this day. It has been one of the most significant factors in national elections in America since 1964 and Barry Goldwater. I would recommend the recent Code Switch podcast, “The White Elephants in the Room” for some background in this regard.


In 1619 the division is between landowners and indentured servants. It is a class division. By 1691, whiteness has been invented to accomplish two agendas — manage white peasants by promoting them to white and suppressing black peasants by rendering them subhuman. The strategy was to use the rage of the white peasants to police the slaves and to protect the wealth and privilege of the upper class.

I was introduced yesterday to the work of Ian Haney Lopez in this regard yesterday on Ezra Klein’s podcast (I feel so late to the party on almost everything important). The Ezra Klein podcast focused on what the Democrats got wrong with Hispanic voters. This leads into a conversation about Lopez’ fuller work. I would recommend the podcast. However, a talk by Lopez gives a fuller exposition of the subject that really interests me — how the 1691 strategy continues to work today.


I will be interested to read his book, Merge Left. He argues convincingly that wealth and privilege use race as the wedge to divide lower economic classes who might otherwise unite around shared interests. So people of color and lower income whites are used to support the maintenance and expansion of concentrated wealth. Welcome to 1691…and 1876…and 1964…and 1984…and 2016.

Now to the church stuff. Jemar Tisby (author of The Color of Compromise), wrote a post entitled “Why Multiracial Churches Fail.” He comments on a Washington Post article. The article reports that the number of multiracial congregations has increased recently but that the price of that increase appears to be the continued suppression of black people within a dominant white church culture.

Here’s Tisby’s post:

A few lines are most salient. “Multiracial churches fail,” Tisby writes, “because they make diversity the aim while leaving issues of justice and equity virtually unaddressed.” I now refer to ELCA reorganization priority #1: “Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.”

Multi-racial churches fail in large part because they’re just white churches with spice. The only ones that succeed in becoming multi-racial do so as a byproduct of the struggle for social justice. “Churches that prioritize justice and equity for Black people and other people of color demonstrate their solidarity with those communities, “Tisby notes. This solidarity is not a recruitment strategy but rather a values commitment. “Yet when churches demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of an oppressed people by pursuing their uplift through policy and systemic changes,” he observes, “those congregations become sites of refuge and may see more racial and ethnic diversity in the process.”

If Tisby is correct (and I believe he is), then priority one may be getting it backwards. Seeking “new, young, diverse people” as a goal will result in replicating the pain of our own white privilege and systemic racism. Diversity is a byproduct of working for justice. But justice is precisely the language that is avoided in the restructuring proposal because such language will alienate politically conservative pew-sitters in the ELCA. If this is the case, then that priority will land on the same trash heap as the goal for the ELCA to be 10 percent people of color by…well, whenever that was.

Is it perhaps the case that embracing peasant solidarity is always central to the mission of the church? Jesus tells the rich man to join the peasants in order to be part of the reign of God. It seems that Zacchaeus makes a similar pledge to bankrupt himself in order to set things right. The Magnificat turns the great economic reversal into a hit song. Jesus makes it the game plan in Luke 4. Social solidarity in economic terms across class and ethnic divisions seems to be the plan in the New Testament.

I can see that in political terms. But what can it mean for being church? That’s the thought out there in the fog for me. Diagnosis is always the easy part…