A Critical Review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise
Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Who is Jemar Tisby?
Jemar Tisby is the president of an organization called The Witness, a black Christian collective that engages issues of religion, race, justice, and culture from a biblical perspective. You can read more about the organization HERE. Tisby recently authored a book entitled, The Color of Compromise. “In this book you’ll read about the American church’s sickening record of supporting racism.” (p.15)
Overview of The Color of Compromise
The book calls out the history of American Christianity complicity with African slavery and racism. But that is not all the book does. The book isn’t just interested in historical facts as they are–it is interested in presenting those facts through a very specific lens and for a very specific purpose. This post provides a brief but critical review of the content of this book and addresses the following questions:
- What are the main points of the book?
- Is the information presently fairly and is it historically accurate?
- Are the arguments sound from the standpoint that they are logically valid as well as do they comport with the principles of biblical Christianity?
- How should Christians think about and respond to this book and the views it represents?
- What actions should pastors take in response to this book?
The main purpose of the book is to draw more attention to, or better, to continue to focus on the inherent sinfulness of “white privilege” in American culture, how that privilege continues to oppress black people, and how the evangelical Church continues to be complicit in the exploitation and oppression of black Americans. Tisby spends the first half of the book calling out the most horrific behaviors between slave owners and their slaves. More than once he points out the common practice of rape. Tisby is absolutely correct in that the practices that went on during the African slave trade were grossly out of step with Christian praxis. He is also correct when he says that many Christians were guilty of engaging in these evils, even raping their black slaves, abusing and mistreating slaves, and separating their families. No one should ever attempt to look back into this history and justify it.
Notable Areas of Good Research
Tisby calls our attention to the suffering of African Americans from the 1960s all the way back into the era of American slavery. Tisby tries to stick with the facts in the first few chapters of the book. He deals mostly with the facts even though at times he seems to use expressions that suggest to the reader that he has more than historical facts on his mind. For example, Tisby uses the term “Christianity” in a way that impugns all Christians for the behavior of some. Keep in mind that this book is supposed to be written from a biblical perspective. It is interesting, then, that Tisby points out that Africans were attracted to revivalism and the Great Awakening because of the emotional expression it afforded. He writes, “For example, enslaved people in the South adapted a practice from West Africa known as the “ring shout.” Worshippers got in a circle and rotated counterclockwise as they sang, danced, and chanted.” (p. 44) No mention is made regarding the legitimacy of this practice, but it does serve as a cultural distinction within the African community that I will come back to shortly.
Tisby spends much of chapter five tracing the debates and splits within the denominations regarding the issue of slavery post the civil war. In each case, slavery was either a central or significant issue in the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian schisms. Then we come to Tisby’s section on “The Bible and Slavery” in chapter five, “Defending Slavery At the Onset of the Civil War.” Tisby devotes a short amount of time pointing to the differences between ANE slavery and American slavery. The space devoted to this section, while the content is accurate as far as it goes, is minimal. Tisby points out that Southern White Christians generally affirmed sanctioned slavery in Scripture. But he adds a little more to this truth: “And that bondage under white authority was the natural state for people of African descent.” (p.80) It would have been helpful if Tisby had provided some basic evidence here. It is one thing to say that the Bible does not prohibit slavery. It is another thing to say that the natural state of Africans is under white authority.
Tisby traces the arguments made by the abolitionists as well as the pro-slavery theologians of the south. The abolitionists employed arguments that relied on a dramatic difference between the African slave trade and slavery in the Old and New Testaments. The pro-slavery theologians of the south relied on a more simplistic reading of the text. Tisby tells us that even those Christians more sympathetic to the plight of black people, the southern pro-slavery advocates seemed to have a clearer and simpler biblical argument. (p.84) Tisby is right that there were differences between what Paul witnessed and what Whitefield and Edwards witnessed. One thing remains true for Tisby and me: neither of us witnessed African slavery or ANE slavery. It is a good question and one that must be examined when the question of slavery comes up. It is unambiguous that the Bible nowhere condemns slavery. And that raises the question, what does the Bible mean by slavery. It also raises the question of the relationship between the church and the civil magistrate, or better, the state.
Observation on Jemar Tisby’s Bias
Before we move to some of the main arguments in Tisby’s project, he says something in chapter one that I found quite interesting and want to go back to for a moment. Tisby says that through the centuries, black people have become the most religious demographic in the United States. He tells us that 83% of black people say they believe in God compared to 59% of Hispanics and 61% of whites. 75% of blacks say “religion is very important” compared to 59% of Hispanics and 49% of Whites.
Perhaps Tisby calls out these facts for credibility. Perhaps it is to say that the black churches have something of value to add to Christianity. These are interesting numbers. What Tisby did not show is that while only black women account for approximately 13% of the population, they have 39% of the abortions. Of the children that are born to black women, 77% of them are born to single mothers. 30% of single mothers live under the poverty line and this is without regard to melanin. (SOURCE)
Tisby spends an entire chapter on the Jim Crow era, lynching, and the KKK. Personally, I am at a loss how people could attend church on Sunday mornings, sing about amazing grace, talk about the love of God, and then take part in the activities of or embrace the philosophies behind any of these elements. Tisby details some of the public lynchings that took place during this period of time and the actions are brutal. The fact that many churches were quiet about this practice is an indictment of those churches at that time. It is NOT an indictment of those churches at this time.
And that is where Jemar Tisby’s argument fails miserably.
Nevertheless, the stage has been set. The atrocities faced by black people in America from the 1600s up to as recent as the 1960s and 70s are well-documented. The participation by professing Christians in some of these atrocities is also well-documented. Finally, the lack of preaching against racism and hatred in these areas on the part of many churches and ministers is also well-documented. Where Tisby goes from here will speak volumes about what it is he is actually trying to accomplish by writing this book.
In the chapter, Compromising with Racism During the Civil Rights Movement, Tisby begins with the heart-wrenching story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager who was brutally murdered because he whistled at a white man’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. It was the epitome of evil. Tisby then moves briefly to Rosa Parks and on to the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr.
What is very interesting again is that in chapter nine, Organizing the Religious Right At the End of the Twentieth Century, Tisby begins to reveal his real reason for penning this book: politics. He takes a serious swipe at Roe v. Wade. He writes, “Perhaps some will be surprised to learn that abortion has not always been the defining issue for evangelicals.” (p. 161) Why the swipe at abortion as a defining issue among evangelicals? I will come back to this in my closing remarks. From here, Tisby begins to criticize Christians for their support of Ronald Reagan and the negative view that Republicans held regarding welfare. From here, Tisby attacks Reagan’s war on drugs policy and treats the whole idea of “the drug crisis” as a made-up myth.
It is in the last couple of chapters of Tisby’s book that you get to the essence of his project. It reminds me of my recent trip to my dentist for a routine cleaning. At the end, the dentist came in and asked me how I was sleeping at night. I thought this was a very odd question for my dentist to ask. Turns out that she has this sophisticated belt that you strap on while you sleep. This device measures snoring as well as how often you wake up during the night in order to analyze your sleep patterns. After several minutes of discussion, I finally stopped. You see, part of my professional career involves training programs for all sorts of professionals, including sales professionals. I knew what she was doing. And she did it well. She had obviously been trained. What this means is that I can spot a sales pitch when I see one.
What Tisby Got Right
Tisby is right about much of what he said. He is right that there have been countless atrocities committed against black people based solely on skin tone. Historically, he is right when he talks about the accounts of racial prejudice and discrimination encountered by black people across the decades and centuries across American history. Tisby is right in pointing out that there were differences between the African slave trade and slavery in the Old and New Testaments. There is a lot that we can point to in the book and agree with. There are points in the book that recall events of horror from history that make our blood boil. But is he right about everything he says? Is he right to have written this book as a whole? Are his conclusions sound? Should Christians think a certain way and behave a certain way because of these facts that Tisby got right? That is the bigger and more important question.
Where Tisby Is Wrong
For starters, Tisby, writing in 2019 gave us very little, if anything, that was new information here. These matters are well-documented facts of history that most of us know about and look back on in many instances with disgust. Second, one has to ask what this book is really about. If we all already know these stories, this history, why the redundancy? I will tell you why.
Tisby’s book is a giant sales pitch.
He spends 80% of his time talking about the oppression, the racism, the suffering, the slavery of black people and the complicity of white Christians–no, white evangelical Christians. He does not direct his pitch toward the mainline liberal denominations. A salesman sells to those who do not have his product–or enough of his product. In case you haven’t been paying attention, these mainline liberal denominations are overflowing with Tisby’s product: liberalism. It is the evangelical vote that Tisby and others are after and that is the purpose of this sales-pitch in print.
Is it really the case that Christians have to stand up to the civil authorities whose laws are unjust? Is Christianity a political movement whose aim ought to be to shape the culture, to make it better, to end any and all privilege or oppression, to seek for perfect equality among men? Is economic equality a principle grounded in the writings of Apostolic tradition, the pages of holy Writ? Do we see this in the writings of the NT? No, we do not. What we see Christ-followers, disciples of Christ being oppressed more than most among men. We see Christ telling his closest followers to rejoice in this truth. [Matt. 5:11; 1 Peter 4:14] I understand this is a hard position. I understand this is a minority position. But I also understand it to be the position of Christ, Paul, Peter, James, and John. What I oppose here is called Black Liberation theology. I have written it elsewhere. Make no mistake about it, this is precisely what Tisby is espousing.
Critiquing Tisby’s View on Slavery
I want to turn your attention to ancient slavery. How different was ANE slavery from American slavery? Tisby outlines a lot of rights that these slaves had, but he paints a very broad picture. Tisby uses the word chattel to distinguish ANE slavery from American slavery. But in his article in the Dictionary of New Testament Background, J. Albert Harrill writes, One definition affirms Roman legal distinctions as crucial to understanding slavery as one form of dependent labor, but not the only form (Finley). Unlike peasants, helots, clients, peons or serfs, slaves are chattel that can be bought and sold. Great care must be exercise when comparing models of slavery across different cultures and eras. To suggest that harsh treatment did not exist in ancient times or that rape of female slaves was unique to American slavery is simply out of accord with the facts. The range of treatment varied greatly. We can see this even in the writings of the NT. Paul instructs masters not to threaten or mistreat their slaves. (Eph. 6:9) At a minimum, this indicates that such mistreatment was not uncommon in the master-slave relationship. Harrill goes on to say, “Despite claims by some NT scholars, ancient slavery was not more humane than modern slavery.”
Another area where Tisby was factually mistaken concerns children born to slaves. When he says that slaves were not born into servitude, he is mistaken. They could marry. Such marriages, however, were called contubernium rather than matrimonium. This meant that the offspring of slaves became the property of the owner. Therefore, this may have been the largest source of slaves in the time of the early Empire. Finally, we know that owners of female slaves could legally have sex with them and did. While the situation was different, nevertheless, it was still a far cry from freedom and from the somewhat rosy picture Tisby paints.
Jemar Tisby’s Endgame — A Call to Action
This brings us to the thrust of Tisby’s purpose for writing this book. It is his call to action. Tisby writes, “If the twenty-first century is to be different from the previous centuries, then the American church must exercise even more creativity and effort to break down the racial barriers than it took to erect them in the first place.” (p.193) What does that creative effort look like? What racial barriers remain? Tisby does not take long to get to what he wants. He refers to this as the ARC of Racial Justice: Awareness, Relationships, Commitment. Tisby says “The ARC of racial justice helps distinguish different types of antiracist actions.” (p.194) Tisby tells people to develop an awareness of racism by watching documentaries about the racial history of the US; follow ethnic minorities on social media; access websites and podcasts created by racial and ethnic minorities.
Now, I want to turn your attention to the “C” in ARC: commitment. You must be committed to racial justice. He gives examples of writing a blog, preaching a sermon, teaching a Sunday School class. We could join an organization that advocates for racial justice. We could donate money to such organizations. We could speak with candidates for elected office. And finally, we can vote. Interesting. I wonder which party we should vote for?
Then we come to the “R” word: reparations. In pointing out Germany’s reparations to holocaust survivors and the reparations paid to the Japanese-American’s imprisoned during WWII, Tisby writes, “For black people, no serious attempt at the civic level has ever been sustained, and the material and financial injustices remain.” (p.197) Tisby then offers such suggestions such as a year of jubilee for black people where debts are forgiven, etc. All of this is without any regard for individual character, behavior, values, etc.
In the end, Tisby’s work comes off as a smug, self-righteous rant against white conservative evangelicals who got in the way of a Hilary Presidency and, in some subversive way, an attempt to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. It is a masterful sales pitch if ever there was one. Tisby has the tactics down to a “t” and he uses them to his advantage. He spends a great deal of time focusing on many things we would all agree with. He gets you saying yes, yes, yes, and then he moves in to close the deal. He wants your vote to swing to the politically liberal side of the table. That’s where the entitlement mentality resides. That’s where Socialist ideologies have free reign. He wants to preach about racial justice, teach about in SS, blog about it. He wants you to march, to organize, to send money to organizations that are pushing this agenda. In the end, racial reconciliation equals confessing your personal complicity in systemic racism, repenting from that complicity, and joining the fight. Essentially, racial reconciliation means vote our way, ignore the sin of abortion and gendermania, and give us your money and time to support our cause.
A Coherent Christian Response to the Book
Christians are called to respond to the claims laid down in Tisby’s book. We respond with the truth, and that truth is Scripture. Hence, our response should come through the lens of Scripture alone! The very concept of racial justice is in and of itself unbiblical. If you do not believe me, look at how much time Tisby spends not making a case for that specific principle. And if that principle is itself not supported by Scripture, Tisby’s entire argument comes crashing down. Second, you cannot indict all churches or all of Christianity for the sins of some and that is also true for those who are now dead. In other words, don’t place the stink of racism on me because I am white. That itself is racist. After all, Tisby says on page 15 that racism includes the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people. This is precisely what he is doing when he paints all white Christians past and present with the same brush. It is the fallacy of accident which is a fallacy of presumption. Accident is the fallacy that arises when we move carelessly or unjustifiably from a generalization to some particulars that it does not in fact cover. (Copi, Introduction to Logic)
Christians are not called to be champions of the culture. To be as blunt as I can be about it, Christianity is NOT called to fight for economic or civic equality for all people groups. That is not the mission of the church. What Tisby’s book is, is an attempt to hi-jack the mission of the church and to replace the great commission with ideas that are rooted in the heretical umbrella of Liberation Theology. John MacArthur in his sermon series on Mark said this: That is to say, the gospel of Jesus Christ is unmixable. It is incompatible with any and all other religious ideas and religious beliefs. It cannot coexist with any other means of salvation, with any other religious idea or religious belief. The gospel cannot blend into any religious system in any way, and anybody who thinks it can is absolutely wrong. And that is exactly what our Lord Jesus says in the text before us.
- J. Albert Harrill, “Slavery,” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1124.
- J. Albert Harrill, “Slavery,” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1125.
- Arthur A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 881.