I recently finished reading The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby. It runs through the history of America through the lens of the Christian church’s relationship with racism, all the way up to the 2016 Presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement. I knew of a few churches in the area, including my own (though I didn’t formally read the book with a group), that decided to go through it after the killing of George Floyd and the riots/protests that followed.
I had read a little bit about race in the past - specifically around navigating being a minority within the American Christian church (The Minority Experience, by Adrian Pei, and then Invitation To Lead, by Paul Tokunaga). And racism was something that my last church spoke a lot about - I remember hearing one of the pastors talk about how the church is the most segregated institution in America.
But I had never read something about the church not just being silent or passively complicit with racism, but actively fueling it. I had heard some accusations against Christianity in this realm - “the Bible condones slavery” or “the Bible speaks against interracial marriage,” but I never took these quite that seriously - it was like I hadn’t really connected the dots and understood that these interpretations of the Bible had left some embarrassing and indelible marks on our history. After reading this book, I can understand more how mainstream these racist views were and how much damage they caused.
The book started a little slow for me, to be honest, and I didn’t start paying closer attention until it started talking about how strongly some Christians felt about maintaining slavery. Christians believed that slavery was not just okay, but a good thing, and even mandated by the Bible. They’d point to the Bible and ask “where does it outlaw slavery?” and point to the Curse of Ham in Genesis to say Black people were the descendants of Ham who were cursed to be enslaved. It was something that some felt so strongly about, they actually put their lives on the line and fought a war about it.
It led to church denominations splitting, like the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. It led to Confederate statues and publications being funded by Christians after the Civil War. Even for Christians who believed that slavery was wrong, they often just wanted to abolish the practice, but were unwilling to consider black people equally human (Abraham Lincoln falls under this category).
After the abolition of slavery, I got nauseous reading descriptions about lynchings in the Jim Crow era. I got mad reading about the civil rights movement and about how Martin Luther King Jr was putting his life on the line while other Christians condemned him for it and thought that he was doing a disservice to his faith by engaging in the political arena. These Christians actually just picked-and-chose the issues that they really wanted to fight in the political sphere. But for everything else, they often said “we only care about evangelism - individual conversions - and social justice or the societal application of the gospel is something that will come later, but it’s not something we should spend our time doing when we should be out trying to save souls.”
I was shook reading about how private Christian schools were formed to be able to keep schools segregated (I went to one for elementary school, though I have no idea if it was actually started with this purpose in mind), and how the white evangelical vote first rallied around this issue to fight to retain their tax-exempt status without making serious attempts to desegregate. (Quick tangent - there was also an interesting note about how Christians were originally split on the topic of abortion and even though it is now the one issue that seems to unite the “Moral Majority,” opposing desegregation was actually what brought the group together in the first place.) They often conspired to fight against colored people moving into their neighborhoods and often moved their own residences and churches into the suburbs just to avoid integrating.
I was shook reading about Bob Jones University didn’t recognize interracial relationships until 2000. I was angered reading how quickly Black Christian figures like Lecrae and Thabiti Anyabwile were discredited by their white evangelical listeners when they spoke publicly about Black Lives Matter. I was disappointed how Trump got > 80% of the Christian vote in 2016 and how many think systemic racism is not a real problem and is just a political issue, or they want to boil it all down to individual responsibility and suggest that Black people aren’t as upstanding or hardworking as White people (not part of the book, but the Model Minority myth was notably created to support this narrative).
I’ve been disappointed with the Southern Baptist Convention’s refusal to condemn Trump for his role in inciting the riots at the Capitol just last month. I’ve been hurt to read at least this one letter of a Black church withdrawing from the Convention (I felt like there were more, but I don’t have links). Though I spent much of my adult life attending a Southern Baptist Church and agreeing with their theology and emphasis on the Bible, this book definitely made me think twice about my affiliation with SBC and a perceived lack of cultural engagement or sensitivity. (Please don’t take any sort of thought of denominational departure to also mean a departure from orthodox theology; I should note that I actually currently attend an SBC church.) SBC’s national response to the Trump campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement really does make me wonder if we even just believe that all people are made in the image of God and are equally re-made in the image of Christ. (I’ve heard that SBC churches in Seattle are different than SBC churches in other parts of the country, and I’ve been encouraged that the lead pastor at my church has preached some balanced sermons on racism, Black Lives Matter, and the injustice surrounding George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, over the last few months, even despite some disapproval from the congregation.)
The book covered a lot and if you are interested, you should definitely just get the book. It ended with a quote about how, once you know what has happened in history, it’s impossible not to act. There were a few suggestions of what we could do - here are the ones that I can remember: publicly speak out against racism, listen to and learn from more people of color (the 2014 study is that, if you’re Asian and have 100 friends in your circle, none of them are black), and get your church engaged in reparations (for example, sponsoring bivocational Black pastors or churches or sponsoring Black seminary students).
I spent the vast majority of my life not thinking too much about race or politics, but over the last few years, I’ve realized that focusing on individual change or development can only do so much. Institutions and policies are another huge piece of the puzzle that play a large factor in various demographics’ quality of life and loving your neighbor means not just befriending them and giving them your time and ear, but standing up for them when they are being disadvantaged or marginalized by a system.