Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Truth About the Color of Compromise

The Color of Compromise
One of the books mentioned in many racial reconciliation reading lists is Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. The Amazon listing calls it a “timely narrative of how people of faith have historically — up to the present day — worked against racial justice. And a call for urgent action by all Christians today in response. ... Equal parts painful and inspirational, it details how the American church has helped create and maintain racist ideas and practices. You will be guided in thinking through concrete solutions for improved race relations and a racially inclusive church.” That sounds like a good counter-weight to Voddie Baucham, so I decided to give it a go.

After an introduction, Tisby begins with a historical survey of the many awful things white Americans — and particularly white Christians — have done to black people. He begins in the colonial era and continues through 2019. Some of it you’ve heard before, but some of it will be new. Much of it is terrible. There’s a whole lot of human depravity on display. Then he offers things he thinks will help white Christians make amends to and peace with black Christians.

So how’d it go?

Tisby says, “The goal of this book is not guilt.” Yes it is. His whole enterprise depends on white people feeling guilty. The question is whether they ought to feel guilty. Set aside for the moment the question of our responsibility for the sins of our forebears. What have today’s white Christians actually done to black people?

The Modern Christians' Sin
He gets into this in Chapter 9, “Organizing the Religious Right at the End of the Twentieth Century.” A repeated refrain in this book is “racism never goes away; it adapts.” What form has racism taken in the post-Civil Rights era? Talk about “law and order”, “state’s rights” (aka federalism), and “limited government” is racist. So is opposing racial set-asides, abuse of the welfare system, and communism. Claiming that capitalism will lift poor black people out of poverty? Racist. Stiffer punishment for drug offenses involving crack cocaine? Racist, even though it was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus.1

In short, white evangelicals are still racist today as demonstrated by their tendency to vote for conservative Republicans. Because conservative Republicans are racists as demonstrated by their tendency to support policies Tisby doesn’t agree with.

And, of course, they voted for Trump in large numbers (Chapter 10). He trots out the usual “proof” of Trump’s racism: a housing lawsuit from 1975. An ad calling for a return of the death penalty in NY in 1989. Questioning Obama’s citizenship. The wall. The “ban on Muslim immigration” that wasn’t. A tendency to quote the wrong news sources. He is a racist, so people who voted for him are racist.

He eventually admits, “Evangelical support for Donald Trump can be attributed to a combination of policy issues they thought he would champion as well as an intense dislike of Hillary Clinton.” And “White evangelicals looked to Trump to support their pro-life stance. They wanted him to oppose gay marriage and, of vital importance, to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who would protect and promote their policy interests.”

But that doesn’t matter because Trump is a racist, and “Black people recognized the pattern of prejudice from Trump, and they showed their distaste at the polls. Eighty-eight percent of black voters ... supported the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. By contrast, 58 percent of white people voted for Trump.” Of course, Bill Clinton garnered 83% of the black vote in 1992,2 Gore 90% in 2000, and Kerry 88% in 2004, so maybe black people are just reliably Democratic voters and their rejection of Trump is nothing special. It seems like he’s trying to spin a narrative here. (Frankly, he wants white evangelicals to vote Democrat. We’ll come back to this.)

Ultimately “Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter. It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. ... It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions.” In other words, if you didn’t want to support the BLM organization, voted for Trump, and/or don't think the nation is still structurally racist, you're a racist.

Generational Guilt
So that covers our racism today. Are white Christians responsible for the racism of the past? His case that we are is limited to a section of the last chapter where he talks about reparations. Other authors have gone into much more detail making the case for reparations, so maybe he didn’t feel the need or didn’t want to dedicate the space to a more thorough case. He should have. A couple of pages that take a few Bible passages out of context are not convincing.

He thinks the church today (ie, of the last 40 years or so) is not only responsible for our forebears’ sins but is just as guilty of racism as those who defended slavery. That claim bears a burden of proof he does not meet. So where does that leave us?

If the diagnosis is wrong, the proffered cure is questionable. But I do want to look at some of what he prescribes.

He wants us to be more aware of racism by watching documentaries about racism and following “racial and ethnic minorities and those with different political outlooks than yours” (emphasis added) on social media, listening to their podcasts, and reading their blogs. I doubt he means Voddie Baucham, George Yancey, and Thomas Sowell. He wants you to find black liberals to listen to.

He wants us to make friends with ethnic and racial minorities. That’s great. Everybody needs more friends. That’s easier said than done, or we’d all have more friends.3

And he tells us to develop a lifelong commitment to racial justice by doing things like joining an organization that advocates for racial and social justice (these organizations are, of course, completely apolitical on issues outside “racial and social justice”), donating money to these organizations, and by voting. But Republicans are racists, so ...

And he wants us to create “Freedom Schools” to teach everyday [white] Christians about “systemic injustices such as mass incarceration, police brutality, underfunded schools, and healthcare inequality.” By now I think it’s fair to assume he means the Democratic take on all these issues.

Then he offers some better ideas. As part of reparations, he wants white churches to “pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families.” I could get behind that ... if we didn’t limit it to blacks. He suggests funding black-led church plans and religious organizations. “Black Christians have an abundance of innovative ideas ... What they often lack is funding.” Well, what most churches lack is funding. There are far more poor white churches than there are rich ones. But the idea isn’t terrible if we see it as rich churches sharing with poor churches (something my church has a history of). He also recommends funding currently bivocational pastors so they can just pastor. Much of what he says I could get behind if we’re not approaching it as something someone “owes” someone else but as the way the rich in the Church could share their wealth with the poor.

How does this book relate to Critical Race Theory? It doesn’t use the name at all, but it does share some of the ideas Voddie Baucham warned about. For example, “racism is a system of oppression based on race” or “racism as prejudice plus power.” So while anyone can be prejudiced, only white people can be “racists.” He never straight up says, but he strongly implies that all white people are racist, and they’re definitely all complicit in this system of oppression. He also never says but obviously assumes that unequal outcomes are proof of racism.

I am surprised by the reports that so many pastors have been so profoundly affected by this book. It did not have that effect on me. One reason might be that for some reason I read Chapters 9-11 first then went back to the beginning. I saw how terribly he handled the period I lived through and know something about. Perhaps if you started at the beginning, revisiting how horrible human beings can be to each other, you might be less critical when you read Chapters 9 through 11. However, it seems obvious to me his “proof” of our racism today is our failure to vote Democratic, and his solution for it is largely to vote Democratic. Your feelings about the Democratic Party one way or the other shouldn’t keep you from seeing that this is more about politics than race. He wants your guilt over racism to convince you to vote Democrat as penance.

Chapters 1-8 will take you through the terrible, terrible, terrible history of white people being inhumane to black people in this country. Not only did people who claimed to follow Christ fail to stand up for what was right, they very often sided with the wrong. We can talk about “cultural blindspots” all we want, but there have been Christian abolitionists since at least Gregory of Nyssa (d. 378). There were certainly abolitionists in the colonies and in the fledgling United States. That people chose to go along with their culture instead of listening to the scriptural opposition to the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But you have to do more than take a few scriptures out of context to prove that we are responsible for their sin today.

We have to acknowledge the gross sins of the people who came before us, just as we have to acknowledge ours. And we have to keep it in perspective — we’re all sinners. If God can use Peter and Paul, God can use anyone. We shouldn’t give Jonathan Edwards a pass on slavery, but it doesn’t disqualify everything he ever wrote, just as Martin Luther King’s adultery doesn’t disqualify everything he did.

The book is probably worth reading if you want the history lesson in the first 8 chapters, but Chapters 9 and 10 are not a good use of your time. Chapter 11, has some good ideas mixed in with some bad ideas. I would love to see the Church being the Church, the rich sharing with the poor, showing the world what the love of Christ should look like. I just don’t want us doing it out of a misplaced sense of guilt.

1 If Tough Anti-Drug Laws Are 'Racist,' Blame Black Leaders
3 Especially men, since “according to a recent survey, the percentage of men with at least six close friends has fallen by half since 1990, and men today are 5X more likely to say they don’t even have a single close friend than they were thirty years ago.” https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/male-friendship-recession/

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