I started reading Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise recently. I’ve wanted to get around to it for some time, mainly because so many Christian scholars have celebrated it’s publication. As a former Presbyterian, I suppose I was curious about it because it made an imprint among so-called Reformed Evangelicals.
I have disagreements with the analysis, which I won’t belabor here. It is sufficient to say I’m not particularly convinced that there is a unitary white church that has engaged in systematic oppression of African Americans. That is not to deny that that systematic racism exists and has existed across the United States. It did, it does, and I think it always will. I’m simply not convinced that there one body of white Christians that thinks in a unitary fashion regarding race or acts in a united socio-religious fashion regarding race. Certainly, southern Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians all accommodated and even supported slavery. Other churches in different locales did as well. I’m cautious about a historiography that totalizes the experience of certain types churches or racial paradigms for the entirety of the United States. That is probably my most significant disagreement analytical with the book.
In this post I want to address my disagreements with what seem to be the book’s presuppositions. Tisby notes that “all too often, Christians name a few individuals who stood against the racism of their day and claim them as heroes.” American Christians have failed “to recognize how rarely believers made public and persistent commitments to racial equality against the culture of their churches and denominations.” I don’t think Dr. Tisby is wrong about this. There is a triumphalist streak in American history that has always driven Americans—Christians not excepted—to conceive of the United States as a moral exemplar and beacon of righteousness to the world. We Americans too, are sinners, and Tisby is right to not let American Christianity off the hook in that regard.
It seems to me, however, that Tisby—and I don’t think he’s alone in this—are arguing that the United States can address its flawed past by being uniquely moral in the here and now. If racism and slavery can be properly atoned for now by confessing our uniquely evil past, American Christians, so the thinking goes, have an opportunity to become more righteous. They can fix the brokenness of the here and now by confessing their past sins and doing the hard work of addressing racism in contemporary society. There is, it seems, a uniquely Calvinist impulse in Mr Tisby’s thought; Christians, while not saved BY works, are saved FOR works and it seems that the work of addressing racism is one that has been overwhelmingly confirmed in important quarters of the Reformed world.
Where I differ from Dr. Tisby, and perhaps Evangelical-oriented Calvinists in general, is the notion that works are the primary means of assurance. Christians in 2021 can know they are truly saved because they are anti-racists. Its certainly good to fight against racism, but it seems to me the unique wedding of Evangelical Reformed moralism to the question of anti-racism might lead to a certain type of radicalism wherein anyone not entirely committed to the antiracist cause might be seen as—although never called—antinomian. Most people, we learn in many quarters, aren’t working hard enough. In fact if one is not actively being antiracist, they are racist. It seems a sort of Lordship salvation, antiracist edition.
What I would propose—and here is where I think my Calvinist friends will find me Lutheran-adjacent and perhaps sinfully disinterested in confirming my salvation with works—is that history’s failures cannot be fixed, addressed, apologized for, or even “sanctified.” The past is past, in all its ugliness and beauty. It cannot be changed. Slavery and racism both happened. Horrors have happened throughout human history.
If Tisby is asking us to be honest about our failures, I think that is a noble goal. Dostoyevsky wrote in Brothers Karamazov that above all, we should not lie to ourselves. “A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.” And so certainly, we celebrate triumphalism going by the wayside. But if Christians we believe that the American church is uniquely evil and by confessing its unique evils, uniquely able to rid itself of past or present sins, we risk adopting the same triumphalist presumptions that led to us to lie to ourselves in the first place.