Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise, joins Ryan McAnnally-Linz for a conversation on how American Christian history has failed us, especially with regards to race.
Jemar Tisby, author of the NYT bestseller The Color of Compromise, joins Ryan McAnnally-Linz for a conversation on how American Christian history has failed us. In this episode, Jemar explains the complicity and compromise of American Christians; the narrative war that confederate monuments wage (and how they were erected much later than you might think); the ugly theological justifications of racism and the shameful history of Christian white supremacy; the fraught project of selectively naming heroes and villains and then memorializing them; and the practical problem of how to go forward rightly from this moment of increased attention to racial injustice.
- Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
- Pre-Order Jemar Tisby's next book: How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice
- Min Jin Lee's comment about "History has failed us, but no matter."
- Miroslav Volf & Ryan McAnnally-Linz, Public Faith in Action: How to Engage with Commitment, Conviction, and Courage
- Listen to Pass the Mic and Footnotes w/ Jemar Tisby
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Jemar Tisby: These monuments are part of reasserting a story of white supremacy and saying, "this is a white men's country, and we're going to put up a concrete or granite or stone statue and monument to remind you all the time that who this nation really belongs to." And that's why they need to come down. They are offensive. They are backwards looking. They are romanticized visions of the South and of this nation's heritage. And it glorifies a system that would have kept me in chains.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. "History has failed us, but no matter." That is the opening sentence of Min Jin Lee's Pachinko, a 2017 bestselling novel. She's recently explained the sense of that statement, which she calls her thesis statement. History has failed most ordinary people. Even the very discipline of history has failed in an important sense. Confederate monuments that frame and punctuate a white supremacist narrative remains embedded in the very landscape and structure of America. Breathtaking injustices are left out of history curriculum and textbooks, popular consciousness such as the Tulsa Black Wall Street Riot that we discussed with Keri Day last month. We identify and celebrate American heroes, civic saints, often with selective forgetfulness and double standards. And we've forgotten those who have put the American idea into action, embodied the fight for freedom and equality, suffering dearly for it.
"History has failed us, but no matter." That is Min Jin Lee's statement of defiance because those history has failed the ordinary, the nameless, the forgotten, the oppressed, but these people's hope and strength is real because they persist, survive and inspire all the same. They are not forgotten to all. They have a name. Today, Ryan McAnnally-Linz welcomes Jemar Tisby for a conversation on how American Christian history has failed us. Christians have been shamefully complicit in the racist history of America and in disheartening variety of ways. Christians have all too often compromised the integrity of their faith for a grab at power, influence, greatness and money. Jemar Tisby is historian and author of the New York Times Bestseller, The Color of Compromise: the Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism.
Jemar is full of a beautiful and defiant hope that seeks a way forward even when history has failed us. In this episode, he explains the complicity and compromise of American Christians, the narrative war that Confederate monuments wage and how they were erected much later than you might think, the ugly theological justifications of racism and the shameful history of Christian white supremacy, the fraught project of selectively naming heroes and villains, and then memorializing them, and the practical problem of how to go forward rightly from this moment of increased attention to racial injustice. A spoiler here: it has to do with truth, repair, and voting. Jemar's historical storytelling is notable. Throughout the conversation, his theological and cultural insights come along with gripping lessons in history. Thanks for listening today. Enjoy.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Jemar, thanks for coming on and spending some time with us today. I was thinking know, you wrote this book, The Color of Compromise, and you must have spent some years on it. You didn't know COVID was coming. You didn't know that this really incredible moment of a bigger, more intense movement, in opposition to racial injustice and police brutality, was coming. And I just wanted to ask as we kick off here: what's it been like? What's your experience of these past couple of months been?
Jemar Tisby: What this experience has been like is a variety of emotions for me, some of them conflicting. And so, I'm very pleased that the book, The Color of Compromise, made the New York Times Bestseller list. I just got word this week that it's on there for the fourth week in a row. So as a writer, I'm ecstatic. But at the same time, recognizing the circumstances that brought about this renewal of interest is very sobering, precipitated by, of course, the murder of George Floyd, but also Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, encounters with Christian Cooper in Central Park while he was birdwatching. All of these events in a cascade were part of what forced the issue of racial justice back into the national spotlight. And so it's been extremely busy. And I think that's something that perhaps folks who don't work in the racial justice fields may have a hard time grasping, which is that while I'm very grateful for the attention this is receiving because it gives us the promise of change, it also is a huge burden of responsibility on the people who do this work and especially black people who do this work.
So I've been constantly fielding phone calls and emails and conversations about this topic, which again is great because perhaps we'll see some substantive changes, but I think folks also need to recognize that this is real work and a lot of what we do isn't in our job description or on the business card. And so we're not necessarily getting paid to do it, or it's not necessarily counted "as work" in our job descriptions. And it's been described as some as invisible labor that invisible because it's not necessarily recognized by the institutions or the organizations we're working for.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So how have you been spending your time? Where have you been considering it most important to put your work in?
Jemar Tisby: Theoretically, it should be writing. That's where I think I can do the most good, personally, but it's really difficult to maintain those strong boundaries because there's an urgency to this moment that I think folks like me feel compelled to respond to. It's not every day that there's this level of attention or this openness to change. And so there's a push-and-pull between the short-term and the long-term. So short-term, I want to be as helpful as possible, which means taking the meeting, having the conversation, doing all the work that is right in front of us at this moment. At the same time, I want to somehow invest in the work of long-term change. And for me, that means writing, means working on this dissertation, which will eventually be done, but I don't know when. And so, it's that push-and-pull constantly between the short-term and the long-term, which to be honest is constantly in front of us, especially in racial justice work, but it has increased into hyper-focus right now.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So one of the things that's really striking about reading your book is it's not like this is the first big moment of opportunity that America and American Christians have had for racial justice. There've been all these moments in the past when things could have been done differently, could have gone differently, could have gone better and it makes this moment feel really important and meaningful, but also risky. There's always the chance of squandering another opportunity. And the two categories I see you using most to talk about the ways that we have squandered opportunities or squelched them entirely is compromise and complicity with racism. And I was hoping you could tell me a little bit more about what you mean by those terms, and why you use them.
Jemar Tisby: Yes. So I get a lot of feedback and comments that in a sense, those words, "compromise and complicity," aren't strong enough to describe the relationship between the US Christian Church, and by that I mean mainly the white Protestant church, but also certainly Catholic and mainline as well, and their relation to racism and white supremacy, because it is true and historically demonstrable that white Christians have not only compromised and being complicit in the formation of a racial caste system in this nation, but they've also actively constructed it and promoted it and perpetuated it.
But what I was trying to get at though with these notions of compromising complicity are if our definition of racist is only the people who put on white robes and hoods, or the people who use the N word or hold the rope at the lynching, then it's easy to exonerate ourselves. It's easy to say that since I don't engage in those extreme, overt and visible forms of racism, then guess what? I'm not a racist; I'm not part of the problem. But what I try to get at in the book is the fact that the most egregious acts of racism can only occur within a context of compromise. And so compromise, a bunch of half measures.
It is, for example, when the State of Mississippi recently voted to change the flag after 126 years. And it's the only flag in the nation that had the Confederate battle emblem on it. I call it a compromise and a half measure because although the bill stated that the new flag cannot have the Confederate battle emblem, it mandated that the new flag must have "In God we trust" on it. What's wrong with that? Mississippi's in the Bible Belt. By far the vast majority of people who identify as religious are Christian and from a Christian perspective, what is objectionable about that? I think this idea of putting phrases like "In God we trust" in the public sphere are not simply statements of one's faith commitments. They are descriptions or symbols of white Christian nationalism, which comes with a whole host of beliefs that are not helpful toward racial justice, toward immigrants for other people of color. So that's an example I would say of compromise.
And then complicity, I begin the book, The Color of Compromise, with the tragic story of the murder of four little girls in the 16th Street Birmingham Baptist Church bombing. And, the speech that a lawyer, a white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr., gave after indicates that he recognized that the silence and the apathy and the passivity of the white community in Birmingham is what created the conditions for this white supremacist to plant dynamite at a black church. And, even in Birmingham, it was already earning the nickname Bombingham and there was already a neighborhood that was nicknamed Dynamite Hill for all of the racial terror attacks that had already occurred. And so the question is: why did it get to that point? Why didn't more people speak up and object and, especially white Christians, vehemently denounced it and those who would promote it? So those are the kind of things I'm trying to communicate when I say compromise and complicity.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: And the way your book works is as this historical survey of a bunch of instances of that. And, it's a really complicated story. More than obviously a podcast episode or book or even a book series could really tell in all of its depth. But taking the big picture view, what do you think are some of the driving causes of this consistent history of complicity with racism and compromise and half measures?
Jemar Tisby: So I think one of the phrases we need to use more often and not less is white supremacy. Because that is the ideological narrative that keeps racism afloat. One of the things I say in the book is that racism never goes away. It just adapts. And so we can look at three main movements of racism in terms of how it manifests. We can look at race-based chattel slavery. We can look at Jim Crow segregation. And we can also look at what sociologists called a racialized society, where any major life indicators from health to wealth, to education, all fall predictably along racial lines. And so the question is: why after these big movements for change does racism still persist? And I would say it's because white supremacy or as Daniel Hill describes it in his book, White Awake, white supremacy is the narrative of racial difference. And so it's the story we tell ourselves about race.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, said the North won the civil war, but the South won the narrative war. And I think there's a lot to that. The North won the military battles, associated with the civil war. But this narrative of white supremacy, this myth of the lost cause, this subtext that the US is really a white men's country, and that what it means to be American or even Christian is to be white. That is the narrative that continues to play out subtly and more overtly at times in this nation. And until we can really change that narrative, we're always going to see manifestations of racism. I also believe as a Christian that until Jesus returns, sin is never going to go away. And so there can't be any sort of perfect utopia in the present or the future, but we can make progress.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Bringing up that narrative war puts us right up against one of the big conversations that's happening right now regarding monuments because the Confederate monuments are a big part of that narrative war. I grew up with a good bit of family in the South and periodically would say, "go visit and whatnot" when I was on summer vacation as a kid. The existence of Confederate monuments was always just a fact of things. It wasn't until recently that I started hearing anything about the history of how they came to be. And I think that's true for a lot of folks. And I was hoping you could tell us why do we have Confederate monuments around at all.
Jemar Tisby: Yeah. Great question, because this is so prevalent and I think one of the ways that people can very concretely work toward racial justice is to remove Confederate monuments. Of course the history is that these were not, as some people tried to describe them simply, remembrances of the people who died in the Civil War on the Confederate side. If that were the case, you would have seen the great bulk of monuments going up in the years immediately following the Civil War. But that's not in fact what happened. What happens right after the Civil War, the period from about 1866 to 1877 or so, was Reconstruction where is this unprecedented flowering of black civic and economic participation after emancipation.
And of course, that goes away in a movement whose name I think is really telling, called Redemption—the Redemption era. Of course in Christianity, redemption refers to Christ redeeming people, Christ restoring relationship between God and humanity and with other human beings. But in the historical lens, the Redemption era is the period in which white people attempted to take back the South for white people from all these Northern carpetbaggers and recently freed black people. And so that is the era that inaugurated the Jim Crow era in American history, which was essentially the system of white supremacy that took over after race-based chattel slavery was abolished. And it's in this context that these monuments go up.
So these monuments are telling a story and they are inscribing them into the landscape in town squares, in colleges and universities, my own university— the University of Mississippi where I go to grad school—only just in the past couple of months in 2020 voted to remove the Confederate monument that stands at the entrance to campus, supposedly welcoming all who come onto campus. And so it's important to realize that these monuments are part of reasserting a story of white supremacy and saying, "this is a white men's country, and we're going to put up a concrete or granite or stone statue and monument to remind you all the time that who this nation really belongs to." And that's why they need to come down. They are offensive. They are backwards looking. They are romanticized visions of the South and of this nation's heritage and it glorifies a system that would have kept me in chains had they had their way. So that's just a little bit of background and context.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: I actually hadn't heard the term Redemption era before, and it's really striking language. Just how overtly theological that is.
Jemar Tisby: One of the big gaps in the conversation about racial justice today is religion, particularly Christianity. I don't mean that Christians aren't talking about it. I mean that as stories are written, as people are conversing, or even as books are being written, if you ignore or downplay the role of religion and especially Protestant Christianity or evangelical Christianity, then I think the story of race in America is virtually unintelligible because Christians have had such a large role in promoting and defending racism, and also if you think in terms of the black church and their allies in fighting against racism. So, yeah, you're right. The Redemption era is fraught with theological implications, but also the pro-slavery or pro-white supremacist theologies that are arising in the Antebellum era and the Civil War era, and even up into the 20th Century are striking.
And so you have folks like Robert Dabney and James Thornwell who were considered giants of theologians arguing a pro-slavery Christianity from the Bible, supposedly—things like the curse of Ham and whatnot. And then even in the 20th Century, you have someone named G. T. Gillespie who was the president of Belhaven College, now university, who gave a speech to a group of Presbyterian ministers defending race-based segregation from the Bible, supposedly as God's design to keep the races separate. And so, there are all kinds of ways religion and Christianity specifically have been used to prop up racism and white supremacy
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: On the face of it, if you're taking a super naive, just woke up this morning and didn't know anything about this sort of glance at things, it might seem odd that Christianity and white supremacy have been so tightly bound together. What kind of theological themes or resources or mistakes are there that have given that kind of soil within which a white supremacist theology could grow?
Jemar Tisby: We're looking at the 19th Century and I think there are certainly echoes in the present. But Presbyterians, for instance—Southern Presbyterians—applied this doctrine called the spirituality of the church in ways that really worked against racial justice. And so spirituality of the church is something that on its face, a lot of people might agree with and it basically says the church's role is ministerial and declarative. So that means the church's primary function is to declare the good news of Jesus Christ and to minister or shepherd people in becoming like Christ. It is not primarily a political entity in the sense of lobbying for specific laws or policies. And, on its face, a lot of people agree with that, but the way it's applied is very selective so that when it came to issues of racial justice—in the 19th Century, of course, the biggest issue being the existence or abolition of race-based chattel slavery, the spirituality of the church was used to dissuade Christians from getting involved in it.
This is not just a Presbyterian thing. You can see this with Baptists in the 1790s. A Baptist convention at their annual meeting actually passed a resolution saying you couldn't be a slave holder and be a Christian in good standing at your church. And they disseminated this decision to the local congregations. And there were such pushbacks that the convention eventually rescinded that and their reasoning was that race or that slavery was a civil issue and not something that the church could deal with. And that has been echoed throughout decades where people essentially set up this dichotomy between the gospel and justice and especially between the gospel and racial justice, and say that marching and speaking out about "political issues" like race is getting off track for Christians, and "they should just preach the gospel" is the conference common phrase. So one of the things we need to do is close that gap between the gospel and justice.
But I also said it was selective because if you look at things like prohibition, reading the Bible in school, prayer in school, and certainly abortion in more recent times, there are Christians who are all too willing to get involved in political issues. It's just when it comes to racial issues that all of a sudden it's hands-off, it's too political, it's a civil issue and we shouldn't get involved. So that's one way that theology works against racial justice.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Yeah. And I think that selectivity is really pronounced. Another way of putting it would just be to say hypocrisy. So that maybe makes some sense of if you had other reasons for wanting a white supremacist social order, it could be convenient to appeal to the spirituality of the church. But I get the sense that very often there's been deeper connection between the theology itself and the white supremacy itself. The spirituality of the church can be a way of getting the church out of the way, but it seems like the churches has sometimes—like American Christians have sometimes really wanted to be in the way, more actively opposed rather than just putting the brakes. And I'm wondering if you have ideas about how does the theology go even more wrong.
Jemar Tisby: David Roediger is a historian who wrote a book called The Wages of Whiteness. And I think that phrase is really powerful. One of the reasons that white supremacy is so persistent even among Christians is that there are benefits to being white in a white supremacist society. And, from the earliest foundations of what became the United States, you had people who were professing to be Christians but were really capitalists at the end of the day. And that plays itself out in the Bible where it says you can't serve two masters. You'll either love the one and despise the other. You can't serve God and money. That's exactly what many Christians were trying to do. It is to serve God in name by labeling themselves Christians, but also serve their bottom line through slave trading, slave holding and benefiting off of a racialized capitalist system.
So I think, in general, the theology followed these kinds of ideologies to justify enslaving black people for profit, essentially. And then over time there of course are other things that go with it, like the assumption that black people pose some type of physical threat or threat of criminality and wanting to keep folks in their place, the assumption that equity means losing some of your privilege and some of your status and the fear of losing that place in society. So those are the things that give white supremacy durability. And then—we all know this—we can use the Bible just about any way we want to justify our beliefs by hypocritically or selectively citing, cherry picking passages to support our viewpoints, which is precisely what happened as theologians and Christians argued that the proper place of black people was enslavement or the proper place black people were segregated. So I'm not sure if that gets at the totality of your question, but it's part of the durability of white supremacy within Christian circles.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Yeah. It really underscores another sense of compromise that's at play here—compromising what might be the implications of Christian commitments if you really thought them through for the sake of maintaining a sort of social advantage or something that works out well for you. One of the things that you're focused on compromise and complicity really brings to light. You've got this passage early on in the book where you say "very rarely do historical figures fit neatly into the category of villain." That struck me as really important because I think we're often looking back to find villains. And even now, as we're going back to the monuments thing, like it's relatively easy from the perspective of now to see Nathan Bedford Forrest as a villain, but there's a flip side to that as well, that it's pretty rare that historical figures fit neatly into the category of hero. I think America is starting to wrestle with how true that is of Washington and Jefferson, even somebody like Abraham Lincoln. And your book does such a good job of showing that it's true for Christians too like Jonathan Edwards. For white evangelicals, somebody who you might want to make a hero like Billy Graham comes out in your book looking a lot more broken, not heroic, than you might want. What do you think about the kind of yearning for heroes? Is that something we need to just get beyond?
Jemar Tisby: I think partly in our human wiring is to look for heroes and to look for champions. This is why the people of Israel were constantly frustrated and disappointed by the judges and the Kings and the rulers who came along because we're searching for the perfect, leader. We're searching for the perfect hero and in the Christian frame, there's only one. That's Jesus. And so we're constantly disappointed by the human beings who can't live up to that standard, but we still look for it. But I do think this conversation should cause us to question who we hold up as heroes and whether we should, whether we should be making monuments to individuals knowing full well how fault people can be.
I think there's complicated questions with that. I think it's very contextual to local communities and how each figure is being used. But it shouldn't be hard for Christians to understand the complexity of human character because the Bible says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We know that no one is perfect and that even, obviously, figures like King David who God calls a man after God's own heart is guilty of murder. So all I'm saying is Christians have the resources in their own beliefs to understand the complexity of human character. What's happened in the national story is that the "Founding Fathers" have been taught as unassailable paragons of virtue. And these are the people who brought this brilliant republican democracy to reality. And so we should honor and venerate them.
The problem is—especially I think for most black people, it's not that we have an issue recognizing their contributions to the founding of what became the United States, but we give short shrift or completely ignore the fact that they were slaveholders or racist or white supremacists or they massacred indigenous people. That's the story that also needs to be told. And in that context, especially in a nation with a history of race-based chattel slavery, especially when our bloodiest war till this day is the Civil War, which was fought over the future of race-based chattel slavery, should we be putting these men literally on pedestals? And I think, there are a lot of people who are coming to the realization: well, maybe not.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So what would a more truthful telling of our story to ourselves be, especially for, white American Christians?
Jemar Tisby: So I think part of it is honoring the people who have been made invisible in our national story. And so, Ida B. Wells is a great example of someone who literally the risk of her life brought the atrocities of lynching to the public. That was bold and fearless in how she communicated that. People like Fannie Lou Hamer, who at the age of 44 becomes a civil rights activist, endures this brutal beating at the hands of police officers in a jail in rural Mississippi, and yet continues to fight and even gives her testimony at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. People like Medgar Evers—just to remain in Mississippi. So can we highlight the stories of the people who actually lived up to the American ideals? Not the people who put it on paper but then went home to enslaved people who they owned as property, but the people who actually called America to account and called America to live up to its noble ideas of freedom and liberty and equality for all. So I do think there's a place for that in names on buildings or perhaps statues, or at least memorials in parks, in places like that. So it's two sided, right? It's taking down racist, white supremacist symbols, but it's also putting up the symbols and the people who represent the best of what this nation is and could be.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So I felt a pull in that direction. And I've been a little suspicious of desire to then identify with those kinds of figures that you've just said as my past— it makes it fairly easy to justify myself currently by repudiating kind of one aspect of a history that belongs to me and my community. And maybe it was just like appropriating a history that at some level is maybe not at all mine. I don't know. Do you get what I mean?
Jemar Tisby: Yeah, I think so. So if I'm hearing you right, it's like if we honor these people, these freedom fighters, if you will, do I almost have the right or do I have the privilege of taking that as part of my story too, if I'm hearing you right. And I think yes and no. So in the sense of black history is American history, I think everybody has the opportunity to embrace these stories as part of the American story, even if you're white and the folks that we're bringing light to are people of color or black. So in that sense, I think everybody has access to these stories.
But I think you're right to say, and this is one of the things that I try to warn about in my book—is that we really want the happy ending. We really want the triumphal narrative of "yes, we were once racist; yes, we were one segregated; yes, white supremacy was once a problem; but look how we've overcome and look at these amazing people and that is our story," without then grappling with the incredible opposition they faced. When Martin Luther King Jr. Was killed, a majority of people disapproved of him and his activism, according to polls. And so where do we grapple with that? That's where I think we need new national rituals, new cultural models.
That's one reason I advocate for making Juneteenth a national holiday. For one, from a historical perspective, there are few events of epochal importance like the emancipation of black people in the abolition of race-based chattel slavery. So again, black history is American history or US history and everyone should commemorate that and celebrate that but we should also do it soberly, especially white people, to remember that it took a war that claimed 600,000 to 800,000 lives. It took a war to finally emancipate some 4 million people of African descent. It is a war that in ideological terms is still being fought. And so that should be a cause of national remembrance, of national mourning. And so if we don't incorporate those kinds of rituals into our social vernacular, then we run the risk of erasing the difficulty and the challenges and the great risk that it took to see progress.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: So it sounds a little bit like you're saying—let me know if I'm getting this right—the key thing is to make sure we're remembering truthfully in the sense of not erasing either the good or the bad and making sure we don't sever ourselves from a complex past, a past that isn't as rosy as we might like it to be, which yields a present, which isn't especially rosy, and that we maybe need to take some ownership of.
Jemar Tisby: Precisely. Yup. And we've just been so horrible at that in the US, particularly among the racial majority. We haven't had something like a truth and reconciliation commission on a national level, or even at a broad church level, maybe individual congregation or denomination, but for the church at large to really grapple with this history and this pernicious witness, honestly, that has been in the white US church for so long.
So yeah, we got so much historical work to do, uncovering the stories. I think it's an exciting and fascinating project for individual churches, especially if they've been around for a while since 1950s or 60s, or some historic churches that have been around since the 19th Century to really do a deep dive into your congregation's history, and compare notes from elder meetings or trustee meetings with newspaper events that were going on at the time. There was a church, First Presbyterian Church Augusta, which is a historic church, predates the civil war, white supremacist racist church. It held the first meeting of what was called the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America after they split off from Northern Presbyterians who stayed with the Union.
And, in the 21st Century, their former pastor, George Robertson, did a deep dive into their congregation's history and found that there was a brutal, essentially tantamount to a lynching if I'm recalling. And this is early 1970s. And the church was silent about it, said nothing, didn't do anything, didn't speak out, didn't mention it in their own congregational meetings. And so he brought that to light, repented of it. And I'm not saying that's everything by any means, but that's a beginning and there are a lot of churches, I think, that need to take those steps.
I'll give you one more example. Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis is a historic church that is white and literally in the backyard on the same block of the church, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and grand wizard of the KKK, was buying and selling enslaved people. And so, In recent years, the church leaders really wanted to do something about that. And so they worked with historians and city leaders to put up a historical marker that was more specific because a previous marker said that Bedford Forrest conducted business in that plot. And they didn't mention the business was buying and selling human beings. And so they were much more explicit in their language, created basically a memorial around that area, and really are trying to own that racist past by bringing it to light, highlighting the injustice of it, and saying, "we're not going to hide this; this is part of our story, but it's one that we want to grow from and move beyond."
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: For churches and individuals who are doing that kind of work of trying to look clearly at a disappointing past, what's the kind of the forward-looking upshot for it? What kind of actions do you hope that feeds into future-oriented actions? What kind of change do you hope that starts to spur?
Jemar Tisby: So if they engage in these sorts of activities of bringing the history to light, what does that lead to? Is that what you're asking?
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Yeah. Where do you take it from that kind of moment of seeing truth?
Jemar Tisby: I think I say in the book something like there's no reconciliation without repentance. There's no repentance without confession and there's no confession without truth. Looking at the history as a form of truth-telling, we're telling a more accurate story. We're telling a fuller story, one that doesn't paint these churches in a rosy light or Christians as unadulterated forces of good in our society. And so that truth-telling leads to then true confession. Confession takes the form, not simply of a public "we did this," but the act of making it public, I think, is part of confession.
Closely tied to confession is this idea of repentance. So you are intentionally distancing yourself from those ideologies and actions that are racist and white supremacist in nature. But as we all know, repentance means turning away from something, but it also means turning towards something different. And so that's where the sort of future looking impact comes. And we really need to, I think, theologically unpack the idea of repair. So that what needs to happen as a necessary consequence of acknowledging this history is attempts to make repair. And we've got some really interesting contemporary examples.
So at Georgetown University, a Catholic university, it saved itself from bankruptcy many years ago by selling enslaved people. And so now they are admitting to that, repenting of that, and making an education at Georgetown free, or at least heavily subsidized, for the descendants of those enslaved people who were sold off to save the university. At Princeton Theological Seminary, they set aside more than $20 million, which was less than the activists were asking for, but they set that amount aside to, I believe, establish an institute there or a department there and also for financial support for black students at the seminary. So it should lead to repair is basically what I'm staying and there's no limit to what that can look like once you commit yourself to it and get creative about it.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: As you sit here, in July of 2020, what's your prayer for the American church?
Jemar Tisby: There's so many facets to that. it might come back to the truth, the confession, the repentance, and the repair that I just mentioned. I really do think there is a flowering of national interest, not simply in the topic of racial justice, but racial justice from a historical perspective. So you can look at things like the 1619 Project and its popularity, as well as the opposition to it. You can look at the fact that The Washington Post created a column a few years ago called "Made by History." You can look at the popularity of podcasts, like the Past Present Podcast. You can even look at pop cultural phenomenon, like Hamilton, the musical, and how popular that is.
So I really do think there's a big interest on the part of the general populace in history, if it's communicated in a way they can access. So I hope that Christians, and white Christians in particular, really lean into accessing that history because honestly, it's never been more accessible through documentaries, through books, through scholars. It's at our fingertips and we need to access that. But obviously we can't stop there nor can we stop with mainly symbolic actions, like taking down statues or changing a state flag. Those are important. And I think they need to happen because they're such glaring contradictions to any notion of liberty and equality.
At the same time, I think one of the main things Christian should be focusing on in 2020 is voting rights and access to voting. So we're in a presidential election year, and voting is one of the most basic rights of being a citizen. And yet as has been true throughout US history, we see it becoming harder and harder for the poor, for people of color, and for black people to exercise their basic right to vote. And this is a non-partisan issue. You don't have to be Republican, Democrat, Independent, or anything to say that people should be able to vote. They should be able to vote easily. We're one of the few modern wealthy countries that does not have a holiday for national voting or at least have it on the weekends, so people don't have to take time off work. They are closing voter polls in a lot of districts, making it harder and harder for people to go and vote and the lines get longer and longer. They're having stricter voter ID requirements, which disproportionately affects people who are poor and people of color. Formerly incarcerated people are still struggling to regain their right to vote in many places.
So I think this is a no-brainer for Christians. It should be part of recognizing that we are part of the kingdom of God, that we are citizens in the kingdom of God, but we're also citizens of this nation. And equity says that if you have the right to vote, you should be able to vote with as little hindrance as possible.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Before we wrap up. Is there anything else that you want to add to, say, a group of theologically interested listeners? What's their next step?
Jemar Tisby: I'll say two things, one about white Christian nationalism and the other about the ARC of racial justice. So, right now in the Christian circles that I observe, the idea of critical race theory has been proposed as essentially the greatest threat to the modern church in the United States. People who I would characterize as fundamentalist Christians— mostly white but also some people of color—are saying that since critical race theory is not founded on religious principles, that it is atheistic in its inclinations, that there's no compatibility with this system of analysis and Christianity, and then uses that as a cudgel against people within the church who would talk about racial justice and basically as a silencing tactic and a tactic to distract from the main issues of justice at hand. And what I say to that is, number one, I don't spend a whole lot of time trying to debunk these false or erroneous ideas. I think that distracts a person like me from really ministering to and serving black people because you're spending all of your time trying to explain race and racism to people who don't want to understand it, which is draining; it's toxic; it's tiring.
But number two, I think even more productive is to turn the conversation toward the threat that white Christian nationalism poses to Christianity because that's a demonstrable threat both historically and in the present day. I tell the story in the book of the "second coming" of the KKK, which started on Thanksgiving day in 1915, when a group of white men led by a former Methodist circuit writer, so a former preacher, go up to the top of Stone Mountain Georgia, which has Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis—these Confederate heroes—engraved on the front, desecration of a native American site. They go to the top of Stone Mountain Georgia, and they do a couple of things. They put up across and they burn it, which of course becomes a notorious symbol for racial terrorism in the Civil Rights era. They also build an altar and on it they put two items: a Bible and an American flag. And so you have this blend of whiteness, of religiosity, and of nationalism that basically says not only is the United States a white men's country, but to be authentically Christian and American is to be white. And that I think is a much more pernicious and pervasive idea in Christianity. And so the more scholars and the more theologians who can write about the way white Christian nationalism has infected the church and harm the church's witness, I think the better.
The second thing I want to say is A lot of people are asking the practical question. What do we do? What do we do about racism? What do we do to promote racial justice? And that's a great question. It's the most frequent one I get, honestly, and I used to just give this laundry list of different things that people could do, but I've been working on a model the past couple of years called the ARC of racial justice, and it's outlined in the last chapter of The Color of Compromise, but it's an acronym that stands for awareness, relationships, commitment. And I think you need all three to have a sort of holistic approach to racial justice. So awareness means building your knowledge. That's listening to podcasts like this one. That's watching documentaries. That's reading the books. That's understanding how race and racism operates. That's essential, but that's not enough.
You also have to have relationships. And in a Christian frame, we know that all reconciliation is relational, that Jesus Christ becomes incarnate in the form of a human being to establish relationships on earth so that he can restore a right relationship with God and relationships between human beings and each other. And so the same persist today where we can read all of this stuff, we can build our knowledge and awareness about it, but unless there's a human face to it, unless we understand with empathy and solidarity the suffering that racism and white supremacy cause, we're probably not going to be in it for the long haul or be willing to make the sacrifices necessary for true change.
But we can't stop there either. Relationships are necessary, but not sufficient. And a lot of white evangelicals, especially, like to focus on the relational aspect and say, "well, I've got black friends or we did a church swap, and we have positive relationships with people across the color line, so I'm not racist and I'm doing my part to end racism." But that does nothing about the systemic and institutional inequalities that continue to operate. And so commitment gets at the idea that we need to fight against racist policies that perpetuate and deepen racial inequality, even in the absence of some particular individual with malice in their heart to work against black people and people of color. So we need to vote for new district attorneys. We need to work for voting rights. We need to change institutional policies. We need to make sure the board of trustees or the board of directors are representative. All of those things go into the commitment aspect of racial justice and by keeping awareness, relationships, commitment in conversation, I think we can have a more robust approach to racial justice.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz: Thanks, Jemar. This has been a really great conversation and I wish you the best on that dissertation.
Jemar Tisby: Thank you so much. I need it.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Ryan McAnnally-Linz, with historian, author, and the host of the Pass the Mic andFootnotes podcasts, Jemar Tisby. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce a new episode every Saturday. You can subscribe through any podcast app. We're grateful you gave a bit of your time to us this week. We hope you're finding something educational, something that opens and clarifies your perspective. If you have time today right here if you're listening, would you go into Apple Podcasts and leave us a review and rating on our show page? It helps us get the show out to even more listeners, and it gives us a sense for what's worth talking about, who to be inviting on the show and how to deliver it. Thank you for your support and for listening. More this coming week.