A Damnable Shame
A Damnable Shame

A Damnable Shame

The church as co-conspirator in unrelenting, adaptive racism.

In 1964, jazz singer-songwriter Nina Simone penned the lyrics to a protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn.” In the first verse, Simone laments the violence endured by African Americans in Southern states throughout the tumult of the civil rights movement:

Alabama’s gotten me so upset

Tennessee made me lose my rest

And everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn

The mention of Alabama references the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, an act of white-supremacist terrorism that killed four African American girls. The despair connoted in “everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn” alludes to the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson. Simone then asks for “somebody” to “say a prayer.” Later, in an acknowledgment of the horrible costs of racism, she pleads, “Lord, have mercy on this land of mine.”

 In The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, historian Jemar Tisby persuasively argues that, indeed, the whole of America needs to cry for grace and mercy. Moreover, he demonstrates that the sin of racism is not limited to the South, to the past, or to the exterior side of church walls. No, in The Color of Compromise Tisby deftly delineates how racism acts as a corrosive that permeates time, place, and faith in the United States.

The dehumanization of people of colour continues to function as more of a feature of the American system than a glitch.

Read in the contemporary context of a country that seems to largely shrug—at best—at the problems of anyone who is not white (see the languishing “recovery” effort in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, family separation at the Mexican border, the infant mortality rates of African American children, mass incarceration, to name but a few examples), Tisby’s monograph illuminates a society that has routinely claimed Christian principles while only intermittently demonstrating any notion of imago Dei. That is, there seems to be little regard for the sense that all should be afforded the dignity granted as image bearers of God. Instead, the dehumanization of people of colour continues to function as more of a feature of the American system than a glitch. Moreover, the Christian church has an entrenched pattern of conniving with those who would incite and promulgate racial animus and injustice.

Tisby’s volume offers a striking distillation of how the church in America has consistently demonstrated both tacit and explicit support for a racialized society. Though he describes the American church’s history with race as no less than a “horror,” Tisby also insists that “to look away” has become untenable. Hopefully, many people who care about the church will read The Color of Compromise and remember that Tisby’s book is “not about discrediting the church or Christians.” Rather, they will notice its lineage with those who “speak the truth in love.” True reckoning for the church on issues of race undoubtedly includes detailed retelling of disquieting truths that echo into the twenty-first century.

As he traces the arc of the church’s complicity in racism in America, Tisby notes that issues of racial exploitation began the moment Europeans made contact with Native Americans and Africans on this continent. For instance, already in 1667, the Virginia General Assembly, composed of Anglican men, decided to forego the English custom of allowing freedom for slaves who had been baptized. With an economy that rested so heavily on slave labour, the early Virginians decided they could not afford for baptism to confer freedom. Instead, they counselled their new spiritual brethren to be content with a “spiritual liberation.”

Later, famous preachers no less than George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards exemplified widely held beliefs within the churches that though they accepted the spiritual equality of whites and African Americans, they read nothing in the Bible that forbade slavery. Missing or ignoring its overall moral logic, they saw Scripture as merely regulating slavery to limit its brutal effects. Similarly, in the 1790s, the Baptist General Committee of Virginia decided that slave owners, indeed, could be members of their congregations because the issue of slavery represented a “civil issue outside the scope of the church.” It seems demurring to slavery became positively ecumenical: Southern Presbyterian minister Robert Lewis Dabney published a book in 1867—after the Civil War—wherein he claimed that slavery had been beneficial in that it brought “morally inferior” Africans “into close relations with a nobler race.”

The danger of historical works is that readers will sniff and dismiss the archaic racism of the past. It only looks different because it has adapted.

Lest his readers think that these examples serve as vestiges from history, Tisby also discusses more recent incidents. These include ministers who, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, published pamphlets that indicted desegregation as a scheme of the devil himself. Though the odiousness of that claim offends the sensibilities of most twenty-first-century readers, the more insidious call for patience continues to plague the church’s inability to discard its continuing complicity in racism. Part of this is that many Christians, especially white evangelicals, continue to mistakenly believe that racism can be slowly undone, one conversion and one relationship at a time. For instance, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, Christianity Today, refused to endorse the civil rights act because it would have been inconsistent with the “belief that social change came best through personal conversion.” Similarly, a group of supposedly moderate ministers chastised Martin Luther King Jr. in an open letter published in a Birmingham newspaper in response to civil rights unrest: “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” A disposition that emphasized gradualness also led Christian leaders like Billy Graham, who after touring the devastation of the 1965 Watts uprising, to see not a people despairing racial injustice, but a threatening revolution that demanded a return to “law and order.”

These calls for reasonableness and gradualness conceivably led Simone to lament in “Mississippi Goddamn” that “They keep on saying ‘Go slow!’” The “they” in that line surely includes the church. Simone wondered aloud why they failed to understand the desperateness of the situation:

Do things gradually

“Do it slow”

But bring more tragedy

“Do it slow”

Why don’t you see it

Why don’t you feel it

I don’t know

I don’t know

The danger of historical works is that readers will sniff and dismiss the archaic racism of the past. Tisby, however, insists that “Christian complicity in racism has not changed much after all.” It only looks different because it has adapted. Slavery and Jim Crow are gone. Today, though, some Christians now respond to Black Lives Matter with the defensive riposte: but all lives matter. Today, some Christians unwaveringly support “a president whose racism has been on display for decades.” Today, some Christians would rather discuss race in terms of relationships and cultures rather than systems and structures. Even more, Tisby argues, “being complicit only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.”

In American neighbourhoods, that maintenance of status quo has meant disparate socioeconomic outcomes based on racial identity. For instance, government-enforced discrimination and subsequent segregation has grossly inhibited the ability of racial minorities to grow wealth through homeownership. In 2005, the Federal Reserve’s own survey revealed that African Americans held subprime loans at three times the rate of white borrowers. In a violation of African Americans’ legal and constitutional rights, the Federal Reserve took no action to address this predatory discrimination.

And policies and decisions like those of the Federal Reserve have had consequences: For every $100 in white-family wealth, an African American family has closer to $5. How do Christians explain that gaping discrepancy? Well, that seems to be dependent on understandings of what causes poverty. Tisby points out that 62 percent of white evangelical Christians attribute poverty to lack of motivation while only 27 percent attribute the wealth gap to systemic racial discrimination. In other words, the majority of white evangelical Christians seem to think that the responsibility for the fact that the poverty rate for African Americans is double that of whites in America resides with “lazy blacks” themselves.

Tisby suggests that this tendency to blame African Americans for their higher poverty rates can be traced, in part, to the fact that so many white Christians have fallen under the sway of conservative political talking points. With the rise of the New Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s, conservatives took positions antagonistic to social safety-net programs that they denigrated as part of the “welfare state.” A significant portion of white Christians found themselves persuaded by these “welfarism” arguments—which included thinly veiled codes that trafficked “in stereotypes of black people and the poor as lacking in initiative and having no work ethic.”

A steady, measured approach to oppression and marginalization is a luxury and privilege of those born into dominant categories.

With that in mind, the overwhelming (and seemingly inviolable) white evangelical support (the notorious and hotly debated 81 percent) for President Donald Trump should probably be understood as a logical—and racially tinged—outcome of complicitness. At every juncture—as a businessman, a candidate, and president—Trump has displayed “obvious racist tendencies.” Despite a rhetoric and practice that consistently violates the imago Dei (feel free to Google “Mexican rapists,” “locker room talk,” and “—hole countries” and find the commonality), the president continues to receive unwavering support from large swaths of churchgoers in America.

Thus things have likely changed less than we think. Perhaps the hypocrisy of slave owners shamelessly pursuing independence by positing “all men are created equal” has simply morphed into something more insidious. Fifty-five years after “Mississippi Goddamn,” Childish Gambino released a new protest song, “This Is America.” Echoing similar themes, the final verse grieves the continued dehumanization and commodification of black bodies into the twenty-first century:

You just a black man in this world

You just a barcode, ayy

You just a black man in this world

The accompanying video to “This Is America” offers visual nods to the Confederacy, Jim Crow, and a reminder of a white supremacist shooting nine African Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Similar to Simone, Childish Gambino articulates a tragic urgency that should cause a stirring within the church.

In fact, both “Mississippi Goddamn” and “This Is America” reverberate with Psalm 13’s cry of “how long?” Whether tacit or explicit, the church’s complicity in racism has negative consequences. A steady, measured approach to oppression and marginalization is a luxury and privilege of those born into dominant categories. In The Color of Compromise Tisby offers clear evidence that when it comes to racism, it’s time for the church to sober up and get off “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Mark Mulder
Mark Mulder

Dr. Mark Mulder, professor of sociology, teaches classes ranging from Church and Society to Urban Sociology to Diversity and Inequality and is director of the urban studies minor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Shades of White Flight (Rutgers University Press) and co-author of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield). His research finds focus at the intersection of cities and congregations.


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