‘But I’m not a Racist’

I’ve been reading The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby (Quote List in the coming weeks). Though the book came out last year, I’m only getting to it now. While I knew I would agree with the thesis the book argues (captured in the subtitle), I’m not sure I was ready to deal with all of the visceral emotions reading the book would produce. Perhaps it has something to do with simultaneously reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Regardless, there’s deep anger, sadness, and lament being created in my heart as I read through Tisby’s account of the building of the ‘structure’ that supports structural (or systemic) racism in America today. 

Though I haven’t finished the book yet, two notable refrains emerged in the early chapters that I want to reflect on 1) It didn’t have to be this way, and 2) If the structure was created, we can uncreate it. Let me briefly address both.

It didn’t have to be this way.

At every turn in America’s history, decisions were made. Decisions to either dignify all those made in God’s image or subjugate some for the gain and comfort of others. As a Christian, what I find most infuriating is the fact that from the outset, while many of the colonists didn’t explicitly denounce the humanity of Africans they still chose to oppress them. Stated a different way: while acknowledging the humanity (and therefore, dignity) of those they were oppressing and exploiting for their own gain, they still chose to do it—and do it under the guise of Christianity.

Though still unbearably tragic, I almost prefer the cold rigidity of the guards in the Nazi camps. As Frankl describes, they determined the “existence or non-existence” of those entering with the flick of a finger (12). Frankl’s account is a heart-wrenching display of depravity (the way you’d expect evil to look), but it’s at least consistent, and therefore, easier to understand looking back. The Nazis did not count their prisoners as humans; consequently, they didn’t treat them as humans. 

Many white, professing Christian, colonists, on the other hand, counted enslaved persons as humans, yet still chose to oppress them. All while justifying their actions with the religion that has at its core the powerful One exercising his power through weakness, not oppression. The Jesus they proclaimed to believe in is God come to serve—and give his life as a ransom for many—not to be served and forcibly take lives for his own gain.

I should be very clear here: while some colonists may have “acknowledged” the humanity of those they enslaved, actions speak louder than words. Race-based chattel slavery was every bit a grotesque display of the depravity of the holocaust. And, if anything, I am trying to make the point that it was worse. “Christians” were the ones perpetuating it. And these same people were willfully moving forward an American system that counted humans as less than that. There are no words to describe how disgusting this is, and any attempt to romanticize this history and the lasting effects it has on our present is ludicrous.

Two Big Names

In chapter 3, Tisby highlights two influential preachers and theologians in American Church history: George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. Over time, Whitfield moved from a moderate stance on chattel slavery to outright arguing in favor of it and purchasing enslaved people of his own (47-48). While Edwards, on the other hand, opposed the African slave trade on evangelistic grounds, he never outright objected to slavery in general (50). His stance seemed to be accepting of slavery as long as owners treated enslaved persons with dignity. Tisby states that white clergymen like these two “typify the contradiction of American Christianity. The two preachers attempted to treat the people they enslaved humanely, yet they still acquiesced to slavery, even practicing it themselves” (55).

It didn’t have to be like this–and this is just one decision point along a long line. Theological giants like Whitfield and Edwards had the influence needed, at such a crucial time, to begin altering the direction of the American Church specifically, and America generally. Instead, they were comfortable merely operating within the system and to “not be a racist” themselves. They chose to be nice to the enslaved rather than fight against what is opposed to God’s design for human flourishing.

I’m afraid far too many of us throughout history have done likewise. We’ve determined, “well, I’m not a racist” while we carry on as usual within a society built to keep some down and lift others up on the very basis of race. This leads to Tisby’s second point.

We can uncreate it.

In a recent essay entitled, The Sin of Racism, Tim Keller writes:

“The biblical view of justice gives full weight to both personal responsibility and social structures while based on a rich understanding of human life that goes well beyond the world’s reductionistic alternative views.”

Timothy Keller, The Sin of Racism, Life in the Gospel; Q2 2020

Individual persons (along with the corporate people of God) necessarily interact with the system of society. To simply “not be a racist” but still function normally, within what many are coming to see is a racist system, doesn’t take into full consideration the cross’s magnitude. Don’t get me wrong, to “not be a racist” is a good thing. Even if the world today would belittle the gesture, I don’t believe Jesus would. He states that even cups of water given in his name will be remembered in heaven (Mark 9:41), so if your lack of racism is attributed to your naming the name of Christ, and seeing others as made in God’s image, then God is glorified in it.

However, what was true of Evangelicalism in the 1700s is still true of it today. Tisby writes,

“Evangelicalism focused on individual conversion and piety. Within this evangelical framework, one could adopt an evangelical expression of Christianity yet remain uncompelled to confront institutional injustice.”

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise, 50

So if you’ve seen the broken system of our society and refuse to embrace further discomfort, ridicule, and shame for the love of God and neighbor—to uphold the dignity of your fellow humans—then I beg you to take another long look at the cross. We are not to “fall in with the many to do evil…siding with the many as to pervert justice” (Exodus 23:2) either by what we do, or what we neglect to do. Instead, like Christ, we are to empty ourselves of our riches so that through our poverty we will make others rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Justified people, living in an unjust society, will inevitably seek justice within that society. This makes sense of what both Keller and Tisby are communicating: we can’t sit idly by. This will look different for everyone, but it won’t look like the same actions with a different mindset. Or as Lecare puts it in the foreward, “If we built the walls on purpose, we need to tear down the walls on purpose” (10). Meaningful actions in time and space.

Injustice requires a response, and for the people of God, that response can’t be indifference. In the same way that those that have received mercy are merciful to others, and those that are forgiven forgive others, those that have been justified will work for the justice of others.