The Future of Church-Race Relations

Why looking back might be the best way for the church to look ahead

Jemar Tisby
Jemar Tisby is the President of The Witness and Co-Host of Pass The Mic. He is also a PhD student in History at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the twentieth century. His most recent book is The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism.
Wesley Hill
Wesley Hill (PhD, Durham University, UK) is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters, and Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.

At the end of 2018, Comment contributing editor and New Testament scholar Wesley Hill sat down with Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness, to talk about his book The Color of Compromise (published in January 2019). Both Tisby and Hill care about the future of the church, but—as their discussion reveals—the future of the church depends on its ability to know and own up to its past. Because “the past,” as Faulkner once quipped, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” And it’s on the back of historians that Tisby helps the church to see future, and potentially hopeful, horizons.

Wesley Hill: How would you describe the main idea of The Color of Compromise? What is this book about?

Jemar Tisby: This book is about the present and the future of the church, which is a bit ironic because it is a historical survey. I use the past to talk about the present. My burden for this book is that Christians in America would take, or at least be open to taking, the sometimes drastic steps I think are necessary to see true racial justice in the church and beyond. By highlighting some of the very sobering history of race in the American church, my hope is that people would see the depths of the problem and respond.

WH: That’s interesting you say that because one of the questions I wanted to ask you was about the genre of the book. When I heard it was coming out, I wondered if it would be more focused on the present (and maybe even more focused on theology and exegesis) than it was, but it really is a history. I know you’re a historian by profession, but talk a bit about the decision to write history rather than some other genre.

JT: The historical aspect is critical. I live in two worlds. I got a master’s degree in divinity, and so I’m in a theological world. I go to churches to preach, for instance. But I’m also in the world of academic history. I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Mississippi. What I’ve observed is that most of the books directed toward Christians about race are either memoirs, recounting people’s personal journeys and experiences, or sociological, like the wonderful book Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, or theological, exegeting passages of scripture in regard to race and ethnicity.

All of them touch on history to a degree, but none of them use history as the main vehicle to propel the narrative about race in America. I’m observing that as I’m reading literally hundreds of books about US history, and no matter what the topic, whether it’s labour or politics, race is always coming into play, and the church is always coming into play. I’m saying we need to bring these two worlds together. We need to put history front and centre, and help folks know more about race and the church, because we have historical amnesia about all aspects of US history but especially when it comes to these topics. We just don’t know what happened. We don’t know the names, the places, the contours of the events. I wanted to bring that out in the book.

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