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Interview with Jemar Tisby

How History Helps
CACE Fellow Cody Bivins Interview with Jemar Tisby

For Jemar Tisby, race has always been a part of his religious journey. Becoming a Christian in a predominantly White Evangelical context was not without differences, but Tisby’s robust understanding of the dynamics came later. “I was always just one of two or three people of color, of course I noticed that but I didn’t think deeply as a teenager about how religion gets constructed racially.” Religion being constructed racially. That’s where Tisby’s current work comes in The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism. A few major factors informed the creation of this work:

“One was Ferguson and the uprisings that occurred there. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was trying to make sense of it all, like ‘how does a predominately white police force come to police a black community?’ and as I tried to make sense of it I found that historians often have the most helpful things to say. So they were able to talk about restrictive covenants and red-lining and the historical origins of the police force, history of law enforcement. It was like a secret knowledge that was hidden from me but was now unlocked.”

Studying history in graduate school (and now PhD) allowed Tisby to begin to explain our current situation. Racial injustice has not come out of a vacuum, indeed for Tisby there are long historical causes for what we see today. Comparing the study of our current situation to the study of the Bible, Tisby asks questions like “how did we get here?” “what were the priorities?

            This idea might seem a bit strange to most of us in the United States. “As Americans we are bad at seeing our connection with the past. We’re a young country, individualistic, so what other people did in different times we don’t think about as related to us.” It’s easy to ignore the history that has shaped our world, especially when it comes to racial injustice. Understanding the past, however, helps us to shape the future. According to Tisby, the intersection of race, politics, and religion became historically undeniable while visiting a museum in Williamsburg, Virginia (near Point Comfort, which marked the beginning of Chattel Slavery in 1619). “We saw a plaque that said ‘in 1667 the Virginia Assembly enacted a law that said baptism would not confer freedom on an enslaved African, a native American, or a person of mixed-race.’ That jumped out at me… A political body making a rule about religion based on race. It’s more than a century before the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution. So it predates the U.S. as a political entity. There’s never not a time when these issues weren’t important.”

Integral to Tisby’s work is the idea of “constructive conflict.” Our society is known for difficulty in both of these areas. This difficulty is not just limited to society at large, however. “I think too often Christians and leaders are more concerned about communicating difficult truths in a way that won’t offend, says Tisby, in reality, it’s impossible to communicate a critical truth without offense. My prayer is not that I wouldn’t offend, but that I wouldn’t cause unnecessary offense.” Justice is integral to the Gospel, which for Tisby carries with it the burden of offense. For black students and congregants, the church’s timidity towards justice can mean reticence to speak up.

            “I try to meet with students of color, specifically black students, and hear their concerns. It’s depressingly consistent what the burdens are for black students at predominately white Christian schools. Then I try to be their mouthpiece or echo… I try to be an advocate for People of Color who are on the ground daily trying to speak truth to power.”

This idea of advocacy and truth-telling is centered around the person of Jesus Christ. No different from Christ, this truth-telling often comes with pushback in person (and in our case, online). “We have to cultivate prophetic distance. Foxes have holes, birds have nests, the Son of man has no place to lay his head (Matt.8:20). That was deliberate on Jesus’ part. He was never so invested in an existing power structure that he had to hesitate to speak truth.” Work on racial justice can cost a person opportunities, money, and status. But Tisby argues that distance from these power structures helps create freedom from the fallout of pushback (he himself has lost opportunities due to his commitment). This cost is not without reward. “The greatest gift He [God] has given me is other people. A community on the same journey.” This distance is one of the places that Tisby sees room for improvement in churches and Christian colleges. He argues that there’s a risk involved in standing for racial justice as an institution, but it’s a risk we must take. “One of the first things Christian leaders need to realize is that there has been so much deliberate work to construct a racist society that we have to have equally if not more deliberate deconstruction. It’s not going to happen passively without a lot of effort. It’s a lot of taking apart the theology, sources of money and revenue, locations of ministry. We will have to get comfortable losing money for the sake of racial justice.”

            Despite the daunting task, Tisby thinks there’s hope in the work that can be done. Knowledge about racism is available to those who want it and cultivating relationships across cultures is possible in communities. When cultivated together, relationships and knowledge can help oneself see how race plays a role in things often taken at face value.

            “White people need to be aware of their cultural power. That is conferred upon you rather than sought… That means when you go into a relationship with a person of color you do so humbly.”

            But as complex as these dynamics may be, there’s a simplicity in genuine connection. Perhaps communicating hard truths and wrestling with difficult relationships can begin in a humble way: “In Kindergarten, when you wanted to make a friend you walked up to someone and asked, “would you be my friend?” Honestly, that works.”