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Jemar Tisby | Splendiferous Wondrous Differences

Jemar Tisby joins us to talk about the church’s complicity in racism and what we can do about it.


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Jemar Tisby joins us to talk about the church’s complicity in racism and what we can do about it.

Description

Every human bears the image of God and in God’s good future there will be a great diversity of people from all nations and tribes. But we don’t always live as if that were the case. Jemar Tisby joins us to talk about the church’s complicity in racism and what we can do about it. Jemar Tisby is the author of The Color of Compromise, a New York Times bestseller, and How to Fight Racism, as well as the recently published How to Fight Racism Young Reader’s Edition. He’s also the co-founder of The Witness: a Black Christian Collective and co-host of the podcast Pass the Mic. 

  • Originally aired on January 13, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Tisby:

In Revelation 5:9 and Revelation 7:9 when they give the glorious image of worshiping God in eternity. God is speaking of whole people groups, he says the nations, he says the tribes, the tongues or the languages, right? That to me conveys a sense that there is something beautiful in the diversity globally, of different kinds of people, the different foods we eat, the different languages we speak, the different styles of clothing and dance and all of that. All of that’s going to be redeemed and preserved to a certain extent in the eschaton. We’re not going to become some bland, uniform people. There’s something about the manifold splendiferous wonderous differences, that God says is good, and reflects who God is more accurately than if we all spoke the same way, ate the same things, practiced the same customs, you know what I mean?

I am Dr. Jemar Tisby. I’m a historian, author and a speaker. 

Jim:

Welcome to a new year of Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. One of the main topics we address at BioLogos is what it means to be human. We think this is really interesting and important to engage from both scientific and theological perspectives. (You can find the six-part series we did on the podcast last July and August under the title Uniquely Unique.) When asking what it means to be human in our culture today, it doesn’t take long for the question of race to arise. Science pushes us to say that race is only a social reality; races as we have identified them do not track with genetic differences. So where did the social reality of races come from? Sadly, Christian religion has had a prominent role to play in that development. That’s a lot of what we talk about in this episode with Jemar Tisby.

In 2020 he published The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, which became a New York Times Bestseller. Then in 2021 he published How to Fight Racism and now just released is a young readers edition for How to Fight Racism. Tisby is also the co-founder of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the Pass The Mic podcast. 

We at BioLogos are not pushing conversations on race because of white guilt, or out of a desire to be woke. We do so because of our commitment to the theological doctrine that all people are created in the image of God, and because historically, people of African descent have been treated as less than human in this country, and that has led to on-going, systemic disadvantages for all people of color. We hope that by talking to people like Jemar Tisby, we might all become more aware of this situation and take responsibility for creating a more just society.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Jim: 

Welcome to the podcast.

Tisby:

Are you kidding me? I’ve been called up to the big kids table. This is great. This is great. Thank you.

Jim: 

Well, we’ll get to talking about race in the church and your new book for young readers. But first, if we could, let’s situate that with some of your own story, maybe start by telling us a little bit about where you came from? What was your family like growing up?

Tisby: 

Well, as they say in the Austin Powers franchise, the details of my life are quite inconsequential. But since you asked, you didn’t know you’re gonna get that on the BioLogos. I guess that’s it. That’s just the beginning. So I grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, which is north of Chicago, and I grew up in the Michael Jordan era, and the Bulls six peat era, so there’s no debate about the GOATs. I may have just alienated half your listeners, but you’re never gonna convince me otherwise. Our family was not especially religious. But there was no kind of hostility there. It just wasn’t high on the radar, which meant I didn’t become a Christian until high school. I should say, though, I went to Catholic school. So it was saturating my education in a lot of ways already. But I went to a white evangelical youth group, got invited by a classmate of mine, and the rest is history. I became a Christian classic evangelical conversion story, right down to saying the sinner’s prayer. But it stuck. It stuck with me and I became a Christian. I started going to the white Evangelical Church associated with the youth group. So race has always kind of been part of my religious journey. It’s always been there. But back in high school, and then even into college, I didn’t really have the language to articulate or explain what I was feeling or going through. It was just kind of a thing. I was just trying to learn about Jesus and the Bible and all that good stuff. And that’s some of my early story.

Jim:

And because we are BioLogos, we have to ask about experiences with science in your background. I saw that earlier in your career, you taught sixth grade science in the Mississippi Delta region, any interesting reflections from that time period?

Tisby:

In many schools, they will place teachers where the need is not necessarily where the teachers have expertise. I had no formal background in science. I don’t think I took anything but the physics of music undergrad, and barely squeaked by in that. But I did learn a lot. I learned a lot about science, I learned, we did a big unit on erosion. That was one of our favorites. Earlier though, before I became a teacher, I used to want to be a zoologist. We had a neighborhood that real estate developers hadn’t quite discovered at that time. So there were all these woods around our house. It was a day and age when you went outside in the morning and you came back when the street lights came on. But parents didn’t want you back until the street lights came on, right? So we were outside all day, every day, especially in the summer. I remember finding owl pellets with mouse bones in it, snake skins that had been shed, following footprints. I just loved being outdoors. I loved animals. And for a time in middle school, I thought I wanted to just study animals. So that’s about the extent of my formal foray into science.

Jim:

Nice. Well, you ended up becoming a historian, your PhD is in history, right? 

Tisby: 

That’s correct. 

Jim: 

When did you first think that was the educational or vocational path you wanted to pursue?

Tisby:

It was a confluence of events, it was around 2015, I was finishing up my MDiv at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. And it was looking more and more like I was not going to go into traditional pastoral ministry in a local congregation, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. This was also the time when the Black Lives Matter hashtag goes viral. It’s just a couple of months after Mike Brown and Ferguson and the uprisings are still occurring. I’m trying to make sense of this situation just like everyone else. And as I’m reading articles, and looking into the background, I’m finding that historians have the most helpful things to say. So they’re talking about redlining, they’re talking about the history of policing. They seem to have this knowledge about how we got here that I had never been exposed to. I also had a very good friend, Dr. Otis Pickett, who teaches at Mississippi College currently, and he had just finished his PhD from the University of Mississippi. So we had all these long conversations, and he helped introduce me to some folks and the department at the University of Mississippi. And I had my wife’s blessing, that was the most important thing. So I went ahead and applied and got in.

Jim:

Well, I understand there’s some complexity around that story, where it stands, and you’ve told some of that on the on the Pass the Mic podcast, and would refer people there. You are on a path, at least, to be in a pretty big deal within conservative reformed circles of American Christianity. I’ve been around enough of those to know that there’s often a kind of, say, superficial desire for diversity, when it’s really just a desire to get people who might look a little different on the outside, but who may think just like the white people, so there’s no real challenge to the power structures that exist, right? And then as you describe there 2015, high profile murders of black people by police, and especially 2016, in the presidential election, the lines of the culture wars were drawn in ways that maybe made it impossible for you to stay in these white evangelical circles. Is that a fair description of the situation, at least in broad strokes? 

Tisby:

Absolutely. The way I put it oftentimes is, in certain predominantly white spaces, they value black people and people of color for our presence, but not our perspective. So we’re there, and aesthetically, it’s appealing. It makes us all feel good about ourselves that, hey, we have diversity here. But then when it comes to actually addressing the urgent issues of our communities, much of which have to do with race, then the needle moves only so far as the most fragile white person can handle to put it that way. In other words, whether it’s how forthrightly you speak out about racism, what organizations you partner with, who you invite to the pulpit, whatever it might be, predominantly white organizations, including churches, tend to move at the pace of the people they’re going to tick off or who they anticipate ticking off. It’s a fundamental issue of who is at the center of these decisions. So many people, the Bible would call it a fear of man, or putting the powerful white folks, oftentimes they’re the biggest tithers and have important titles outside of church, etc. They’re putting those folks at the center and saying, how much can I do? What are the limits based on the sensibilities of these folks? Rather than centering the marginalized by definition, the marginalized are on the borders, they’re on the edges. So what does it look like to center the marginalized and make decisions that say, How can I best prevent harm and promote flourishing for what the Bible calls the least of these? That’s a significant shift. Imagine making a decision about budgets. Imagine making a decision about how to speak about a high profile incident of racism when you have those different constituents at the center. I just found that in a lot of these, and this is the Deep South, this is conservative Presbyterianism, and everything associated with it. It’s reformed, and it’s evangelical. I found in many of those circles that if I wanted to talk about racial justice, the way I thought it warranted, there just wasn’t going to be much space for me. 

Jim:

Sad. 

Tisby: 

I’ll give you an example. I mean, my own church, I’m an intern there, they canceled a Sunday where I was going to preach. I was too hot to handle at that point. It wasn’t that every single person disagreed with me, it was that enough people within the congregation were upset by things I was writing and saying that the elders thought it wouldn’t be a good idea. Now mind you, I had preached there multiple times before. I’m their intern, I’m required to preach there. There was a time immediately following the November 2016 election when I spoke about not feeling safe at my white Evangelical Church. Oh, they went to town with that one. And then as folks got ahold of this hour long takedown video podcast about me. Speaking engagements, preaching engagements, nationwide, canceled within days. So it was real, and it wasn’t just like trolls on social media is all I’m trying to convey. I just don’t know that, like, okay, maybe we disagree on these things. Is that the extent to which we need to go within the household of God? Apparently, so.

Jim:

Very sorry for all of that. It’s hard to hear. I think we do need to hear a bit more though. And I want to talk a little bit more in a bit about some of the history of evangelicalism and racism but stay in on your story for a little bit. This term, evangelical, has been so co-opted by politics nowadays that lots of us shy away from using it. But there’s probably something least to the adage that you can take the man out of evangelicalism, but you can’t take all the evangelicalism out of a man, at least that’s true for me, I think. What of that theological conservatism did you bring with you?

Tisby:

I mean, if we look at the history of the church and theology, the black Christians and white Christians don’t disagree on a whole ton of the foundational elements, right? Like, black churches aren’t forming because of controversies over the deity or incarnation of Christ. Like, that’s not the disagreement we have. With white Christians, it’s racism. So throughout the history of U.S. Christianity, you’re going to find a lot more in common doctrinally, then different, what you will find is a difference in emphasis. Certainly, in most black churches, you’re going to find a much more forthright and free like to preachers who are listening, the difference when you are in front of a congregation where you feel like you can say hard things, even if it’s hard, but they trust you, you’re empowered to say those things. Versus when you’re in an environment where you feel like you’re walking on eggshells. So the freedom to speak about racial justice, there’s a crucial difference because there’s a priority to it that’s existential. If black people don’t address racism, it affects our livelihood, it affects our well being, it even affects our life outcomes. So we speak about it much more forthrightly and freely in many church spaces. But for me in particular, because I was introduced to the faith through white evangelicalism. I still have a tender heart for white evangelicals and churches and institutions that are predominantly and historically white and evangelical. So a lot of folks accused me online of just abandoning this branch of the church. You don’t know my story, like I could never abandon that history, much less even now. Still constantly working with, talking to, interacting with in very meaningful ways, from friendships to professional relationships with white evangelicals in the hopes that we can together build a healthier church through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jim:

Let’s lean into that aspect a little bit more, because I think this is really interesting and really important, because now you’ve founded The Witness, which is described as a black Christian collective to educate, encourage and empower black Christians in their communities. So tell us a little bit about the work you have going on there. And then I’ll bring it back to how this interacts with white Christianity, too.

Tisby:

I am so thrilled about the work of The Witness Inc, we now have two divisions, The Black Christian Collective, which is our multimedia, and educational branch, and we also have The Witness Foundation, which is our philanthropic brand. Let me tell you about these two real briefly, the witness of Black Christian Collective is our attempt to build our own tables. We started out as the Reformed African American Network, which was ideologically, in a sense, it was a saying, Hey, can we pull up a seat at a table populated by white reformed and evangelical individuals and institutions? And will you make room for us? Can we kind of timidly raise our hand and say, Hey, we’re here? Can we say something? And what we found, especially with the tragic proliferation of anti black police brutality, and all these cell phone videos coming out, and this renewed conversation on racial justice, we found that those tables were never built for us. Again, as I said earlier, they valued our presence, but not our perspective. You can pull up a seat, but don’t say anything. Don’t try to shift the conversation. Or we’ll handle your little pet topic of race for a day or two, but then we’re moving on. So we decided, you know what, it’s the internet age, we don’t actually have to sit at the same tables, we can build our own. And so the Black Christian Collective is a website, go to thewitnessbcc.com. We have blog posts and articles, we have not just one podcast, but a whole suite of podcasts, we have videos. And it’s our attempt to address the core concerns of black people from a Christian perspective. I’m so proud of the work they’re doing there. The outgrowth of that is not just the information, but the action. So the outgrowth of that is The Witness Foundation, which we launched in October 2020 formally. This is a one of a kind, peerless program. I think it’s unmatched. I think it’s best in class program. What the centerpiece of The Witness Foundation is a fellowship that we offer to five black Christian leaders, this year it’s six, two of them are in the same region and they are splitting the award. We offer it to emerging black Christian leaders as basically equipping the next generation of black Christian civil rights leaders. So each of these folks that we’ve chosen in our initial cohort is the leader of their own nonprofit focused on justice. One is focused on helping recently freed, incarcerated people transition back to regular life, another is focused on making churches more accessible to black disabled Christians. It spans the gamut. And get this: they get over the course of two years $100,000 each to go toward their ministries in whatever way they see fit. They can pay themselves, they can hire staff, they can use it for marketing, research, infrastructure, whatever they want, we trust them. So often, when black people in general and black Christians in particular, try to fundraise, there’s not the trust factor. People are saying, well use the money this way, or you can’t use it that way. We trust these folks. In addition to $100,000 investment, they also get mentoring and training and they have the cohort experience with other people who are on a similar journey with them. I think it’s a best in class program. I think you should go to thewitnessinc.com and make a donation right now.

Jim:

There we go. BioLogos audience, there’s the marching orders call to action. How competitive of a program is this to get into for people?

Tisby: 

We had over 90 applicants on our first round, and we chose six.

Jim: 

Very good. To relate this then to Christianity more broadly in America. I’d like to ask another question here because I think some people will see a kind of tension here in what you’re doing as though it’s separating out Christian worship by races, when we should be trying to do a better job of integrating them. And I want to be careful here not to convey the wrong impression, because I think what you’re doing is amazing and I will have something else to say about that in just a minute. But maybe first, you can respond to that, particularly, with that line, from MLK himself about it being appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. How does this work you’re doing now fit within that sort of vision of reconciling races within Christianity?

Tisby:  

Well, one of the things that emerges when you study history is that there would be no black church without racism in the white church. I know that hits folks heavy because what happens in a white supremacist society is it makes race hyper visible for those considered not white, and it makes race nearly invisible for those considered white. White people seldom think of themselves as having a race. They’re just John or Bill or Susan, right? They don’t think about maneuvering the world racially, as a white person, whereas black people and people of color, we have no choice. I mean, I’m at my in-laws now, they live in the Kansas City area, when I drive up through the Delta, and parts of Arkansas and Missouri, I am hyper aware of where we are, whether I can stop in a gas station to use the bathroom and feel comfortable, whether the police are around and I get pulled over in these heavily white areas. If I walk into your church, one of the first things I do, just by reflex and not just me, every black person I know, we scan the room, are there any other black people here? Am I the only one? How often do white people even think to do that? So there’s this consciousness of race, that as black people and people of color, we have to have, that many white people don’t cultivate and don’t have it. It sticks out when we interact in church, right? It sticks out when all the sermon illustrations you’re using are from a cultural background I don’t understand. Like, you’re referencing Seinfeld, and I’m like, what about, Living Single, or whatever it might be, you’re talking about Friends, whatever, that’s a simple example. But then it gets to deeper things like, where your church is located. Am I going to a predominantly white, wealthy upper middle class suburb, and I’m the only black person, one of the few people of color there? I’m not comfortable all the time in that environment. The songs we sing, even the themes within the songs. Anyway, the divide is deep, and it’s much more than skin deep. And I think most black people, we’re perfectly fine worshiping alongside other people, if it doesn’t mean erasing my history and my heritage and my culture.

Jim:

So in the BioLogos office this past year for one of our professional development activities, we had the whole staff watch the PBS documentary by Louis Gates, Jr. The Black Church, and it was really powerful, exposed some of the deficiencies of my own education and misunderstandings of the black church. But one of the main takeaways for me from that is, in response to this question I was just asking you about here because there it seems there’s this real difference between, say, the segregation of Jim Crow and separate but equal on the one hand, and black churches on the other where I got the feeling from this documentary that the the formation of black churches were more about African Americans saying to white people, will you just let us have this one thing without coming in here and messing it up? That it’s an expression of their agency and power, rather than a symbol of being excluded?

Tisby: 

It’s so funny the way these things work. So it’s like, white people benefit from racism and crafted the structures to literally keep people separate, excluded, marginalized, at the bottom. But it’s black people who are divisive, who because we’ve formed communities where our dignity is affirmed. Like I said, there would be no black church without racism in the white church that goes back to the theology conversation we were having earlier, we weren’t having these deep theological disagreements about the nature of Christianity, we just didn’t want to be treated like second class citizens in the household of God. That is a feeling that persists to this day. By the way, black people don’t just have to go to white churches, white people can come to black churches, we just don’t want you to come in and colonize it. You can look at the Emannuel Nine, they welcomed this white supremacist, murdering terrorist, into their Bible study with open arms, sat with him for over an hour before he started shooting and killing. But the black church has always been welcoming to people who want to worship the Lord, and who respect the fact that we’re made in the image of God, just like you are too. It really upsets me if people think that black people are the ones being divisive. Racism is divisive, white supremacy is divisive. We’re trying to survive. That’s all.

Jim:

Thanks for that. I want to talk some about your books here. But first, if we could talk just a little bit about race with respect to science and religion, since again, we are BioLogos. We are painfully aware that science and religion conversations have been overwhelmingly white. But in following this ACR model you’ve proposed, ARC, where A is for that awareness, we’re now trying to build more relationships, the R, relationships with people of color, and we’re committed, the C, to pursuing not just diversity, but also equity and inclusion and justice. We are not perfect, and maybe not even a model organization in this respect. But we’re committed to keep trying. One of the ways we’re trying is by addressing topics that are more relevant to people of color. We’re still a science and faith organization, so we’re not just going to abandon that mission. But it turns out there really are topics that both science and religion can speak into with some authority, which are relevant, even vital for people of color. And the most obvious of these is race itself. So can you speak a little bit from your perspective? What does science have to say about race and then theology and the doctrine of the Image of God and what that has to say about race? Make a little speech here, if you would, appeal to the science and religion crowd of why this is an important and relevant topic?

Tisby:

Well, science, it can be used for good or for ill, as we all know, and that’s the same with race and racism. So in the 19th century, mid to late 19th century, you have this whole field of pseudoscience emerging about race, and dividing all of humanity into this social construction of race, I call this a social construction, because we know it’s not rooted in biology. So this is where you get Caucasian, Mongolian, Negroid, those kinds of categorizations. Of course, the scientists making this up, classify their own people in the highest, most intelligent, most objectively beautiful category. Interesting how that happens; just so happened, that we’re in the best group, and we’re writing this stuff, right? But that catches on society wide and in the church, because it seems to give an objective veneer to the prejudices that are practiced both individually and institutionally. That really causes a lot of problems for society as a whole to think that people based on their physical features are inferior or superior in certain types of ways. There’s some really, really pernicious and ugly comparisons between black people particularly residing in Africa, and apes, and comparing us to animals. There was one historical tract that was tackling the question of the humanity, the very humanity of black people. It was called The Negro: A Beast or in the Image of God? And the author’s conclusion was that a negro black person was more like unto an animal than an image bearer of God like white people. Thus, our proper place in his estimation was subordinate and even enslaved. So science bolsters some of that, but science can also undo that. Science can also tell us actually, we couldn’t actually physically reproduce if we were different species. That’s not what happens, right? Science can tell us with a DNA mapping just how much we have in common. How what we call race is really a function of the amount of melanin in our skin. So science also gives us a great backing to say, this whole kind of social construct of race is just that. It’s imagined. It’s made up. It has real world effects, but it’s not rooted in biology or even ontology if we’re talking theology. 

Jim: 

So then take that conversation forward now from the perspective of theology and the image of God and the necessity for all of us to be included in that in order to do it properly.

Tisby:

So I’m gonna make a bold statement, but I stand behind it. If you make an analogy between the Protestant European Reformation in the 16th century, and we know that a big central focus of that movement was salvation by grace through faith, not by works. You couldn’t pay an indulgence and buy your way to heaven, kind of a thing. So the doctrine of soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation. The same role that that played in the Protestant Reformation, 500 years ago, if there is to be a reformation in the church in the 21st century, I think the core doctrine would be the image of God. The core doctrine would be the image of God. Think about this, in the very first book, in the very first chapter of the Bible, God says in Genesis 1:26-28, let us make humankind in our image, let us make him in our likeness. That means every human being bears the fingerprints of God. By the way, that’s not just Christians. By the way, that’s not just straight people. That’s not just people on the outside, it goes for incarcerated people. That’s not just for people who speak your language. It’s not for just people who have documents saying they can be in the country. This is radical for where we are right now. We live in the most diverse, pluralistic nation, probably in the history of humanity. So don’t you think it would be important that as Christians, we have a robust understanding of what it means to be a human and how to relate to one another, especially when we’re different? That’s why I think the image of God is so critically important and for this conversation on race. Clearly, it means that all people inclusive of race and ethnicity I used to say regardless, I say, inclusive of race and ethnicity, are equal image bearers. But look, that is so theoretical. I don’t know a person, even the person who I would vehemently disagree with on every other topic, I don’t know a person who would disagree with the statement. All people, including black and white people are made in the image of God, that’s easy to say. It’s much harder to live out.

Jim:

I wonder if another one of the points I’ve seen you making here needs to be highlighted as well, that some people might go, yeah, we’re all created in the image of God. But let me do it by myself over here with my kind of people, where we’re missing something in that regard, right? I think I’m quoting you here, no single group can reflect the glory of God by itself. We need the diversity of all nations and tribes to paint a more complete portrait of God’s splendor. Is the image of God in that sense, and your understanding more of a communal characteristic of us than it is an individual characteristic of each of us?

Tisby:

I mean, yes, you’re right. You want to talk about mind blowing? In our western individualized kind of mindset when we even talk about the image of God we tend to think, as an individual, one or the other person, we all bear the image of God. Seldom do we think collectively, that we bear the image of God. But it strikes me in Revelation 5:9 and Revelation 7:9 when they give the glorious image of worshiping God in eternity. God is speaking of whole people groups, he says the nations, he says the tribes, the tongues or the languages, right? That to me conveys a sense that there is something beautiful in the diversity globally, of different kinds of people, the different foods we eat, the different languages we speak, the different styles of clothing and dance and all of that. All of that’s going to be redeemed and preserved to a certain extent in the eschaton. We’re not going to become some bland, uniform people. There’s something about the manifold, splendiferous, wonderous differences, that God says is good, and reflects who God is more accurately than if we all spoke the same way, ate the same things, practiced the same customs, you know what I mean? So, I think a lot of people are going to be real surprised in heaven. Like, I thought everybody’s gonna be just like me. No, no, no, no, no, no.

Jim: 

Another topic that BioLogos has been deeply engaged in for the last couple of years is COVID. Because who can’t be? So there’s an obvious scientific angle here with the understanding of the virus and development of vaccines and controlled studies about the efficacy of masks and so on.

Tisby:

Listen, has BioLogos come out with your definitive trust the science statement? I want to retweet that one.

Jim:

There’s a big statement that something like 8000 people have signed now related to that. But part of what we’ve done is we’ve tried to address this from the perspective of Christian faith of loving our neighbor, of laying down some of our supposed rights for the good of other people. I know you’ve talked some about this too. Particularly, there are disproportionate outcomes, again, for people of color with regard to COVID. So what’s the message that you’re trying to get out about vaccines and masks?

Tisby:

This is one of the hardest parts of the contemporary racial justice movement is that so many people think that because we don’t have race based chattel slavery anymore, because we don’t have legalized Jim Crow segregation, and signs over drinking fountains, etc, that racism is a thing of the past. What they fail to see is what you just mentioned the disproportionate and negative impact on black people and other people of color and the poor due to things like a pandemic. What they fail to see is that even when we’re talking about climate change, it’s most often black communities, communities of color, poor communities that are most adversely affected by pollution, by climate change, by all of the factors that go into that, because we’re located in these areas intentionally. Those are forms of contemporary racism that are a little more subtle. They’re not as in your face as, oh, you can’t come in the front door, go to the back for your food,. Like that’s overt. That’s clear to see. So if we get rid of that we’ve gotten rid of racism in a lot of people’s minds. What we’re trying to get folks to see, is the disparate impact, the inequity. Why should it be the case that literal life expectancy is greater or lesser, you can trace that by race? Is it because black people don’t want to live as long? That’s a ludicrous proposition. It’s because of other institutional factors that literally make our lives more hazardous. And those are forms of racism. This is what white Christians in particular really struggle to see. Because as individualistic as Westerners are in general, Emerson and Smith show in their book Divided by Faith as sociologists, white evangelicals, in particular, are hyper individualistic. They don’t see the institutional and the systemic ramifications of racism and inequality. And if you point it out to them, they’ll say it’s fake news, it’s fake science, it’s whatever. So that’s the battle. The other battle is stereotypes. That black people don’t want to get the vaccine. When in reality, although there is vaccine hesitancy across different groups, A, the hesitancy is different for each group. So when we, as black people have a history of maltreatment by medical professionals, we’re not likely to trust. And then B there’s also a question not of vaccine hesitancy but access, and it can be a lot harder for black people, communities of color, poor people to access the health and medical resources that other communities have. 

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, personal stories, and curated resources for pastors, students, and educators. And we’ve recently launched a new animated video series called Insights. These short videos tell stories and explore many of the questions at the heart of the faith and science conversation. You can find them at biologos dot org slash insights or there’s a link in the show notes. All right, back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Jim: 

I want to talk now more specifically about some of the books that you’ve done. The first two that you did, The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism seem to first set up the problem and then show what we can do about it. Was that intended from the beginning to follow that sequence?

Tisby: 

Yes and no. I had both books in mind for a while. But actually, I thought How To Fight Racism would be my first book, if I’m honest. Because I came up with it while I was doing my coursework for my PhD. I’m reading all these history books, I take three seminars a semester, each one requires you to read a book a week. And so I’m reading literally dozens of stories. The movement since about the 1960s among historians has been to look at historically marginalized groups, meaning black people and other people of color, women, the poor, the voices of people we don’t tend to hear from in a lot of history. So that meant reading a lot about racism. I gotta tell you, there’s something that hits different when you actually read the details, because it’s one thing to say, oh, racism was bad, we had that before. It’s another thing to read about the slave market in New Orleans, and how they would take enslaved Africans, they would grease them up to make their skin look shiny and healthy. They would parade women completely naked in front of ogling slave traders. They would separate children at the market, one slave trader would buy a nine year old boy or a six year old girl, and another slave trader would buy their mother or father. And the weeping and the wails, can you imagine? Imagine somebody’s taking your child selling them for labor for life, and you’ll never see them again. That was the reality. And then even more contemporarily lynching. How they lynched a pregnant woman, how they cut her stomach open, and baby was still alive, and they stomped it to death, before they killed the mother. How Martin Luther King, just a month into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was on the verge of losing his faith, because he just got a call at midnight after coming home from an organizing meeting. It said we’re gonna bomb your house and kill your wife and your children. For the audacity of not wanting to sit in the back of the bus. What got me so upset was all the Christians who knew it was happening and did nothing. So that’s where the idea of complicity comes in. But I wanted how to fight racism to be my first book because I was just so darn mad. I’d like to think it was a righteous anger. What should our response be at these egregious injustices? I think it’s a righteous anger. So I wanted to say, well, let’s do something. But I realized other people wouldn’t feel my same sense of urgency, what Martin Luther King in his I Have a Dream speech called the fierce urgency of now, I realized that they wouldn’t have my same sense of urgency unless they knew the history that I did. So that’s where The Color of Compromise comes in.

Jim:

Yeah, I think many of us want to acknowledge, yes, there’s a problem and move as quickly as we can to the so what can we do about it? But I think you’re right that maybe we need to dwell a little longer on the problem, let it sink in a little deeper, not out of some exhibitionist kind of tendency of can you believe this, but to say seriously, this is really what’s going on. And the comments you just made, there is what I think we need to dwell on a little bit more is that there were Christians that knew about all these things, and didn’t do any of that. So quite a bit of The Color of Compromise book is showing some of these details. What are a couple of the episodes that particularly stand out to you in the history of our church in America, that could have gone very differently, but they didn’t and they significantly affected the place of black people in the church and in society?

Tisby:  

You’re raising such an important point that none of this was inevitable. Our racial landscape, we didn’t even have to have a racial system. It was choices. It was deliberate, intentional choices by people who had power and authority. And they could have made different choices. One instance is in 1667, the Virginia Assembly was a group of white Anglican men, so these are Christians, they were responding to plantation owners who were worried about missionaries preaching the gospel to their enslaved population. They said, don’t do that, because it’s going to give them these wacky ideas about freedom and equality. So the assembly responded by saying, well, we’re Christian so we should preach the gospel. But here’s what we’ll do. We’ll say that if somebody believes the gospel and wants to be baptized, they’ll be baptized, but it won’t change their situation as an enslaved person. So they’ll remain enslaved. Baptism would not mean physical, material, social, earthly equality, it just means spiritual equality. That dichotomy has persisted to this day, between the spiritual and the material, and what liberation actually means. In addition, you see the confluence of three things, race, religion, and politics. You have this political entity, making a law pertaining to religion that’s focused on race. That tells me, we can talk about these things distinctly, but race, religion and politics are always intertwined. So don’t tell me I’m being too political and talking about race. Don’t tell me that talking about race isn’t doesn’t have something to do with religion, because the Virginia Assembly thought it did. Another one that’s very well known, but I think we sort of underplay the significance of it is how the major denominations Methodist Presbyterians and Baptists all split over the issue of race based chattel slavery and whether or not to preserve it. One of the things that people don’t realize about the SBC splitting in 1845, is they split over the question of whether a missionary, a white missionary, could hold slaves domestically, and go preach the gospel to other black and brown people internationally.

Jim:

Because some people were saying that’s okay. 

Tisby:

Right. It didn’t even raise a flag for them. So the ability that that racism and white supremacy creates to have this cognitive dissonance is breathtaking and astounding.

Jim: 

Well, there’s an established theological tradition in America that can sometimes be critical of the theology of black theologians, charging them to be unorthodox usually by taking a line or an idea out of context. But there’s more than a tad of hypocrisy there, right, that since some of the white theologians held up as the very models of orthodoxy believe that chattel slavery was okay. Tell us a little about George Whitfield or Jonathan Edwards in this regard. This was shocking to me. I need to hear it and I know other people need to hear this.

Tisby:

So George Whitfield was British, but was an evangelist in the United States was one of these folks who was a critical figure in the Great Awakening where thousands of people came to faith. He was initially pretty ambivalent about race based chattel slavery until he found out how lucrative it could be. So somebody essentially gifted him some enslaved people. They made him money, he then used that money to finance an orphanage in Georgia. Which again, is that sort of cognitive dissonance, right? You’re doing something ostensibly really good for orphan children, but you’re doing so, you’re financing it based on the economic exploitation and enslavement of African descended people. And both are true. Then the he went further, Georgia was originally ambivalent on slavery too, it wasn’t founded as a slave state. But Whitfield actually writes the governor of Georgia says, Hey, you got to get in on the slavery thing. Y’all can make a lot of money and it can establish Georgia. So it’s very deflating. Both Whitfield and Edwards, when I’m in seminary when I’m reading these books on reformed theology, all this stuff, they’re held up as these great models of Christian faith and theology. They’re heroes of the faith. Jonathan Edwards, many people call him America’s greatest theologian. To which I say, did you consider anyone else other than white men? Or let’s just make the bar even lower, did you consider a non slave holder? Because we know not only that Edwards owned and enslaved people, we know the name. Her name was Venus. She was 14. Enslaved. I believe, if I recall correctly, the Bill of Sale is on the back of a piece of parchment. On the other side a sermon is written. They didn’t have a lot of money for paper back then so they use paper over and over again. The dissonance. So what I’m saying is, as a historian, I think we should learn about these people as historical figures. As someone who went to seminary and has an MDiv, as somebody who is ordained to preach and teach, as a follower of Christ in the United States in particular, I don’t think we should be holding up these folks as exemplars of theology or the faith. And what I say is, if you can find somebody who’s saying substantially the same things, but they didn’t own people, why not go with them?

Jim:

Well, there are lots more of those stories that we could talk about. And I encourage everybody to read The Color of Compromise, really powerful in exposing this history of compromise. But in the interest of time for this conversation, let’s move a little to the next book, How to Fight Racism. Particularly here, the reason for us talking right now is you have a brand new one out, a new edition of this, a young readers edition of How to Fight Racism. How did this come about?

Tisby:  

The folks at Zondervan said this would be fantastic for kids, will you adapt? It was like, I never thought of that, but yes. It just so happens that we’re in this time where teaching race, racism, white supremacy in schools is under assault. Under the banner of critical race theory, which we don’t have to go into it, but we know this is a legal theory taught in law schools, not K through 12 schools. So what critical race theory has become is a junk drawer, in which you throw everything I don’t like about what people are talking about around race. You throw in terms like white fragility, and white privilege, and institutional racism, and whatever term or concept makes you feel uncomfortable becomes critical race theory. Regardless of the merit of it, regardless of whether it’s actually critical race theory. That’s what’s happening now. As parents, we have agency, we don’t have to take this, we don’t have to lie down and lose this battle over education and awareness. So many people I talked to whether they read The Color of Compromise, or How to Fight Racism, if they’re adults, they say I never knew. They say, I wish I had known sooner. Guess what, folks? It’s our opportunity to make sure that the next generation of young people doesn’t say the same thing as adults. Which means we need to take ownership of our children’s education in general, but particularly around race. How to Fight Racism, the young readers edition is ideal for kids 8 to 12 years old, fourth through sixth grade, and you can go a little lower or a little higher, of course, might even be good for adults. If you’re like me, you need to break it down.

Jim: 

I was going to say, I just had a read through this. And it might say more about me, but I thought it was really engaging. Maybe I need to read more young readers books.

Tisby:

I’m going to get myself in trouble. I think in some ways, it’s a better book, because I had to think more carefully through… Because racism doesn’t make sense. It so doesn’t make sense. Like how can someone who is a different skin color be better or worse than someone else? And then how does it include certain kinds of people but not others? Like, how did the Irish become white? You know, how? I mean, it has an internal insidious logic, but it’s really not logical. How do you explain that to a young person? I use lots of stories, and I use lots of personal stories. I talk about the Chicago Bulls and I talk about my time, my earliest memories of race. I try to connect it in ways that young people will understand. But I still utilize the ARC of racial justice, Awareness, Relationships, Commitment. Then I adapted the steps, along with my co-writer, Josh Mozi, we adapted the steps for young people. So it’s things like look at your school’s Student Handbook, see if there’s anything about how to handle issues of bullying that are racially motivated. It’s running for student government, if you want to be part of changing the rules and the policies at your school, it’s all kinds of things, book clubs, all kinds of things that even young people can do to actively get in. The other cool part about the young readers edition is it sort of combines Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism. So there’s a big chunk in there about history. We talk about, in a sensitive way for kids, we talk about Emmett Till, we talk about Rosa Parks, we talk about Ida B. Wells, and Frederick Douglass. We talk about black history in general, and we talk about why there’s the need, even as a young person, to get involved in the struggle against racism. I’m super excited about it. It comes out January 4th 2022, it’s available for pre-order right now, wherever books are sold. It would be so much fun to go through it with your children, the young people, you get the adult version, they get the kids, you both get the kids version, whatever you want to do, but go through it together. I think it’d be powerful.

Jim: 

I referred a little bit earlier, and you just mentioned the ARC model that you’ve developed, again, Awareness, Relationships, Commitment. Here in this book, for the young readers at least, there feels like a really strong emphasis on relationships. One of the points you make here too is that studies have shown that if you don’t make interracial relationships or friendships when you’re young, it’s a lot harder when you get older. Is this an intentional way of getting at some of the more systemic issues that we hear about so much in the news? That the real issues are these systemic and critical race theory and all of this, but that you’re approaching it primarily through relationships to begin with? Is that what you’re trying to do?

Tisby:  

You got my strategy, you uncovered it. You’re a scientist, you did your investigation. Yeah, I mean, look, kids have a lot more opportunity and a lot easier opportunity to develop relationships with people who are different. They’re going to school, which means there’s a bunch of people in their sort of age and stage of life where it’s easier to make friends. When we’re adults, we’re around younger people, older people, we got our own families, we just don’t even meet as many people as young people do. It’s really a critical time and then I think even based on our own experience, we can kind of see how this works. Oftentimes, the adults, especially white people, who really get it about race, it started in their childhood. It’s oftentimes kids who had a particular upbringing, they played sports, and they were around a lot of people of color. They were missionary kids, and literally lived cross culturally in a different place. Or they were military brats and they were thrown in with a whole bunch of different types of people. Because they had these formative experiences, as kids being around people who were different, maybe even as a white person, they were in the minority in a certain culture or community, they grow up with a much more expansive understanding of different people groups, different cultures, different ways that people experience the world based on their race, or ethnicity, or nationality, or language, or whatever it might be. Wouldn’t it be great if we as adults who are concerned about racial justice, intentionally give our young people opportunities to interact with folks who are different so that they grow up knowing the beauty of diversity? That’s all I’m saying.

Jim:

Nice. As a way of connecting these relationships with some of the more systemic issues of race in our country, I thought you gave a really helpful discussion in this book too for kids, helpful for me again, the distinction between guilt and responsibility. Could you talk about that just a little bit with regard to people growing up saying, okay, I see that I may be part of one of these majority cultures, more privileged. And yet I feel bad about all this that’s gone on. And how do I handle that? This sense of white guilt that gets talked about sometimes, talk a little about the difference between guilt and responsibility.

Tisby:

I really think it’s only troublesome when it comes to a topic like race. We understand the difference between guilt or culpability and responsibility in other contexts. For instance, if I buy a used car, it’s gonna have some wear and tear on it. Maybe the transmission is wonky. I didn’t do that. I’m not the one who made that a problem, but it’s my car now and so it’s my responsibility to fix it. In the same way as, you get hired at a new job, maybe you’re the leader of the organization, or you have some senior position. So you have some say in how things are going. You get in and find there’s a lot of dysfunction, units aren’t communicating with one another, people are at each other’s throats being catty and gossipy, there’s an unhealthy organizational culture. You didn’t create that, you weren’t even there, you’re not, quote unquote, guilty. But now you’re in the position where you’re responsible for it, it’s your problem now. This is the same thing that happens with race. None of us alive today enslaved people, like they did 160 years ago. But the legacy of that we’re still responsible for especially because in so many subsequent generations, people have kicked the can down the road expecting it to go away, or someone else to handle the problem. We don’t have time to get into it. So you know, I’m not trying to open a can of worms. But that’s the whole reparations discussion, it would have been a lot easier to handle in 1866, right after the Civil War, when all the enslaved people were still alive. It was like, who does it go to? Last year, I was owned by this person so that’s who it goes to. Now, it’s a lot more complicated, right? Because people want to just say, well, I’m not guilty of it so I don’t have any responsibility. Come on. Plus, that’s not the way Christianity works, right? Like, Jesus wasn’t guilty. There are a lot of people within communities that aren’t guilty for the individual actions of people in their community. But the community has responsibility because they understand something like the common good. They understand something like, we’re connected. I don’t know, maybe it’s a function of being so individualistic. Just me and my relationship with God, just me and my Bible, just me and my actions, and if I didn’t do it, I don’t have any responsibility. But again, I think it’s very selective. I think when it comes to race, that’s when people say, well, I’m not guilty, so I’m not responsible. I think if we look at other areas of life, we’ll see that we’re not consistent in that assumption.

Jim: 

Another really helpful little metaphor you brought out in this that I think might help people to see some of the difference of the way race conversations work for white people versus people of color, is the metaphor you made between the light switch and the smoke alarm. How are these and how do these speak to our experience with race?

Tisby:  

So for a lot of white people, racial justice and doing something about racism, it’s like a light switch that you flip on and flip off. So in 2020, when we see George Floyd in the video with the officer literally kneeling on his neck for over nine minutes, as it turns out, oh, no, we got to do something. This is a crisis. We need to march, we need to protest, we need to do a black block on social media to show our solidarity, whatever it might be, we need to make Juneteenth a holiday. That happens and then and then it gets hard. And then it gets long. Then people in your family say, oh, you’re posting political stuff, or you’re becoming one of those liberals. Then you flick the light switch off. You go back to business as usual. You may feel bad, but you don’t really do much differently. But for black people, it’s different. It’s more like a smoke alarm. Smoke alarm is always on. And it has to be because it has to be sensitive to smoke, sensitive to danger at all times or you’re going to get burned. And the same thing with race. We have to be sensitive to it, aware of it at all times, or it’s going to be dangerous for us. White people realizing like this is not something that we can turn on and off at the flick of a switch, not something that we can choose to ignore for very long because it always confronts us in some way, shape, or form. True solidarity, true allyship will turn that light switch on and cover it over with duct tape so people can’t flick it off and stay in the struggle with us.

Jim: 

Yeah, that’s really helpful. I mean, this is just what you’re talking to earlier, you walk into a church, you can’t help but look around the room to see if anybody looks like you. This is always going on in the background at least. And more often in the foreground, probably right? Well, this has been a really good conversation, Jemar, I appreciate it. We’re about out of time here. Maybe in closing, let me ask what do you hope the future of American Christianity and race looks like? Project yourself ahead to the end of your career maybe, imagine that you’re fully satisfied with what’s been accomplished, paint a little picture for us of what that world would look like, if you would?

Tisby:  

You’re giving my powers of imagination a lot of credit. But if we use our prophetic imagination, as Walter Brueggemann says, I think there’s going to be new churches and new institutions, because it’s really hard to turn around existing institutions that weren’t focused on racial justice from the foundation. I think we would look back, particularly on the 2010s, and 2020s, as a sort of flowering of innovation, and entrepreneurship, even within Christian circles, that regardless of the entity’s focus, would understand the importance and the necessity of diversity in unity from the ground up. I think it would be a much more common experience… My hope and my goal is simple, and it’s based a lot on my experience of feeling alienated in churches. My hope and my goal is that any person of any race or ethnicity could walk into any Christian congregation and feel like they’re home. That feeling of welcome. Even if they’re the only one, but understanding, we value you for who you are, and you don’t have to check your culture or your history or your race at the door, we want you to bring all of that, just like God wants you to bring all of that into God’s presence we want you to bring all of that into our presence too. Then lastly, I think it would be we have a lot more black ownership. I mean that both in the economic sense, and in the sort of cultural sense. And in terms of power. A big challenge for white people is going to be to help without being visible, to help without sort of putting oneself in front and saying, look at my good works. That means empowering black people than other people of color to own the business or to give them the money or finance their endeavor, but let them have it. It gets back to that conversation on trust that I was talking about before. To be the sort of silent partner in certain ways of racial justice. So what would be the result is black people, not always having to rely on other people, but having the resources to do for ourselves the resources that were and still are being denied to us in so many ways. So in broad strokes.

Jim:

Well, that’s a beautiful picture, may it be so. We pray with you and work actively with you. I hope many of our listeners here will read the books, go to The Witness and make a donation and empower the black community in those ways that really need to happen.

Tisby:

I would love it if they also followed me on my newsletter. If you want to see my more recent writings, books take a long time to write but I have more to say in between. And you can go to jemartisby.substack.com. Subscribe for free or if you want to support my work, you can sign up for a paid subscription. So that’s another way to keep track.

Jim:

Very good. Jemar thanks so much for talking to me here today. I’d be pleased and proud to stand with you anytime, anywhere and support the things that you’re supporting.

Tisby: 

I appreciate that so much, I had so much fun on this. I appreciate you.

Jim:

Thank you.

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Jemar Tisby

Jemar Tisby

Jemar Tisby is the author of The Color of Compromise, a New York Times bestseller, and How to Fight Racism, as well as the recently published How to Fight Racism Young Reader’s Edition. He’s also the co-founder of The Witness: a Black Christian Collective and co-host of the podcast Pass the Mic. 


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