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The Color of Compromise, The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby, Zondervan, 2019.

I review books for different reasons. Sometimes a review on my blog is more for myself; that is, I want to put in writing key points I learned from the book for my own future reference. Other times, a review is more for others; that is, I think others need to be alerted to a worthwhile book. Of course, there is overlap with those two reasons, but one can predominate.

The Color of Compromise takes us all the way back to the colonial period of the U.S. and moves forward to more recent times in our nation. The focus is on the church, primarily the protestant/evangelical church, and how it approached slavery and racism. The book gets into general history, as the church does not exist in a vacuum, but the focus is on the church. It is a survey book, and certain time periods (the early years of our nation) receive more focus, while later periods are not covered as well, a bit rushed in their presentation. However, it makes sense that the foundational years, being exactly that, would receive more attention.

I debated whether to rate this book 4 or 5 stars. I give it 5 stars for the general information it provided, that many of us need to hear and consider. As I read it, I’d share challenging content with my husband that made me think or startled me. Read this book! But I give it 4 stars for the way it presented the history and analysis. Something seemed missing, that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe certain arguments weren’t adequately tied together in the book? If it was 50 pages longer, that may have helped, but then it would have then been too long for a survey book and not as appealing to your average reader.

The points I now highlight may not be the ones that would “jump out” to you if you read this book. Some more disturbing content did not jump out to me ONLY because I’ve read books such as Slavery by Another Name, America’s Original Sin, and The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

One point that stood out to me was that at multiple times in the colonial period and in the earlier years of our nation, we could have taken a different direction than we did regarding the equality of blacks. But sadly, small decisions were made, that compounded, and led to an entrenched racism. It could have gone the opposite way, but instead there was “compromise” – fertile soil was created for racism to grow as our nation developed.

One example, that oddly tied in with an obscure book I read earlier this year about the Dutch Reformed colonists/church in the colonial period and early America. I read that book related to my personal genealogy interest, but there was a chapter that covered the Dutch Reformed treatment of blacks. It corroborated Tisby’s book. Christianity had a long standing tradition that Christians, being spiritual brothers and sisters, could not enslave each other  – and Christianity is also an evangelistic faith. Well, if your black slaves become Christian, then they should receive freedom, so early plantation owners did not want their slaves to hear the gospel for fear they might believe and they’d lose their valuable, unpaid workers! Sadly, the Virginia General Assembly (made up entirely of Anglican men) met and passed a law that baptism into the faith would not confer freedom. So, the message of Christianity was compromised to accommodate slavery.

A couple years ago, the governor of Virginia (I think it was, or if not another influential political leader) made a public comment about the blacks who arrived in colonial Virginia being indentured servants. This caused a hoopla! They were slaves! Well, according to Tisby’s history, actually not. Some were indentured servants actually, and even if enslaved, they were given many rights – to earn money, purchase their freedom, and learn skilled trades. However, sadly, a direction was taken where the black vs white indentured servants ended up being treated differently and it gradually gave way to slavery for blacks. On page 34:

“Colonists may have initially seen Africans in America as laborers just like any other and patterned their economy and politics to allow for their full inclusion. American history could have happened another way. Instead, racists attitudes and the pursuit of wealth increasingly relegated black people to a position of perpetual servitude and exploitation.”

Another point of interest: “Harsh though it may sound, the facts of history nevertheless bear out this truth: there would be no black church without racism in the white church.” (page 52)

Also, the Baptists in the early 1800s debated whether being a slaveholder was a sin and whether a slave owner could have certain positions in the church. The Baptists split over this, and in 1845 a new church was formed, inclusive of slaveholders, called the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Yes, this is how the well-known Southern Baptists became a denomination! (Other denominations had similar struggles too.)

I was also enlightened to learn about the “Lost Cause” narrative in the south after the Civil War. It was a “narrative about southern society and the Confederate cause invented after the Civil War to make meaning of the devastating military defeat for southern, white Americans. The Lost Cause mythologized the white, pre-Civil War south as a virtuous, patriotic group of tight-knit Christian communities….It functioned as a form of civil religion with saints, devils, liturgies, and symbolism.” (pages 93-95)

In close, this book did not make me feel beaten down as a white person or personally chastised, but simply presented facts of history that are disconcerting and disturbing, and should enlighten us and challenge us. The past HAS affected us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not! As someone from a white European background, I have benefited from a racist system. The final chapter of the book has practical ideas for acknowledging the past, moving forward, and bringing racial healing and justice.