Book Review: The Color of Compromise

“No justice, no peace!” This has been the cry of many over the last several years as debates, sit-ins, protests, riots, and books abound on the topic of social injustice. You would have had to have been living under the proverbial rock if you haven’t seen or heard these cries for justice flow throughout American society. Now any well-meaning Christian ought to be able to gladly affirm that cry. There is surely no peace where there is no justice. Injustice breeds division in society. But before we go on hitching our wagons to the recent cultural cry we must stop and ask ourselves, “What does the Bible actually say about justice?” Justice is a thoroughly biblical concept, but is what is being promoted as justice, and injustice, today what the Scriptures have in mind?

Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, is known within evangelicalism for his fervency, whether it’s through blog posts, social media, or lectures, in calling for social justice for all those who have been oppressed. His new work, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, is his effort to put down on paper what he has been calling for over the past several years. The book is primarily meant to be a historical survey of the American church’s complicity, both actively and passively, in racism towards ethnic minorities. Tisby uses this historical survey to then lead into a bold call for the American church, and primarily white Protestants, to repent of its modern-day complicity in racism, and to begin engaging in social justice for the oppressed in our society. His practical applications towards racial reconciliation are as bold as one would imagine if you’ve been following him for any length of time. It’s my heartfelt aim to review Tisby’s arguments with Christian charity. There are elements of the book that I am thankful for, while there are other elements that I find to be biblically untenable and missiologically anemic.

Before I begin engaging with some of the arguments in the book that I found troubling, I wanted to express gratitude for much of the historical survey that made up the majority of the book. Christians are called by God to be truth-tellers, to walk joyfully in obedience to the ninth commandment as those who have been reconciled to the Father through the truthful obedience of the Son. There are parts of the survey where Tisby subtly advances his own political biases, often through the usage of sweeping statements or assumptions that he can discern the intentions of most white Americans. [1] The majority of what he presents, however, is worthy of deep reflection. Many Christians throughout the history of America vigorously defended American chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws, and that reality ought to give us a humbling punch to the gut. Those who would affirm orthodox theology on many points were often the first to rob Africans and Native Americans of the dignity they had as image-bearers of God. Those who would affirm the perpetuity of God’s moral law for the Christian would then break that law as they hung African-Americans from trees. Here in America we have a history that ought to grieve our souls, and there’s no need to sanitize that. We must be truth-tellers. We must be those who can honestly reckon with the past, in order that we may interpret it through the lens of Scripture and seek to walk in a gospel-motivated obedience to God’s commandments in our own generation. The sins of our American forefathers cannot be imputed to us, despite the claims of many in recent years, but we are to reflect humbly on their failures and search our own hearts with transparency. Before God, I will not be held accountable for the racist actions and words of my grandfather, but I will be held accountable for the intentions of my own heart. History, when looked at through the lens of the sufficient Word of God, is a great tool for humble reflection. It’s my prayer that as we humbly reflect upon the realities of past racism, particularly within the American church, we would be pointed to both the sufficient atonement for sins of racism provided by our Lord Jesus and to a deeper, joy-filled obedience to God’s Ten Commandments towards fellow man.

Tisby’s historical survey then moves into a call for the American church to practically act out racial reconciliation. Racial reconciliation, when defined biblically, is a concept that ought to be proclaimed boldly, as we see the Apostle Paul doing in his letters to the Ephesians and Galatians. Those who are united vertically to God in Christ are also united horizontally to every other member of Christ’s body. There is no room for ethnic superiority in the kingdom of God. Rather, the various aspects of the doctrine of salvation, such as election and justification, put all of God’s people in the same category. Jews do not have a shorter way of entrance into God’s kingdom than Gentiles. All enter in through faith in Christ alone. The walls of hostility have been torn down in Christ, and His Spirit-filled people are to flesh out that reality in their local churches. This biblical understanding of racial reconciliation, however, is mostly absent from Tisby’s practical exhortations to the American church. He speaks to those biblical realities in the first chapter of the book, but then he seems to leave them completely behind in his applications at the end. When speaking to the ARC, or the action steps, of racial justice, he speaks nowhere of the only thing actually able to achieve racial unity: the gospel.[2] His exhortations seem to be fueled more by cultural understandings of justice than by a biblical understanding of Christian obedience.

In a work that encourages justice toward those who are oppressed, there was not a clearly defined, biblical definition of justice anywhere. The aim of God’s church ought to be to do racial reconciliation the way the Bible exhorts us to rather than merely co-signing cultural methodologies rooted in a hatred towards both God and genuine, biblical justice. And that is where this book falls in line with so much of what has been said within evangelicalism regarding social justice. There is often a quick call to social justice, without any firm, biblical definition of what justice actually looks like. This leaves room for unhelpful, cultural definitions to slip in, or even to be assumed, in our discussions on this topic. These are complex issues that need clarity in defining our terms rather than ambiguity. Part of loving your audience is being precise with the language you use.

To me, the great irony of the practical portion of this book lies in his affirmation of context. “Context is something Bible-believing Christians should understand better than anyone. In our passionate pursuit of biblical interpretation, we know that we must always look at the context. We want to know the historical-grammatical situation of the text so that we can accurately explain and apply it. It’s no different with racial justice.” [3] This affirmation is good and right, but Tisby is quick to jettison his own advice when speaking on the issue of reparations. [4] He rightly states that the concept of reparations is a biblical one. One needs to only look to Mosaic Law (Numbers 5:5-10) and the account of Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) as Tisby points out. The problem though lies with Tisby’s cultural application of these texts. He seems to neglect that these reparations, in context, are for individuals. There’s no Scriptural indication that anything more than individual reparations has biblical warrant. He makes an appeal to Daniel 9 in order to link an idea of corporate participation with the need for corporate reparations, but one cannot so quickly leapfrog from corporate participation, a complex enough Old Testament concept in itself, to a justification for reparations at a corporate level. Our concept of corporate participation must align with Daniel’s exilic counterpart, Ezekiel, who says, “a son will not suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father will not suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity.” (Ezekiel 18:20 CSB) While we can biblically say that the sin of a father can have lasting, generational affects, we cannot biblically hold those subsequent generations responsible, or guilty, of their forefather’s sin. Daniel’s generation of Judeans were not exiled to Babylon merely for their forefathers’ covenant-breaking. They were cast into exile because they were just as guilty as their forefathers. Tisby has to ground his argument for corporate reparations in his earlier argument in chapters 8-10 that modern-day Americans are just as participatory, and guilty, of racial injustice as the generations of slave-holders and segregationists who came before us.

While I may agree with Tisby on several points regarding current injustices in America, I would greatly differ from his argument that I am just as complicit in that injustice as my grandfather who eagerly supported segregation. My being born as a white man in America does not make me as complicit, or guilty, of racism as any older, objectively racist family member I may have. And if that’s true, then the entire argument for corporate reparations comes tumbling down. While there are legitimate, and hurtful, effects and repercussions from centuries of racial injustice, any individual white man or woman in America cannot be held accountable for the racial sins of those who came before them. To argue to the contrary would overturn much of the message of Scripture. In fact, I would take it one step further and argue that institution-forced reparations, whether in the government or the church, would be a violation of God’s moral law. Unless every citizen in America joyfully consented to giving reparations, the government would have to rob its citizens of that money. A call for government-forced reparations, as would be the likely scenario in modern-day America, is an endorsement of violating the eighth commandment towards your fellow image-bearers. It is not justice if you have to break God’s law in order to get reparations.

This takes me to his treatment of Zacchaeus to support his argument for forced reparations. In the well-known narrative, Zacchaeus is a tax collector who regularly extorted from the Jews. He ends up receiving Jesus into his home, and the Lord uses that event to give Zaccheaus faith. Part of his repentance included giving back what he had stolen from the people of Jericho, and his heart has been filled with so much generosity that he gives back four-fold. This is an example of biblical reparations, but is this example sufficient to then argue for government-wide, or even church-wide, forced reparations? I would argue that it is not. Zacchaeus was repairing the explicit injustice that he had wrought upon those in Jericho. He was returning the money he had stolen from particular people. In light of Tisby’s previous affirmation of context, it seems as if he is willing to ignore it when it comes to Zacchaeus. Part of faithful application is using a text’s context to shape how we apply that particular text to people. We do not have the liberty to take biblical concepts, like reparations, and rip them out of their biblical contexts. Biblical reparations involve the one who committed the injustice restoring what he or she took. If you break God’s law against a fellow image-bearer, you must seek to restore to the best of your ability. If I have not personally committed an injustice against my neighbor, then would it be just for me to be compelled to give to him what I did not personally take? I do not believe that’s what the Bible teaches. Biblical repentance does not include repenting of sins that I have not committed. I can gladly give generously to my neighbor, but I ought not be compelled to make restitution when I have not wronged him. This is the heart of the issue in the current conversation regarding reparations. You cannot heal an injustice by committing another one. Stealing, whether you hold to the perpetuity of the Ten Commandments or not, is unjust.

The other aspect of Tisby’s practical exhortations that I found troubling was how they actually end up detracting, or distracting, from the biblical mission of local churches. It is not a local church’s mission to donate free tuition to minority students, fund small businesses, or use up its resources for debt-forgiveness plans. [5] While individuals within the body of Christ are free to give as needs arise, the church, as an institution, is to devote the primacy of its resources to various areas of discipleship. Churches are not to act as glorified Salvation Army outposts in the community. Similarly, Tisby’s argument for new seminaries seemed more devoted to issues of contextualization than to the reality that thoroughly biblical doctrine is able to transcend and engage any culture. [6] While cultural issues and contexts are indeed helpful to engage and learn, the brunt of what pastors and teachers ought be learning in a seminary context is how to rightly divide the Word of God for His people. The church’s mission is not primarily social; rather, it’s spiritual. The church is to make disciples of every people group, equipping those disciples to go out into the world, speaking the excellencies of Christ and walking in obedience before God and men. The city of God must prepare its citizens to walk justly in the city of Man, but we must not get the cart before the horse. The kingdom of God does not advance by means of just living. It advances through the regeneration of dead souls to life. While citizens of God’s kingdom are to manifest a kingdom ethic of justice to the watching city of Man, it is foolhardy to believe that practical attempts at justice will bring souls any nearer to God’s kingdom. We must be Christians who boldly declare faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only means of justification and entrance into God’s kingdom, while boldly, and tangibly, loving the neighbors that God has put around us. While Tisby may affirm what I’ve said regarding the need for dead souls to be brought to life through the gospel, his practical exhortations towards seeking justice in America are devoid of that reality. We can live justly before the world, and work for the general flourishing of those around us, but those souls are still on the highway to an eternity of suffering without conversion.

Tisby may be correct in asserting that many within American Christianity have neglected the call to biblical justice throughout history, but I believe he has made an equal, if not more grave, error by creating a new law, or standard, for the Christian. Neo-nomianism is rampant throughout evangelicalism these days, and this book seems to fall in line with the cultural trend. In failing to ground biblical justice, and injustice, in God’s law, the door is left wide open for a new standard to be created and forced upon the people of God. Many of these action steps, as Tisby calls them, may seem legitimately loving and just, but they have no firm root in God’s law. To state, for instance, that racial justice and reconciliation cannot happen apart from actions like reparations, as Tisby presented the concept, is adding to, and actually breaks, the standard for justice and reconciliation that God gave to His people in His Word. The standard for racial justice that Tisby has created will prove to be just as fluid as the waves on the cultural seas. As culture changes, so will the standard and expectation of the people of God. How are we to know what is truly good and just for our fellow-man if we’re getting our definitions, and applications, from the culture? The answer is that we cannot really know, and this is why it is absolutely vital that Christians in modern-day culture fight vigorously for a definition of justice, and injustice, that is grounded in God’s law. God’s law is the standard for what is right and wrong. His law is the standard for whether an action is injustice towards a fellow image-bearer or not. The culture would have you believe that it knows better than God’s Word does as to what justice is. That is a demonic lie from the pit of hell.

Tisby ends his Color of Compromise much like a Southern Baptist pastor ends a sermon: with a gospel tagline. But this call to do what God commands of His people is in context to what just came before in the book. Tisby has spent the last twenty pages giving commands for the Christian to follow in order to achieve racial justice. While the good news of the person and work of Christ is always the motivation for Christian obedience, we must ask ourselves, “Are the commands just issued really what the Bible says I should follow in order to be a courageous Christian?” This is where Tisby’s ambiguity regarding a working, biblical definition of justice greatly detracts from this otherwise grand call to courageous Christianity. How am I to know whether or not Tisby’s action steps for racial justice flow from God’s standard of justice if that was never once mentioned throughout the book? And if Tisby does not ground justice in God’s law, then what is he seeking to ground it in? These kinds of questions were left burning on my mind as I read Tisby’s call to obey the steps to justice that he put forward in the previous chapter.

While there is much to affirm, and humbly reflect upon, within the historical survey in this book, I believe that Tisby’s practical exhortations toward racial justice flow more from the streams of culture than from the streams of God’s Word. Local churches are not helped in their understanding of the “doing of justice” when we just couch secular ideology in Christian lingo. When you have to commit an injustice in order to attain racial healing, as with institutionally-forced reparations, what is it that you are really seeking? The American church in our day will never grow in racial unity as long as we are heaping new laws upon it with little to no good news. Our only hope for racial justice and unity lies in God bringing dead, racist hearts to life through His glorious gospel in order that they may now walk in newness of life according to God’s good and just commandments. We’re not to trust in governments, kings, or institutions, but in the only One able to reconcile men from every tribe, tongue, and nation together under one roof.

[1]         Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019) 122, 127, 160, 165, 170, 171, 188, 189. He logically implies, I believe, that an aversion to big government is rooted in a complicity in racism on page 122. Likewise, on page 188 he states that the evangelical support for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election went beyond mere policy concerns, implying that evangelicals have an aversion to racial unity. These are a few examples where, I believe, Tisby goes further than necessary to make jabs at evangelicals, when many of the particular issues brought up throughout the survey are more complex in nature than Tisby acknowledges.

[2]         Ibid., 194-197.

[3]         Ibid., 195.

[4]         Ibid., 197-200.

[5]         Ibid., 200.

[6]         Ibid., 203-205.

Cody works as an Upper School Teacher at Cornerstone Classical Christian Academy in Montgomery, AL teaching Greek and the Humanities. He is also serving as a pastoral intern at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. He received his MDiv in Christian Ministries from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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