Racism is one of the most polarizing conversations in our world and in the church. So why should the church wade into this difficult topic? In session 1, we’ll make the case for The Color of Compromise.
On September 15, 1963, four little girls Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were brutally murdered in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The vicious attack killed these four girls and injured at least twenty more people. This was one of many such attacks of intimidation and terror that marked a brutal period of the civil rights movement, a time of violent racial tragedy.
In response to this bombing, a lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. stood in front of a group of his peers and asked this piercing question, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb?… The answer should be, ‘We all did it.’” Morgan’s question echoes today as we begin our study about racism in the history of the American church, and his quote reveals a key truth about what racial injustice and the history of racism in America needed to succeed: the compromise of Christianity’s biblical and moral convictions. Jemar Tisby points out:
“History teaches that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. There can be no confession without truth.”
The Color of Compromise tells the truth about American church’s complicity in racism. The purpose of this study guide is to equip you with the truth so that you can share it with others. Together, we can work toward correcting the American church’s embarrassing legacy of complicity regarding systemic racism. This legacy of systemic racism has harmed the lives of ethnic minorities while also sullying the church’s witness to the world. That’s why it is important to tell the truth.
The truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, will set us free from the power of racial injustice. This study guide is designed to challenge everyone who seeks to engage the truth of racial injustice with honesty and hope. Honesty requires us to look back with accuracy. Hope requires us to look forward with anticipation. With honesty and hope, the American church can shift its shameful past of racial injustice into a future of racial healing.
When speaking about racial injustice in the church, it is important to note that we will primarily be speaking about the white church and white Christian responses to Black people in the United States. Not that this is the only divide worth studying. Plenty of other divides can — and should — be explored in depth. And many of the principles covered in this study could be applied more broadly in discussing other forms of racism in the American church.
As you begin this journey, you must be honest and acknowledge how you feel confronting these uncomfortable truths. As Jemar shares with us, this could be a difficult study for several different reasons. Some people who learn these historical facts will characterize the pursuit for racial justice as “Marxist,” “liberal,” or “divisive.” Seeing others respond that way may be frustrating or even painful to hear. Lean in and acknowledge your feelings, remembering that countless other people have faced similar rejection.
Others who watch will be frustrated by the overwhelming task of unlearning the narratives that have been taught to them in the past. These narratives were often taught by people who we trusted to lead us. Identifying and replacing unhelpful teaching with better information will feel painful and, at times, heartbreaking. Do not ignore what you are losing, and honestly grieve what you have lost. No matter when you are taking this journey, remember that it is never too late to do the right thing.
Finally, we encourage you to remember that this study is rooted in Jesus. We believe that the foundation of all reconciliation was accomplished by Jesus on the Cross. Peace among racial and ethnic groups is not something we have to achieve by our own wisdom and strength. The foundation has been laid, and we must begin by receiving the work that has been done for us in faith. As we learn the hard truth about racism in the American church, remember to rest in the truth and victory that Jesus provides us.
With this in mind, pay attention to this word from Jemar as we begin: “The American church needs the carpenter from Nazareth to deconstruct the house that racism built and remake it into a house for all nations. My hope for this video series is that you would move from being actively or passively racist to being actively antiracist. I call you to abandon complicit Christianity and move toward a courageous Christianity.”
TALK ABOUT IT
True racial reconciliation can never be accomplished without understanding how we have been shaped to understand race and the concept of racial reconciliation. With that in mind, consider the following:
- Either describe an experience that has helped shape your understanding of racial reconciliation, or describe a relationship that has helped shape your understanding of race.
- Racism: A system of oppression based on race.
- Historical survey: An introduction designed to lead you into further study.
- Contingency: The ability to choose differently.
- Complicity: Silence and passivity instead of confrontation and action.
Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality, they often labored mightily against it. ~ Carolyn DuPont, Mississippi Praying
- What do you think of the definition that was given for racism (as prejudice plus power)? Have you historically thought of racism as a system or as individual acts? Share a few examples that influenced your belief.
- Before you began this study, how well would you have said the American church has done in responding to racism and racial injustice? Why?
- Without acknowledging the discomfort we typically experience when talking about race and racial injustice, we cannot move forward in ways that produce reconciliation and healing. On a scale of one to ten (with ten being unbearable and one being not at all), how uncomfortable does this topic make you feel? Give one or two reasons for your answer.
- Jemar mentioned two groups of people when he discusses potential reactions to this study. The first group of people adamantly disagrees with the church’s complicity in racism. The second group of people are unlearning the narratives of their upbringing. In which group would you place most of your Christian friends? What do you believe has influenced their views on racism?
- Racism never goes away; it just adapts. Racism has shifted from slavery to Jim Crow to a “racialized” society. What evidence have you seen of this “racialized” society in your circle of influence?
- The topic of racism is often accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame for many Americans. What feelings do you experience when talking about racism in America?
- Besides this video series and book, what resources have you studied that have helped shape your perspective on racism in America and in the Christian church?
- The key idea of this book is that the American church has been complicit in racism, choosing silence over solidarity with the oppressed. How have you seen this complicity at work in your own life?
- Before you can learn more about what Christians have done in the past, it is important to examine your own life. How many close relationships do you have (in your inner circle of friends) with people of a different ethnicity?
- As you consider the reputation of the American church, list a few reasons why you believe we are not experiencing racial harmony and justice today.
- As Christians, we believe Jesus has accomplished reconciliation on the cross through his sacrifice. Why do you believe it is necessary for us to keep this reality at the center of conversations about racism?
- Talking about racism in the American church can be deeply concerning and can create frustration and strong emotions. What do you hope to achieve with this study?
- Thank God for the opportunity to learn new information about history and to grow in understanding what can be done in the future.
- Confess where you have failed to uphold the dignity of your Black brothers and sisters and where your family may have erred as well.
- Give God praise for creating a family of every tribe, tongue, and nation. Acknowledge that more should be done to preserve this diverse family.
- Pray for family, friends, and loved ones who are still replaying the narratives of the past.
- Pray for peace and flourishing to thrive within the Black community and pray that the American church will promote it.
- Cry out to God for the American church to take responsibility in creating and preserving racial healing and justice.
The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an injustice. Indifference perpetuates oppression… Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
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We’d love to hear your thoughts on the Color of Compromise. Join the discussion in the comments!