10 min. to read.
Sitting in my home just outside of Portland, Oregon, I am only nine miles from the small square of blocks outside the Justice Center that has seen 90 nights straight of protesting that began in response to the police killing George Floyd. I’m also about 46 miles and 176 years away from where the Oregon Provisional Government signed the law that made it illegal for black people to live in the territory.
My majestic home state is a treasury of stunning natural beauty, great food, creative expression, and even (some days) progressive ideals. It also carries a long and painful story of malicious racial hatred intentionally codified into law, policy, and norm. There’s a reason the Black population in Oregon is 2.2%
Racism, racial injustice, and the systemic oppression of black people is something I’ve never had to think deeply about. Why would I? I was raised in the midwest, in a comfortable working-class white Christian family, part of a small church community where I rarely interacted with or even saw people of color. We loved Jesus. We knew Jesus loved all the children of the world, every color included.
Wasn’t that enough?
It’s not, though. George Floyd’s extrajudicial murder by police isn’t an isolated case. Breonna Taylor. Atatiana Jefferson. Aura Rosser. Stephon Clar. Bothan Jean. Philando Castille. Alton Sterling. Michelle Cusseaux. Freddie Gray. Janisha Fonville. Eric Garner. Akai Gurley. Gabriella Nevarez. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Tanisha Anderson. These are all names we know because of cell phone cameras. How many names do we not know?
In a single week, we saw a stark illustration of our policing problems and the power of white supremacy. On August 23rd, Kenosha, Wisconsin police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. What he was doing (breaking up a fight) is irrelevant. Seven shots to the back is an egregious use of force in any circumstance, not to mention when the subject is unarmed. He wasn’t shot once to incapacitate a threat. He was shot seven times when he turned away from officers to check on his three children in the car. That’s shooting to destroy. Within hours, the shooting was being defended because there was an outstanding warrant, and then because a knife was found in the car.
Three days later, a young white man had his mother drive him from a neighboring state with his AR-15 rifle so that he could “help keep order.” He shot three people, two of whom died. Cell phone video shows the Kenosha police welcoming and affirming armed citizens like this young man, giving them water bottles and telling them, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” After the shooting, the young man approached the police, apparently to turn himself in, and he was waved away.
Same town. Same police force. Within hours of each other. An unarmed black man was killed. An armed white man who had already killed in front of witnesses was allowed to drive home.
I am sick. Sick certainly for these individual injustices and the pain involved. But also sick as my illusions are stripped away.
Are you like me?
I was told that if you kept the rules, were respectful, and worked hard, you could get ahead. I was told that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave, where people could be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. I was told that if we Christians could stick to preaching the gospel, healing and reconciliation would come. But here we are. Racial tension is higher than I’ve ever seen. Arguments and blame are being flung back and forth on Facebook and at the Political Party Conventions. People of color are telling us what they are experiencing, and we are largely unwilling to listen, while we debate the dictionary definition of racism.
I still believe the way of Jesus can guide us through this, but I have learned that this will only happen when we face the truth we’ve been ignoring. But that’s Jesus’ way, isn’t it? The truth is what sets us free. First, though, the truth leads us to the painful place of crucifixion.
If you are like me, you believe things need to change. You also believe Jesus offers healing for racism and systemic oppression. If that’s you, then I have a prescription. Please pick up and read a book. The book is by Jemar Tisbey, and it’s called The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. That subtitle alone is enough to keep a whole bunch of people from even cracking the book. Pay attention! If the subtitle rankles or stirs up defensiveness, there’s a good chance this book is precisely what you need.
Who are these folks who won’t likely read it? Well, to start with, most of them look like me a bit. I mean to say they sunburn easily… white like me. These folks are also Christian or people who grew up in the Christian church and culture. Because these are my people, I’ll use “us” from here on out. Why might this subtitle scare some of us off?
Well, some of us won’t read it because we don’t think racism is anything more than one individual’s rotten heart. A racist, we think, is a terrible, selfish, sinful person. Or maybe (if that racist is of our older relatives or church heroes) they just grew up a long time ago and only believed these things because everyone else did. Either way, we think of racism as irrationally hating other people for the color of their skin.
If that’s what racism is, then, of course, the solution is for that individual racist person to learn, or grow, or have a “come to Jesus” moment repenting of their sin. But most of us don’t think we irrationally hate others because of their skin color, so we can easily dismiss any further discussion of the problem. It’s not our problem, we think. I held that view for a long time.
Some of us won’t read this book because our experience of church is generally good. Church people have been kind and loving to us. Church has given us a place to belong. This is where we learned about Jesus and found a spiritual framework for our lives. We’ve been to summer camps, retreats, and church potlucks. The idea that the church is complicit in racism just doesn’t feel like a fair accusation. We had a good experience, and the church people we know are good people, so why would we listen to someone attack what has been so meaningful to us?
Others of us won’t read the book because we’re anxious. We know the United States, and even the church, has a history of racism. We know racist actions are wrong. We agree that racist policies and practices should end. But as the tension mounts around us and in our personal circles, we don’t know what to do. Hearing the story of how systemic racist oppression has destroyed the families and futures of black and indigenous people of color is painful. Seeing how even good and kind white people have benefitted from it over time is shameful–especially when we didn’t realize what was happening. Seeing how the racism we were taught was solved in the ’60s is still a driving factor in politics today is disheartening.
Those of us who are new to this conversation can quickly feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed. It’s easier just to look away. We wish things were better, but we don’t feel like we can bear learning more.
Friends, if you see even a hint of yourself in these descriptions, I call you to courage. Here is something you can do.
For the time it takes to read a single book, assume that your lived experience is not the same as everyone else’s. Assume the possibility that the history you were taught wasn’t entirely a fair account. Take the posture of humility long enough to listen to another voice. Do this one tangible thing. Take the step to get and read this book.
If your gut intuition is that followers of Jesus ought to be part of the solution when it comes to equality, then this book is required reading. Are there things in this book that will disturb you? Yes. Will your picture of the church be challenged? Yes. But we don’t show love and loyalty by ignoring faults. The only way we can intelligently move forward is to understand our own history.
Christians have been both intentionally and unintentionally a part of building the systems that have traumatized and oppressed black and indigenous people of color. That’s terrible to face, but it also is the door to hope. If we were a part of causing this wound, we can be a part of healing it.
Jesus gave us our ethic for living: To love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That kind of love certainly includes listening to our neighbor tell us of their pain. Even if it’s hard to hear it. Even if it challenges our ideas of how the world works.
Jesus also told us in Matthew 25 that when we serve those the world considers “least,” we are directly serving Him. Maybe it’s more pleasant to think of these as the poor in faraway countries or the unborn child, but many of those considered “least” are living around us right now. Some of them are protesting downtown. Some of them are being shot in the back seven times by a police officer.
When we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be Done, on earth as it is in heaven,” what do those words mean to us? Those words only find their meaning when we are willing to act in this world in ways that align with God’s kingdom.
So, I ask you to pick up this book and read it so that you can be a part of the work that God is doing to restore what has been broken. Get it. Read it. Let your heart be changed. Together with others of like commitment, let’s change the systems that allow this kind of oppression to continue.
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
Who should read this book?
Any Christian who dares to face our history and the desire to be part of the solution to racism and racial injustice.
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