How to Fight Racism: An Interview with Jemar Tisby

How to Fight Racism: An Interview with Jemar Tisby

Jemar Tisby generated a lot of necessary conversation about the intersection of race, social justice, and the global church in 2019 with his best-selling book, The Color of Compromise. With that book, he laid the historical foundation of racism in the church. In the last chapter of the book, Tisby shares practical tips for fighting racism. In his new book, How to Fight Racism, Tisby continues the conversation, but this time around he provides an actual framework that churches and Christian groups can use toward racial reconciliation.

“In a lot of ways, they [the books] pair together really well. Now, they can be read independently of each other. So, I don’t want folks to get scared if they didn’t read the first one. You can dive into the second. From my perspective, the second book is what I wanted to be the first book. I was really passionate about getting in there, getting involved in doing something about racism. But in conversations with publishers and advisors and things like that, it became apparent that we really needed to lay the groundwork for the problem of racism and white supremacy in this country. Especially as it relates to the church. And basically, diagnose the problem before we jumped to solutions,” said Tisby.

Tisby’s solution is built around a model he created called the ARC of Racial Justice. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. From Trayvon Martin through the Black Lives Matter Movement and even the tumultuous racial conflicts during the Trump presidency, many people have become more acutely aware of our country’s problems centered around race. But committing to developing relationships with people who may not have the same views as you do or are coming from a different cultural perspective and, in doing so, breaking down racist structures takes more of a plan for change.

“What I’m hoping for is that this sparks ideas for people to gather a group of folks around them and say, ‘Hey, let’s do something.’ And I am really looking forward to stories trickling in over the next year and two years or whatever, so that when we do the updated and revised version of How to Fight Racism, I can include stories from the field, so to speak,” Tisby said.

So, what about Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a way to combat racism? CRT argues that diversity training and changes in the laws are needed to combat structural obstacles created by white people that make for an unequal playing field in our society when it comes to people of color. Some people believe that CRT is a huge threat to the church. Tisby doesn’t see it that way. He says people who are dismissing it are using an old tactic — from tactics during the Civil War, when pro-slavery people used terms like “carpetbaggers” and “scallywags,” to the Jim Crow segregationists’ labels of “outside agitators,” to modern usages of Red Scare smears of “communists” and “Marxists.” Now, the label is “Critical Race Theory” proponents and is being used by people whom Tisby says want to defend a racist status quo.

“All of these things are about controlling the narrative. And what happens is, if I can use a label like Critical Race Theory, I can paint it as bad, slap you with it. Then I can put you in a box, put you on the shelf, and I don’t have to actually listen to what you’re saying about racism and white supremacy,” Tisby said. “What we have to do is not get distracted from the main issue, which is Christian nationalism. It has infected so many parts of the church in the U.S. and even beyond.”

Many white Christians don’t experience racism the same way as Black people and other people of color because the Christian nationalists are in their families, in their churches, and some cases, they’ve acclimated to that way of thinking. Tisby says it’s hard for them to see it as an urgent existential problem that the marginalized and oppressed people do. That said, he has noticed that the social justice marches and movements have had an impact. White women in particular, from a 30-something who teaches Bible study at a nursing home to 70-year-old women, have reached out to him via social media and seem catalyzed to start taking action.

“It might’ve had to do with the past year or two and what they saw, especially politically. White Christians are starting to realize, ‘Oh my, like these differences are real. They’re salient. They’re in my church. They’re in my family,’” Tisby said.

It’s no easy task to be as explicit as Tisby directs white Christians about calling out Christian nationalism and white supremacy in their ranks. We know how it’s infected historically and theologically what they do. He often praises Fannie Lou Hamer’s efforts, who became a nationally known civil rights activist after seeing a presentation about voting rights at her church. Tisby admires how she always connected her activism to her faith. With that in mind, what should Black Christian activists be doing now?

“We are going to have to protect our peace. We are living in perilous times right now. And I find myself even just scrolling through Twitter or social media and whatnot, that I’ve got to take breaks because the flood of negative news, the flood of anti-Blackness, all of that stuff is too much to handle all at once. So, we will have to cultivate communities that affirm our dignity, that affirm our being made in the image of God. You got to go out and seek it and find it.”

William Pannell wrote ‘The Coming Race Wars?’ nearly 30 years ago. It still resonates today

William Pannell wrote ‘The Coming Race Wars?’ nearly 30 years ago. It still resonates today

(RNS) — In his book, “The Coming Race Wars?,” theologian William Pannell foresees the poor and disenfranchised engaging in violent urban uprisings and revolts across the world similar to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It will only be a matter of time, he writes, “before some cop blows it again in his or her treatment of a Black person, probably a Black man.”

Police brutality, racist and discriminatory lending practices, lack of well-paying jobs could push Black people and other marginalized communities to revolt, Pannell predicts. And the evangelical church — with all its influence, resources and its supply of missionaries across the world — is ill-equipped to address social issues at home, he argues.

Pannell, professor emeritus of preaching at Fuller Seminary, pushes back against the notion that Jesus is all people need to make it.

“I really do believe that people — all people — need Jesus,” Pannell writes. “But to make it in society, white Christians realize they need a lot more than salvation. They may expect Black people to be content with salvation in Christ. But that is not enough for the white Christians themselves.”

While the debate has been “between those committed to evangelism and those committed to justice,” Pannell writes that “what we should be striving for is a spirituality that will inform both evangelism and social transformation.”

Pannell wrote “The Coming Race Wars?” nearly 30 years ago.

“The interesting thing about this book is that it sounds so contemporary, even though it’s about 30 years old,” Pannell, 92, told Religion News Service. “Why is that? What is there about this book that makes it so painfully contemporary after so long a time?”

The book was first published in 1993, in the wake of the 1992 uprising that erupted in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. Now, in the wake of 2020’s racial justice uprisings after the killing of George Floyd, Pannell has released an updated version.

“The Coming Race Wars: A Cry for Justice, from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter” was published in June, and features a new introduction by Jemar Tisby, author of the book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” and an afterword that Pannell began writing before COVID-19 struck the nation and prior to the police killing of Floyd that sparked protests across the country against police brutality and in support for Black Lives Matter.

In the afterword, Pannell explains that he essentially began writing it nearly 30 years ago, when Rodney King called for an end to the riots, publicly asking on television: “Can we all get along?”

“The question of the Black man from Los Angeles loomed large thirty years ago and it still throbs with meaning,” Pannell writes.

Pannell, in the new epilogue, seeks to answer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s question, “Where do we go from here?” But the meaning of “here” is something Pannell grapples with.

He underscores the death of King and recalls the crowd leaving the March on Washington “wondering about the future.” He highlights Billy Graham’s 1970 “The Unfinished Dream” speech in front of a predominantly white crowd and how his “power and prestige legitimated the marriage of God and country.” Pannell documents Graham laying the foundation for evangelical support for conservative agendas. After his death and the “evangelical movement shattered along ideological lines,” he asks, “What’s next?”

Pannell brings readers back into the present, to the Black Lives Matter protests and to former President Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore where he “drove the dagger of division deeper into America’s heartland,” and asks again, “Where do we go from here?”

“The here, unfortunately, is pretty much what it was 30 years ago,” Pannell told RNS.

To Edward Gilbreath, vice president of strategic partnerships at Christianity Today, the expanded and new version of Pannell’s book serves as a historical reflection but “also as a statement on how far we haven’t come.”

“Dr. Pannell was not afraid to speak the truth to power in evangelical circles at that time. He was very much engaged and a part of the predominantly white evangelical community,” said Gilbreath, who in 2019 helped spearhead Pannell’s updated book when he was an executive editor at InterVarsity Press.

“This gave him a very intimate perspective in terms of being trusted and someone who is not just criticizing for criticism’s sake, but he really cared about the church and wanted to see real change because he loved the church,” Gilbreath added.

With this version of the book, Gilbreath said he hopes to introduce Pannell to a new generation, those who may know about evangelist Tom Skinner “but have not heard the name William Pannell.”

Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s crucial to contextualize how the original book was published at a time when L.A. was reckoning with the aftermath of what’s been described as one of the worst race riots in American history.

“It was important to talk about the ways in which evangelicals hadn’t paid attention to race,” said Butler, author of “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.” “He was already working on that book when the L.A. riots happened.” Butler dedicated her book to Pannell.

Butler juxtaposes “The Coming Race Wars?” with Pannell’s 1968 book, “My Friend, the Enemy,” where he seeks to explain how white people, including those Pannell knew and loved, could “at once be both friend and foe.” In it, he centers his experience as an evangelical Black man among Christians who seldom challenged white supremacy.

“That book was trying to address back in 1968 the same kind of issues that he was addressing in 1993, and here we are in 2021 with the updated version, and evangelicals still haven’t gotten it yet,” Butler said.

Pannell recognizes that a majority of evangelicals supported Trump and his administration. “It has become clear that this segment of the church is deeply divided and segregated not only by theology but by political ideology,” he writes.

The race wars may still be coming, Pannell writes, but he also highlights how the “command of the risen Christ to his followers was that they go into all the world and make disciples of the nations. Not build churches; not make converts. Make disciples.”

“It seems fairly clear today that we have far more churches and Christians than we have disciples,” Pannell writes.

In his afterword, Pannell poses the question: “What, after all, does it mean to be the people of God today?

“Moving forward from here will require a greater investment in discipleship, a deeper commitment to beloved community, and a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit,” Pannell writes. “In other words, we’ll need to be the church.”

 

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

What did church teach the students posing in front of Emmett Till’s marker?

Video Courtesy of CBS News


The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.

White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.

Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”

To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.

The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.

One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”

Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.

Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.

Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?


Video Courtesy of NBC News


The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.

It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.

In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.

They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.

Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.

Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.

No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.

White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.

Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.

If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.

Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.

Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.

What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?

No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.

If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Why African-Americans Need A “Big God” Theology

Why African-Americans Need A “Big God” Theology

Pastor Anthony Carter, the author of On Being Black and Reformed, is a part of a growing number of pastors, academics, and faith leaders who espouse what could be called a “Big God” theology. (Photo Credit: epointchurch.org)

Last year I participated in one of the most memorable worship services of my life. Pastor Mike Campbell of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, preached a biblically sound and passionate sermon on Titus 2:11-14 to a mixed congregation of hundreds of white and black believers in a visible demonstration of what he called “Big God” theology. Pastor Mike told of his journey into Reformed theology and explained that he was attracted by the glorious picture of God. I find that this phrase – Big God theology – encapsulates the essence of Reformed theology and why the African American community needs it.

I am black and Reformed, part of a small but growing number of African Americans finding the Big God of the Bible through this theology. To be clear, Reformed theology is not equivalent to the gospel. God is God, and no theological system can fully encompass or ever replace the Almighty. Yet Reformed is still a useful banner that captures essential teachings of Christianity carefully derived from the Bible.

Unfortunately, Reformed theology often gets reduced to its views on salvation. Big God theology says that God is the king of the universe, and as part of his royal power he determines – yes predetermines – who will be judged according to his own works and who, by grace through faith, will be judged according to Christ’s work. Numerous biblical passages point to this reality (Rom. 8:29-30Acts 13:48Eph. 1:4-5), but there is more to Big God theology than election.

What attracted me to Reformed theology is the centrality of God. I went to a Catholic school for my undergraduate degree, but I was never a Catholic. Although I had been an active leader in my Baptist youth group, college was the first time I had to explain my Protestant beliefs. I remember reading books by John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and I was taken by how they kept God at the center of their theology. God is the sun in their theological solar system, and all aspects of life revolve around him, held in orbit by his gravitational pull. I have found no other comprehensive doctrine derived from the Bible that gives me the same sense of God’s bigness that Reformed theology does.

Gospel Transformation

I have spent years attending black churches and witnessed the harm caused by mishandling the Word of truth. Many black churches have wandered far astray from the sound teaching of the Bible, but we do well to remember that there are reasons for this departure. Many of the colleges, universities, and seminaries equipped to teach accurate understanding the Bible were not open to blacks in the past. The leaders of these institutions were steeped in the prevailing ideas of race and culture in their day, and many of them failed to apply Big God theology to their admissions practices.

The only schools African Americans could attend did not honor the authority of the Bible in the same way that Reformed theology does. As a result, human-centered ideas like legalism and prosperity theology infiltrated the pulpits and pews of black churches. The damage is evident as African Americans stumble and sometimes run toward sin and folly.

I lived and worked as an educator in the Mississippi Delta for seven years. The black community there is bruised by generational poverty, lack of education, poor health care, single parent homes, apathetic men, and nearly every other social ill. Yet the norm for my students and their families is to attend church.

As I daily encountered the fruits of these dysfunctions I asked myself, “Where is the gospel transformation?” I wondered if there were others out there like me: those who had grown up with a picture of the gospel but who could also experience a new surge of love for God and neighbor by learning of Big God theology.

I do not advocate any form of theological imperialism – indeed Reformed theology has much to learn from the black church tradition. My passion is simply to see African Americans reshaped by a bigger vision of God.

Only the God-centered gospel of the Bible has the power to renew individuals and whole communities. Reformed theology helps us understand that the gospel is all about a God who is vaster than we can possibly grasp and more personal than we ever realized.

Big Problems, Big God

My hope and prayer is that more African Americans would awaken to the reality of a Big God who cares enough to save sinners like us and who wants to have a relationship with us now and for eternity.

Rev. Mike Campbell, senior pastor of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and a mentor within the African-American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary. (Photo Credit: Reformed Theological Seminary, AALI).

For this reason, I have been privileged to work with my seminary – Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi – to launch the African American Leadership Initiative (AALI) that includes a scholarship as well as mentoring in African American, multi-ethnic, and urban ministry. Several Reformed organizations have also partnered to host the African American Leadership Development and Recruitment weekend (AALDR) that brought together experienced ministers and black seminary students to communicate that there’s room in Big God theology for people of all races. I also co-founded the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) on Facebook and Twitter to bring together Reformed thinkers – black and white, male and female, representing denominations and networks -to publish articles from a Reformed and African American perspective.

No system of doctrine is immune from critique. Those who call themselves Reformed must be willing to accept the criticism – some valid, some not – that goes along with the label. Yet for all of its shortcomings, Reformed theology provides an accessible route, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for men and women to be captivated by as true a picture of God as we can get through Scripture. Many segments of the African American community live in the grip of big problems, and only a “Big God” theology is sufficient to help them see Christ as their Savior.