All posts by Starlette Thomas

About Starlette Thomas

Seeking to lead words and people to their highest and deepest expression, I am natural shepherd of the alphabet and a few sheep.

The Color of Compromise: Jemar Tisby’s new book aims to talk about the difference race has made on American Christianity

His book arrived in the mail yesterday.  I must confess that it is one of forty books that I have ordered in recent weeks.  New home, new bookshelves, I am creating a library to support my future work on  the raceless gospel.  I want to be surrounded by these conversation partners.  I have also decided that I want to be buried under my books.  Please tell my family to pile them on top of me and now that I think about it, under me as well.

I will rest on pages.

But before then, I will read his book and so many more.  Tisby’s book is where the conversation on race and the church in North America should start: with the realization and acceptance of our role in its existence.  Race is not just a social construct, but an ecclesial one.  Beginning with the bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, Tisby calls us to account for our complicity.  He writes, “Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity.  They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing, created and maintained a status quo of injustice” (17).  For him, we must start by owning what we have allowed by letting racial identities persist and racialized injustice to continue in our families, churches and neighborhoods.

Providing a historical survey, this is more than a history lesson but a call to action.  He recounts our sinful past so that we can face this present moment with the assurance that it need not be repeated.  We can say and do something different.  Tisby is convinced of the possibility.  He says, “Christians deliberately chose complicity with racism in the past, but the choice to confront racism remains a possibility today” (19).

From American slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement, the book concludes with a how- to list, which I will not detail here.  You will need to pick up the book.  Detailing the history of race in the making of the church in North America increases the sense of urgency for the healing work required and before we put the book down, Tisby has given us several assignments.  But, these are not ones you and I can simply check off.  The change that race has made on American Christianity will require more of our time and tongue.

Tisby’s words can change how we talk about race and in turn, our Christian faith.  Now aware and accountable, we are empowered to say something different and in so doing, to truly see each other without race and for the first time.

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What are we talking about when we talk about race?

We’ve got to come back to ourselves.  We’ve got to take more than a few steps back and  we will have to step on more than a few toes in the process.  But, let’s begin to walk it back.  Let’s go back to the beginning.  Return to the first Word that is certain to be the last Word, Alpha and Omega.

Race is not God’s story with us or for us.  Race is not even a narrator.  It has no speaking role.  Instead, it is a rumor run rampant, a hand me down lie that has never fit our humanity.  An 18th century invention, it has no theological support.  Still, we cheer it on, take it on as apart of who we are.

But this race talk has got to stop.  I call on your tongues to push back.  I ask that your souls not budge, that you not give it an inch or an ear.   Instead, we must listen more deeply as race is simply skin talk, superficial gibber, surface level banter.  When we talk about our skin and its social coloring, we literally have not scratched the surface of our human being and its understanding.

Still, we carry on with our prejudicial assumptions and segregated living arrangements.  But, we must not make room for race.  Because we’ve gotten no where with it.  Carried down through these hundreds of years, carried on the backs of one generation after another, we’ve got nothing but bent back and broken hearts to show for it.  We’ve got to leave it on the side of the road now, admitting that we do not need it to survive but have used it to serve our pride, greed and lust for power.

We’ve got to confess that this has gone too far, gotten out of hand and that we are tied up by our own tongues.  Our freedom is literally on the tip of our tongues.  We need only speak the Word to return to God’s story.  Race has created this distance between us and the Divine.  A hierarchical humanity, this is a step down and far, far away from what God had in mind when God called us by name– not by social colors.

When we talk about ourselves as racial beings and not human beings, we are talking ourselves out of our shared humanity.  Our common denominator is not color but our Creator.  To be sure, race is not a likely substitute, a shoe in and certainly not a stand in, which is why we have to really think about what we are saying about ourselves and each other.  Because we are more than out on a limb or hanging ourselves out to dry when we suggest that the totality of our existence depends on our skin when Jesus came to save souls.

Race and our humanity– not even close

I am not searching for myself.  I certainly will not find her in a crayon box.  I did not wait my entire life to discover that I am a color.  The creation narrative recorded in Genesis is much more meaningful, spiritual and tells me that God breathed into the first human being and he became a living soul (Genesis 2.7; First Corinthians 15.45, emphasis added).  Besides that, the gospel says Jesus came to save sinners, to save souls– not my skin.

So, if you and I are still talking about our skin and its social coloring, then we have quite literally only scratched at the surface of what it means to be a human being.  Johannes Baptist Metz is a great teacher of human being.  He writes of the work of becoming one in Poverty of Spirit.  Metz says,

“Becoming a human being involves more than conception and birth.  It is a mandate and a mission, a command and a decision.  We each have an open- ended relationship to ourselves.  We do not possess our being unchallenged; we cannot take our being for granted as God does.  … Being is entrusted to us as a summons, which we are each to accept and consciously acknowledge.”

Consequently, when we talk about our humanity racially, I wonder what we are really talking about.  Do we even know what we are saying?  Not fully understanding the real task as outlined by Metz, we instead engage in this busy work of the flesh.  It comes to nothing and in the end, we will not be graded on our skin.

The words of race are useless, empty, adding nothing to our humanity.  It is not the test for true humanity, the answer to our lingering questions on identity or the way to becoming human.  Instead,  we must look to Christ’s teachings, his journey and hands for that.  Hands on a cross, we have to pick up our own and deny ourself in order to follow him(Matthew 16.24-26).   Talking about race does not even get us remotely close to him or our selves.

Howard Thurman’s When the Song of the Angels is Stilled

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among the people,

To make music in the heart.

First and foremost

It’s about priorities, about who has the right to take precedence, about what is more important, about the most pressing matter.  It’s about who will hold our attention and what will hold our tongues.  It’s about who will hold us back and what we will hold back no longer.  It’s about speaking up, giving voice to the lofty purposes.  It’s about stepping up, which will require us to a take a step back to see what is required.

W.E.B. DuBois prayed,

Give us the grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done.  Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives.  Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more.  But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. …”[I]

To be sure, it’s about life and death, what will live on or through us and what we will eulogize, who we will let go of and what we will hold on to.  It’s about no longer feeling our way through life, hitting a brick wall or being backed into a corner.  Instead, it’s about turning the corner.  It’s about moving on so that purpose can move over, so that the Spirit can scoot closer.

It’s about open and closed doors.  It’s about the ones we walk through and the ones that are slammed in our faces.  It’s about the God who whispers through the cracks and who has a knack for tight spaces, who wiggles into a womb just to make room for us.  It’s about taking up space and claiming our rightful place in life, about trying and trying and trying again.  It’s about resilience and perseverance, strength and the endurance to keep going.  One foot in front of the other, it’s about first and last steps, going in circles and coming full circle.

It’s about time.  Time’s up for excuses, for sentences that include should of, would of and could of.  It’s about getting it done and getting over it, about cutting our losses and cutting the cord.

It’s about coming home to ourselves, about stopping the search to find ourselves, about no longer looking for love in the wrong faces but seeing love in the mirror.  This year is not like any other night and yet it is exactly the same as the one before.  Because it is another opportunity to change, to change course and to do a new thing, to break with tradition, to break generational curses, to be freed of the snares of sin, to not keep doing the same thing over and over again.

It’s about me and you and us and them.  It’s about everything we have every dreamed of and the nightmares we hope to never see again.  It’s about living with our eyes wide open and being fully aware, fully present, fully invested in this moment in time.

________________________

[i] W.E.B Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People, (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 21.