Trailblazer: Jemar Tisby

Trailblazer: Jemar Tisby
Words by Rachel Ishee
Illustration by Jamison Harper

Born and raised in a small town just north of Chicago, Jemar Tisby became a Christian when he was 16 years old through his involvement in his high school youth group. His life has never been the same since. Now this historian, writer, and speaker calls Jackson, Mississippi, home where he lives with his wife Janee’ and their son Jack. He has found his passion in glorifying God through fostering engagement between the African American community and Reformed theology in an effort to transform individuals, families, and communities. Serving as president of The Witness, Jemar is part of a black Christian collective that engages in issues of religion, race, justice, and culture from a biblical perspective.

In his debut book (out January 22, 2019), The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Jemar shines a bright light on the root of injustice in the American church. We are pleased to present an excerpt from this debut work:

“For some of you, news that the American church has often been complicit in racism is not news at all. You have known for a long time that a version of Christianity has bought into bigotry. You may even have written off Christianity, or at least evangelicalism, as a whole. What readers like this may find difficult about The Color of Compromise is that very rarely do historical figures fit neatly into the category of “villain.” Many individuals throughout American church history exhibited blatant racism, yet they also built orphanages and schools. They deeply loved their families; they showed kindness toward others. In several prominent instances, avowed racists even changed their minds. Moreover, despite the American church’s complicity in racism, black Christians have forged a faith of their own. Christianity has been an engine for black progress even as others co-opted the faith to buttress white supremacy. Studying history forces people in the present to view people in the past as complex and contradictory figures.

The goal of this book is not guilt. The purpose of tracing Christian complicity with racism is not to show white believers how bad they are. It is simply a fact of American history that white leaders and laity made decisions to maintain the racist status quo. Even though the purpose of this work is not to call out any particular racial group, these words may cause some grief, but grief can be good. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, Paul says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (ESV). This kind of grief is a natural response to the suffering of others. It indicates empathy with the pain that racism has caused black people. The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing.

Though the work of racial justice is difficult and will never truly end in this life, God has provided a colorful portrait of the goal. In a cosmic case of beginning with the end in mind, God pulls back the curtain of eternity to provide a glimpse of future glory. Revelation 7:9 says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” In that heavenly congregation, we will finally see the culmination of God’s gathering a diverse people unified by faith in Christ. We will not all be white; we will not all be black. We will surround the throne of the Lamb as a redeemed picture of all the ethnic and cultural diversity God created. Our skin color will no longer be a source of pain or arrogant pride but will serve as a multihued reflection of God’s image. We will no longer be alienated by our earthly economic or social position. We will not clamor for power over one another. Our single focus will be worshiping God for eternity in sublime fellowship with each other and our Creator.

This picture of perfection has been bequeathed to believers not as a distant reality that we can merely long for. Instead, the revelation of the heavenly congregation provides a blueprint and a motivation to seek unity right now. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Christians have been mandated to pray that the racial and ethnic unity of the church would be manifest, even if imperfectly, in the present. Christ himself brought down “the dividing wall of hostility” that separated humanity from one another and from God (Eph. 2:14). Indeed, reconciliation across racial and ethnic lines is not something Christians must achieve but a reality we must receive. On the cross when Christ said, “It is finished,” he meant it (John 19:30). If peace has been achieved between God and human beings, surely we can have greater peace between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.”