One month ago, hundreds gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to march under the banner of white supremacy. The angry crowd intimidated opponents and one radical ultimately killed 32 year-old Heather Heyer, a white woman standing in solidarity with her black brothers and sisters.
For many Christians, it opened their eyes to the present-day realities of racism. Suddenly all could see the need for the church to own up to its past, listen well to those whose life experiences are different, and seek to bridge a vast societal divide.
Jemar Tisby didn’t require a wake-up call. As co-founder and president of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN), for years he’s helped church leaders navigate racial divides. Following the riots that became a national story, Tisby co-authored what became “The Charlottesville Declaration.” It minces no words.
“We do not need cheap grace, cheap peace, cheap reconciliation,” states the declaration in part, signed by more than 100 pastors, leaders, scholars and activists. “We need a revival of spirit, a revolution of values, and the abundance of righteous justice in this land.”
Clearly Tisby, who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, has seen Christians engage on race relations in less than helpful ways. Yet he also doesn’t accept how lines have been drawn in the mainstream, boldly criticizing the Black Lives Matter platform as “contradicting biblical norms.”
A husband, father, and graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, Jemar Tisby shares how knowledge, prayer, and action can work in tandem to speak truth into often-misunderstood issues of race and justice.
When did the Reformed African American Network begin and why?
Jemar Tisby: RAAN began in October 2011 as a way for black Reformed Christians to know they weren’t the only ones out there. It originally started as a gathering of black seminarians at Reformed seminaries who met at the first LDR Weekend conference. There were only maybe ten of us then.
Leaving the conference, it felt like I’d been to a family reunion. I’d never met these people before, but we had so much in common culturally and theologically I felt as if I’d known them for a long time. It was literally on the drive back from that conference, from Chattanooga back down to Jackson, Mississippi, that I came up with the idea of RAAN to keep that community going in an online forum.
From there, it grew to a website the next year, then the year after that we started our Pass the Mic podcast. One of the great blessings of RAAN has been the meet-ups of podcast listeners. Any conference that we go to as a staff, we go to a restaurant, pay for dinner, and sponsor a meet-up of our listeners so we can meet in real life the people we’ve been connecting with online.
Beyond fostering community, RAAN has grown to be a resource for white Christians who want to know more about race relations and racial dynamics—particularly from an African American perspective. We welcome that! We want to be a resource to the church at large, especially with folks who are humble and willing to learn.
One of your most-read posts is about an ad for Cheerios that created a stir. Could you share what you took away from the drama around that TV commercial?
Tisby: You’re taking me back a bit! If I recall, the ad centers on an interracial couple who have a biracial child.
This was a pointed statement by Cheerios that they wanted to be inclusive, diverse and what not. It’s a cereal commercial so it’s really innocuous. They weren’t making commentary about a political issue, they were just saying, Hey, there are lots of different kinds of families and here’s one.
What I saw was backlash from people who thought that they shouldn’t be showing an interracial couple. This shocked me—we’re living in the 2010’s and it’s been legal for a long time that you can marry people of a different color. Fifty years ago as of this past summer, the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia was decided as dramatized in the recent film Loving.
I thought this was kind of a non-issue. I know people struggle with racism—I hope they’re struggling with it, rather than accepting it. But it surprised me that publicly there would be this much backlash.
The heart of it is that racial issues have always had a sexualized dimension to them. Even as we talk about interracial marriage, the big issue some people have with it is interracial sex and the children that come of it.
You can think all the way back to Bob Jones University, in the late 70’s and 80’s, they lost their tax-exempt status because at first they wouldn’t allow black people at all. Then they did, but only married black people. They wouldn’t allow unmarried black people. Why? Because they didn’t want interracial dating going on. It was even in their handbook that if students were dating interracially, they could be expelled.
That’s just one example. You can go way further back. Many of the lynchings that took place in the Jim Crow era had a sexualized dimension, where the young men would be accused of rape. Often it was a lie, but it would provide legal cover to lynch these men. Back in 1955, 14 year-old Emmett Till supposedly whistled at a white woman, or came on to her. That was the cardinal error in a Jim Crow society.
We still see vestiges of that today. What is the big deal about interracial marriage and dating? I wrote that, as Christians in particular, we have to have a far more robust understanding of race and marriage.
What biblical principles should guide Christians in addressing race issues?
Tisby: The most foundational theological principle for Christians to understand when approaching issues of race and justice is the doctrine of Imago Dei, which is Latin for “the image of God.” Every person is created in the image of God.
This doctrine in Genesis 1:26-27 gives a baseline of human dignity, which doesn’t just pertain to Christians. This goes for Muslims, immigrants, those who identify as LGBTQ—every human being is afforded a minimum of dignity and respect, simply by being made in the image of God. I believe that should guide all of our interactions with everyone, particularly people outside the faith or across racial and ethnic lines.
We’ve got to have that as a foundational understanding, that way we can approach people and not feel any sense of superiority. Yet that principle is not enough. A lot of people, who would still affirm that doctrine of Imago Dei, are going to act in ways that do not foster racial harmony. So what’s the disconnect?
Part of the disconnect is not understanding the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” I often get a rebuttal when I talk about race and justice—that I should just stick to the gospel and stop talking about these social issues.
What those words betray is their fundamental misunderstanding that justice and the gospel are at odds with one another. The reality is, we are Christ’s ambassadors on earth. Yes, we are citizens of the heavenly kingdom, but we also reside in the earthly kingdom. So how are we salt and light in this earthly kingdom? How are we ambassadors for the heavenly kingdom right now?
This is also part and parcel of the black church tradition. There has never been a time when the black church has had a sharp bifurcation between gospel issues and social issues. Why? Because if you’re in a predominantly black church, especially historically before, during, and after the Civil War, you had existential issues of a social and political nature confronting your members.
For instance, were you counted as a citizen? That hasn’t always been the case; many people were counted as property. Could you vote? Did you have the right to go to the court and sue? These sort of “political” issues had a direct bearing on the quality of life and your human dignity.
In the black church tradition, pastors, leaders, and laity have always seen a connection between their faith and the pursuit of justice in the social arena. That’s all we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to preach a different gospel, we’re trying to preach the whole gospel.
When race issues come up, many white Christians jump to Galatians 3:28, which says essentially,"There is no Jew nor Greek, we are all one in Christ." How do you respond to this post-racial viewpoint?
Tisby: A lot of people try to use Galatians 3:28 as a theological underpinning for colorblindness. The sentiment behind colorblindness is, I don’t see anyone’s race or color, I just treat them as an individual. There’s often a noble motivation behind that. You don’t want to treat anyone as a category or a class, you simply want to respond to people on their own merits.
This perspective has a couple problems. Number one, I don’t want you not to see me in my wholeness. That includes my body, my brown skin. We can’t claim to honor the physical body, as the Bible does, if we choose to ignore a very important aspect of one’s embodied self. We’ve got to see each other in our wholeness.
The other thing is, because the way race has been constructed, there’s also a culture that comes with it. So there’s something called the black church and something called black culture. Now it’s varied and diverse, but I don’t want you not to see that. I don’t want that to be erased from my history or my narrative.
To say you’re colorblind means that you’re also blind to Martin Luther King and Fanny Lou Hamer, who worked for justice in the world because of their faith. You’re also blind to the tradition of praying mothers and fathers who longed for a day of liberty. I’m a product of that, so I don’t want you to erase that or not see that.
The last thing about Galatians 3:28 is it’s saying those distinctions—slave, free, Jew, Greek, male, female—do not make you greater or lesser in the kingdom of God. Salvation is open to all, the apostle Paul is saying.
What that passage is not doing is erasing distinctions. Galatians 3:28 is true, and we still have male and female. So it doesn’t erase that distinction. It doesn’t erase ethnic distinctions either.
The latest edition of your team’s podcast Pass the Mic centered on the culture wars, how it's always us versus them. What do you see as the narrow path Jesus calls his followers to?
Tisby: When you think back to Jesus’ accusers, one of the things that they often brought up is: He’s fellowshipping with prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor—sinners of all kinds! It was such an affront to their system and so public that they felt they had to call it out.
If that’s the example of our Lord—then in our day, who are the equivalent of the prostitutes, the tax collectors and sinners who so scandalize the religious establishment that they feel they have to call us out?
I think about that. If we are in our holy huddle, only around people just like us in belief, in class, race, whatever it may be—how are we actually proclaiming good news to the people to whom it would be good news? We’ve got to be around the people who need good news! “I came not for the saved, but for the lost,” Jesus said.
The culture wars automatically put you in this oppositional stance towards the people who would be most elated to understand the gospel in its fullness. It’s ironic that many of the people who are in the most heated battles of the culture war call themselves “evangelical.” And yet, I’m wondering: Where has the evangelism gone in evangelicalism?
So I don’t think it’s complicated. To whom am I called to proclaim the gospel, and how can I be their neighbor? Because only by being in what I call sacrificial proximity with unbelievers will I ever have the trust or moral credibility to at least share the good news. I just think the culture wars cut us off from that.
You mentioned the Lord’s Prayer as a guiding principle. For you, why is prayer an essential part of engaging on race issues?
Tisby: A passage in 1 Peter 4:11 says, Do everything in the strength that the Lord supplies. That’s so important because life is a marathon, not a sprint. If we’re going to be constantly battling against spiritual forces in the heavenly places, we’ve got to be able to, like Paul says, run the race and cross that finish line.
Part of it is just longevity in the struggle. We need to be connected to the Vine. He is the Vine and we are the branches states John 15, and prayer is that vital connection.
In addition, it’s about glory. If we don’t pray, then struggle and strive and maybe even accomplish things, we’re tempted to give ourselves the credit and the glory.
If we pray, and we pray audaciously and boldly for God to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all we ask or imagine—then when that comes to pass, God gets the glory. Because we know we couldn’t do it in our strength or power. Prayer is about giving all glory to God, by being completely dependent on God.
For pastors and lay leaders who want to approach these issues rightly, what are practical steps we can take to begin to bridge the racial divide?
Tisby: Well, I love history. I believe looking back at U.S history and one’s own church or denominational history is a vital first step.
The problem in the way we approach race relations today is that we really don’t have a concept for how bad things really were. Hence, we don’t understand how bad things still are, how they’re connected to the past, and how much work and effort we need to do to overcome it.
I would encourage folks to do something as simple as look back at the civil rights movement. These days, you can watch a video. It’s all at your fingertips.
There are some great documentaries out now, in particular The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross produced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It goes from colonial days essentially up to the civil rights movement. Then he has a follow-up documentary from the civil rights movement on up to the present.
Another step is to read Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. This book is a great introduction to unpacking the problem of why our churches are racially segregated in the first place.
But we’ve got to go beyond just information. Cultivating intentionally diverse relationships is essential. This is a particular burden for white people because they are in the numerical majority.
White people will have to go out of their way, in many cases, to find people who are different racially. Some states are over 90 percent white! African Americans are about 13 percent of the U.S. population, whereas non-Hispanic whites are about 60 percent. It’s not evenly spread out either. Some areas of our nation are extremely homogenous, so it’s a challenge to cultivate diverse relationships.
But some Christians get this. The people who think about racial reconciliation think in interpersonal terms. They think, If I treat people well of a different race and some of my best friends are black, I’m doing my part to not be racist. What I’m saying is, that is necessary but not sufficient.
We have to move on and really address systemic and institutional factors. For instance, if you go to a Christian college, how many professors or administrators are from ethnic minorities?
Going beyond that, how many members of the Board of Trustees are from a minority background? If you’re not seeing diversity there, no matter what you do at the student level, not much is going to change. Similarly with churches: is the leadership diverse? What are church leaders addressing in sermons and ministries?
Do we understand the history of redlining and residential segregation? It didn’t happen by accident that certain neighborhoods in our cities are racially homogenous. From the federal to state and local levels, certain laws incentivized segregation. What are we doing to dismantle that?
All I’m saying is, America is racially segregated on purpose. In order to integrate, we’re going to have to do it on purpose as well. That’s going to have to take on legal, structural, and institutional dimensions, not just good people saying: I can be friends across racial lines.
Those friendships are good, but they’re not getting to the heart of what keeps us divided.
Josh Shepherd covers culture and public policy issues for several media outlets. He’s written on race relations issues for The Federalist, Christian Headlines, and The Stream. He previously worked on staff at Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, and Bound4LIFE International. Josh and his wife live in the Washington D.C. area. Follow him at @JoshMShep on Twitter.
Photo: President and co-founder of the Reformed African American Network, Jemar Tisby writes and speaks on race and justice issues in churches, conferences, and venues across the nation.
Photo Courtesy of RAAN