Spotlight interview with Jemar Tisby: After Charlottesville, How will the White Church respond?
In the wake of what happened in Charlottesville, VA, and the President’s disappointing response to it, we want to discuss the reality of racism in America and the necessary response of pastors and churches. We are talking with Jemar Tisby, the president and co-founder of the Reformed African American Network, RAAN. He’s also the co-host of a podcast, Pass the Mic. His writings have been featured in a number of locations. He’s got a piece posted right now at the Washington Post Acts of Faith entitled “After Charlottesville, Will White Pastors Finally Take Racism Seriously?” Jemar serves as the director of the African American Leadership Initiative and is a special assistant to the chancellor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. You can follow him on Twitter @jemartisby, and you can check out what he’s writing at RAANetwork.org.
Listen to our interview here:
Carmen: Jemar, welcome back to The Reconnect.
Jemar: Great to be here, Carmen. Even though the circumstances are very troubling, it’s always good to be on the show.
Carmen: Well, thank you. Today is a day that I would say is a day for white Christians to just sit and listen to our black and brown brothers and sisters. I really want to just give you the opportunity to speak, and we’re going to sit and listen. What’s on your heart? What’s on your mind after the events of this weekend?
Jemar: The past three days, from Friday through Sunday and even continuing on to Monday, have just been a mash-up of different emotions, frustration, sadness, anger, all of it. For people like me who work in racial reconciliation, talk about racial issues all the time as part of our ministry, it’s extremely weighty. Me, my friends, my co-workers, we all just feel a sense of heaviness and weightiness because we knew something like Charlottesville could happen.
We do our best to sort of give a heads-up, give strident warnings about it, try to eradicate the signs leading up to it, and yet, they still happen. There’s simply an emotional reaction initially of the sadness and this weightiness, and we’re trying to wrap our minds and hearts around all that’s happened even as we work to organize. There’s been a lot of action, but also just a lot of lament as well.
Carmen: I think lament, that’s a strong word. It’s a good word. It’s a sad reality. It’s just the recognition of a really deeply, profoundly sad reality. This is a little bit of a By the Rivers of Babylon wake-up moment, I think, for a lot of folks. Maybe they went to sleep at some point in relationship to racial issues in America. Things seemed pretty good, at least where they are or at least among their group of folks. Then things like this happen and it is an ugly wake-up call, and it is a call, I think, to lament, but then, as you say, there’s more to be done.
I think you will be encouraged to know that at least what I’m hearing from other white evangelicals is that pastors were talking about this yesterday from the pulpit. They were using the time of prayer in their congregations to very specifically address this issue before the Lord in not only repentance, but also in a call to recognize the supremacy of Jesus Christ and him alone. Then, at least in the church where I worship, we basically had a litany of reading together in a very prayerful way the congregations in our community that we know to be predominantly African-American and the names of those pastors, and just recognizing that we have relationships with them, but we’re not actively engaged in a way that’s demonstrating to the world that we are one in Christ.
Talk with us about that. Talk with us about the need in the American church for there to be not a black witness and a white witness, but a gospel witness.
Jemar: I am encouraged by the number of pastors, particularly white pastors and Christian leaders who are now talking about race. I think maybe this event in Charlottesville will help us actually speak even more specifically. Now, you see people talking about white supremacy and not just kind of race or racism generally, but this concept of white supremacy, which is important and a term that a lot of people would never have used before this past weekend.
There is progress, and I do acknowledge that a lot of people are talking about it and are trying to address it. The question is after the national news headlines change to something else a few weeks from now, once the social media outrage has died down, what has really changed? Events like Charlottesville are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racism and white supremacy in this country. They’re just the most visible, overt aspects. What I’m really hoping for is that Christians and Christian leaders, in particular, would actually develop a posture that actively and in an ongoing way works against white supremacy being propped up in everyday ways.
The question is after the national news headlines change to something else a few weeks from now, once the social media outrage has died down, what has really changed? Events like Charlottesville are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racism and white supremacy in this country. They’re just the most visible, overt aspects. What I’m really hoping for is that Christians and Christian leaders, in particular, would actually develop a posture that actively and in an ongoing way works against white supremacy being propped up in everyday ways.
I wrote another article over at the RAAN Network about 10 Everyday Ways that Charlottesville and White Supremacy are Still Allowed to Happen. Those are the kinds of things that we’ve got to drill down into beyond a sermon or a panel or a Tweet, which are necessary but not sufficient.
Carmen: Yeah, absolutely. I think that I read both pieces and, again, folks, the one in the Washington Post is entitled After Charlottesville, Will White Pastors Finally Take Racism Seriously? The author is Jemar Tisby. We are talking with him now. The other article that he referenced is over at the Reformed African American Network, which is RAAnetwork.org, and it’s 10 Everyday Ways Charlottesville and White Supremacy are Allowed to Still Happen.
Jemar, maybe I’ve been engaged in this conversation longer with a wider variety of people than most folks, so there’s not a whole lot that surprised me, unfortunately. Maybe that’s a bad thing. Not a lot that surprised me about what happened in Charlottesville, especially when the two groups of people were allowed to just engage with each other and with no buffer or barrier, but I don’t think that we’re ready for that.
I don’t think that we have culturally prepared on either side of this conversation to actually engage substantively with one another, because how do you root out evil unless you’re willing to call it evil, unless you’re willing to deal with it in a theological way, unless you’re willing to elevate this to a gospel issue? How would the government ever get on the right side of this, or how would folks from, let’s say, a humanist or naturalistic perspective ever get on the right side of this? I know those are not necessarily questions that you and I were going to address today, but those are the questions that I find bubbling up within me.
Jemar: I think what I’m hearing is what I hear from a lot of things I experience myself. It’s sort of a sense of the overwhelming scope of the problem. I mean it’s political, it’s social, it’s religious. It’s all of these things, and so how do you start to move towards solutions, especially when people differ so much ideologically? This is why, I think the church has the critical role to play in terms of racial reconciliation and justice, is because we have a shared understanding of the way the world is supposed to be through our understanding of scripture, and we are united, if we believe in Christ, by the Holy Spirit and so we are actually closer than biological brothers and sisters and we’re much closer than any racial divide could ever separate us.
This is why, I think the church has the critical role to play in terms of racial reconciliation and justice, is because we have a shared understanding of the way the world is supposed to be through our understanding of scripture, and we are united, if we believe in Christ, by the Holy Spirit and so we are actually closer than biological brothers and sisters and we’re much closer than any racial divide could ever separate us.
That should be the base. That should be the common ground for understanding, but the reality is we live in the real world and we have different social and cultural locations that give us different understanding about how the world works and we’re living in a society that has been premised upon a racial path system that puts whiteness at the top and blackness at the bottom, and we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that. That means we have very different viewpoints.
I as a historian in training, I love to start with history. It’s about truth-telling. Do we know the story? One of the things that we’re still grappling with related to Charlottesville and so many other episodes is the myth of the lost cause and this romanticizing of the Confederacy and of the South’s role in the Civil War, which we still have to tell people to this day it was actually fought over the issue of slavery.
People bring up states’ rights and heritage and everything like that. Sure, that’s all part of it, but understand that slavery was the precipitating cause of that. If we look at Charlottesville, the proximate cause of white supremacists gathering in Charlottesville, in particular, is the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee monument. One of the things we have to do, even as Christians, is have an accurate accounting of the past, and if we can’t even tell the truth about the nation’s bloodiest war, we’ll make very little strides in terms of racial progress in our day.
Carmen: Jemar, first of all, I want to celebrate the importance that you place on people talking with each other, and then I want to lift up this one paragraph, which I will just tell you, it struck me the wrong way when I read it the first time and now our colleague John has talked me through it, so here we go. It says, “White Christians will inevitably ask, ‘But what do we do?'” You say, “This question perpetuates the problem. People of color did not create white supremacy. White people did. To ask a racial minority how to solve a problem they didn’t create and one under which they suffer only adds to their burdens.”
Tell me, speak from your heart, because there’s a lot in there, and help me as a white person understand what you’re talking about.
Jemar: I speak about issues of race and justice all over the country at churches, colleges, conferences, different events. The single question I get asked most often by the white participants is, “What do we do?” In a sense, that’s an encouraging question, because it presumes they’re on board with the principle of reconciliation and justice. Now, they want to act it out. Now, they want to live it. In a certain sense. It’s also logical, right? If I’m the one talking about it, then perhaps I have solutions. If I’m the minority who’s affected by it, perhaps I have ideas about how to rectify it.
I get that, but one also has to understand that minorities get asked this question all the time, and it is a double burden to bear the effects of white supremacy, which we didn’t create, it was foisted upon us, and then also be responsible for coming up with the solution. In many ways, especially in the information age, there’s a presumption that the minority is going to do the work of both explaining the problem and solving it, when in reality, a simple Google search can answer a lot of basic preliminary questions, reading several books.
We’ve got lists on the website and they’re all over the place. Different syllabi for Ferguson, for Charleston, and I just saw one starting to get formed for Charlottesville, can inform you. The point is take some of that burden on yourself. Own your own learning and don’t always sort of … It’s almost taking the easy route just to ask the minority instead of doing the hard work yourself of informing yourself and devising solutions for your unique context.
Carmen: Okay, so I totally agree. I took your challenge and I took your lists. You have this list of general principles for battling white supremacy. I would like to suggest maybe a reframing of number one. You say, “Admit the American church was built on white supremacy.” I think that that’s absolutely accurate. I think if what we’re trying to do is speak to people who are unintentionally white supremacists, they don’t even … They haven’t thought about it in this way.
Coming out and saying to them that their church is built on white supremacy when they actually do believe in their heart of hearts that their church is built on the gospel and they’re doing a lot of good in their community and they don’t really see themselves as contributing to systems that you and I would recognize as racist or even … You use the term racial caste system. They don’t see it what way yet.
Here’s my challenge to you. Can we reframe that conversation into a call to the church to put Christ back where he belongs in the church? If we’re talking about the superiority and supremacy of Christ, if we’re getting Jesus in the right place in this conversation, then you and I both know we’re all subordinate and on equal footing in relationship to him in his position of supremacy or superiority.
I’m telling you that’s what I’m going to do when I talk to white Christians about this issue in order to help them see themselves in the right posture and the right place. I got to get them on equal footing in front of the Creator, on equal footing in front of the cross, and on equal footing in the kingdom of heaven with brown and black people. If I can get them to make that shift, because they’re already there in the reality that’s the real reality. They’re just not there in their functional relationships here in America. Does that sound legit to you or not?
Jemar: I’ll say two things. One, I think you’re right so speak to other white people and think strategically about how to, in a sense, persuade them, convince them that this is a reality in a way they may not be believing before. I think you can do that more effectively than I as a minority can in some instances, and so that’s a right instinct. The other thing I’ll say is I’m a big fan of perspectives, and so in one theologian’s framework there is the existential and normative and the situational. All of these are just three different angles of looking at the same thing.
What you’re describing is more of a normative perspective. We’ll talk scripture. We’ll frame this in explicitly biblical terms so that people can get on, like you said, equal footing theologically and in terms of the Christian faith. That is absolutely essential, but that’s just one way of looking at it. I as a student of history, I tend to look at the social aspect and the historical aspect, and I try to approach it from that lens, but you can also approach it from the existential lens, which is more personal, one’s own experience, one’s own journey. All of those are valid and all of those are more or less applicable in different circumstances. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive so much as different angles of approach you can take to address the issue of white supremacy.
Carmen: All right, man. Well, if you take your angle and I take my angle and everybody else that’s listening and has a heart for Christ and a desire for the church to … Until the church gets right and righteous on this issue, which she’s a long way from in America right now, it’s really hard to imagine that the church is going to be able to take her rightful place in the life of the culture. We can’t keep pointing at culture and saying the culture is bad until as the church, we deal substantively with this specific issue.
I know the church has got a lot of issues, but this one seems to be … It’s been on the forefront of what should have been our conversation since Martin Luther King, Jr. actually pointed this out and sought to lead the civil rights movement as a theological movement. Somewhere along the way, we gave up the theological part, I think, or at least some of us stopped paying attention to the theological part.
I guess I hope this is the, not even the beginning, because you and I have talked before, but this is the next step in what I hope will be a long-term conversation about racial reconciliation and how churches can be equipped to engage with maybe congregations that are different than their own. I do think that it’s a season of equipping for the church, and that kind of terrifies me for the culture because that means we don’t really yet have any sort of consensus witness to the culture as Christians on this crucial subject.
Jemar: We don’t have a consensus, and it’s helpful, I think, that you bring up Martin Luther King, Jr. because in so many ways, he embodies the complexity of the situation, to put it mildly. In King’s day, many conservative white Christians were really not that hot on him. They were not big fans of the marches, of the boycotts, of the direct non-violent protests. They were not big fans of his message, you got to fuse the course of Marxism and communism in his day, and yet, 50 years from when he spoke and lived, we remember him as a theological leader.
King also represents kind of the best aspects of the black church tradition, where there wasn’t this sharp division between the social and the spiritual. In fact, the spiritual answered the questions that were happening in the social. They mentioned particularly around issues of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and ongoing forms of marginalization. It’s in that vein that I hope to speak, and I think if you look at the body of my writing, which there are hundreds of articles, mostly on RAAN, there are all those dimensions there.
One of the things that we’re trying to do is help the broader church see that the social effects, the spiritual and spiritual effects, the social, and the Bible speaks to particularly issues of race, but at the same time, we don’t need to completely turn our backs on different ways of understanding and parsing out the racial dimensions in terms of society.
In fact, I recommend a book I’ve probably recommended here before, Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, which is a sociological examination of why our churches are divided by race in the first place. I think their sociological view actually really informs us on the spiritual view because they show how even our theological tools may actually sabotage our efforts at racial reconciliation.
Carmen: All right, there’s a book I need to read. Jemar, the next time we talk, I promise I’ll be up to speed on that. Thank you so much for your leadership on this issue. Thank you for your willingness to help us engage in this conversation. Thank you for the equipping you’re providing. Again, folks, the website is RAAnetwork. He’s saying RAAN, but there’s an extra A in there. It’s RAAnetwork.org. You can also follow him on Twitter where he posts a lot of great stuff. He’s @jemartisby. Jemar, thank you for being with us today on The Reconnect.
Jemar: Thanks for having me, and thanks for engaging these issues.
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