“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” The prophets and apostles who said this never would’ve imagined me leaving America to share the same story of God beyond the South Georgia town of my birth. A black woman born to a nation of immigrants and rebels- they’d be speechless. Entering the work of Christian missions two years ago taught me that I am still an unexpected addition in American missionary efforts. Jemar Tisby’s #1 new release, The Color of Compromise, explains why. In my final post of 2018, I’d like to lay out why this has to change as American Christians move into a future totally different from our past.
0.44% of current international missionaries are African-American
7.12% of current international missionaries are Asian
1.7% of current international missionaries are HispanicThe International Mission Board (IMB) data, The Center of Great Commission Study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Working as an educational missionary in West Java, Indonesia, provided “creative access” to share my faith through teaching with an international Christian school ministry. I’d never developed a preschool through high school technology literacy curriculum while teaching K3-12 grade computer science and digital literacy. (The work alone wore me out.)
Cross-cultural life in Southeast Asia would be new. New was exciting! I’d never lived in a majority Muslim culture. The last time I lived in a majority Asian neighborhood, I was in preschool and had no idea how rich and diverse Southeast Asian culture is but I was looking forward to a new challenge. I had nothing to lose.
In order to understand and grown in the the present, we must find common memory about our past and The Color of Compromise makes that possible by addressing the lie of “hereditary heathenism.” European explorers and settlers defined faith and freedom in the New World. As Dr. Katharine Gerbner explains it, “protestant supremacy” came before white supremacy since the argument about evangelism to chattel slaves took place before the concept of race was created.
The Slave Bible is one of the latest artifacts to be displayed at the Museum of the Bible, providing physical evidence of how scripture was stripped of all references to freedom. As America’s Founding Fathers led our nation to independence, our first missionaries brought a distortion of the Gospel to the seemingly unruly savages and rebellious slaves. Whether they were fighting for their land or fighting for their freedom, Colonial Christians built the American church with a fear of black and brown bodies in the foundation.
“They’re bringing crime”
The 45th president did not produce the racial and political divide between black and white Christians, but he exposed and extended long-standing differences while revealing the inadequacy of recent reconciliation efforts.Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise
Donald Trump began his bid for POTUS with an appeal to the same fear in the 2016 presidential election. He described black Americans as inhabitants of the “iconic ghetto” and asked, “What the hell do you have to lose?” Plenty of responses came to mind as I was finishing a Graduate residency and had high hopes for the nextchapter of my career.
The 2016 election revealed the degree to which white evangelicals were “captive” to white supremacy. “They’re more white than Christian.”Lisa Sharon Harper, Evangelicals of Color Fight Back Against the Religious Right by Eliza Griswold
When white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted him into office on November 6, 2016, I was thrown. Zero white evangelicals I served overseas with had valid answers for why an adulterous, bigoted, and self-proclaimed unrepentant believer seemed like the right man for the job. Still, the impact of his election didn’t hit me personally until weeks later in Bali.
Yet even if such complicity is unintentional, the American church is still complicit in supporting the racialized structure of society through intentional decisions concerning where to live, go to school, work, it’s perception of people of color, and how to vote.Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise
It was Thanksgiving 2016 and I was settling in for the school break of my dreams. One moment we were millennials, missionaries, friends sitting poolside in paradise, listening to my mentor talk about growing up in Texas. Childhood neighborhood, fond memories, I didn’t recognize any of it since I’d never been there but hearing more about her felt nostalgic and familiar during my first holiday season away from home until I heard, “We moved when black people brought crime.”
Racist ideas and stereotypes are the result of oppression and exploitation, not the cause. And then you take the fact that those people aren’t doing so well in their oppressed state. You point at those symptoms of your abuse and you declare those things to be the cause… the cause of the oppressed peoples’ problems. So even in our time, that means, look, those people of color. They’re poor, they didn’t go out and get a good education and a good job like I did! You know, they’re criminals. Their, their mindset is all wrong. That’s why those people aren’t doing well and why they deserve their second-class status.John Biewen, Transformation (Seeing White Part 14)
“Wait… but I’m black,” I thought to myself as seven words brought the whiteness of everyone around me into focus. After waiting in vain for her housemates, friends who had ministered by her side for years, ANYONE else to interject with correction, I withdrew, speechless. It took some time to process how someone my age who spent months bonding with me could gloss over my entire race so flippantly. Unlike black people who constantly have to prove ourselves good enough, smart enough, pure enough, etc. to escape stereotype labels, “white people aren’t even reminded very often that [they’re] part of a racial group, let alone challenged directly about [their] racial attitudes or actions.” John Biewen summarized this vital point in his excellent documentary series, Seeing White.
“This false dichotomy between personal piety and civic engagement” was a kind of individualism that I’d never known as a woman of color. There was never a time when I was able to live as if my spiritual life exists apart from the way I interact with the world around me.
In the moments that followed, nothing happened, and at the same time, too much happened. I realized racism had followed me all the way to Indonesia. My mentor apologized. I decided bigotry would not claim this experience. I prayed. For days, weeks, months, that description of my entire race rang in my ears and I was only four months into a two-year contract.
After November 2016, nothing was the same. The mission bubble seemed more and more like the Twilight Zone. As hate crimes trailed the arrival of the new administration, the threat of white nationalism became more pronounced. Spray-painted swastikas, nooses, and “Build the wall!” chants more frequently appeared in American public spaces. But in my mission bubble, racism and civil rights simply didn’t exist- no Kaepernick, no #flintwatercrisis, no #King50. I rarely spoke about things regarding black America, but when I did the conversations were usually one-on-one, both in person and online. Why was it okay to discuss race individually but not in our group gatherings?
I think of it as the unspoken agreement amongst white people that we’ll keep each other comfortable around our racism, that we won’t basically challenge each other and make each other feel bad, right?Robin DiAngelo, Transformation (Seeing White Part 14)
When I left the United States in Summer 2016, I had no clue how much being in the predominantly white space of American missions would teach me about compromised Christianity. I was burned out on social awareness, or “wokeness,” in multicultural Christian community. With each new school shooting, viral video of police brutality, and political scandal, I grew increasingly disappointed with my nation, as well as, the church’s disjointed responses. I was ready to withdraw, ready to retreat before Trump became president #45.
Christian complicity with racism in the 21st century looks different than the racism of the past. It looks like Christians responding to Black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter. It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concern is “divisive.” It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions. Perhaps Christian complicity and racism has not changed much after all although the characters and the specifics are new many of the same rationalizations for racism remain.Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise
At the end of May 2016, my pre-field training took place in Northwest Mississippi. Meanwhile, the execution of Alton Sterling continued the ongoing conversation about prejudiced policing and the value of black bodies in America. In a week of training sessions on encountering, respecting, and engaging across cultures, there was no mention of the shooting, of our ministry’s stance on protest, or how missionaries might respond to human rights concerns in our host countries.
There wasn’t a single trainer or resource that spoke to the black experience in missions, even though most of our teams were preparing to enter countries where colorism and racial discrimination (within Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and other Asian nationalities) segregate housing, education, and careers as much, if not more than American culture has in the past. Proactively preparing to survive a school shutdown is the closest we got to facing opposing views. Once again, fear was the basis of engaging the other.
By the beginning of my 2nd school year abroad, knowing about current events in my home country seemed like an unnecessary evil. Why know or care about what’s happening literally on the other side of the world? All that changed after Heather Heyer was killed on August 12, 2017. Neo-nazis and the alt-right were never mentioned in our staff devotional time or prayers. I knew nothing about defending Confederate statues, tiki torches, and marching protestors until another teacher came by my classroom and mentioned it (in another private chat).
People avoid changing their views exactly because of the consequences I’ve faced — estrangement from family, a loss of community, and even the loss of a job. Scientists call this identity-protective cognition, willfully avoiding information that would cause a disruption to how they, and others, identify themselves […] So how does a person change their mind? It took time (in my case, years), and it required me to get outside of my bubble. I broke away from the people and information sources that automatically supported my worldview. I questioned what I’d been taught. I got comfortable with not having all the answers and sitting with the tension of not knowing the right thing to do.Cindy Mallette, 2018 was the year I changed my mind
From then on, year two became about learning how to identify allies, making time and space for restorative self-care, and dismantling lies within my own psyche. It was an important season as I developed the nerve to speake truthfully when silence would’ve felt easier.
It meant rejecting the temptation to abide by the unspoken rules of assimilation. It involved embracing God as the creator of every culture and rejecting the self-hatred required to celebrate colorblindness.
But even a color-blind ideology is problematic since it “depended upon the establishment of structural mechanisms of exclusion that do not require individual racism by suburban beneficiaries.”Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise
Eventually, it meant exclusion from a community where my entire personhood was never fully welcome. At the start of a new year, I can sincerely thank God for that.
“[S]tay in your place, keep me comfortable, don’t challenge me, and things will go well, you’ll be seen as a team player and you might get ahead. Challenge me and you’ll be seen as a troublemaker and a problem and you very likely will not get ahead.” Robin DiAngelo describes this combined force of white fragility and systemic racism perfectly but as America continues to become more and more diverse, a racially complict church will not survive.
After two years of living a foreign nation overwhelmed by terrorism and political protests, I am convinced that complicity is useless and counterproductive. Students reached by my ministry are in the prime recruitment age for the most manipulative organizations in the world but directly addressing their passion for causes, need for identity, and curiosity regarding tough topics of religion & race pushed me further into the margins. The American church taught me to ignore activism here so I could instinctively ignore outspokenness in the mission field. As Asian children in the Java Sea started to bring Pepe the Frog memes and manipulated #BLM media into my classroom, the silence around me grew more deafening and it was more obvious that I had to use my voice to fully fight for minds & hearts. As Lisa Sharon Harper says, “Silence is not spiritual.”
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female
In Galatians 3:28, Paul the Apostle states that racism, classism, and sexism should “neither hinder fellowship nor grant special privileges.” More often than not, I’ve heard this scripture taken out of context to celebrate unachieved equality in our churches and schools. It’s been used to declare Christianity colorblind and quiet anyone who might dare to speak against observed inequality. In order to truly adopt this kind of equality in the church, we need to remember that colorblindness is not a virtue. It’s a disability. Seeing each other is the way it’s meant to be.
All white supremacy needs to keep chugging along, even here in the 21st century, is for most white people to go about our lives being nice and being good non-racists[…] If we just go about our lives, we can have a white supremacist society without individual racists. As it happens, we have individual racists, too.John Biewen, Transformation (Seeing White Part 14)
Eliza Griswold is correct in observing that “erasing part of one’s cultural identity” has always been a goal in American missions to people of color. So entering the mission field was not a departure from racial complicity, it was a deep dive into our dysfunction. In order to bring about healing within and beyond our national borders, the American church must recognize the damage done by believers promoting cultural assimilation as Christianity.
Of course, I’ve been thoroughly conditioned into a racist worldview. Of course, I have a racist frame of reference and investments in this system, and I have patterns. Of course. That is unavoidable[…] And so now I can stop defending and denying and hoping you won’t notice, and I can actually reach for continually trying to identify those patterns and how they’re manifesting, and then challenge them. It’s actually incredibly exciting.Robin DiAngelo, Transformation (Seeing White Part 14)
My time in majority white spaces has shown me how life “in Christ” can mean drastically different things when race, sex, and class are taken into account. During my first mission assignment, it meant humoring suggestions for appearing less intimidating to locals who’d never encountered African Americans by disregarded their cultural norms of appropriate female conduct and drapping my arm over the shoulders of strangers. It looked like being reprimanded for sharing jokes with friends afar on social media then pretending to laugh off inappropriate comments in a room full of male coworkers who can say anything cause everyone knows they’re just kidding around. It meant holding my tongue when I wanted to include victims of police brutality in our prayers for the persecuted because white guilt had forced itself into the conversation.
In hindsight, the contradiction of running away from integration (white flight) then going out into the world to preach the Gospel to all nations amuses me. But theres more at stake than entertaining me. There are people turning away from God because of the hypocrisy and apathy in white evangelical alliances and silences. “The absolute number of whites in America is declining. But the decline is really turbocharged by young white evangelicals leaving the church.” Robert Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of The End of White Christian America, sees the danger of continuing the current trend.
May a miraculous self-awareness redeem the white church before it self destructs. That may begin with reading The Color Of Compromise. Sometimes looking away from the injustices before us seems like a survival instinct in the digital age. The Color of Compromise says, “Don’t look away.” The entire point of faith in God is admitting that this world is out of control.