Pastoring When Whiteness Prevails: A Conversation with Jemar Tisby

In 2019, Jemar Tisby released The Color of Compromise to help bring the history of the American church’s complicity in racism to light. Near the end of the book, he writes, “To look at this history and then refuse to act only perpetuates racist patterns. It is time for the church to stand against racism and compromise no longer.”

Accepting that challenge himself, he has recently released his second book, How to Fight Racism, a practical exhortation to pursue tangible steps on the journey toward racial justice. And for any reader in America, that journey must, at some point, include an honest and often difficult confrontation with whiteness.

“I have a definition of whiteness, and I quote Willie James Jennings for it,” Tisby says. “[Jennings writes], ‘Whiteness does not refer to people of European descent but to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning-making.’”

While that may sound a bit academic, it begins to capture the American evangelical experience. “A church where whiteness prevails is one where the way of being in the world and seeing the world is filtered through a white lens,” Tisby says. “Which in practicality means what is taken to be normal, standard, and positive, is white, and that all else is somehow abnormal, substandard, and negative.”

For Tisby, the challenge to pastor and lead in the midst of this cultural reality is more important and urgent than ever. “Whiteness is always seeking to preserve its power, and how do you do that?” he asks. “You have to do it through authoritarianism, through patriarchy, through violence, and through the subjugation and denigration of people of color.” Tisby has been experiencing these challenges firsthand as the elder for preaching and teaching at a small non-denominational church in the Mississippi Delta; what follows is an edited version of our conversation on the topic of pastoring amidst the challenges of whiteness in and around our churches.

Chuck Armstrong: You and I both know that this reality of whiteness is insidious and destructive, and we also know that because of this, many pastors and leaders freeze. They wait. They don’t want to speak until they have every answer to every question. In your book, you encourage readers to approach fighting racism as a journey, an “ongoing series of steps rather than a final point of completion.”

Jemar Tisby: The first thing that comes to mind are these Instagram stories of people sharing their fitness journeys. Something has happened in their lives where they realize they need to make a drastic shift in their physical health, and they document it on social media for other people to follow along. I think of that because the posture is not, “Hey, look at me, I have it figured out, do what I do.” The posture is, “I am stumbling my way through this, I think it’s a struggle other people share, I’m not going to get it perfect, but I’m committed to this path and I want to share it with you as I go.”

Armstrong: When you describe it like that, it doesn’t seem much different from a lot of preaching that pastors have to do.

Tisby: Every single pastor has had to preach and teach on a biblical principle that they didn’t feel like they were modeling well. I think we have some encouragement there because it’s not necessarily about “Follow me.” It’s “follow Jesus.” Follow me as I imperfectly follow Jesus, but even if I stumble and fall, ultimately, you’re still following Jesus. That’s one way to look at it. The other is, simply, we don’t have a choice. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we personally feel well-equipped before talking about this and leading our congregation through this. We have to respond to the fierce urgency of now, and ready or not, we have an obligation. And by the way, if folks are not ready to lead in this area, it’s not for a lack of opportunity beforehand. In some ways, it’s an indictment on church leaders that they don’t feel ready, because that means they weren’t doing enough of this work before. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we personally feel well-equipped before talking about this and leading our congregation through this. We have to respond to the fierce urgency of now... Click To Tweet

Armstrong: As you know personally, the bulk of pastoring comes both from the preaching that occurs once a week as well as through the day-to-day oversight of a congregation. What does this daily work of identifying and standing against whiteness look like?

Tisby: I’m still figuring it out. This whole interview is my weight-loss journey on Instagram, because I haven’t been doing this enough to have an expert perspective. A lot of what I find myself doing is simply informing my people about current events. I’ve learned that I can never assume that the things I pay attention to, as far as racial justice goes, are on the radar for the people I’m shepherding. So, I share news articles. I share information with them. I’m helping build their radar to be more sensitive to see what’s happening in real-time. We have a weekly prayer meeting and at those meetings, I’ll often make room to talk about racial justice. It’s not part of a formal study or anything like that—we’ve certainly had ample opportunity to do that. But this is not just talking about it, but it’s talking about it in the midst of a prayer meeting where we pray afterward. No matter how much you disagree or how much tension there was in the actual conversation, when you end in prayer with someone, there’s just this unique show of unity that reminds us of our connectedness in the Spirit. Praying together as a spiritual discipline has to be important on this journey.

Armstrong: I’m curious to know if there are also moments of joy within these shepherding moments?

Tisby: There are a lot of text messages and phone calls and answering questions from white evangelicals who are just starting to think about race in a sustained way, and it’s always awkward and tense because we don’t see eye to eye. But, I take it as an encouragement that they’re even asking questions, they’re curious, and they’re willing to explore a different perspective. I don’t think that’s always been the case. It’s such a long road that is uphill, against the wind, with rocks in the path, and darkness overshadowing you so that you can’t see more than one step ahead of you. You have to learn how to find the points of light in this journey.

Armstrong: What are some of those rocks in the path you’ve come across?

Tisby: I only get them for an hour a week. Obviously, you’re competing with mega-mass media outlets such as Fox News or Breitbart or One America News, which are filling their minds with unhelpful information. But even beyond that are the social connections they have within and beyond church. Their families, their friends, their extended families, the civic organizations they’re part of, they all may be reinforcing really harmful ideas about race. It’s not just a matter of changing the news station; ultimately, at some point, you’re going to have to think about the communities you’re part of and whether they’re helping or hindering this journey toward racial justice. And although it is hard to compete with mass media, church leaders and pastors need to critically examine their own practices to question why someone who buys into these really unhelpful media outlets still feels comfortable in your church. Why would someone who agrees with such unhealthy ideas, whatever their source, still feel like they can hold those beliefs in your congregation and go relatively unchallenged? At some point, you’re going to have to think about the communities you’re part of and whether they’re helping or hindering this journey toward racial justice. Click To Tweet

Armstrong: That’s a privilege of the dominant culture, isn’t it? To think that I could disagree so vehemently with you about this issue, because for me, this is only an issue, it’s not a matter of life and death. For those congregants who are working to see change in their churches by challenging these views, what encouragement would you give them? So often they don’t feel supported by pastoral or ecclesial leadership.

Tisby: Do what you can, where you can, knowing that sometimes others have to see it in action before they take action themselves. There are ways to lead without being in formal leadership. To the people in the pews, we are the priesthood of all believers. If we have called in faith on the name of Christ, then we have received the Holy Spirit and so we have all the tools necessary to walk the path of Jesus, even if our church leaders don’t seem to be doing that. Get going, and perhaps, in God’s grace, others will follow along.

Armstrong: But, there comes a point when efforts hit a wall.

Tisby: I know what you’re saying. Should you stay or should you go? I list some questions in How to Fight Racism, particularly for Black people and people of color to ask themselves, but more broadly I’ll say this: If in this season of national racial unrest and tension a church or Christian organization is still not aggressively taking action to fight racism, it may be time to go. What more do you need to see? We are seeing sustained protests and uprisings. We have seen the public actions of groups like the Proud Boys and now we have literally seen an insurrection at our nation’s capital. None of these things are exclusively racial, but they all have racial elements. If at this point churches and leaders and Christian organizations are still tiptoeing around the issue, or they remain lukewarm, or they’re “both sidesing” and giving false equivalencies, I do not have much hope that there’s going to be a dramatic change in their perspective in the near future. It may be time to go.

Armstrong: It’s important to acknowledge, too, that a dramatic change does not immediately equate to a more diverse-looking congregation.

Tisby: That’s right. How to Fight Racism is not a manual for creating multiethnic churches. The amount of racial and ethnic diversity we see or don’t see is downstream from the racial and ethnic diversity that we practice all week long. Where you live, where you send your kids to school, your workplace, all of that factors into what happens on Sunday morning. If we put all the energy and attention and focus on an hour or two one day a week, what we’re doing is assuring ourselves that we aren’t racists because we sit next to someone of a different race at church on Sunday, but we actually haven’t taken a substantive action against racism in our society.

Armstrong: Would you say, then, that it’s possible to fight racism and develop faithful racial awareness in a congregation that is majority white?

Tisby: Many multiethnic churches prop up diversity as the goal, but I think a better goal is justice—and racial and ethnic diversity will be a byproduct. Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t be intentional about racial and ethnic diversity in our congregations, but the bigger issue is not just getting different people to sit next to each other on Sunday morning. Many multiethnic churches prop up diversity as the goal, but I think a better goal is justice—and racial and ethnic diversity will be a byproduct. Click To Tweet

The bigger issue is equity in our society, and a church that is pursuing equity in our society is going to be a spiritually and emotionally safer place for people on the margins, and that is what we should be pursuing.

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