By Keshia McEntire
Author and activist Jemar Tisby will visit the University of Indianapolis at 7 p.m. on Feb. 13 to discuss how faith is interwoven with the fight for justice in America. RSVP to the event on Facebook here. Tisby is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. His website serves as a platform for believers to share articles on faith, theology and culture.
There has been passionate debate in various Christian circles over whether social justice is part of living out the gospel or a distraction from it. According to Tisby, marginalized people never had the option of separating theological beliefs from public activism.
“What good was religion to a marginalized people if it doesn’t give them principles of motivation to act on their own behalf for the causes of dignity and justice?” asked Tisby. “The Bible itself talks about faith without works being dead. Those works are not interpersonal acts of kindness. It’s doing justice, loving mercy, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. That work brings balance to unjust scales and holds corrupt leaders accountable, and that kind of faith in action brings about the common good for all people in a society.”
On The Witness, Tisby writes about race, religion, politics and culture. Tisby’s recently released book The Color of Compromise explores ways in which the American church has historically worked against racial justice, and paints a picture of how believers can work towards a racially inclusive church.
Tisby was a high school student when he chose to follow the Christian faith. As one of very few students of color in a predominately white, evangelical youth group, Tisby was accustomed to being a racial minority. When he was introduced to reformed theology as a student at the University of Notre Dame, he loved its biblical exposition but felt its racial composition was homogenized. After graduating from Notre Dame and becoming a teacher, new questions about his faith began to emerge.
“I became a teacher in the Mississippi delta,” said Tisby. “I was in high poverty areas and I saw all of the issues that go along with poverty: lack of education, poor healthcare, unhealthy food, all of those things. These issues became real to me because they were walking in on two feet, and so I started to ask how does my faith speak to justice. In the Christian circles I was in, there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about that.”
This inspired Tisby to explore these questions on his own. He attended seminary and created what he called a “dual curriculum” for himself.
“I had the curriculum that the seminary put forth, then I had the curriculum that I had to cobble together on my own speaking specifically to the black experience in America,” said Tisby “It all kind of came together around Ferguson. With Black Lives Matter it became clear to me that we have to vocally and directly address issues of racism and justice within the church as well as beyond. It had to come from Christians who understood that justice and the gospel are not actually separate, they are inseparable.”
Fighting for Freedom
When 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, Tisby had had been blogging and speaking for years. This event caused the topics of his posts to shift as he gained a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.
“I shifted my tone from speaking about racial reconciliation to speaking about racial justice,” said Tisby. “In my experience, when many Christians talk about racial reconciliation they are emphasizing the interpersonal aspects of race and racism. The idea is that racism is just one person having negative feelings about another person based on race and ethnicity. Therefore, the solution is you get a cup of coffee, have lunch, and make friends across racial lines. Those thing are good, but not sufficient. What Ferguson helped me understand more clearly was that, if we want to make progress, we have to move beyond the personal and into the institutional forms of racial justice.”
Tisby is aware that in many black circles there is heated debate over weather the christian faith is harmful to black Americans. He feels that many of these debates lack context.
“Number one, Christianity was in Africa long before it was in Europe. People of African descent practiced Christianity before any people were brought to North America. Number two, within the American context, black Christians saw through the hypocrisy of racism to the core of the christian message and saw the message of Christianity as fundamentally focused on freedom. And so, Christianity in the black community has been a force for liberation, communal strength and activism throughout our history.”
Tisby’s goal is to inspire all believers to play an active role in the fight for justice.
“Most people are not racist, but they are not anti-racist, They are not actually doing racist things, but by passively going along with the status quo they are actually continue to support inequality,” explained Tisby. “We need to move from passive to active in the fight against racism.”
Update: We were provided audio from his speech at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis. Click here to listen.