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The Fierce Urgency of Now | Jemar Tisby

The Fierce Urgency of Now | Jemar Tisby

Burdened by the brutality of racism in America, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped to the microphone near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Most people remember the line from his historic address where King expressed the desire for his children to be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Just as important, though, is the restlessness he displayed in the speech. “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” King explained. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

That was August 28, 1963. More than fifty years later, how far has the American church come in terms of race relations? The “Whites Only” and “No Negroes Allowed” signs have been taken down, but schools remain segregated. People of color are incarcerated at disproportionally high rates. Black unemployment remains double that of whites. Most poignantly, churches remain largely segregated. The reluctance to reckon with racism has led to a chasm between black and white Christians in theology, politics, and culture. This chasm only makes it harder to productively communicate and take effective action around racial issues. When it comes to opposing racism, have we as a nation overdosed on “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”?

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In The Color of Compromise, I have provided a brief historical survey to illustrate the many ways the American church has been complicit in racism over several centuries. In some cases, they actively constructed ideological and structural impediments to equality. If the twenty-first century is to be different from the previous four centuries, then the American church must exercise even more creativity and effort to break down racial barriers than it took to erect them in the first place.

In spite of all the shortcomings highlighted in this examination of the American church, many of the solutions proposed, solutions that might actually prove effective in changing the status quo, are often dismissed as impractical. Effective remedies to the present state of racial injustice—a situation created by an unbending commitment to ideas of racial superiority and inferiority—are deemed too inconvenient to pursue. But studying the history of the American church’s compromise with racism should teach us that action is necessary and long overdue. Pioneering black historian John Hope Franklin said, “I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion.” He went on to state, “I cannot imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.” Those who have humbly submitted to the tutelage of history cannot help but exclaim, “I have to do something!”

The Color of CompromiseIn The Color of Compromise I present practical ways to address the current state of racial injustice in America. Most of the solutions focus on structural and institutional methods to combat inequality. I understand that this approach may provoke resistance in some readers since the default way of thinking for many conservative Christians is to focus on the relational aspects of race. To be clear, friendships and conversations are necessary, but they are not sufficient to change the racial status quo. Christians must also alter how impersonal systems operate so that they might create and extend racial equality.

Many of these suggestions have been or are being practiced by a small but committed number of people, but some Christians consider them too risky or impractical to seriously consider. My hope is that as people learn about how deep and far reaching the problem of racism is, these “radical” solutions will start to seem more reasonable. This list is far from exhaustive. It is an initial attempt to offer a few actions that I believe can actually impact race relations for the better. Perhaps my suggestions will inspire additional ideas. Many of the methods of addressing racism highlighted here pertain to white Christians, but people of all races and ethnicities play a role in bringing about racial justice.

The most frequent question I get when presenting about racial justice is, What do we do? People who ask this agree that the American church has compromised with racism and that racism continues to be a problem. Their next impulse is to want to do something about the problem, so they ask me what they should do. After years of listing random action items, I have now grouped them into three broad categories.

The ARC (Awareness, Relationships, Commitment) of racial justice helps distinguish different types of antiracist actions. They are not formulaic; they can happen nonsequentially and simultaneously. Nor should this process ever be considered complete. Even the most seasoned racial justice activists constantly learn, question, and reform their own attitudes and actions. Though not the final word on antiracism, the ARC of racial justice provides a useful framework for taking decisive action against discrimination.

To increase your capacity to fight your own complicity in racism, you can start by increasing your awareness of the issues and the people involved. Although you can expand your awareness in many ways, one particularly fruitful place to start is by reading and learning more about the racial history of the United States. I am concerned that our knowledge about racial justice in this country tends to extend no further than one chapter in a high school social studies textbook. History is about context, so studying history remains vital. It teaches us how to place people, events, and movements within the broader scope of God’s work in the world.

About the Author

Jemar Tisby (BA, University of Notre Dame, MDiv Reformed Theological Seminary) is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also cohost of the Pass the Mic podcast. He has spoken nationwide at conferences and his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, CNN, and Vox. Jemar is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the twentieth century.