Candidates debate healthcareIt’s an election year, which means healthcare is again in the national spotlight. Bernie wants Medicare for All. Mayor Pete wants Medicare for All Who Want It. Joe Biden wants to serve up Obamacare with a Biden garnish. Elizabeth Warren wants what Bernie wants, but in a way that Only Elizabeth Warren Can Take Credit For. And so on. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has done its part over the past 4 years to weaken and eviscerate Obamacare – which is probably good, because Obamacare has been basically a nightmare in implementation.

The political debate has polarized, predictably, into two extremes: the left basically wants socialized medicine, and the right basically wants free-market-directed private health insurance. In this post, I want to make the case that both sides are missing the point. So let me begin with a story.

One of my college roommates lives overseas, working as a Christian missionary in sensitive areas. A few years ago, when he was back in the States, I asked him how his medical coverage worked. He explained to me that his missions agency practiced a form of Christian healthcare cost-sharing, and that he and his family LOVED it. I balked. “You mean you don’t have health insurance?” I asked.

“No. I find health insurance ethically problematic,” he replied. And then he walked me through an exercise that left me pondering for months.

“What’s the aim of your health insurance company?” he asked. “Why do they exist?”

“To help me pay for medical care,” I replied.

“Wrong. Your health insurance company exists to make a profit for its shareholders.” He was right, of course, and I began to see where he was going with this line of questioning. “And how, exactly, do they make that profit?” he continued.

“By taking in more in premiums than they disburse in expenses,” I replied.

“Exactly. Health insurance is about profit. That’s why insurance companies deny coverage; it’s why they drop people from their rolls; it’s why they raise premiums regularly. It’s capitalism, plain and simple. Health insurance is not the same as health care.”

This is exactly the problem that Bernie Sanders is willing to name (and then to wildly gesticulate about): the insurance companies and the prescription drug companies exist to profit off the medical needs of Americans. Perhaps you’d argue that they have a right to make a profit; and in a perfect world, I might even agree with you. But this isn’t a perfect world. The dangers of unfettered capitalism grow more and more apparent as the years go by. Bernie is right: the medical lobby is powerful, and they have a choke-hold on healthcare in America. If you doubt that, please read the court documents for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma. Or talk to my friend Paul, who had to go on the evening news to pressure his insurance company to approve treatment for his brain cancer. (Other cancer patients around the US affirmed that this is normal: insurance companies routinely deny treatment unless and until they receive massive public pressure. When the PR consequences of being mean start to outweigh the cost of treatment, they relent. Welcome to health care in America.)

As long as insurance companies stand between patients and their doctors, we’ll never have a humane health care system in America. The system is rigged in favor of the insurers: poor people can’t afford coverage; at-risk people can’t get coverage; and even those who have coverage can be denied treatment at will based on the insurance company’s whims. The whole system revolves around the insurance companies. Doctors hate it; employers hate it; and you probably hate it! To really fix what’s broken, private health insurance must go.

This should be a pretty simple premise for biblically-minded Christians to agree upon. I’ll admit: it took me a while to get there. I come from basically conservative, free-market, pseudo-libertarian assumptions, and it seemed reasonable to me for insurance companies to exist. Until I began to think about the difference between health insurance and health care. My roommate was right: insurance companies don’t exist to ensure that we have health care. They exist to make money. And they do that by charging us more in premiums than they pay out in expenses. In many areas of our society, such a profit motive is fine and good; but when it comes to life and death, that’s a terribly inhumane and unjust proposal.

(Before you comment: I know there are good people who work at insurance companies, and this would affect their livelihood, and it would involve a massive realignment of a whole segment of our national economy, and so forth. And while those are important emotive concerns, we need to set them aside for the sake of the broader debate. We’re not taking anyone’s job away just yet. We’re debating first principles for the sake of the greater good. Stay with me.)

A few paragraphs up, I said “Bernie is right.” Now we get to talk about where he’s wrong. Replacing insurance companies with the federal government is a recipe for disaster. And that’s what the single-payer and Medicare-for-all proposals seek to do. I admire Bernie for his courage in acknowledging that major systemic change is needed. But he’s crazy if he thinks the federal government is a realistic solution (a folly that most of the other Democratic candidates share). Anyone been to the DMV lately? Been stuck in a TSA line? Had a run-in with the IRS? Placing the federal government in charge of healthcare is a guaranteed recipe for waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency. A system that places the federal government between patients and their doctors is no better than a system that places insurance companies between patients and their doctors.

Which brings us to the real solution: we need to get rid of the middleman. It won’t be easy, frictionless, or without challenges. But the only way to a humane healthcare system in America is to both abolish private insurance AND keep the federal government out of health care.

This is where the distinction between health care and health insurance becomes important. Christian convictions should incline us toward a system that provides true health care for as many people as possible. In my opinion, the best way to accomplish that is some sort of a cash-pay system that puts patients directly in charge of both their health care and their healthcare expenses. Smarter minds than me will have to adjudicate the details. But as long as insurance companies and/or the federal government are at the center of the conversation, I think we’re still having the wrong conversation.

Two years ago, of my own free will, I stepped away from my employer-provided private insurance plan. That conversation with my college roommate had been bouncing around in my head for five years, and I couldn’t avoid its implications. My family and I joined up with Samaritan Ministries, a Christian health care cost sharing ministry. It’s an amazing model. We pay cash for all our healthcare expenses, and when we face an expense that’s beyond our ability to pay, we submit a “sharing request,” and Christian brothers and sisters across the country chip in to cover our need. Likewise, every month, we commit to invest a certain amount of money in the direct medical needs of other members.

What’s been amazing to me is how much our doctors love it. They get paid right away – no haggling with insurance companies, no Medicare bureaucracy, no quibbles over whether the visit was coded correctly according to each insurer’s protocols. Most of the time, we get a significant discount on the spot simply for being a cash-pay patient (similar to the up-front discounts various insurers negotiate with doctors). We haven’t had any catastrophic needs yet, so how the system works for a major medical expense remains to be seen. But as the kind of person who does my homework, I’ve talked to lots of people who HAVE had such expenses, and they’ve been satisfied with how the system works.

I realize that scaling such a system to a nationwide level creates a whole new set of questions and complexities. And I don’t claim to have all the answers. What I DO know is that removing the middleman from my family’s healthcare world has been an amazing experience. I feel more connected to my doctor; I take more personal responsibility for cost-checking and avoiding unnecessary procedures; and my doctor’s office saves time and money in billing.

A properly Christian doctrine of original sin should lead us to be skeptical of both the federal government and the insurance industry. The simple polarities of left and right are both wrong. A Christian approach to medical care will prioritize health care, not health insurance. Out of concern for the good of all citizens, it will seek to remove profit motive from the equation as much as possible. And it will move the locus of the conversation back to the simple relationship between patient and doctor.

A Historic Day: BrexitToday will go down in history as one of the defining moments of the twenty-first century. As Brexit is implemented and Britain officially leaves the European Union, a major chapter in post-Enlightenment politics comes to an end.

I was fifteen years old in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. That occasion was almost unsettling in its suddenness. For most of the 1980s, anxiety about nuclear war between the US and USSR ran deep. You can discern those fears in the movie scripts, the songs, and the psychological literature of the 80’s. The reason Ronald Reagan is revered by many has less to do with his policies and more to do with the fact that he presided over a deep and profound shift in existential reality. To those who lived with daily fear of a Russian nuclear strike, the erasure of that concern was a massive event. And it happened precipitously. In the summer of 1987, Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and appealed to Soviet president Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” In 1989, the wall came down – and with it, Soviet control over Eastern Europe. The Cold War was over. A new era had begun.

The three decades after 1989 could be titled “The Age of Globalism.” As the standoff between two global superpowers gave way to harmony, as China gradually softened its stance toward the West, and as the internet redefined the economy and unleashed massive global connectivity, the Enlightenment dream of a globalist society seemed more and more realistic. The EU was the grand project of this globalist dream: it would elide national borders, create a common currency, and give the formerly colonialist nations of Europe a chance to hold hands and sing kumbayah while ushering in a new world order.

What the EU gave us instead was a different kind of totalitarianism. Instead of a power center built around national or ethnic sovereignty (German identity in World War II, Afrikaner identity in South Africa, and so forth), the EU created a power center of globalist technocrats. Nationalism was the new transgression; local identity would be subsumed under globalist priorities. Distinct, particular peoples would give way to a broad, generic people – the people of Europe (and hopefully, eventually, the world).

The problem is: this just isn’t how identity works. All of us are defined by the family we come from, the place we grew up, the language (or languages) we speak, and the culture we inherit. The more we feel these things threatened and/or condemned, the more we will resist the pull of the globalist vision.

Nationalism certainly has its dangers – the 20th century was a grim reminder of that. But globalism’s answer to those dangers was to impugn the existence of nations. Thanks to the British people (and also the American working class in 2016), that answer has been exposed as unworkable and oppressive. As Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote this week:

Leaving the European Union is a momentous act precisely because it breaks a political spell. For decades, a powerful intellectual clique has insisted that the gradual erasure of borders and the enfeeblement of national governments was the natural next course of human enlightenment. Often it was implied that some iron law of history drives this trend. The moral progress of mankind, or the exigency of markets, somehow demands it. A kind of sour, smirking Whiggish mind came to believe that human hatreds could be extinguished, that it would just require ditching national and local loyalties.

Brexit will go down as the moment in history when the ship of post-Cold-War progressive globalism crashed on the rocks of rootedness and personal identity. However we learn to live, work, and trade together in this global economy – and learn we must – it won’t happen by pretending that national identity and sovereignty don’t matter. Instead, it will be by honoring the dignity and specificity of “all nations, tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

In 2001 – the year I moved back to Omaha from the coffee mecca of Austin, Texas – Caffeine Dreams opened its doors. Eric and Amber Goodenough purchased the burned-out hulk of a historic brick building at 46th and Farnam and turned it into a proper coffee shop – the kind that would be right at home in Seattle or Austin.

the now-defunct Caffeine Dreams coffee shop in Omaha
Caffeine Dreams in its prime

The Goodenoughs eventually sold the business, and it began a long slow decline into mediocrity, finally closing its doors in 2018. But Caffeine Dreams had established a beachhead for coffee culture in Omaha. In 2002, Starbucks came to town (back when Starbucks still cared about coffee), and since then specialty coffee shops have continued to multiply. I’ve watched various players come and go: Echo, Fox Hollow, Beansmith, Aroma’s.

Based upon 2 decades of espresso-drinking in this city, I offer this humble list of the top ten coffee shops in Omaha. This isn’t one of those “best of” lists where the writer gets compensated to promote someone’s pet business: I’m local and unbiased. The rankings are based entirely on my personal opinion. If you disagree, or if you have a local joint you think should be added to the list, feel free to post a comment.

1. Archetype Coffee

Archetype is the best coffee shop in Omaha, hands down. They know their craft, they love their craft, they excel at their craft. If you’re from a city where top-quality third-wave coffee shops are a basic staple of urban life, skip everything else and go directly to Archetype. While you’re there, ask master roaster Jason Burkum to tell you about the time he won a Grammy award.

Archetype Coffee | 3926 Farnam St. | 1419 S. 13th St.

2. Rally Coffee

For a brief period of time, downtown Omaha boasted an excellent artisan coffee shop called Beansmith. Then it closed down. But coffee director Ian Wiese saved the day by purchasing Beansmith’s assets and launching Rally Coffee! Rally runs a close second to Archetype, and it should be your go-to if you’re staying, working, or playing in north downtown.

Rally Coffee | 749 N. 14th St.

3. Hardy Coffee

Local entrepreneur Autumn Pruitt has been a fixture in Omaha’s coffee and bakery scene since 2010. Hardy is her labor of love, and she’s been steadily perfecting her craft for a decade. You can now enjoy the success of her endeavor in three different locations.

Hardy Coffee | 6051 Maple St. | 1033 Jones St. | 2112 N. 30th St.

4. Roast

Roast is the brick-and-mortar expression of local roaster A Hill of Beans. They opened their Aksarben Village store right in the center of a bustling redevelopment boom, and it’s gone well for them. They’re a little less hipster, a little more suburban – but their coffee is good.

Roast Coffeehouse | 1904 S. 67th St. | 1919 Papillion Pkwy.

5. Starbucks

I can hear all you purists complaining already. But listen: some of us live west of 72nd Street. And as you’ll notice, every single coffee shop on this list is east of 72nd. Yes, Starbucks has turned into the McDonalds of coffee. Yes, it’s compromised its craft and completely sold out to capitalism. Yes, it smells like a gas station convenience store (breakfast sandwich, anyone)? But despite all that… it’s still better than Scooter’s.

Starbucks Coffee | 15 freestanding locations in Omaha & Council Bluffs

6. Culprit Cafe

Culprit is an excellent little café that features beans from Broadway Roasting in KC (one of my favorite Kansas City coffee shops).

Culprit Cafe | 1603 Farnam St. | 3201 Farnam St.

7. Blue Line Coffee

If you’ve seen the “Soup Nazi” Seinfeld episode… that’s Blue Line. Skip the pleasantries. Do not ask questions. If you’re a Dundee local, you are welcome to speak to the barista; but otherwise, just state your order, step aside, and let them get on with things. Nevertheless, Blue Line has great coffee… proving that if you have a quality product, you can afford to be a bit aloof.

Blue Line Coffee | 4924 Underwood Ave.

8. Zen Coffee Co.

Zen is a relative newcomer to the Omaha coffee scene. Its ambience is perhaps a bit overly zen-like… upon entering, one feels a strange sensation to order a decaf or a nice herbal tea. However, they take sustainability seriously and seek to run a 100% waste-free business, which is something our city needs more of.

Zen Coffee Company | 230 South 25th St.

9. Myrtle & Cypress

Myrtle & Cypress is a truly grassroots local business, started by residents of Omaha’s Gifford Park neighborhood. It’s located in a really cool little converted house around the corner from Creighton University. The shop has a great neighborly vibe, and they keep things local by brewing Hardy beans and Artemis teas.

Myrtle & Cypress Coffee | 517 N. 33rd St.

10. Classic Rock Coffee

This place is… maybe a little TOO excited about their concept (all the coffee roasts have cutesy rock-n-roll names?). Apparently the franchise is a self-conscious attempt to blend classic rock culture with specialty coffee culture. It’s an odd mix, and the jury is still out on this one… but the coffee is tasty. And if you’re looking for a decent cup north of 72nd and Maple, good luck finding anything else.

Classic Rock Coffee | 3912 N. 72nd St.

Not on the List…

Scooter’s Coffee

Scooter’s employees are some of the nicest people in the city. But Scooters’ business model is a drive-thru where you order a caramel-drizzle-topped blended coffee beverage. They’re wonderful people who are good at what they do; it’s just that what they do isn’t coffee, per se.

Crane Coffee

To its credit, Crane was “Omaha’s original coffeehouse” back in 1991 (think: second-wave, pre-Starbucks). To its detriment, Crane’s coffee has just never been good. Recently Scooter’s announced that it is acquiring Crane… regarding which, see above.

My greatest temptation is cynicism. My deepest struggle is despair. I envy Christian leaders who possess unabashed confidence in the gospel; I’m personally more prone to bouts of unbridled skepticism. I regularly doubt the Scriptures I preach, the God I worship, the worldview I espouse.

If, like me, you tend toward cynicism, this post is for you.

From the outside, you might assume that the pastoral vocation would encourage and strengthen faith. I’d argue the opposite is often true. Pastors have a front-row seat to the ugliness of human sin and its manifestation in the church. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been lied to, lied about, and slandered. I’ve believed the best about people who (it turned out) believed the worst about me. I’ve watched pastors I trusted abuse their power, betray their calling, walk out on their marriages, and even abandon the faith. And as I write this, I know I’m preaching to the choir. You have your own stories of betrayal and disillusionment. Cynicism is tempting because there are things to be cynical about.

One of God’s most gracious gifts to the cynical person is the gift of honest Christian friends. Recently, as I was processing a spate of cynicism and despair with a trusted friend, he suggested a book I hadn’t heard of: Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes. I read it and found it challenging and helpful. In this post, I want to summarize some of the book’s most valuable insights. 

Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006)

Dick Keyes is a graduate of Harvard University and Westminster Seminary who has worked with L’Abri Fellowship in Southampton, Massachusetts, since 1979. Now in his 70s, he’s given his life to patient, thoughtful interaction with skeptics of all stripes. This makes his reflections on cynicism mature, measured, and wise.

The title of the book pays homage to C.S. Lewis’s famous observation in The Abolition of Man: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever… To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Keyes adopts this rubric as his baseline definition of cynicism: “Cynicism… has to do with seeing through and unmasking positive appearances to reveal the more basic underlying motivations of greed, power, lust, and selfishness.” Throughout the book, he identifies three targets for cynicism: other people, institutions (government, family, church, marriage), and God.

Cynicism, of course, is the air we breathe. It saturates our political discourse, it inundates social media, it’s the key to modern humor. We live downstream from postmodernism and from three influential philosophers – Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche – who taught us to “see through” economic patterns, psychological biases, and power dynamics. Without dismissing the critical insights of these thinkers, Keyes wants to help us question our cultural assumptions and “suspect our suspicions.”

If, like me, you wrestle deeply with cynicism, this is a book worth reading from start to finish. In this post I merely want to summarize six key insights that were helpful to me in my own struggle with cynicism. I’ll also leave you with a few salient quotes from the book.


Cynicism operates from a hidden idealism. “Cynicism is usually expressed in innuendoes, passing remarks, moods, cartoons, glancing blows, hints, insinuations, unacknowledged assumptions, and jokes. The full self-confidence of its suspicions, enabling it to unmask all things in its vision, are whispered… The genius of cynicism is that it is a voice in your ear which does not usually hang around long enough to be interviewed.” Every cynic is a closet idealist, assuming the superiority of his vantage point. The power of cynicism is that as it critiques the ideals of others, its own ideals are generally hidden from view.

Cynicism is a claim to know all things. Cynicism is a generalizing and totalizing project: because some people act from self-interest, the cynic concludes that all people are driven by self-interest. By claiming to “see through” the motives of others, the cynic assumes a posture of omniscience. “Cynics see through the illusory truths of others to get down to the ‘real truth’ beneath… Far from losing confidence in truth, cynicism has put enormous trust in a different set of truths – its own tools of cynical inquiry.” Though often cloaked in the language of skepticism, cynicism is in fact a claim to absolute truth and objectivity.

Honest dialogue requires that we “reverse the flow of suspicion.” Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche claimed that all religious belief could be reduced to human projection: “the idea of God [provided] a needed crutch, a smokescreen, or both.” But in the same way, both crutch and smokescreen can be motivations for cynicism. The critique cuts both ways. We need to subject cynicism to its own tools of analysis. As we do, we discover that “there is no neutral, objective, or unbiased place to stand” when asking questions about ultimate reality. “Our ideas about God’s presence, absence, or unknowability are all self-involving ideas… They necessarily implicate us or make claims on us, our priorities, and our futures. A dispassionate neutrality is impossible.” Our existing commitments create an interpretive filter through which we evaluate reality. We need to suspect our suspicions.

Cynicism is attractive because it’s partially true. “Cynicism at its best dares to recognize that things are not as they should be… It is suspicious of spin and plastic smiles… [it] has a refreshing aversion to naivete, sentimentality, hypocrisy and blind optimism.” The problem with cynicism is that it goes too far: “Cynics presume to see through those that they cannot in fact see through at all.” For instance: the postmodern cynic adopts a skeptical view of language; words are merely tools that mask agendas of power and oppression. Is this true? Certainly, in some cases. But it’s also true that “words have also been used to clarify, challenge, and motivate people to overcome prejudice, oppression, and injustice.” (Think, for example, of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.) This is the “yes, but” that a healthy response to cynicism requires. Yes, words can be tools of oppression… but not in every case. In the end, cynicism is too simplistic. It’s overconfident in its suspicions. It claims an omniscience it doesn’t have.

The biblical alternative to cynicism is “qualified, redemptive suspicion.” A qualified suspicion acknowledges that not every silver lining has a cloud: despite the brokenness of the world, people are capable of genuine goodness. A redemptive suspicion “is willing to risk giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.” It dares to hope. In a fallen world, suspicion is warranted; we should not trust every person or believe every story. But biblical suspicion looks inward as well as outward. It is self-critical before it is critical of others. It recognizes the possible errors in my judgment and the possible biases in my viewpoint. With qualified, redemptive suspicion, “we can recognize the brokenness that the cynic sees – but without losing the hope that the cynic rejects. [And] we can recognize the glory in the world that the cynic cannot see – but without the sentimentality that the cynic fears.” God, who sees the human heart more clearly than any of us, is not a cynic about humanity. Neither should his people be.

We see only the back side of the tapestry. God, in his providence, is working out his sovereign purposes in history. “What we can see as finite, dependent creatures, limited in space and time, is only a tiny piece of the back side of a tapestry, with only the crudest inklings of what the front side of the tapestry of God’s providence must look like.”


“Cynicism is prudent… Believing in the integrity of another person, the validity of an institution or the goodness of God are all high-risk convictions. They are potential setups for disappointment. If you are concerned first and last for emotional safety and survival, cynicism is going to look quite attractive.” (p. 82)

“All men have a natural fear of making a mistake – by believing too well of a person. However, the error of believing too ill of a person is perhaps not feared, at least not in the same degree as the other.” (p. 80, quote from Soren Kierkegaard)

“The cheap pleasures of cynicism are always in plentiful supply. Abandoning them is like going on a diet or giving up smoking. Hope, in other words, is the thing that takes work.” (p. 211, quote from Michael Kinsley)

“If there is an alternative for cynicism, what is it? …[It is] the lifelong determination to see the world as it really is, as much as we can, with eyes open. This means being suspicious of the deceptive filters of our culture and of our personal experience – filters both sentimental and cynical. I am looking for wisdom expressed in a redemptive suspicion, limited by humility and tempered by love and mercy.” (p. 171)

“As cynicism sees through people to unmask them, love also ‘sees through’ them, but with a very different agenda. When we believe and hope in someone, we are also looking through or beyond them, past their face-value appearance or past track record. We see their potential for growth in goodness, strength, and virtue.” (p. 186)

I’m confident my struggle with cynicism will be a lifelong battle. But I’m thankful to Dick Keyes for helping to map the terrain more clearly, and for providing keen wisdom for the journey.  

Perhaps you’re a reader grieved by America’s legacy of racism… but you tend to distrust governmental solutions. Perhaps you agree that the American church has been complicit in racism… but you tend to see preaching the gospel, rather than “antiracist social action,” as the church’s primary mission. Perhaps you believe that Christians should work for racial justice… yet you are also wary of the ways that the language of “justice” is being weaponized in our cultural dialogue.

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019)

Readers who can relate to these tensions won’t find them resolved by Jemar Tisby’s new book The Color of Compromise. Though it is excellent in its description of racism in the church, its prescriptions fall prey to some key weaknesses.

The Color of Compromise is an important book. It’s a necessary book. It’s a meaningful book. Tisby is a first-rate historian, and he has compiled a thorough and sobering account of racism in America and the church’s sad complicity in it. The book is divided into eleven chapters: an introduction and a conclusion, with nine chapters of historical survey in between. Beginning with the colonial era and ending with Black Lives Matter, Tisby traces the story of race in America. Throughout the journey, he comes back to one central point: “nothing about American racism was inevitable.” The story could have been different. At countless moments in history, Christians could have courageously stepped forward to combat racism and change the narrative. But they didn’t.


For white Christians specifically, Tisby’s book is important in two regards. First of all, it gives historical context. For years, I personally was ignorant of why certain social and political issues tended to elicit a strong response from my black friends. Many of my white friends share that ignorance. But when we understand key events from the slavery and Jim Crow eras, we gain insight and clarity. For instance, when we remember that Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877, leaving newly freed blacks to fend for themselves, we can make better sense of “ongoing disputes over the role of the federal government in proactively ensuring civil rights” (p. 98). To meaningfully engage issues of race, we must know our history. Tisby’s book is massively helpful in that regard.

Second, Tisby’s book is important for white Christians because it confronts false narratives. For example, chapter 6 addresses the “Lost Cause” mythology that persists throughout the American South to this day. “According to the Lost Cause narrative, the South wanted nothing more than to be left alone… but it was attacked by the aggressive, godless North, who swooped in to disrupt a stable society, calling for emancipation and inviting the intrusion of the federal government into small-town, rural life” (p. 94). Having attended college in the South, I can affirm that this explanation for the Civil War is alive and well. Certainly numerous other issues were bound up in the causes and justifications of the Civil War – but every one of those issues was connected in some way to the institution of slavery. Tisby helps us reckon with the hard truth. He shows how Christian denominations split over the issue of slavery, how theologians and preachers used the Bible to justify slavery, and how Christian leaders failed to act courageously to end slavery. White Christians of all persuasions need to reckon with these facts. As Tisby points out, “American Christians have never had trouble celebrating their victories, but honestly recognizing their failures and inconsistencies, especially when it comes to racism, remains an issue… The Color of Compromise undoes the tendency to skip the hard parts of history and… [challenges] a triumphalist view of American Christianity” (p. 20).

A Work of History & Persuasion

As a historian, Tisby excels. He writes with cogency; he acknowledges complexity; he documents his sources well. Yet he seeks to offer more than just a historical survey. The Color of Compromise is a work of persuasion on two levels. First, Tisby hopes to persuade readers that “the American church has been complicit with racism.” At this level, in my opinion, he succeeds. When Southern preachers used the Bible to defend slavery; when denominations divided over it; and when theologians used the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9 to justify the subjugation of black people, it’s impossible to argue that the church has NOT been complicit in racism.

Second, Tisby seeks to persuade American Christians to “feel the weight of their collective failure to confront racism in the church… [and take] immediate, fierce action to confess the truth and work for justice” (p. 24) And it’s here that the book fails, in my opinion, for two reasons.

First, Tisby assumes that readers share his vision of what “working for justice” looks like, rather than persuading readers that his particular set of prescriptions are both necessary and just. Second, he gives the impression that anything less than “immediate, fierce action” (action, presumably, that accords with his own set of prescriptions) amounts to ongoing complicity with racism.

At this point, I’ll put all my cards on the table. I’m a white Christian reader who’s willing to be persuaded. I’m grieved by the historic injustices done to black image-bearers of God in this country. I’m willing to acknowledge and repent of the sins of my forefathers. I want to identify any overt or covert racism in my life. And I desire to take meaningful action to heal the racial divides in our churches and our society. As such, I imagine I’m exactly the kind of reader Tisby had in mind when he set out to write this book.

At the same time, I also lean in a politically conservative direction; I have a conviction that personal conversion to Christ is foundational to any meaningful change; I think the main task of the church is to preach the gospel and call people to surrender to Jesus Christ; and I am generally skeptical of some of the ways that the language of “justice” is used in our modern political dialogue.

Call me “willing but wary.” Challenged but critically-minded. I imagine that in this regard, I’m representative of a fair percentage of the American Christians whom Tisby hopes to persuade. But his book displays four key weaknesses that will end up hindering its rhetorical effectiveness among the very audience he seeks to influence.

Weakness #1: dismissive treatment of a mainstream theological conviction.

In chapter 8, titled “Compromising with Racism During the Civil Rights Movement,” Tisby contrasts “two approaches to religion and justice – moderation and activism.” Throughout the chapter, Tisby assumes that his own position – activism – is the obviously correct one. He asserts that Christian moderates “played it safe, refusing to get involved in the civil rights movement” (p. 132).

His example of moderation is Billy Graham; of activism, Martin Luther King Jr. Using Graham’s own words, Tisby explains the convictions behind his “moderate” position:

Graham stated, “I believe the heart of the problem of race is in loving our neighbor.” While few Christians would object that racism is a failure to love one’s neighbor, Graham did not carry that statement any further into the realm of institutional racism. Like many evangelicals, Graham believed race relations would gradually improve – one conversion and one friendship at a time… Ultimately, Graham made it clear that his primary goal was evangelism… Graham never relented from the belief that “the evangelist is not primarily a social reformer, a temperance lecturer or a moralizer. He is simply a keryx, a preacher of the good news” (p. 135 and 149).

Leaving aside the question of Billy Graham’s engagement in the civil rights movement, Graham’s stated conviction that “the evangelist is… simply a preacher of the good news” is one shared by many Christian leaders and activists today – of all races and nationalities. One notable example is the Chinese dissident Wang Yi, who wrote recently upon his imprisonment: “I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime… But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.” Tisby fails to treat this conviction as a serious and cogent expression of Christian obedience and mission. Rather, he writes it off as evidence of “complicity with the status quo of institutional racism” (p. 135) and a “failure… to respond to the evils of segregation and inequality” (p. 143).

If Tisby wishes to assert that “activism” is the only properly Christian option, he needs to make a cogent argument to that end. There remain many Christians who DO care about racial justice, but who share Billy Graham’s conviction that the preaching of the gospel is the primary means to that end. Tisby appears to write such people off as lacking a serious commitment to racial equity. This is a core weakness in his book, and one I hope to see him remedy in future writings.  

Weakness #2: an unclear (and seemingly malleable) definition of racism.

In the first chapter of the book, Tisby puts forward Beverly Daniel Tatum’s definition of racism: “racism is a system of oppression based on race.” He points out that racism includes both “personal bigotry toward someone of a different race” and also “the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people.” This is a good, clear, and helpful definition. Historically speaking, it’s quite obvious how deeply entrenched this kind of racism has been in the American story.

But then, toward the end of the book, Tisby seems to expand this definition quite dramatically. He offers these tenuous examples of modern-day racism: “sharing the works of people who practiced slavery without context or criticism; continually hosting panels, conferences, and other events that feature only white men; Christian schools making peace with the presence of buildings named after racists or featuring their statues on campus grounds…” (p. 211).

It’s hard for this reader – and others, I imagine – to see how these modern-day examples reflect “a system of oppression based on race.” Each one certainly could be evidence of such – if we are knowingly avoiding the negative aspects of someone’s history, intentionally excluding minority voices, or proudly celebrating a racist past. (And it’s important to acknowledge that these kinds of things can and do happen). But none of these examples, in and of themselves, amounts to de facto racism. To take each one in turn: If I don’t mention Jonathan Edwards’ slaveholding when I quote him, am I guilty of racism? If my panel or conference features only white men, does that mean it’s racist? Is every Christian school with a building named after George Whitefield guilty of racism?

Some of our white forefathers believed that black people were property, not persons. That’s a grievous, sinful offense against human dignity – and it was part of a system of oppression based on race. I’m not convinced that a bust of Thomas Jefferson in the school library is the same thing.

Weakness #3: unjust prescriptions for “justice.”

In his final chapter, Tisby urges Christian leaders to use their platforms to “call out” racism. In so doing, he violates biblical principles of justice that would make such efforts truly just.

Public offense calls for public opposition. Too many Christian leaders refuse to use their platforms to speak publicly against racism. Those who do tend to speak in generalities. “Racism is wrong,” they say, but they refrain from naming individuals or situations in which racism is at play. Moreover, they use euphemisms like “racial tension” or “racially charged” instead of simply naming words or actions “racist”… If someone has been called out for racism, and they refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused – whatever their intent – then that person should not enjoy continued credibility and attention. Refuse to go to their conferences, buy their books, quote them on social media, or share their work.

Note carefully the process this paragraph condones. If someone has been “called out” for racism (which makes the accusation of racism the operative principle)… and if they “refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused” (making subjective “harm” the determining factor of guilt or innocence)… they should lose public credibility. An accusation of racism, and anything less than immediate capitulation to that accusation, is grounds for denouncing someone as a racist. This is a dangerous prescription that substitutes shame in the court of public opinion for true justice before God and man.

We’ve seen this script play out time and again on social media and in our cultural dialogue, and it’s unfortunate to see a Christian leader condoning these sorts of “shame storms.” Biblical justice demands more. I understand the importance of (especially white) Christian leaders speaking out boldly about issues of race. But when they do so, it’s imperative that they do so biblically and truthfully. If they follow Tisby’s prescription as stated, they may gain followers on social media… but they will not be acting justly in the eyes of God.

Weakness #4: a lack of gospel distinctiveness in the solutions proposed.

At the beginning of the book, Tisby makes an important point that’s foundational to any thinking about racism:

Skin color is simply a physical trait. It is a feature that has no bearing on one’s intrinsic dignity. As the following chapters show, people invented racial categories. Race and racism are social constructs.

This is exactly right. “Race” is an invented category – a social construct used to divide people from one another.

Therefore, we might expect a Christian treatment of racism to use the Scriptures to critique the very idea of race. A Christian approach might start with a survey of the doctrine of the image of God; fast-forward to Revelation’s vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” gathered around the throne of God; and then explore how the gospel of Jesus Christ has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” and “reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14-16). Such an approach might show how the gospel critiques the very idea of race (as a category constructed by sinful humans to divide us from one another), and how Christian baptism welcomes us into one new family where identity in Christ and not skin color is our defining feature.

It’s odd, then, that in the final (and prescriptive) chapter of Tisby’s book, he doesn’t mention the gospel at all. His suggestions for addressing racial injustice include: reparations; taking down Confederate monuments; learning from the black church; starting a new seminary; hosting freedom schools and pilgrimages; making Juneteenth a national holiday; participating in the modern-day civil rights movement; publicly denouncing racism; and starting a civil rights movement toward the church.

In his defense, Tisby’s goal is to offer practical advice – things Christians can DO to combat racism. Action steps are good and necessary. But my question is this: if race itself is a social construct, why prescribe remedies that operate within that social construct? Why not show how the gospel dismantles and redeems the whole construct in the first place?

Tisby’s prescriptions aren’t inherently bad (though I expect robust debate on their various merits and demerits); but none of them are distinctly Christian either. Each of them can be pursued without the gospel and without the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that reflects a self-conscious authorial decision; it could be that Tisby was aiming at a common-grace approach to furthering racial justice. But it seems to me that he missed a powerful opportunity to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ gives a totally different set of tools – and a totally different empowering grace – to address racism. If some Christians reject his ideas as “too liberal” – a charge he anticipates in his first chapter – I suspect this is why. It’s not because he’s an unreliable narrator; it’s not because his ideas are unworthy of consideration; it’s not because his audience is importing their own “implicit bias.” It’s because none of his solutions require the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit.

Summary & Conclusion

In summary, The Color of Compromise is an important book. It makes a meaningful contribution to the conversation about race in the church and in our society. I anticipate using it with my own children to help them understand (and lament) the church’s history of racial injustice.

However, it’s not a flawless book. It treats dismissively a well-established theological conviction. It offers a fuzzy description of modern-day racism. It fails to uphold biblical justice in some of its prescriptions for justice. And it misses a chance for clear gospel application. As a result, it fails to be as persuasive as the author hopes.

Jemar Tisby is a young scholar with many years of productive writing and activism ahead of him. I’m thankful for his voice, his influence, and his love for the church. I trust he will choose to address some of these weaknesses in his future work. And even if he disagrees with these critiques, I hope they serve to advance this important and fruitful conversation in the church at large, for the healing of our nation and the glory of God.