(RNS) — Over the past decade, Jemar Tisby’s life has largely been shaped by two forces: the Bible, and the deaths of young Black men, often at the hands of law enforcement.
About a decade ago, Tisby, then a seminary student in Jackson, Mississippi, helped start a new group called the Reformed African American Network — an offshoot of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement that had spread like wildfire among evangelical Christians in the first decade of the 21st century.
The group hoped to write about racial reconciliation from the viewpoint of Reformed theology, the ideas most closely associated with the ideas of John Calvin and popularized at the time by preachers and authors such as John Piper. But amid this resurgence of Reformed thought, there were few resources to be had on race issues.
Then, in 2012 in Florida, Trayvon Martin, a Black teen, was killed by the neighborhood watch coordinator of a gated community. All of a sudden, people in the movement were listening.
At the time, Tisby said in an interview, he and others raised their hands and said they had something to offer. The mostly white leaders of the Reformed movement, he said, welcomed them. “I believed them,” he said. “I thought, we are here, they must want us here.”
Over the next few years, Tisby, a former pastor turned history professor, became a leading voice on race among evangelicals through his writing and as co-host of “Pass the Mic,” a popular podcast.
He wrote op-eds on race and faith for The Washington Post and published the bestselling “The Color of Compromise,” which details the long history of racism in American Christianity. “How to Fight Racism,” a 2021 follow-up, was named Faith and Culture Book of the Year by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.
But Tisby’s success has since collided with conservative concerns about “wokeness” — a byword that encapsulates liberal critiques of systemic racism, America’s racial history and other social justice themes.
In recent months two college English professors at Christian colleges — one in Florida, the other in Indiana—have been dismissed for allegedly talking too much about race in their classes. In both cases, critics pointed to the appearance of Tisby’s work on class syllabuses to claim the professors were undermining their students’ Christian faith.
“I’ve become, for the far right, a symbol of everything that’s wrong with how people who they call the left are approaching race,” Tisby told Religion News Service.
The “woke war” playing out in school boards, on college campuses and in church pews has been driven by activists like Christopher Rufo and by conservative evangelical authors and preachers who warn that wokeness and academic notions such as critical race theory are heresy.