taking the words of Jesus seriously

When I was growing up, I loved to read. I started reading Dungeons and Dragons books when I was around 10 years old and that’s really when the thrill of words grabbed hold of me. My favorite series was called Dragonlance, a medieval fantasy with elves, and dwarves, and magicians, and, of course, dragons. 

The books definitely were not intended for readers as young as I. Every book had at least three hundred pages and occasionally they dipped into adult themes. But I used context clues and grit to figure out the vocabulary and story elements I didn’t understand. 

There were more than 30 books in the series. I read every single one. 

I would spend hours in my room reading chapter after chapter. It became a ritual for my mom to take me to the bookstore to grab the next book in the series. 

It is because I was a reader at a very young age that I became a writer as an adult.

But reading was more than that. I was very shy during elementary and middle school, and I didn’t have many friends. Oftentimes, books would be my only company and comfort in my loneliness. The written word absorbed me into a strange and exciting world where everything else that troubled me temporarily fell away.

Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done as a kid if it wasn’t for books.

For many of us books are not mere assemblages of pages and words, they represent limitless realities into which we have flown, escaped, found solace.

Books contain knowledge that humanizes and horrifies us. Good books—even if we can’t remember every character’s name or every twist and turn of the plot—change us. They become our friends, our conversation partners, our company when we feel isolated and misunderstood.

The power of books to create a new reality for the reader means there’s something particularly heinous about banning them.

Banning Books

Right now, the regressive forces in our land are coming up with lists of books that should be banned from our schools because of the ways they talk about racism and white supremacy. 

In one of the most well-publicized instances, Republican state representative Matt Krause, disseminated a list of 850 books he thought needed to be removed from school library shelves.

These lists indiscriminately sweep up literary classics to be tossed on the pile marked “forbidden.” A notorious example includes proposing a ban on Toni Morrison’s Beloved

The book speaks in explicit terms about race and sex. But Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize-winning author. She is a legend of literature. Whatever she has written is worth a read. 

On the scale of absurdity, banning students from reading a book by Toni Morrison is off the charts.

I suspect the real purpose of these lists is to get a particular politician or individual in the news. They are meant to spark a reaction, either in support or opposition to their view. It doesn’t matter. In these political games, all news is good news.

The common thread among the books on these lists, aside from the clawing for attention, is they all contain books that talk or teach about race.

LISTEN: Jemar Tisby on the RLC Podcast

How absurd the notion that people in the United States should learn less about race and not more. As if the problem is that we know too much about the subject and not too little.

We should invite more books about race, racism, and white supremacy. We should celebrate educators who can effectively explain the confounding reality of race—its development, its perniciousness, and its ongoing effects—to their students.

Instead, legislators and talking heads pull publicity stunts to draw attention to themselves in hopes of winning an election or raising more funds. They hide their minds from the painful reality of this nation’s love affair with racial prejudice and pretend as if all is past. Then they seek to replicate their ignorance among our schoolchildren.

This Book Will Be Banned

If this trend continues, then one day my book, How to Fight Racism, Young Reader’s Edition, may land on one of these banned book lists.

Geared toward children ages 8-12 years old, I talk about concepts such as racism, white supremacy, race-based chattel slavery, segregation, and Black Lives Matter. 

Almost a quarter of the book is devoted to unpacking the history of racism in the United States in order to help kids understand how we got where we are and ignite in them the desire to do something about it.

Chapter titles include: Confronting Racism Where it Lives; How to Explore Your Racial Identity; and Fighting Systemic Racism.

I encourage kids, to embrace their personal agency and their ability to effect change. I tell them that racial justice is an imperative for a well-functioning society and that even, perhaps especially, as young people they should be involved in the fight against racism.

I tell them, 

“This fight isn’t just for grown-ups. Some of the greatest advances in the fight against racism have happened because kids fight too.”

My hope is that How to Fight Racism, Young Readers Edition inspires a new generation of young people to antiracist action starting right now.

The forces of regression panic when the most disempowered in our society learn to embrace their power. Some will do everything they can to suppress the impulse toward independence. They imprison activists, they burn churches, they make it harder to vote. They ban books.

The way to battle the ban is to lean into love. Lean into that timeless, irrepressible love of books. Lean into the feeling of being transported by an engrossing story. Lean in into the satisfaction of feeding our famished brains with new knowledge. Lean into our notorious affair with the written word.

If one day my book lands on one of those lists of banned books, I’m not worried. You can’t ban people from appreciating words, skillfully assembled, soulfully combined. Even if they write lists of banned books as long as a library’s shelves. it won’t douse the fire, and the will, we have to read words.

This article originally appeared on Footnotes by Jemar Tisby

For more information on Jemar’s book for young readers and other resources for teaching kids about Jesus and justice, you can watch the RLC Book Club Children and Youth Edition. You can also listen to the RLC Book Club from January 20221 with Jemar on the podcast or YouTube channel

About The Author


Jemar Tisby (BA, University of Notre Dame; MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary) is the New York Times bestselling author of "The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism" and the award-winning "How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Towards Racial Justice", and, coming in September, "The Spirit of Justice: Stories of Faith, Race and Resistance". He is a historian who studies race, religion, and social movements, and serves as a professor at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically Black college. He is also the founder of The Witness, Inc. an organization dedicated to Black uplift from a Christian perspective. He has written for national news outlets such as The Atlantic, Washington Post, and Religion News Service. He has offered television commentary on CNN and is frequently called upon to provide expert insight on current events related to race and Christianity. He has spoken nationwide at colleges, universities, and other organizations. He is also a best-selling author, national speaker, and public historian.

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