Having its origins in and influence upon the academy, it seems fitting for ESN to publish a blog post on this highly influential academic movement and its reception in Christian communities. Some Christian communities engage Critical Race Theory (CRT) with great skepticism, some with indifference, and some welcome it. This post begins with a sympathetic outline of the origins and basic tenets of CRT as critical race theorists would explain them. This post will also describe some important points of tension and areas of overlap with Christian theology. Finally, Jeff Liou, National Director for Theological Formation for InterVarsity/USA, will suggest implications for ministry in the academy and discussion in our personal networks.
Critical Race Theory: A Brief Overview
Since Google began collecting data on searches in 2004, Critical Race Theory has seen two major spikes. The latest in September 2020 resulted from an executive order banning “divisive concepts” in trainings on race intended for federal agencies. Some colleges and universities halted their own diversity trainings out of concern for the potential impact on their government funding. In November of 2020, six Southern Baptist Convention seminary presidents declared that CRT is incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message.
There is often much more heat than light in conversations, podcasts, and blogs about Critical Race Theory. In the haste to speak one’s mind, the way CRT gets described often reveals a lot about one’s starting assumptions, loyalties and priorities – we’ll examine this below. To even provide an overview of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in this political moment is fraught. So, I’ve chosen to summarize and highlight the origins and some key ideas of this academic and activist movement as critical race theorists would explain them.
In general, students benefit from hearing out primary sources before they turn to derivative book reviews. Similarly, a good-faith engagement with CRT calls for a full and respectful hearing before critical review. I think often of Paul’s respectful and masterful engagement with Stoic and Epicurean philosophies at the Areopagus in Acts 17. The dramatic turn in Paul’s argumentation was his pivot from a display of sympathy respect (he shared both philosophies’ disapproval of “Athenian superstition”) to the charge of “ignorance.” It seems right to start with sympathy similar respect.
The early writings that formed what we now call critical race theory can be found in law journals. Legal scholars began to argue the deficiencies they saw in Critical Legal Studies (some of which utilized Marxist tools) which held, among other things, that asserting legal rights only works in favor of the powerful and wealthy classes and should therefore not be relied upon for social change. In 1988, Kimberlé Crenshaw criticized CLS writing, “their work does not seem grounded in the reality of the racially oppressed,” for whom the Civil Rights Movement was both experientially and legally vindicating.
Let me provide an example of CRT’s analysis of the Civil Rights Movement. Derrick Bell points to Brown v. Board of Education as an example of the way in which, despite a major legal victory, the Supreme Court’s decision has not prevented high levels of de facto segregation in neighborhood schools from high levels of de facto racial segregation. In other words, the racial re-segregation we see today is legally permissible, despite what we profess to be our better judgment and the fact that the disproportionately negative impacts on Black and Brown children have been thoroughly reported. It’s important to note here that CRT engages legal theory and scholarship as it points to the real-life experiences of racial inequities.
CRT doesn’t simply point out problems; it proposes ways forward. For example, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic suggest that critical race theorists should put energy toward immigration reform for “policies that allow for freer flow of workers and capital” and work environments that don’t make cultural assimilation a requirement for success in the workplace. Concern for labor, unions, and the flow of capital helps to explain why some imprecisely label CRT as Marxist. It’s important to be clear that critical race theory’s focus is on the application of concrete, experienced phenomena of racial injustice on every field into which it now speaks – including race-blind, Marxist analyses of inequality.
Now, while Karl Marx’s name can scarcely be found in many of the foundational writings of CRT, CRT is mentioned by skeptics in the same breath as Critical Theory (CT) – a movement begun by German philosophers and social theorists working out of post-Marxist Western Europe. Critical theorists lived out Marx’s “ruthless critique of everything that exists,” as they began to examine music, literature, psychology, politics, and many other fields. They were looking for the unjust effects of dominating ideologies in every sphere of human experience. CRT is criticized by Marxist scholars who accuse CRT of prioritizing race over class. (For starkly different reasons, Marxist and neoconservative skeptics of CRT share the concern that focusing on race gives more power to this a faulty social construct.) So, the effort to conflate the two can betray the intent or impulse to overlook the dynamics of race – part of the very reason critical race theorists spoke out.
Some Central Ideas
You could probably perform an internet search for a succinct description of key ideas from CRT. So, I’ll try to provide some explanations of just three of the many ideas that have shown up in the more heated conversations among Christians on social media, in the blogosphere, etc.
- Voice of Color Thesis – Critical race theorists suggest that the legal status quo can be challenged by stories from people of color who have deeply personal experiences of racism. After having been dismissed or silenced by dominant narratives, people of color must be able to tell their own stories and not have them edited or redacted by others’ selective and incomplete retelling. These stories are a kind of knowledge that is unique to people of color.
- Intersectionality – The way critical race theorists describe intersectionality is quite different from the way it gets described by skeptics. In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw argued that the experience of being a Black woman, is “greater than the sum of racism and sexism.” This critical perspective arose from Crenshaw’s observation that neither feminist theory alone, nor anti-racist work alone were capturing the fullness of Black women’s experience. Furthermore, critical race theorists observe that everyone experiences more than one category of identity within their own person.
- Racism is more than prejudice – In 1997, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva challenged the notions that racism is caused by an irrational individual’s attitudes that are a fading specter of the US’s racist history. Instead, Bonilla-Silva argued that racism is “embedded in the structure of a society” and is prevalent because it is considered to be a legitimate way of thinking. This legitimacy is a contemporary foundation for racism in the present day. The idea that the very fabric of American society contains within it the machinery for the reproduction of inequality is, indeed, troubling.
There are so many more key ideas we could cover. I hope you get a feel for the scope and nature of the critiques being leveled by CRT. They are serious, to be sure. Yet, some Christians have asked whether CRT could ever accurately diagnose the problem or prescribe a solution. We turn to this question below.
Tension and Overlap
For many Christians, the Bible provides a unique and all-encompassing account of the problems in our world, including racism. The story is well-known: In Genesis 3, humanity’s first parents “fell” through their disobedience and passed on their sinful condition to every human in every generation thereafter. The Bible also provides a well-known solution: Jesus alone lived a sinless life and the sacrifice of his body and blood is atonement for our sinfulness, credited to those who trust in him. There’s so much more to say about sin and its solution. Depending on what “more” informs a Christian, her assessment of CRT might vary.
When sin is understood as idolatries, misdeeds, or even “disordered loves,” then a Christian might focus on things like a hiring supervisor’s discriminatory practices, racially motivated violence, or attitudes of racial superiority. There’s enough work here to last lifetimes! However, this individualistic way of understanding sin is incomplete.
In his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga reflects on racism through the generations. He distinguishes between culpable, racist individuals, and something much larger. He writes, “We create matrices and atmospheres of moral evil and bequeath them to our descendants. By habitual practice, we let loose a great, rolling momentum of moral and spiritual evil across generations. By doing such things, we involve ourselves deeply in what theologians call corruption” (p. 27). Critical Race Theory speaks more about system-wide corruptions than it does about culpable individuals. Its insights about the system-wide influence of racism may help us dismantle the matrices and atmospheres that would otherwise be passed on to the next generation.
Perhaps not every Christian must work on both individual and system-wide levels at once. But for different people working at different levels to be allied with one another suggests a better, more joyful harvest.
Along these lines, skeptics of CRT are concerned about the language of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” At a basic level, they observe rightly that oppression is simply not the same as what Christians mean when they use the word sin. Some are further concerned that this language is learned from Marxist critique. (Marx popularized this language from Hegel’s work published over a decade before Marx was born.) What then, should we make of the richness of the Bible’s vocabulary for oppression? Twenty-four different Hebrew words and five Greek ones express diverse types and experiences of oppression. This should come as no surprise since the people of God aren’t strangers to the system-wide corruptions of principalities and powers like Egypt and Rome.
Skeptics argue that “oppressor” and “oppressed” do not address the spiritual dilemma that fallen humans face before a holy God. This would be a valid concern if the Bible itself did not resist a dichotomy between the spiritual and the material. When James writes about faith and deeds in his letter to the diaspora, at question was not whether one was more important than the other. Rather, the scandal was that they were ever separated in the first place! (2:14-19) In other words, the false dichotomy between spiritual and material problems is an opportunity for dialogue between Western Christianity (which has tended to overemphasize the spiritual to the exclusion of the material) and CRT (which, like many disciplines, does not claim to be theology). This is another example of the potential for mutual correction and fruitful interaction.
Skeptics are also concerned that labels like “oppressor” and “oppressed” are reductive and do not capture, nor honor the fullness of what a human is, or can be. Additionally, they observe the wide reach of this language which has made its way into pop-culture references. For example, when Shuri, the princess of Wakanda in Black Panther, is startled by the white, male, Agent Ross, she chides him without missing a beat, saying, “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” In many theaters, this drew laughs. If CRT is guilty of such reduction, it would, indeed call for correction. Two comments seem necessary. First, there are many academic disciplines that do not share the same foundational anthropology that Christians hold. Yet, just as Christians have engaged these other disciplines, seizing the opportunity to speak into CRT at this point warrants withholding condemnation. Secondly, the description of intersectionality above should serve as a reminder that CRT works against simple reductions (i.e. “essentialism”) in ways that not even all Christians have done well to avoid.
I’ll add one final area of tension. Many strains of Christianity have an account of the triumphant return of Jesus Christ. For generations of Christians that great hope has funded courage in the face of injustice, comfort over the loss of loved ones, and urgency in the task of sharing the gospel. CRT is not hopeless, but it is somber in its realism. Critical race theorists see little else besides struggle for marginalized people and their communities. Because they have fresh experiences and stories of betrayal, their wariness of false messiahs, false promises, and false hopes is justifiable. If activists don’t think they can “win” in their lifetimes, there is still dignity, humanity, and community to be realized in, and affirmed by the struggle.
Eschatological hope anchored in the resurrection is, to me, the most obvious discontinuity between (and opportunity for) Christian theology and CRT. I have stated a few times now that I believe putting theology and CRT in dialogue with one another can be fruitful. Before I address eschatology and CRT, I need to make an important aside.
I have attempted to model a way of engaging the academic disciplines that integrates faith. For someone to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ,” one must avoid false choices between different paths. There are historical examples in which integration of Christian theology and other disciplines has caused alarm for some Christians. As Christianity grappled with the discipline of psychology, “integration” was proposed in the 1940s and 1950s. Some found the tensions with psychology’s secularity too problematic and the “biblical counseling” movement emerged in the 1970s. There are many related examples. The tensions between theology and philosophy, theology and sociology, theology and science, and so on, endure! However, Christians benefit daily from insights in all of these fields. Furthermore, InterVarsity students and faculty work coram deo in all of them – including CRT. So, instead of compatible/incompatible, endorse/renounce, or accept/reject binaries, I’ve chosen to hold the tensions and point to ways that biblical theology can help us frame some of the key ideas in CRT. If someone decides that the tensions are too great to hold, I hope they come to that decision after having grappled in good faith.
“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
Because they are witnesses to the disruption of the human timeline by the invasion of God’s grace in Christ, Christians have placed their faith in a savior and a coming city they have never seen. In contrast, CRT teaches people to brace themselves for an interminably long winter of marginal status. Many Christians of color have long braced the icy winds that have blown in this country, while simultaneously clinging to deliverance at the imminent return of Christ. We might say that they have carried both crucifixion despair and resurrection hope in their own bodies. In such communities, the voice of color thesis and the uniqueness of Christian hope are conjoined.
Whether you are part of a Christian community acquainted with racialized grief, or not, you are a hope bearer. Crossing boundaries to bear that hope is still our gladsome task. One of my professors, William Dyrness, wrote in 1982, “The day is surely past when we simply allow [believers in the global south] to ‘have their say’, while we Western theologians prepare the definitive answers to their questions. For now we recognize that if we listen carefully we find our own assumptions challenged and our thinking sharpened.” Alas! If only the days he writes about were truly behind us. Many are the Christians who have been taught to seize the ecclesial mic, to define reality for others, and condemn their “worldviews.” Few are the ones who will be sharpened by communities that have survived injustice in eschatological hope – communities whose voices CRT attempts (however imperfectly) to amplify.
“Not so with you.”
Questions for Discussion
- What academic disciplines have you already integrated with your faith? If you’re a grad student or faculty, can you describe how you are (or are not) integrating your faith and your discipline? What disciplines are more challenging to integrate? Why?
- Consider some of the key ideas described in this post, or other times you’ve read or heard about CRT. Take a moment to examine why aspects of it are resonant or dissonant for you. What is at stake for you?
- How do you experience the stories that come from communities that have survived injustice or prolonged duress? As Christians in these communities have leaned on the faithfulness of God, how do you think God beholds them? What does God desire for them and their community?
I’d like to thank Dr. La Mont Terry (Assoc. Professor of Education, Occidental College) for agreeing to provide his expert feedback on a draft of this article.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Liou serves as National Director of Theological Formation for InterVarsity. Jeff has also worked as a pastor, university chaplain, and adjunct professor. He earned his PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary, and has contributed chapters to books on Asian American Christianity and ethics in pastoral ministry.