Deconstructing Critical Theory: Freeing Oppressed Groups
The image above is of a man named William Wilberforce. Many don't know about him, but it would benefit you to learn about this man. Born in England in 1759, Wilberforce became a follower of Christ in 1785 as a politician and vowed afterward to fight for the abolition of slavery in England. He saw the evil of the slave trade in England and was considered radical for his push for abolition, as opposed to the more prevalent view that slavery, though evil, was a kind of "necessary evil." In this article by Eric Metaxas for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Metaxas briefly surveys the work of Wilberforce to bring great moral reform unlike what had ever been seen in the world: the abolition of one of the oldest and most common trades in human history. His foundation was clear: a biblical position based in the fact that all humans, no matter what they look like, are created by God with the imago dei.
This story is not all that uncommon in the history of the West. Time and time again, massive moral and social reform is associated with the spread of the Christian faith. Examples abound of those who saw clearly that their faith obligated them to take certain positions that went against the grain of what was acceptable at the time. What they lacked was the political power to effectuate that change...until they had it. Once they had it, then reform of a kind unimaginable before Christ walked the earth was accomplished. The early Christians abolished the gladiatorial games in Rome. Christians have always advanced the flourishing of human beings by building schools, universities, hospitals, and orphanages. They have always opposed evil practices such as abortion and infanticide. And it was Christians like Wilberforce who pushed for the total abolition of slave trade, a reform so unthinkable that while others thought the slave trade immoral, they couldn't imagine it abolished entirely. Clearly, Christians were not always on the same page about the need for reform and the means. But it was a faithful and consistent application of the truth of their faith that led to reform where none was forthcoming from the world of paganism and other false worldviews.
In light of this history, it would seem natural to think that one ought to agree in principle with the critical theorist's claim that it is one's moral duty to fight for the liberation of oppressed groups from oppression. Refer back to the first post in this series for the list of central elements of critical theory, according to Neil Shenvi. This week's post concerns the fourth element in this series, which is:
Our fundamental moral duty is freeing groups from oppression.
The aim of this series thus far has been to delve into critical theory in more detail. I have done this by attempting to peel back the worldview, called cultural Marxism, underlying the political and social conflicts happening in the West today around issues such as race, class, sexuality, and gender. As I've stated already, my hope is that by taking this deep dive, you'll be able to connect the dots between the sort of "armchair" ideas presented in these blog posts and the kind of conversations that you'll likely have with those around you about various political and social issues. I think that it will be helpful in this post to take a step back and look at everything we've covered so far. By getting a sense of the big picture of critical theory, perhaps it will be easier to see why this element of critical theory should be considered problematic for the Christian.
In the post on the first element of critical theory, we saw that cultural Marxism claims that there are only two types of people: oppressor and oppressed. These two groups are constituted by their position in society, which is determined by one's group identities. Whether one likes it or not, if one is a white heterosexual male, then one is an oppressor. If one is a black homosexual female, then one is oppressed. We'll call this the metaphysical element, since it has to do with what constitutes what kind of person one is, whether or not one realizes it. You are "marked" by your group identities and position in society.
In the post on the second element of critical theory, we saw that hegemonic power is the act domination of the oppressor group over the oppressed group by imposing the values of the oppressor group on the oppressed group. In other words, truth claims are actually political tools for the oppression of certain groups. We'll call this the postmodern element, since it involves one of the central claims of postmodernism, that even values and truth claims are mere expressions of metanarratives for the political gain of the group that touts such a metanarrative.
In the post on the third element of critical theory, we saw that oppressed groups find solidarity in their common experience of oppression. This element explains why coalitions of those with common group identities are formed in order to oppose so-called oppressive groups. For this reason, we'll call this the political element.
One reason for recapping the elements before this one is to show that any worldview worth its salt will encompass every major area of thought. In other words, worldviews are all-encompassing, and Christianity, as I've shown, conflicts with critical theory at many points precisely because Christianity provides its own perspective on each major area of thought. The second reason is to show how each element relates to the others. The metaphysical and postmodern elements imply the political in that one will, if one is part of an oppressed group, naturally group with those who share in one's group identity and experience of oppression (and therefore, by extension, one's view of the world). The metaphysical and postmodern elements imply that one will see the world in the same way as those who share one's group identities because of this common experience. Likewise, the claim that one ought to fight for the liberation of oppressed groups from oppression is directly related to the other elements. Since this element is a moral claim, we'll call it the moral element.
Let's list these elements in shortened form:
Metaphysical: oppressor and oppressed
Postmodern: hegemonic power
Political: solidarity through oppression
Moral: freeing oppressed groups
Hopefully, it is easier to see how the moral element is related to the other three elements. If the metaphysical and postmodern elements constitute the main description of human experience, particularly of good and evil and how they've come about, then alleviating the evil of that oppression is the major goal of critical theory. This is why many have commented that critical theory and critical race theory feel eerily like a religion.
During the protests and riots in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, videos and images emerged of mass demonstrations of guilt and penance on behalf of white people. Here is an example from Houston, TX that was posted on June 4, 2020. The video in the article hits every element mentioned thus far except for the postmodern element. In the video, a group of white people can be seen kneeling before a group of black people with the name of George Floyd spray-painted between them. There is a white man in the video praying to God for the forgiveness of the black people there for "years and years of racism." Evidently, this group of white people is taking the blame not only for racism generally, but for the killing of George Floyd in particular. The metaphysical element is apparent in the division between the two groups; the white people are oppressors and the black people oppressed. The political element is apparent in that both groups are acknowledging the suffering of all black people because of George Floyd's killing, even those who never met him and know nothing about him.
The moral element is also clear. By publicly showing penance to black people, the white people there are showing themselves to be virtuous and good. They are doing what, evidently, they ought to have done. And, in fact, white people who didn't do something like this, who didn't at least speak out, were called racist. Remember, silence is sin.
Every element, then, is clearly related to the others. If the major elements of critical theory are true, then this implies that one must fight to end the oppression of an oppressed group in order to do what is morally good. Cultural Marxism has an original sin and a moral system for the goal of doing away with the original sin. The comparisons to religion makes sense, but if cultural Marxism is a new religion, how can it be consistent with the old religion of Christianity?
An Absolutist Moral Relativism?
Recently, I had a conversation with someone who insisted that rioting and looting because of perceived racial injustice wasn't sinful, if one was black. This person, who purported to be speaking from a biblical perspective, was espousing a view that is consistent with critical theory, not just concerning race. In fact, if one reads and listens to those who espouse critical theory, it will become immediately clear that what is obligatory for one person is not necessarily obligatory for another person. As I wrote in my original post on critical theory last May, "critical theory entails moral objectivism with respect to opposing oppression but moral relativism with respect to the means of opposing oppression."
All of this has to do with whether one is oppressor or oppressed with respect to a particular group identity. If one is of an oppressor group, then one cannot take a position of advocacy for the liberation of that oppressed group as if one were part of that group. Instead, one must "elevate" the voices of those in that group and advocate for them. For example, consider this now-infamous chart sent to students by East Side Community School in New York:
The chart provides terms for different so-called white identities. One embodies a particular white identity depending on the degree to which one opposes the "regime of whiteness." Since whiteness leads to systemic racism and oppression, then supporting it is evil. But the white person, in virtue of the color of his or her skin, falls within the regime of whiteness and is therefore an implicit supporter of white supremacy, whether or not he or she knows it. This position includes something called "white privilege," defined as benefitting from an oppressive system intended to benefit white people. Again, the metaphysical element is clear. The moral element can be seen in the fact that one is more or less virtuous depending on one's resistance to the regime of whiteness. If one is white, then one already inhabits a position of support for whiteness and white supremacy and must work to oppose it in order to be a good person.
Obviously, the person of color doesn't have to do this. Being an ally, then, is only an obligation for the oppressor. If one is oppressed, then one already inhabits the kind of social position that places one in opposition to the system of oppression operating against oneself. The obligation of the ally, on critical theory, is to understand the worldview of the oppressed group and elevate it, all the while ensuring that he or she elevates the voices of those within the oppressed group, not his or her own voice.
If this seems a bit unbelievable, search "how to be an ally" on Google. You will find article after article providing advice for those within the oppressor group on how to be a proper ally for friends who are people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, etc. Many of these articles include points about avoiding microaggressions (unintentional discrimination against people who are oppressed), remaining educated about the worldview of the oppressed groups, how to elevate the voices of those who are oppressed, etc. Most of the advice is inapplicable to those who are members of oppressed groups.
What's the upshot of all of this? Opposing oppression is the universal moral obligation of all human beings, according to critical theory, but, due to a person's position in society, that opposition may well look different. For the sake of racial justice, BLM riots in the streets for months in 2020. For the sake of feminism, pro-choice groups advocate the murder of unborn children by the millions. If you fall into an oppressor group, then your role is to be an "ally," to support the worldview and elevate the voices of those who are oppressed, according to critical theory. All of this is intended to lead to liberation for those groups.
Critical theory is absolutist in that they claim that it is the single most important obligation of all people to work to free oppressed groups from oppression. Critical theory is relativistic in that the particular action one takes with respect to that end will be different, depending on one's position in society. What does Scripture have to say about all of this?
What the Bible Has to Say
For this section, I'll focus on two main points. First, while it may be true that freeing the oppressed from their oppression is something Christians ought to strive for, (1) it is secondary to preaching the gospel and (2) it matters deeply what presuppositions one makes in determining who is oppressed and what means are appropriate for opposing that oppression. Second, the underlying worldview of critical theory implies moral claims that flatly contradict Scripture. Because of this, Christians, if they want to alleviate the suffering of injustice, should not look to critical theory for help in doing so. Scripture is sufficient to tell us what to do.
Let's address the first point. Why do I claim that freeing the oppressed from their oppression is secondary to preaching the gospel? Consider the biblical concept of love. It is clear that the biblical concept of love includes doing what is in the best interest of another person. This is important because doing what is in the best interest of another person involves evaluating the situation objectively, and that person's feelings or interests are not necessarily relevant in considering what is best for him or her. The Father did what was best for us by sending His only Son to die on the cross for our sins. Thus, we can know that He loves us. As 1 John 4:10 says (NASB):
"In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins."
As Christians, we carry with us the responsibility to spread the gospel, to tell others about Jesus Christ whenever we can. Let's say that you were in a situation in which someone who is oppressed by a tyrannical government is before you. Let's say that, in this situation, you don't have any ability to oppose that tyrannical government and free this person. But you can tell them the gospel. Is it any less loving to set aside the issue of their oppression to share the gospel with that person? Of course not. In fact, it seems abundantly clear from Scripture that sharing the gospel with that person is the most loving thing you can do for him or her, whether or not you're able to free that person from oppression.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that, where Christians are able, they shouldn't try to tackle and oppose injustice in the world. As I said at the beginning of this post, Christians have, when they had the opportunity, done this for centuries. But spreading the good news of Jesus Christ is the most important obligation that we have out of love for our neighbor. Often, the two go together. And, often, the spiritual transformation of the gospel leads to moral progress and the alleviation of injustices. But it would be a grave mistake to place what has often been the good result of the gospel in the place of the gospel itself.
What about our presuppositions? Let me give an illustration to make this point. Consider two people, Jared and Kelly. Jared and Kelly both hold the same true belief that "the sky is blue." Jared believes that the sky is blue because he looked up at the sky during a clear day and saw that it was blue. He knows that his eyesight is good and that he tends not to confuse one color with another, at least not often under normal conditions. Kelly, on the other hand, believes that the sky is blue because she asked a magic 8-ball whether the sky was blue, and it said yes. Kelly has an enormous amount of trust in magic 8-balls to tell her the truth, so she formed the belief that the sky is blue.
Both Jared and Kelly believe something that is true, but most will immediately see that simply believing something that is true is not sufficient. The reason for this is that Jared formed his belief for a good reason, whereas Kelly formed her belief for a bad reason. So a person could be unjustified in having a belief, even if the belief is true, as long as the belief is formed for a bad reason.
This is exactly the case with critical theory, and I think that it's a reason why so many Christians are so prone to adopting the claims of critical theory. It's undoubtedly the case that critical theory captures aspects of our moral intuition that are true. White people are so willing to bow down to black people and pray for forgiveness precisely because people in our society, by and large, hate racism and are not happy with the fact that American history is so infected with it. But, insofar as one's understanding of and response to injustice are grounded in claims that are false, then one is nonetheless unjustified in understanding and responding to injustice in the way one does.
God is good. God is holy. God's holiness in a world infused with sin demands that justice be met, where justice means getting what one deserves because of one's actions. As the Lord Himself says in Ezekiel 18:19-20:
"'Yet you say, "Why should the son not suffer the punishment for the father’s guilt?" When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has kept all My statutes and done them, he shall certainly live. The person who sins will die. A son will not suffer the punishment for the father’s guilt, nor will a father suffer the punishment for the son’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.'"
God's love for us demands that when sin steals, kills, and destroys, the one who sins must die. This is the state of the human condition; since we all have sinned, we all ought to die. So God's grace is His undeserving favor upon sinners, in spite of themselves. We deserve punishment, but Jesus died instead. God's nature and the reality of a sinful world ground the true concept of justice.
What is the concept of justice in cultural Marxism and critical theory? Justice, on this worldview, is grounded in equity. Equity can be explained by the phrase "equality of outcome." If you listen to those who tout various versions of critical theory today, you will hear "injustice" described in the same breath as "disparity." The idea is that disparity in terms of economics, for instance, is itself an indication of injustice. On top of this, critical theorists explicitly reject the idea that justice involves granting to someone what he or she deserves because of his or her actions (hence, their reason for opposing mass incarceration).
So, you see, the presuppositions of Christianity and critical theory wildly differ. Because of this, even though they agree in some areas, even the agreements are based on different foundations. The agreements can be a kind of smokescreen, hiding vast disagreements that show more clearly that the two worldviews are incompatible.
This leads me to the third point: critical theory makes moral claims that flatly contradict Scripture. Remember that the central moral claim of critical theory is that we are morally obligated to free oppressed groups from oppression. But as we've seen, we must first think about critical theory's presuppositions. How do we determine what it means to be oppressed? Who is oppressed? Then, once we establish who is oppressed, what is the best course of action to oppose their oppression? Briefly, I'll take each question in turn.
First, how do we determine what it means to be oppressed? The metaphysical element covers this. The postmodern element, with its concept of hegemonic power, covers how it is that they are oppressed, through truth claims. Therefore, the LGBTQ community is oppressed because of the claim that homosexual behavior is immoral or against God's will.
Second, who is oppressed? We've also covered this. The list of oppressed groups includes women, members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, the disabled, etc.
Third, what is the best course of action to oppose their oppression? Here comes the moral relativism. One less clear implication of the moral element is that most actions are not inherently wrong or evil. An action is wrong or evil only insofar as it is taken to free oppressed groups. This means that any action can be justified as long as it is taken in support of that central moral goal. Remember the BLM riots last year? Rioting, looting, violence and murder in support of racial justice? That is the moral element of critical theory at work. When critical theory guides your actions, then it is no longer always true that "thou shalt not murder" or that "thou shalt not steal." Particularly if one is black, then this isn't wrong, according to critical theory.
This point ought to be obvious to anyone who believes the Bible: critical theory actively supports actions that violate God's commands. Supporting anti-racism obligates one to defend the heinous sins of those who participated in the 2020 riots and to support policy that explicitly shows partiality on the basis of race. Supporting feminism obligates one to support the murder of hundreds of thousands of unborn children every year in the name of "reproductive justice." Supporting homosexuality obligates one to tout claims about sexuality that contradict God's commands. Supporting transgenderism obligates one to support lies that there is nothing objectively real about gender and that our bodies tell us nothing about God's intentions in creating us. The problem with critical theory is that it touts lies that make false claims on people's consciences. The scandal is that any Christian would join in with its lies.
So the moral claims of critical theory contradict Scripture. Like a rocket launched just a few degrees away from the projected course, skewing its trajectory, those false presuppositions lead to false moral claims that are way off. To close, I want to make two points of application. First, be careful when someone touting critical theory says that you ought to do something for the sake of justice. Even if there is some overlap when the two worldviews agree, the presuppositions underlying critical theory conflict with Scripture. Scripture is your authority for acting according to God's will. Second, be courageous. Increasingly, in our culture, a false worldview called cultural Marxism has transformed what people think about morality. God's will doesn't change. It isn't all of a sudden immoral to tell the truth, to act with love toward all people, to mete out justice without partiality. Christians have done this before. They've lived and been faithful in spite of claims to the contrary. Even if everyone around you tells you differently, don't abandon Christ for hollow and deceptive philosophy. Instead, if you want to lift up the oppressed and proclaim God's justice, faithfully apply Scripture as William Wilberforce did.
That's it for this post! On a personal note, this one affects me because I am pained by the fact that so many brothers and sisters in Christ are forced to feel guilty. They are forced to feel guilty because of people who are not of Christ anyway. My hope is that those who read this post will be encouraged to be vigilant in believing and proclaiming the truth and won't be tempted because of a weaker conscience to compromise on the truth.
Stay tuned for the next posts in this series! In the next post, I will discuss the claim of critical theorists that "lived experience" is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!