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Deconstructing Critical Theory: Solidarity Through Oppression

There are many examples of symbols of solidarity for groups today, one of which is the "Pride" flag, which is used to unite so-called "sexual minorities," otherwise known as the LGBTQ+ community.

At the top of this post, I have linked a video from the eulogy that Al Sharpton delivered for George Floyd's memorial service. The rhetorical moves that he makes in this speech are ingenious and helpful as an illustration of the topic of this post. Al Sharpton moves from a particular instance of injustice (i.e., George Floyd's death) to make the claim that, universally, all black people in the United States are oppressed daily by the oppressive American system. All black people in America have the proverbial knee on their neck, represented graphically by the knee of Derek Chauvin on George Floyd's neck. He draws a straight line from the beginning of the United States to now, making it seem as if the degree of oppression apparently faced by black people today is the same as it was when Africans were stolen from their continent and shipped to the New World. Interestingly (and not coincidentally), it'd be reasonable if someone, upon viewing this video for the first time, were to come away thinking that all of the black community agreed with Al Sharpton in this video. Al Sharpton certainly seems to think that.

As we continue to discuss the major elements of critical theory, it will be important to recognize that these elements build upon one another. In the last two posts in this series, we discussed the first two elements of critical theory from Neil Shenvi's article on the topic. They were:

  1. Individual identity is inseparable from group identity as "oppressed" or "oppressor."

  2. Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power.

As I've said already, according to critical theory, there are only two types of people: oppressor and oppressed. One can tell whether one falls into either group based on one's group identity along certain characteristics, such as race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, class, etc. If, then, one is oppressed based on these characteristics and falls within one of these oppressed groups, then it shouldn't surprise us to find that these groups find solidarity in a perceived experience of oppression. This leads us to the third element on the list:

Different oppressed groups find solidarity in the experience of oppression.

First, I want to briefly cover some of the philosophy at work here. It was Aristotle, in his book, Politics, who claimed that "man is by nature a social animal" (Pol. 1. 1253a.). Another way of putting this is that man is by nature a political animal. Aristotle's point was that it is part of the very nature of man, because of his capacities, to organize, first into households and then into city-states. This claim represents a profound insight shared by Scripture, where God says upon creating Adam, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). We were not created for isolation. Therefore, as you read Genesis, it isn't surprising that, upon wandering around the earth, mankind built cities. In this way, Aristotle is completely in line with Scripture.

Other philosophers, whose work is much more recent, shared this insight while applying it to our view of the world itself. According to philosophers such as Michel Foucault, competing worldviews have no real relation to objective reality, but instead have to do with attempts to gain power. For these thinkers, the desire to gain and maintain power, which is possible only where humans organize, is what all human beings share. Because of this, one's view of reality itself is primarily political in nature and function. This is related to postmodernism, which I briefly discussed in the most recent post. By denying that objective reality is either real or knowable, postmodernism construes everything, even truth claims, as political, as we see with the wielding of hegemonic power by dominant political groups (again, see the most recent post in this series).

Societies, particularly complex ones such as the Roman Empire and the United States, have always had to wrestle with the fact that there are competing truth claims, many of which are mutually exclusive, that have to somehow coexist in one place and with one people. In the Roman Empire, as it expanded into new territories and discovered different forms of paganism, the solution was twofold: (1) incorporate this people's gods into the ever-expanding Roman pantheon and (2) mandate the worship of Caesar, the state god, across the entire empire. In the United States, the philosophy undergirding the Constitution and Declaration of Independence united otherwise different people. Nonetheless, particular groups, whose worldview and interests are unique to them, always emerge in these complex societies. In the Roman Empire, both Jews and Christians formed two different groups, and they were often persecuted as religious minorities that refused to worship Caesar. In the United States, countless groups have emerged, all claiming some form of victimhood under an oppressive system of patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. They, too, tend to disagree with the philosophy undergirding the founding of the United States.

Of course, what makes the difference, in the case of these groups claiming some form of oppression in the United States today, is their tie with Marxism. I've discussed at length already the difference between what I call classical Marxism and cultural Marxism. By describing society as containing only two types of people-oppressor and oppressed-and casting one's membership to either group along lines of various group identities, cultural Marxism states that one ought to have greater solidarity with one's group, rather than a shared philosophy or metanarrative. Since the philosophy undergirding the American system of governance is now thought to be oppressive by nature, no real unity exists between otherwise disparate groups in this country. This is a huge problem for the United States because it undermines the unifying core that, according to the Founders, would hold the country together and keep it from tyranny and civil war.

Because of all of this, it is understandable why Al Sharpton would assume that all black people fundamentally agree with his claims of solidarity. If black people in the United States find themselves in a continuous state of oppression on the basis of the color of their skin alone, then it seems like black people share in this experience equally. If this is true, then it'd be madness not to unite to oppose this oppressive system. Isn't that exactly what civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. did? He rallied black Americans under a common cause, to oppose something which held all of them back by law.

So far, I've only mentioned the political ramifications of this element of critical theory. Though those ramifications are important, I'm more concerned with what will happen if this idea spreads in the Church. I want to be careful here, however. First, it is not at all clear to me that it is inherently wrong to consider oneself in solidarity with others on the basis of shared suffering or oppression. In fact, Christians share in the sufferings of Christ and, therefore, know what it is like to face trials in His name, when they face it. Second, it therefore seems to me to be reasonable to suppose that in some cases, solidarity is not only reasonable but good. Is there a way to distinguish between correct and incorrect claims to oppression of a group on an objective basis? This is not an easy question to answer, but I suspect that we can get somewhere by bringing in the two elements that we've already covered.

The first element states that the primary identifier of a person is his or her social position, whether he or she is oppressor or oppressed. Notice that this idea is dichotomous; there is no situation in which one is neither oppressed nor an oppressor. (One can be both oppressed and oppressor, but we'll get there with the final element.) Yet, as long as it is possible for one to neither be oppressor nor oppressed, then there is no need for group solidarity, but then one would not have any group identity, which seems absurd. One is clearly, at least, either a male or female, which critical theorists see as different group identities based on biological sex. So it seems that, as long as one is a member of a society, one has group identities. How, then, is one not oppressor or oppressed?

There are obviously cases in which a group (and individuals within said group) is oppressed by virtue of some dominant characteristic of that group. We see that today in the persecution of Uighur Muslims and Christians in China. It is also obvious that those individuals who experience that oppression by a dominant power have something fundamental to share in their experience with other members of that group. I affirm a kind of solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Christ who have faced persecution in the past and today because, though I have never faced persecution, I know that they faced persecution for the sake of their faith in Christ, which I share with them. Therefore, it is obviously the case that under certain circumstances, individuals are oppressed by virtue of their membership in a group. Christians have faced this all over the world for two thousand years.

And, obviously, black people faced it in the United States. This is a demonstrable fact that can be seen by looking at law meant to hold black people back by virtue of the color of their skin. There was a time in the 1980s when those who identified as gay experienced an overwhelming vitriol from the larger culture, and to a certain extent, the church in America contributed to this vitriol. Biblically, there's much to say about the exploitation of the poor on the part of the rich. There's no getting around it; the rich can do this because they're rich. In other words, Scripture itself supports the obvious fact that the poor can be victims of exploitation by the rich because of their lower socioeconomic status as a group. Does Scripture, then, support this element of critical theory? When I was wrestling through these issues in college, this problem consistently confronted me. Whether I was in a discussion without someone who subscribed to critical theory or thought about it on my own, I couldn't escape the demonstrable fact of oppression that is consistent with the critical theorist's conception of groups, individuals, and oppression. It wasn't until I considered the function of critical theory as part of a system of beliefs (called a noetic structure in epistemological literature) that I realized that demonstrable cases of this kind of oppression did not support critical theory itself. In other words, demonstrable cases of oppression exist, but critical theory is not needed to explain them. Let me explain.

In an article that I wrote for Freethinking Ministries, I interpreted critical theory through the lens of what the Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans called "global hermeneutical perspectives" (hereafter GHP). In that article, I describe GHP's in this way (which is consistent with his description):

"[GHP's] seek to show that human behavior can be explained in terms of deeper motivating factors that are universal (i.e., global) to mankind and by which human behavior can be understood (i.e., hermeneutic)."

As a GHP, critical theory sees the entirety of a society as structured around oppressive hierarchical structures whose ideas and claims (this is the second element about hegemonic power) serve to oppress groups with less power. Therefore (and this is the key), GHP's, since they are universal claims about human behavior, stand logically prior to human behavior itself. It is in light of one's prior commitment to critical theory that one will interpret individual behavior. I explain this in more detail in that article, so check it out.

What's the upshot of this analysis? The upshot is that, since GHP's, including critical theory, stand over human behavior in order to interpret it, then individual instances of whatever human behavior the GHP seeks to describe and interpret do not provide evidential support for the GHP. In other words, in order to interpret human behavior according to a GHP, GHP's must be assumed.

This is often the chief stumbling block for those who are tempted to believe critical theory because of evidence of individual instances of oppression. Of course, oppression on the basis of group identity is possible and has happened before historically (and is happening today all over the world). Of course, because of that shared sense of oppression, individuals in that group can stand in solidarity with one another. But to admit that is not to admit the truth of critical theory. It is simply to say that human behavior sometimes aligns with its assumptions. Furthermore, critical theory is not needed to explain these individual instances of oppression.

To say this about GHP's, including critical theory, is not necessarily a criticism. It is simply to say that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to provide empirical evidence for the truth of a GHP. This goes for Christians as well. We have a GHP as well, which is further described in Evans's article. In short, all people are sinners, and their actions either align with God's will or are in rebellion against God (Evans calls this the "no-neutrality thesis"). When we see someone reject the gospel, we interpret this behavior in line with our GHP. This person is in rebellion against God, and the proclamation of the gospel aggravates and inflames his propensity to sin. But this person's rejection of the gospel does not provide evidential support for our GHP. We assume it on the basis of Scripture.

As we move through the rest of these elements, I will try to make more explicit these points about critical theory as a GHP. I think that Evans's analysis is a great way of thinking of critical theory that places it within the framework of a worldview and helps us to see how it fits with one's system of beliefs. It is especially helpful, in that it helps us to see how our fundamental assumptions, based on Scripture, conflict with critical theory. As such, if we believe Scripture, we can safely dismiss one GHP for the true one.

What Does the Bible Say?

Honestly, I wasn't sure what to write here, largely because I don't directly disagree with this element of critical theory. As I said, it is obvious both (1) that groups experience oppression by virtue of their membership in a group and (2) that individuals within that group can have a sense of solidarity with other individuals in that group because of that shared experience. I suppose that my comments have more to do with the greater worldview in which this element is affirmed as true. Here, I'll highlight two points:

  1. The truth of (1) and (2) do not and cannot provide evidential support for critical theory, since critical theory is best understood as a GHP.

  2. We ought to try our best to understand (1) and (2) within the context of the Christian worldview.

The first point simply restates what I've already said above. With respect to the second point, it seems to me that, as I've claimed before, affirming the obvious possibility of oppression of groups best places us on "middle ground," to be able to objectively verify instances of group oppression, based on Scripture and evidence, and then oppose them. We can "weep with those who weep" without buying into the false presuppositions of critical theory. Not all claims of oppression are valid, as critical theory entails. But some are. Let's identify those true claims and call them out, especially where they affect brothers and sisters in Christ.

Where does this leave us with George Floyd and Al Sharpton's plea to "get your knee off our necks?" First, again, George Floyd's death, horrific and apparently unjust as it was, is not evidence for critical theory. It is not evidence of systemic oppression based on the structure of white-dominant hierarchies. Critical theory provides the presuppositions according to which his tragic death is considered an example of this larger systemic oppression. But, second, insofar as Derek Chauvin abused his power as a police officer to put this man at risk, thereby leading to his death, this is a case of injustice that seems easily identifiable and for which Christians should support Chauvin's swift punishment. It is not altogether clear that George Floyd's death was racially motivated (at least, that has to be shown to be true and hasn't, as far as I know), so I don't see any basis for this claim of solidarity. Unless George Floyd was killed because he was black, Al Sharpton's plea is an expression of critical race theory's presuppositions and not much else. So we ought, I think, dismiss his misleading attempt to lump all people of the same skin tone together and act as if they all think the same and thought the same about George Floyd's death.

That's about all I have to say on this element. This one was more difficult for me to formulate clearly, but I found help from other things that I had written and reflecting on critical theory in broad terms. I suspect that this is the hardest thing about addressing critical theory. It is a broad set of connected presuppositions, so it's not always easy to see how those presuppositions and claims connect and which are true. Hopefully, however, this analysis and critique will help you to think through and discuss these issues with other brothers and sisters in Christ.

Stay tuned for the next posts in this series! In the next post, I will discuss the claim of critical theorists that our fundamental duty is freeing groups from 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!


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