Thank You, Critical Theory.
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
I keep seeing posts from my well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ that "silence is sin." I struggled for a while with whether or not I should comment on the events of the last week. I was disheartened by the news of George Floyd's death, which, by all accounts, is an overt and egregious abuse of power that demands justice. Millions of Americans are witnesses to the murder of George Floyd, and the police officer responsible should face punishment for what he's done.
But wait, don't say amen yet. I am not happy with many of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I was initially disheartened by this news. I was then disheartened even more by the response of people to this news. My Facebook feed was suddenly filled with posts about police brutality and racism. As the protests became riots in Minneapolis and then Atlanta, I was reminded of scenes from Ferguson and saddened that people, instead of showing compassion for George Floyd by seeking justice through protests, took to looting and destroying property. How is it a defense of justice to steal? How is it a defense of justice to threaten the welfare of others? I was even more disheartened as people in my feed began to defend this behavior. Rioting and looting is now justified by the circumstances, according to these people. This didn't necessarily surprise me, for reasons that I'll get into below.
But the most disheartening thing of all? My brothers and sisters in Christ, taking the same lines, the same talking points from the mass media, making the same points which stem from a worldview that is antichrist. But, yeah, I struggled with posting this. Would this post, so early in my blog, alienate people? How would my brothers and sisters feel? Then I rejected that fear. Silence is sin, right?
Let me explain. As followers of Christ, we are held to the words of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (NASB):
"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ."
This passage obligates us to do something very difficult. We must understand that if the Christian worldview is true, then any worldview that denies it is false. Our culture and the world are not Christ-centered. Contrary worldviews abound, so we must understand these worldviews and oppose them in the name of Christ. We do this not to oppose people but to invite them into the true and truly satisfying worldview, a loving communion with the Lord of Glory. This is a primary element of any apologetic, including holistic apologetics. Thus, we must oppose to the death those worldviews that lead people to hell. Our command against other worldviews in this passage is very clear: kill.
We can summarize this process of defending the faith in two steps:
Tear down the opposing worldview.
Winsomely replace the opposing worldview with Christ.
Well-meaning brothers and sisters of Christ, who I love with all my heart, are trying to defend justice. They've seen the murder of George Floyd and are sickened by it, and rightfully so. They want the police officer to be held accountable, and rightfully so. But in posting all of these posts on social media about the need of white Christians to "re-educate themselves," they use the language and concepts from a worldview that is antichrist. Please, if you are a brother or sister in Christ, hear me out with a spirit of patience and humility. I love you, and I know that we love the Lord. Let's come together to discuss how we can do this together and offer hope and racial reconciliation to a world reeling from the confusion and chaos incited by an anti-christian worldview and biased media and politics.
The truth is that we have critical theory to thank for this chaos. Critical theory is a subtle worldview. It banks on a focus on "social justice," which, at face value, sounds good. God is just! Of course, every Christian should love justice because he or she loves God. But social justice is not God's justice, and this vague term unfortunately fools too many Christians into buying into this worldview and trying to make Jesus a social justice warrior. The mainline Protestant denominations bought into this decades ago, and their churches are dying out as a result. Now, it seems that an increasing number of evangelical pastors and influencers are buying into this as well, using race theory buzz words such as "white supremacy" and "white privilege."
This may be the first time you're hearing about critical theory. I understand. I struggled deeply with this worldview without being able to name it and its elements in college. The truth is that critical theory is often seen but not defined. Though the worldview isn't monolithic, the apologist Neil Shenvi has done an excellent job of helping me to summarize critical theory. I encourage everyone reading this post to read his article on the topic, but let me list what he says are the main elements of critical theory:
Individual identity is inseparable from group identity as "oppressed" or "oppressor."
Oppressor groups subjugate oppressed groups through the exercise of hegemonic power.
Different oppressed groups find solidarity in the experience of oppression.
Our fundamental moral duty is freeing groups from oppression.
"Lived experience" is more important than objective evidence in understanding oppression.
Oppressor groups hide their oppression under the guise of objectivity.
Individuals at the intersection of different oppressed groups experience oppression in a unique way (i.e., intersectionality).
I can't go through all of these elements in detail in this post. I'll be discussing critical theory in more detail in a later post. Let me clarify some key words from this list that will help us to understand how the critical theorist interprets race.
The term hegemonic power refers to the use of one's disproportionate influence over a society to impose one's values on another. The oppressor group (i.e., white, Christian, male, etc.) has a greater degree of power over the oppressed group in virtue of how that group is seen in a given society. Truth claims, which have historically been understood to be claims about objective reality, are seen in critical theory as an attempt to threaten values of the oppressed group via the imposition of the oppressor's values. For example, there's much anger in social media over the phrase, "All lives matter." This can be seen in two ways: either as an objective truth claim (i.e., all humans have equal dignity as created in the image of God) or as an attempt to subvert or undermine the political agenda of an oppressed group in their attempt to gain justice for their group (i.e., the "Black Lives Matter" movement). In other words, critical theory is deeply postmodernist with respect to truth. What I mean by this is that critical theory sees claims of truth and objectivity as attempts to gain power, not as relating to objective truth. This is related to #6 on the list.
The primary claim that characterizes critical theory is the claim that group identity is essential to understanding individual identity (i.e., #1). This is key to understanding why critical theory is incompatible with the Christian worldview. The characteristics of a group identity-or, in other words, what comes to mind when you say, "black," "white," "man," etc.-are socially constructed, in the sense that they have no bearing in objective reality but are defined by social expectations and definitions. Because of this, what it means to be part of that group is defined for any individual in that group, without respect to the individual's characteristics. Since some groups have greater hegemonic power than others, those groups with greater power are oppressor groups, and those with less oppressed groups. Individuals, then, within either group are defined as oppressor or oppressed without respect to their individual characteristics or place within a given society. In other words, according to the critical theorist, your role as an oppressor or oppressed within a given society has nothing to do with your character or power individually but is given to you from birth and is therefore inescapable. The best that you can do is acknowledge it and act accordingly.
This worldview has broad applications to any group identity you can think of, including race. I'll, of course, focus on race in this post because of the context into which I'm speaking. When critical theory is applied to race (with a focus on race in the United States), the obvious oppressor group is white people, and the oppressed group practically every non-white group, with a special focus on black people. Historically, it has been true that certain characteristics would come to mind when we thought of people of darker skin and African descent. Early race theory, spearheaded by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, categorized human beings in terms of their geographical origin and skin color in order to describe their characteristics. People with darker skin color were described as less intelligent and closer to animals. African people, in particular, were described as lazy and smelly. This philosophy justified centuries of colonialism, slavery, and racism.
In critical theory, these narratives concerning the characteristics of members of a race are rejected, along with the idea that race is an objectively true descriptor of the human person. In other words, race is socially constructed. It is a fiction with true consequences. On the basis of that fiction, black people have been (and are, according to critical theory) oppressed. We are, therefore, morally obligated to combat what is called "systemic racism," though that looks different depending on whether one is white or black. If one is white, one must acknowledge one's status as oppressor and that one doesn't know what the black person experiences. Since the white person doesn't share the experience of the black person (i.e., #5), the white person is morally obligated to believe the experience of the black person. If the white person, as he or she should, on critical theory, decides to join the black person in combating systemic racism, then he or she is then an ally. For the black person, his or her obligation is to acknowledge his or her oppression and join the rest of the black community to oppose that oppression.
Note the implications of this worldview. I'll highlight three. First, critical theory entails moral objectivism with respect to opposing oppression but moral relativism with respect to the means of opposing oppression. This is due to the distinction between oppressors and the oppressed. You might think that those in critical theory would advocate for some kind of non-violent protest as a response to oppression, but this is by no means necessarily the case. Because of this, a perceived systemic oppression, such as systemic racism, might warrant a violent reaction. This is the legacy of Marxism in critical theory. Revolutions don't tend to be peaceful.
Second, critical theory entails a fundamental separation between oppressor and oppressed, which extends to how the claims of each are interpreted. The claims of the oppressed are nothing more than an attempt to gain power, an attempt to impose one's values on another. The claims of the oppressed, especially when born out of "lived experience," are seen as opposition to that oppression. Because of this, there is a bias toward the claims of one who is supposedly of an oppressor group, whether or not the claim is defended by well-reasoned arguments and evidence. When applied to race, your claims will be filtered by the color of your skin. So much for the content of your character.
Third, critical theory entails that, as long as the circumstances of one's society remain the same, one will always be either oppressor or oppressed. In other words, reconciliation, particularly over past evils such as slavery or Jim Crow, are practically impossible on critical theory. Therefore, critical theory represents, in its foundation, exactly that which Martin Luther King Jr. tried to so forcefully deny, that there was an irreconcilable divide between blacks and whites. For white people in the U.S., not supporting the agenda of Black Lives Matter, which, we cannot forget, is tied to other unbiblical causes such as being pro-abortion, entails that one is in agreement with the oppressor and is therefore part of the problem. In other words, for the critical theorist, either you agree with the critical theorist, or you are part of the problem. There is no room for another approach.
What happens when we take this worldview and attempt to reconcile it with the Christian worldview? In short, we get liberation theology and, in particular, black theology, spearheaded by the theologian James Cone, who infamously made claims about "dehonkifying" Jesus and about the salvation of blacks by a black Jesus from white Christianity. All of this, in spite of the fact that Christianity, historically, has nothing to do with race or the historical conflict between blacks and whites in the United States. This attempt to reconcile two worldviews is called syncretism, and we shouldn't be surprised that attempts to squeeze Jesus into a context into which He did not speak, thereby eliminating the true meaning of the gospel, results in the theology of James Cone. If you read his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, you will hear plenty of "Christianese" language, but very little about Christ.
James Cone's primary mistake, in my estimation, is that he attempts to proclaim Jesus' name without being able to escape the cultural context in which he grew up. And I am, in no way, diminishing the significance of the violence of his generation. But when that violence compels you to explicate the gospel of "the black church," as opposed to "the white church," then the violence has won. My contention is that there is no such thing. There is one theology and one gospel for all people, and that gospel offers hope and flourishing for all people.
We, as followers of Christ, must reject this worldview. Why won't syncretism work? It will not work because critical theory, when applied to race, conflicts with Christianity in major ways. I'll address each of these points with respect to race in particular. Let me highlight three points here:
Critical theory denies the objectivity of truth in the nature of God.
Critical theory has a truncated view of sin.
Critical theory denies our oneness in Christ.
First, because critical theory understands claims of truth not as relating to objective reality but bids for power, critical theory contradicts the biblical truth that all truth is God's truth. As Jesus says in John 14:6 (NASB), "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me." Truth is not specific to the color of skin. My skin and my brother in Christ's skin has nothing to do with our ability to seek objective truth found in Christ, whether or not my brother's skin is a few shades darker than mine. While, yes, there are certain experiences that my brother might have had as a "black" man that I'll never experience, he has no better access to truth than I do. We are both obligated to "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" and to love God with our minds. Therefore, I will strongly argue that we should come together to seek the truth, not divide.
Second, critical theory understands sin or evil in terms of the oppressor/oppressed divide. I keep seeing brothers and sisters in Christ, even, justifying rioting because they think that it's inevitable that, as rage increases because of perceived injustice, violence will result. The violence of a "white" person against a "black" person is seen as absolutely immoral, but the violence of a "black" person against a "white" person is seen, at worst, as an unfortunate but understandable response to systemic racism. Brothers and sisters, let me implore you to think biblically. Scripture is very clear here that to respond against evil with evil is not good. Paul teaches in Romans 12:17-21 (NASB):
"Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. 'But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:43-48 (NASB):
"'You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same. Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'"
Just in case you're tempted to think, "Well, it wasn't so bad then," our Lord died by crucifixion for claiming to be who He is, the divine Son of God in the flesh, and prayed as He died, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34 NASB). Jesus never holds us to a standard that He hasn't already met. Friends, this is non-negotiable for us. To tow this line between the hatred propelled by critical theory and Christ is to deny Christ. As Ryan Bomberger, an apologist whose article on this I recommend for everyone to read, says, "It is a SIN problem, not merely a SKIN problem."
Third, and most importantly, critical theory denies our oneness in Christ. In Israel in the first century A.D., the primary socio-cultural divide was between Jews and Gentiles. Jews had been subjugated to rule by the Gentiles because of Rome, and as such, desired to be an independent nation. Furthermore, the law of the Old Testament entailed that Gentiles were unclean, so Jews avoided all aspects of Gentile life and Gentiles in order to remain ceremonially clean. This divide was not primarily racial but religious and cultural, but it nonetheless resulted in an enmity between Jews and Gentiles. This enmity often had deadly consequences.
As the apostle Paul took the gospel to the Gentiles, this enmity would often be rekindled within the church, and one of the first tasks of the first-century church was reconciling these differences while at the same time making difficult decisions about the law that divided the two groups. Should the Gentiles be circumcised and follow the Old Testament law? In the end, the church said no. In Christ, the law is abolished because it has been fulfilled in Him. In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul summarizes what Christ did to bring the two groups together in Him. Read this passage carefully and hear in it the love of Jesus for the Gentiles (NASB):
"Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called 'Uncircumcision' by the so-called 'Circumcision,' which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit."
This passage beautifully expresses that in Christ, what formerly divided us no longer matters, for we are all equally His and celebrate in His glory and love. This is remarkably counter-cultural in the first century. The first churches were always mixed communities of believers. Paul, in Galatians 3:28, announces this truth succinctly (NASB):
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Whatever our society or its contrary worldviews foists onto us concerning our division from each other, the gospel loudly proclaims that we who have placed our faith in Christ are equally His. Critical theory tells my darker brother or sister in Christ to distrust me because of the light shade of my skin. The gospel tells us to link hands, pray with each other, and worship with each other. The body of Christ includes every shade of skin. Are we going to preach this hope of racial reconciliation or the message of further division foisted onto us by a "deceptive and hollow philosophy" (Colossians 2:8)?
I really am pained by this forced division. I want to link hands with all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. But when those brothers and sisters, whether lighter or darker in complexion, align themselves with a contrary worldview, then I must first tear down that worldview. Let's place the hope of the gospel in its place and proclaim that to the world. If we don't, no one will, and we can expect more riots and more hatred and more division. Touting an unbiblical worldview in defense of justice will never bring more justice into the world. It will only lead to greater injustice.
Let me be clear. We should cry out at the death of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. By all appearances, they were murdered in cold blood. This is true whether or not race motivated their murders, which we don't and can't know right now. We should champion accountability for police officers who abuse their power in this way. But we should do so with the love of Christ in our hearts. When we mix that message up, we become part of the problem.
I hope that I was able to clearly communicate compassion and love in this post. My words may come off as harsh, but that's the command given to us. I do not tolerate a worldview that is contrary to the knowledge of God, especially when I see it deceiving my brothers and sisters. Please pray over this and consider carefully what Scripture says and how we can communicate the light of the gospel in the context of the chaos of our present age. Then let's challenge ourselves to display the love of Christ in worship of God with each other, no matter the shade of our skin.