Christianity, Critical Race Theory, and Relational Ethics

Critical race theory (CRT) is finding expression in various social issues around the world. Its renown recently received an unlikely boost by six Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) associated seminary presidents when they unilaterally denounced CRT as incompatible with the SBC’s “The Baptist Faith and Message” (Schroeder 2020). The backlash among Black pastors in the SBC was swift and cutting (Hall 2020; Dates 2020). Stemming from Resolution 9, a statement in support of aspects of CRT that found approval among the SBC in 2019, the controversy regarding racial discrimination continues at center stage among many SBC pastors and laity. In part, the resolution reads:

Critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture — not as transcendent ideological frameworks.” It continues, “That while we denounce the misuse of critical race theory and intersectionality, we do not deny that ethnic, gender, and cultural distinctions exist and are a gift from God that will give Him absolute glory when all humanity gathers around His throne in worship because of the redemption accomplished by our resurrected Lord.”

In spite of a clearly innocuous statement, reaction among evangelicals has been mixed. A neo-Calvinist faction of the SBC, Founder’s Ministries, has led the charge asserting that CRT is antithetical to Scripture (Banks 2020). Other evangelicals outside of the SBC, like John MacArthur for instance, rebuked the Southern Baptist for adopting Resolution 9 in support of CRT (Hall 2019). 

(from top left to right) Danny Akin, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; R. Albert Mohler, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Jamie Dew, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Adam W. Greenway, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Jeff Iorg, Gateway Theological Seminary; Jason K. Allen, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

The division in the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, exposes an inherent struggle in American evangelicalism with its racial past. For many Black Christian pastors and leaders, CRT offers a way to honestly address issues of race among Christians in America (McKissic 2021). Emerging out of Critical Legal Studies, CRT is a method of social critique that prescribes a “systems ethic” for restructuring society. This restructuring focuses on emancipating the disenfranchised and marginalized from unfavorable structures that privilege a particular culture or group which holds power. Kala Burrell-Craft defines CRT as a “movement comprising scholars committed to challenging and disrupting racism and its associated social, legal, political, and educational consequences” (2020:11). In the words of one critical race theorist, “As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with a radical assessment of it” (Calmore 1992:62).

CRT and Discrimination

CRT assumes some level of discrimination inherent in institutional structures or systems believed to be racist. In addressing structural racism, the oppressed seeks liberation from political, educational, economic, and healthcare systems, among others, that inherently victimizes minority groups as such systems are believed to advantage a particular segment of the population. The idea of systemic discrimination is well integrated into the ethos of CRT and goes beyond racial discrimination to discrimination of any marginalized segment of society. Extending beyond race, CRT recognizes the complexity of these groups through the concept of intersectionality. Burrell-Craft explains, 

Critical race scholars recognize that racial identity and this form of oppression (racism) intersects with other subordinate identities (such as gender, class, religion, ability/disability, sexual orientation, etc.) and forms of oppression (for example, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) to influence Black people’s lived experiences.” (2020:13)

From a Christian perspective, the intentions of CRT are properly motivated by liberating the oppressed. There is clearly something that rings biblical in this idea. For example, as Jesus begins His ministry, He is called to the front of the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Then he declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21) and the people were amazed. Yet, Jesus’ plan for emancipating those in need goes much further than CRT’s temporal liberation to an eschatological liberation. 

From a Christian perspective, the intentions of CRT are properly motivated by liberating the oppressed. Click To Tweet

It is here that CRT only provides a solution for a social situation where there are currently discriminated people. In its solution, CRT is not concerned about equality among races as this was the focus of the traditional civil rights movement (Delgado and Stefancic 2017). Instead, CRT is concerned for temporal liberation from inherently discriminatory systems—political, economic, educational, familial, even spiritual—especially where such liberation favors powerless races or identities. In this sense, CRT’s systems ethic exposes a gap in contemporary Christianity’s ability to recognize discriminatory issues due to a prescribed moral ethic imposed on society. In and of itself, a moral ethic is not wrong. Indeed, an aspect of the Christian moral ethic rightly assumes equality of the races as an act of Jesus’ work (Eph 2:13). However, when such an ethic is viewed as normative, it can blind those who hold to the ethic from seeing the social reality. CRT argues that this social reality is manifested in institutional discrimination.

Toward a Christocentric Relational Ethic

CRT’s goal is systemic social change, that is, a new systems ethic. Like moral ethics, systems ethics, in and of itself, it is not bad. However, even when a system changes, it will naturally disadvantage another group as the changed system tends to favor the particular group for which the changed system is sought. Similarly, a moral ethic tends toward principled reform that favors those with the same shared moral principles. Again, in and of itself, this is not bad. However, a proper Christian ethic must be Christocentric. In other words, a Christ-centered ethic focuses on how the community of saints, as Christ-followers, relate ethically to others as an expression of their love for God and love for their neighbor. This type of ethic can be lived out in any cultural context as its only concern is living like Jesus in relationship to others indifferent of their systems or morals. In this way, social transformation begins on a personal level rather than on a systems or moral level.

In other words, a Christ-centered ethic focuses on how the community of saints, as Christ-followers, relate ethically to others as an expression of their love for God and love for their neighbor. Click To Tweet

As I consider the three ethics—systems, moral, relational—each have their merit. Systems and moral ethics, however, seem to be “power ethics,” meaning that someone or some system is imposing an ethic on others and expecting conformity. Often, such a power ethic fails as change has not been achieved on the relational level. For example, one might agree that there is educational disparity based on race in the United States and encourage affirmative action initiatives. However, addressing the relational issues in the family and society that lead to such disparity might be seen as elusive. A relational ethic, on the other hand, preferences the other. That is, it will lean into the relational issues of family and society as an ethical community of saints acting like Jesus in relationship to the other taking the posture of love for the neighbor. To act like Jesus, in part, is to take on the other’s identity and stand in the gap to give voice to a particular discrimination.

Both systems ethics and moral ethics fall short in achieving social transformation as their focus is a temporal liberation. In other words, a systems ethic changes systems and expects conformity to the new system in the here and now. The same with a moral ethic. There is an expected conformity to the prescribed morality in the temporal present. Both moral and systems ethics inherently marginalize others as they favor a particular group. A relational ethic anticipates personal transformation which eventually leads to sustained temporal liberation—both systems and moral—and ultimately to an eschatological liberation. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century German theologian who stood in the gap for the oppressed under Hilter’s Nazi regime, speaks directly on this idea, “Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good [moral ethics], or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts [systems ethics], but that the reality of God show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality [relational ethics]” (DBWE 6:loc273). For Bonhoeffer, Jesus is the ultimate reality of all things that are good, “In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world” (DBWE 6:loc 341). He continues, “All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions. All thinking about the good that plays off what ought to be against what is, or what is against what ought to be, is overcome where the good has become reality, namely, Jesus Christ” (DBWE 6:loc 353).

For the community of saints, “To participate in this reality is the true meaning of the question concerning good” (DBWE 6:loc 353). What this looks like takes different forms. For example,

We break bread with the hungry and share our home with them for the sake of Christ’s love, which belongs to the hungry as much as it does to us. If the hungry do not come to faith, the guilt falls on those who denied them bread. To bring bread to the hungry is preparing the way for the coming of grace.” (DBWE 6: 97) 

For Bonhoeffer, our ethical behavior of living like Jesus is in relationship to others—doing Jesusy things that express the reality of a God who is good—rather than a moral or systems ethics approach. For example, a systems ethic would emphasize the need for the hungry to have access to the bread for herself (e.g. build a bread factory near the home, raise wages so the hungry can buy bread, etc.). A moral ethic might demand that it is our principled obligation to teach the hungry to make bread so they do not continue in their hunger. Both temporal liberations are good things, but without the relational, they are not sustainable as they are ends in and of themselves disconnected from the ultimate reality. In other words, in systems and moral ethics, I can wash my hands of the relationship because I solved the systems or moral problem and can move on to the next ethical issue while ignoring the desperate need for an eschatological liberation.

So, I posit that the starting point for any transformation is centered on acting ethically toward others like Jesus, anticipating personal liberation, then expecting systemic and moral change. Click To Tweet

When we no longer have relationship with the hungry we no longer have the opportunity to show Christ’s love (both evangelistically and compassionately). So, I posit that the starting point for any transformation is centered on acting ethically toward others like Jesus, anticipating personal liberation, then expecting systemic and moral change. Ultimately, a Christocentric ethic is about reconciliation of all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). So, the community of saints will relate ethically to others (i.e. be Jesus to others) in three ways: we will hold fast to The Good because we cannot understand “good” apart from God (Matt 22:37), we will care for the marginalized and disenfranchised (Matt 25:34-37), and we will declare God’s glory to the nations (Matt 28:19-20).

Adapted from the forthcoming book: Social Injustice II: Evangelical Voices in Tumultuous Times. Join our mailing list to be among the first to hear about the book’s release in April 2021.

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