Is critical race theory a threat?

American evangelicals are clearly divided over social justice. In one of its recent expressions, critical race theory (CRT) has garnered both the admiration and the indignation of those who claim a similar allegiance to Jesus Christ. The recent division among the staff of one of the world’s largest evangelical para-churches, Cru, only highlights the cultural divide among people professing the same faith.

Is critical race theory a threat? Click To Tweet

While some might admire the efforts of Christians utilizing the social theory for the betterment of their community, the unfortunate reality is that arguments over CRT have ultimately factionalized social groups—no matter if racial, religious, economic, or political—against one another. At the core of CRT is the desire to empower the marginalized, especially the racially marginalized, while re-centering the locus of social control. Proponents and opponents of CRT, though well-meaning, are inherently divisive as they rally support for their social agendas at the expense of the other.

“CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
—Janel George, “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory

Is CRT a threat to Christianity? Some might conclude yes. However, the value of critically considering issues revolving around racial injustice is immeasurable. In fact, it emulates Jesus’ earthly ministry as He clearly stood against racial (John 4:1-45), religious (John 7:32-36), economic (Luke 4:18), and political injustice (John 18:33-38). No matter where you fall on CRT, the simple fact is that injustice continues to be felt by a significant portion of American society. Whether it is racial profiling by law enforcement, race-norming of the NFL, a so-called “new Jim Crow” manifesting in wrongful incarcerations, restricted voter rights, or economic disparities, our racial heritage—whether African, Asian, Latino, or European—have impacted opportunities to achieve the elusive, if not the illusion of, the American Dream. Indeed, to many people, the aphorism, “he who has the gold makes the rules” feels more like a truism.

Nevertheless, is CRT the panacea for the social ills of our day? I hope no one is suggesting such. As a social theory, its merit lies in its ability to critique injustice in society. Yet, its proposed solutions potentially exacerbate social factions. CRT scholars and advocates are 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. In its application, some practitioners logically apply CRT to a liberation that not only favors powerless races, but also identities, primarily gender identities and sexual orientation.

CRT-Practitioner ApplicationFirst Century Christianity’s Critique of CRT Practitioners
Sexual orientationOr do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality … (1 Cor 6:10)
Dismantle cis-gender privilegeHe answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female … (Matt 19:4)
Trans-gender affirmingBut from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female” (Mark 10:6)
Social group privilegingHere there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col 3:11)
First Century Christianity’s Critique of Practitioners
As a social theory, its merit lies in its ability to critique injustice in society. Yet, its proposed solutions only exacerbate social factions. Click To Tweet

Wisdom from the Past

Theorizing about justice for a city is not a modern creation. In the fourth century BC, Plato records a dialogue between his brother Glaucon, son of Ariston, and Socrates in his famous book on political theory, The Republic. Socrates engages with several interlocutors as they wrestle through an understanding of the virtues that make a just city. Obviously to Socrates, such virtues do not lie in the ability of people to acquire material things: owning land, houses, furnishings, gold, and silver. Nor are they found in the pursuit of entertaining guests or sacrificing to the gods (Republic 4.419). Instead, Socrates is most concerned about the happiness of the entire city, not simply one class of people in the city. In fact, where happiness is centered on one class, there, according to Socrates, you will find injustice (Republic 4.420b). 

Eventually, as the dialogue progresses, Socrates asks Glaucon about the establishment of a city. Glaucon appears a bit frustrated in their exchange as he views Socrates as dodging the issue of justice in the city. “Nonsense,” said Glaucon, “you promised that you would carry on the search yourself, admitting that it would be impious for you not to come to the aid of justice by every means in your power” (Republic 4.427d-e).

On the contrary, Socrates leads the conversation in such a manner as to establish what has become known as the Four Cardinal Virtues. He says, “Clearly, then, [the ideal city] will be wise, brave, sober, and just” (Republic 4.427e). Ultimately, Socrates concludes:

“I think that [justice] is the remaining virtue in the state after our consideration of soberness, courage, and intelligence, a quality which made it possible for them all to grow up in the body politic and which when they have sprung up preserves them as long as it is present. And I hardly need to remind you that we said that justice would be the residue after we had found the other three.” (Republic 4.433b-c, emphasis added)

In Socrates’ theoretical city, justice preserves and prevails when citizens act wisely, bravely, and soberly for the good of other citizens. It wasn’t about climbing a social ladder or even social equality. It was about true happiness and such a happiness is only found in societies where citizens demonstrated concern for others. Unlike proponents of CRT, such concern was not simply focused on a segment of society. Rather, it was focused on every segment of society.

In fact, where happiness is centered on one class, there, according to Socrates, you will find injustice.  Click To Tweet

The Christian and Theories

Admittedly, it is dangerous to paint a theory with broad brush strokes. Even so, theories-whether social or philosophical-generally contain some measure of truth. There was a time when Christians believed that all truth was God’s truth. In fact, even in the New Testament, we see Paul formulate a gospel message with the use of philosophy (Acts 17:28). It was not uncommon for many in the early church like Justin Martyr, Origen, or Augustine to see value in Greek philosophers. For example, Origen said, 

“I am therefore very desirous that you should accept such parts even of Greek philosophy as may serve for the ordinary elementary instruction of our schools, and be a kind of preparation for Christianity; also those portions of geometry and astronomy likely to be of use in the interpretation of the sacred Scriptures, so that, what the pupils of the philosophers say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, that they are the handmaidens of philosophy, we may say of philosophy itself in relation to Christianity.” (Letter to Gregory 1.1)

That is not to say that the early Christians simply took philosophy lock-stock-and-barrel. They were constructively critical. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What agreement is there between the academy and the church?” quipped Tertullian in the second century. In other words, the good that might come out of CRT can be used for the benefit of the Kingdom of God, but must not be taken uncritically. Where there are clear contradiction with Scripture, CRT must be rejected.

In the end, opponents of CRT, in their rejection and antagonism, appear to miss what God might be doing through a social critique that the theory offers.

CRT CritiqueFirst Century Christianity’s Critique
Gender inequalityThere is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28)
Racial discriminationFor there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him (Rom 10:2)
Unhealthy power structuresAnd Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them …” (Mark 10:42-45)
Wealth disparityAs for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share … (1 Tim 6:17-18)
Legal discriminationFor rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval … (Rom 13:3-4)
A Social Critique by Critical Race Theory and First Century Christianity
There was a time when Christians believed that all truth was God’s truth. Click To Tweet

The Shame of Division

The stark divisions we are seeing in American evangelicalism is an affront to Jesus. The passion of being right on the CRT issue, no matter if you are a proponent or an antagonist, is commendable, but at what cost. From Rome, shortly after the apostles Peter and Paul were unjustly detained, tried, and executed, a letter was sent to the church in Corinth. Out of grave concern for the division in the church arising from jealousy among members, Clement, a disciple of Paul’s, wrote, “And this report has reached not only us, but also people that differ from us in religion, with the result, owing to your folly, you heap blasphemy upon the name of the Lord and withal create a danger to yourselves” (1 Clement 47:7).  Instead, he admonishes the divided Christians to be the church:

“Let the strong care for the weak, and the weak respect the strong; let the rich support the poor, and the poor render thanks to God for giving them the means of supplying their needs; let the wise man show his wisdom not in words but in active help.” (1 Clement 38:2)

This was not an appeal to social stagnation. Rather, it was an appeal to stand in the gap for those in need. And, it was extreme:

“We know of many in our own midst who gave themselves up to imprisonment in order to ransom others. Many gave themselves up to slavery, and with the price they received for themselves, furnished food for others. Many women, invested with power through the grace of God, have accomplished many a manly deed.” (1 Clement 55:2-3)

Those astonishing followers of Christ understood that far more significant than jealous rivalries over schismatic ideologies of social, economic, and religious status, was the genuine human concern for people who had been marginalized in society. In his prayer for the church, Clement reveals his heart for the disenfranchised and his desire that all might know Christ. For proponents and antagonists of CRT, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive:

“We beg Thee, O Master, to be our Helper and Protector: deliver those of us who are in distress, raise up the fallen, show Thy face to those in need, heal the infirm, bring back the erring of Thy people, feed the hungry, ransom our prisoners, set the infirm upon their feet, comfort the fainthearted: Let all the nations know that Thou are the only God, that Jesus Christ is Thy Son, that we are Thy people and the sheep of Thy pasture.” (1 Clement 59:4)

No matter where you stand on CRT, the church everywhere should be able to give a hardy amen to Clement’s prayer. The real threat to American evangelicalism is not from outside. The threat is our own tendency to factionalize ourselves.

Basic Tenets of Critical Race Theory (from Critical Race Theory: An Introduction)
•“Racism is ordinary, not aberrational.”
•“White-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.”
•“The ‘social construction’ thesis holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations.”
•“Dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market.”
•“Each race has its own origins and ever-evolving history.”
•“Because of different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know.”
Those astonishing followers of Christ understood that far more significant than jealous rivalries over schismatic ideologies of social, economic, and religious status, was the genuine human concern for people who had been marginalized in society.  Click To Tweet

Learn more about what it means to be evangelical in When Evangelicals Sneeze: Curing the American Church from the Plague of Identity Loss

Learn more about an evangelical perspective on social justice in Social Injustice, Volume 1: What Evangelicals Need to Know about the World

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