Smart messaging has long been critical to political success. Think “Contract With America” or “Fake News.” Often, these messages carry more emotional impact than anything else, tapping into the affect and worldview of those who resonate with them.
Academics construct messaging also, and sometimes those terms make their way into wider academic usage. One academician who has had greater impact than many is Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” and also the phrase “Critical Race Theory.”
What is rare: when the parlance of academia (and in this case, a term used primarily in legal circles as a more focused application of critical theory in legal studies) makes its way into the national messaging of a conservative political group.
And yet, that’s what you have with Critical Race Theory. You can read about it all over the place now. School board candidates are campaigning against the possibility of it influencing school curriculum. Entire Christian denominations are publishing social statements rejecting it.
The paranoia that surrounds the term is remarkable primarily in that the phrase can be included in messaging as a scare tactic when in reality most people reading it have no idea what it means.
Try it out: post in social media or ask in a party, “How would you define Critical Race Theory?” See how people respond.
I’ve even been seeing it pop up lately in my local news media, and what I’m seeing is really weird.
So What Is Critical Race Theory?
In a sense, it’s quite simple. Critical race theory is the application of critical social theory by scholars who want to look critically at our legal systems and race. As Nixon-appointed former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote: “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.”
More generally, critical theory argues that many problems have their roots more in societal structures and cultural assumptions than individualistic factors.
So Critical Race Theory does in fact assume that social ills like racial injustice can be repaired through a focus on changes in societal structures and cultural assumptions. We need to change our laws (like zoning laws that result in redlining) and our cultural assumptions (like the ones that led one woman to have her house appraised at $100,000 more when she removed signs of her ethnicity and had white friends show it the appraiser).
It’s not enough to simply say, “I don’t dislike black people.” Or: “My kids play with the neighbor who are African-American.” That has little to do with structural injustices baked into our legal system.
You can see how a political party like the Tea Party with libertarian leanings would chafe against critical theory. You can also see how many Americans, trained as they are in hyper-individualism, would also doubt any analysis of race that is focused on societal structures. Many atomistic assumptions get in the way.
“I worked hard to get where I am.” “Why are you trying to make me feel ashamed about being white?”
What Critical Race Theory does is take account of race as it relates specifically to the law, and then asks, “What laws need changing to repair a system constructed, at least in part, on a racially unjust basis?”
Intriguingly, what Critical Race Theory is not is a pedagogy for public schools. Nor is it a pedagogy schools are planning to implement.
In that sense, the “smart messaging” by the Right is a kind of gaslighting. They bring Critical Race Theory up, then school boards and educators have to defend themselves against a thing that isn’t a thing.
How Can We Think Theologically About Critical Race Theory?
A couple of things surprise me about conservative Christian resistance to Critical Race Theory. The first has to do with their typical view of the relationship between Christ and Culture.
The typical conservative assumption is that “the world” is in a sense at odds with “the gospel.” The call is to resist “worldly” things and hold to the faith, even if that is unpopular.
It’s unfortunate that conservatives who resist conformity to this world can’t see that such conformity includes conformity to structural racism. “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2) is a rather succinct description of critical theory, to be honest.
Furthermore, Christian faith places central to its practice the act of repentance, followed by repair. Since a central aspect of repentance is recognizing the sin and naming it. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice, “To get beyond sin, we first have to take account of it.”
All critical theory does is identify and name sin, the sin baked into systems.
Finally, and this is crucial, Christianity itself has resources for the naming of structural evil and sin. Consider Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
I mean, Christians shouldn’t ignore that this text is gesturing towards forces even beyond earthly and societal, like actual evil spiritual beings of some sort; but obviously this text is also referring to “rulers” and “authorities,” both of whom have the power to enact laws and other forces that create harm, harm far worse in many instances than our smaller, individual sins.
At least one demonic force in this world is the conspiring together of cultural forces: “What I mean is there is a death pact between our political structure and our economic overlords, and they will take us all with them with little to no forethought” (Lenny Duncan)
In this sense, a theological account of Critical Race Theory would simply recognize that, in addition to the individual joy and promise and freedom that comes with experiencing God’s grace in Jesus Christ, the biblical understanding of that grace also has a society, political, cultural, systemic component.
God saves not just you, but the whole of Israel as a nation.
God redeems not just the individual sinner, but the legal systems that oppress.
God’s grace applies not simply to your spiritual poverty, but also is transforming how we relate to our legal and economic systems so that poverty is overcome.
We can call this Critical G(Race) Theory, because it recognizes grace extends more to societal structures and cultural assumptions even than to individualistic factors.
God doesn’t just love individual persons. God loves cities, nations, peoples. God loves creation, eco-systems, planets, solar systems. Grace applies to these as well, in its own way, because grace is the nature of God.
So then of course Critical Race Theory finds resonances with Christian faith, because Christian faith is interested in anything that causes harm and opposes grace. Analysis of those things allows us to name sin. Resistance to such analysis is itself unChristian, because it is a form of denial.
So What About Race Itself?
So is the whole focus on racism itself important for Christian faith? Some conservative Christians seems to think, along with conservatives more generally, that a focus on racial injustice is a form of racism itself, because it attends to something we should ignore.
“I don’t see color.”
I guess I might start by saying this: “Before we immediately dismiss it, perhaps a good Christian response is to at least entertain that we may be blind to our own sin. There’s that whole log in my own eye thing, after all.”
But more specifically, we simply can’t ignore that race is addressed in Scripture itself. To name just a few examples, you have the Israelites called out as a particular nation and people. Later, in the New Testament, you have the issue of the relationship between the gospel and the extent to which it applies to the Gentiles.
Given these discussions occur in the Scripture itself, it seems very odd that Christians would resist critical approaches to the telling of the story of America.
What exactly are we afraid of? Do we hate the people of God narrated in Scripture because we learn there they were far from perfect, sometimes awful? Does this make us despise Scripture or God or Christ?
Quite the opposite. A truthful accounting of our sinfulness as the people of God is crucial to Christian witness.
Why would be afraid of telling the story of the more horrible sides of U.S. history? Is the United States more perfect somehow? Does it need it’s narrative white-washed in order to maintain national identity?
A national narrative that requires propaganda in place of the truth is nationalism, not patriotism. Real patriots find it intrinsic to their patriotism to critique their nation.
Faithful Christians, and proud citizens of any nation, have nothing to fear from critical theory and a racial analysis of injustice. Quite the opposite, we know and trust that God’s grace shows up and redeems precisely in and through those spaces.