How Should Christians Think About the Term “Systemic Injustice”?

How Should Christians Think About the Term “Systemic Injustice”? December 4, 2020

All the conversations over wokeness, Critical Race Theory, and intersectionality really boil down to this: is America “systemically unjust”? In this article, I’ll address this very difficult question, one that is causing great confusion in American society but especially in the Christian church. Many are asking good and needed questions about this term and the thinking behind it; some wholeheartedly affirm it, some hesitantly affirm it, some sense inherent tensions within it (rightly), some reject it wholesale. In what follows, I’ll give the best answer I can, and show that the burden of proof for America’s supposed “systemic injustice” is on those who–from different perspectives–make this massive claim.

(For an introduction and theological response to the bigger conversation on wokeness and Critical Race Theory and intersectionality, see parts 1-6 of the video series “Christianity & Wokeness” I did for Redeemer Bible Church of Minnetonka, Minnesota.)

Systemic Injustice: Seemingly Sound But Broad and Fuzzy

From the outset, “systemic injustice” is a broad and fuzzy concept. As most use it, it captures how American laws, policies, institutions, habits, and culture are racist—structurally rigged against people of color and especially “black” people. So far, to many in the church this sounds reasonable. After all, in past days slavery and Jim Crow were encoded in law and reinforced throughout culture, so wouldn’t the same be true today?

The historic point about slavery and Jim Crow is true, tragically true (even as American history is complex). The woke build off of this reality, though, and argue that today’s society is systemically unjust in the same ways. There are various disparities that are then identified—police brutality, hunger levels, economic differences, and so on. In many cases, these claims are possibly true. The police could be acting across the board in racist and ethnocentrist ways; schools could intentionally be worse in minority communities than elsewhere, to give two examples. Indeed, Christians have a healthy category for a fallen world manifesting sin in all sorts of ways. But here is the rub: you must prove these assertions. You cannot simply state them; data must bear them out.

This, as many already can see, is a tall order indeed. Not impossible, but difficult. Wokeness as an ideology is making a meta-claim, really; like Marxism, Critical Theory, and Postmodernity in relatively recent days, this is a theory of everything, and theories of everything by definition sign themselves up to justify their presuppositions to an almost preposterous degree. America being “systemically unjust” is about as big a claim as you can get. If you take this assertion seriously, it means that our society, law, business world, academic institutions, and culture are racist, top to bottom, roots to branches. Could this be true? Yes. Is it true? Well, those who make this argument will need to prove it, and will need to do so in every dimension of American order. Yes–every dimension.

It was once not hard to show the presence of structural evil throughout American public life–see the aforementioned matters obtaining in the 18th, 19th, and 20 centuries. (Evil being structural or systemic is not a new insight, and definitely does not owe to CRT, but is clearly found throughout the Bible, including the Egyptian bondage of Israel several thousand years ago.) But as is clear, proving that America today is “systemically unjust” is much more difficult. The burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of those who make this claim. To substantiate it, you’ll almost certainly need to become an expert in law, policy, economics, statistics, and more. You’ll need to show comprehensively that the American school system is racist; that the armed forces are racist; that our laws are racist; that public policies (tons of them, if not all of them) are racist; that our businesses are racist; that our cultural artifacts are racist (tons of them, if not all of them); that our churches and religious assemblies and institutions are racist; that our government is racist; and on it goes.

Someone might object by saying, “You’re inflating the burden of proof here! That’s a ridiculous amount to prove.” My dispassionate reply: Yes, this is an astronomical proof-task. It is one that would take an army of researchers years to prove. If the “system” really is racist, every dimension of it is racist. Nothing is untouched—that’s the burning core of the concept of “systemic injustice.” It’s everywhere, truly everywhere.

“White Supremacy” as the Grounding of “Systemic Injustice”

Many at this point will shrink back instinctively (and understandably) from this tall task. Proving that American economics, law, policy, schooling, and culture is racist at every level is nothing less than a herculean feat. Only the most confident and accomplished of thinkers and researchers would even attempt it, so big is its scope. But there is a move that wokeness makes at this point that shortcuts the entire affair. Few have recognized it as the shrewd but under-funded move it is in intellectual terms.

In the system of wokeness (and as I have stated it is indeed a system, whether or not one realizes or hears this clearly), this is where the concept of “white supremacy” enters the picture. If every “white” person is a “white supremacist,” then the task shrinks immensely. If “white” people intentionally and unintentionally perpetrate “white supremacy” at every turn, we now can account handily and neatly for “systemic injustice.” Wherever “white” people are, given the historic privileging of “whiteness,” they’re operating in evil ways. They may not intend to, but they are nonetheless. This is the move that seemingly reinforces and solidifies the idea of “systemic injustice.” Wherever you have a bunch of “white people,” you’re going to have “white supremacy,” and where you have that, you will have “systemic injustice.”

This seems airtight. But note the non-falsifiable nature of “white supremacy.” Like “systemic injustice,” it is a broad and fuzzy claim. The bewildered “white” person who protests that they are not a “white supremacist” receives the rejoinder that their response proves their guilt; denying their “white supremacist” nature only reveals just how deep their evildoing goes. At this point, the “white” person may stammer, “But what have I done specifically that manifests such wickedness?” Here, the response will likely point to matters like unconscious bias, desensitivity to minorities, use of stereotypes, and other such lower-level (but very significant) expressions.

Some who are following this exchange may think to themselves as they hear this last riposte, “But aren’t some of the supposed examples of “white supremacy” just instances of majority culture at work?” In this, they have a point. At base, Critical Race Theory seizes upon present-day majority culture, reads it in light of past majority culture, and thus poisons and weaponizes it: the “white” culture of today is just like the “white” culture of yesterday. Racial progress is a myth; “color-blindness” is not only foolish but evil; Martin Luther King, Jr., got things wrong, devastatingly wrong. As Ibram Kendi and others have argued, our legal and societal changes simply mean that “white supremacy” has migrated in some cases out of the formal and obvious into the informal and hidden. Incredibly, things have actually gotten worse, not better. This is why Kendi can say straightforwardly in How to Be an Antiracist: “The most threatening racist movement is not the alt right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one” (23).

In conversations over wokeness the last few months, I’ve heard folks express dismay over this formulation, rolling their eyes at it. (Robin DiAngelo speaks in the same terms.) They treat Kendi as if he’s a radical outlier. It may be true that Kendi is on the leading edge of wokeness, and that he says things some wouldn’t say publicly. But it’s not at all true that he—nor DiAngelo—is an outlier. Kendi and DiAngelo are both best-selling authors. They are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from schools, corporations, publishers, and organizations not because they are insignificant but because they are the vanguard. They are mainstreaming Critical Race Theory. They have many ideas they promote and many “solutions” they propose, but chief among their ideological assertions is the concept of “systemic injustice” built off of “white supremacy.”

Yet dissent, real and diverse dissent, is possible here. The supposed unmasking of America as inherently racist could be read another way. What if much of America is “white,” thus forming American majority culture, and is thus a complex blend of the good, neutral, non-ideal, and bad? What if American majority culture is not shot through with racism as it was in past days? What if racism and ethnocentrism must still be fought, but American law, policy, government, and culture have improved considerably from the days of slavery and Jim Crow? What if many of the disparities and issues identified as “white supremacy” are manifestations—albeit complex ones—of majority culture, just like Japan and Nigeria and Switzerland and Colombia and Greenland have majority culture in different forms, with certain strengths, neutral realities, and weaknesses in each?

Ten Basic Realities by Which to Reframe the Conversation

If this set of assertions is true, we haven’t waved a magic wand and made all forms of racism and ethnocentrism go away. We haven’t dismissed the concerns of those who have suffered the same. We haven’t closed down the possibility of racism and ethnocentrism rearing their evil heads in society and culture in this country or any other country—not by a long shot. But perhaps we have reoriented the conversation, turned down the temperature in a room pitched to boiling at present, and helped folks lay hold of some basic realities today. They include:

  1. America has embedded real racist and ethnocentrist sin at a societal and cultural level in days past.
  2. America could foment such sins today, and this may be happening in different places. People, for instance, can really be “white supremacist,” and if so, are buying into a heresy that will send them to hell for eternity if they do not repent (as with racism and ethnocentrism of every kind committed by people of every background).
  3. Where we hear claims of racism and ethnocentrism, we should doggedly and seriously investigate them, going to data and fact to test their truthfulness. Personally experiencing such sins, though, is definitely lamentable but not necessarily evidence of systemic enfranchising of an evil practice or mindset. It could be, but it also could not be. (To illustrate, I can be mocked for being short, and this is wrong, and short people may have been treated cruelly in America in days past and even in the present day, but this does not necessarily prove “tall supremacy.”)
  4. Because of wokeness, we have in different instances wrongly been encouraged to read—as one example—police shootings in racist and ethnocentrist terms. In different situations (Mike Brown, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, to take three tragic cases), the facts on the ground did not fit the narrative of “white supremacy” and “systemic injustice.”
  5. While always listening with humility and compassion to those with different backgrounds and experiences than our own, and without summarily dismissing the experience of friends and church members who tell us that their own story gives evidence of “systemic injustice,” we must also be wary of reading such narratives as evidence of broader patterns absent proof. (See step 3, which is vital here, and consider ecclesial voices like Voddie Baucham, Darrell Harrison, Virgil Walker, and rapper K-Dub, and public-square voices like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Coleman Ford, and Thomas Chatterton Williams, for all these figures will say in different ways that they have experienced racism and ethnocentrism but will deny the central claims of CRT, wokeness, and intersectionality.)
  6. Many Christians will thus conclude that racism and ethnocentrism do exist, that minorities suffer these wrongs (for sin targets every person, and we are all criminals by nature in our depraved state), but that American law, policy, government, society, and culture have changed for the good in different respects.
  7. In this light, the defeat of slavery and Jim Crow really did benefit society.
  8. Sadly, though real gains have been made in the aforementioned area, we still have a great deal of work to do across the board in America, for poverty, fatherlessness, big government policies, the sexual revolution, and numerous other ills have affected many communities in terrible ways.
  9. This means that the church must continually reclaim its vocation as “salt and light” in the public square and as the “one new man” where true unity is found by the blood of Christ, working for justice, mercy, hope, and healing, activity that is directed at all sectors of our world, but that is especially concentrated in the ecclesial proclamation of Christ crucified and resurrected for us (Matthew 5:13-16; Ephesians 2:11-22).
  10. At the granular level, Christians will 1) fight racism and ethnocentrism personally, communally, ecclesially, and nationally, 2) work to promote unity in the imago dei in the public square, 3) not allow themselves to be taken captive by divisive ungodly ideologies (Col. 2:8), 4) give special care to love brothers and sisters well in the local church, including members who have little in common with them by background.

Someone may read all this, though, and say a couple things. First, one might say, with every good intention, “I agree with all this, and I oppose CRT, but I still believe in systemic injustice.” Such a friend must understand this very clearly: embracing the concepts of a system is embracing the system, at least preliminarily. If you say, “I don’t buy Marxism, but I do believe that the upper classes oppress the masses,” you are embracing Marxism, whether you intend to do so or not. If you say, “I don’t buy the LGBT worldview, but I do believe that homosexual married couples love one another truly, and love is love,” you are buying the LGBT worldview whether you intend to do so or not.

So it is with CRT. “Systemic injustice” is foundational to CRT and wokeness. Using it to describe past public life has some justification, and it could still apply to current conditions, though one must still be careful with this term given the Marxist and postmodernist baggage it possesses. (One can make a strong case for not using the term at all for this reason; at the very least, one should differentiate one’s usage of the term from the CRT framing.) But using this term to describe present-day racial dynamics is another matter altogether. Using “systemic injustice” as indicative of current racial conditions in all its fuzziness and broadness means buying into one of the central tenets of the anti-gospel system of wokeness. Just as we cannot dip in and out of Marxism or the LGBT worldview, so we cannot dip in and out of wokeness.

[Update: As an addendum for purposes of clarity on a sticky issue posted after this blog initially ran, let me elaborate here. Because of the Marxist baggage of the term “systemic injustice,” I am wary of this phrase. To be clear, I affirm the reality of “systemic” sin per Israelite bondage (as one example), and I can at some level understand why people use the phrase. However, I want to be careful about my usage of the term, because easily deploying it can confuse people and make them think I am affirming something I’m not. (This isn’t unique to the conversation over CRT; I’m wary of numerous terms and phrases because of their cultural meaning and usage, including “missional,” “I feel like,” “sustainability,” “transparency,” “disruption,” “authentic,” and many more.)

Allow me to illustrate: the term “inclusiveness” is everywhere right now. Is there a sense in which a Christian can use the term “inclusive”? Sure, Christ welcomes all tribes and tongues to the New Jerusalem. But does our secular culture’s usage of the term give us serious pause? It does. If I go around talking about how the Bible promotes “inclusiveness,” I may very well be heard saying something I’m not (namely promoting a non-exclusivist worldview that calls all identities equally good). So it is with the term “systemic injustice.” Can injustice take systemic shape? Sure it can. But am I wary of the term because of the way it is used per the principles of CRT within the system of CRT? I definitely am. As noted earlier, my wariness means I will never use the term without defining it, and will also think hard about using it in general (just like I don’t use “missional” in general because of how vague it is, and thus unhelpful). At best, it’s a loaded term, and at minimum it should be unpacked when used.]

Second, someone might say, “I don’t buy into CRT, and I don’t think systemic injustice exists the way wokeness says it does, but I want to leave space for fellow Christians to believe it does.” I alluded to this earlier in my ten-point list, but while this sounds virtuous and may be stated from a posture of intended love, it is not loving to leave the door open for Christians to buy into concepts that are not factually grounded. Everyone agrees that racism and ethnocentrism rear their ugly heads in different ways and can be enshrined in laws, policies, governments, and cultures; we’ve given real examples of such inequities already, and made no bones about them. But slavery and Jim Crow are no more.

While effects of these systems may yet linger, America as a society and culture has changed, and massively for the good. We praise God for these changes! Ibram Kendi is wrong. The average “white” person is not a “white supremacist” (as if there is an “average white person,” by the way—what a fuzzy assumption that is!). Not in the least. What a damaging concept. They may need to grow in sensitivity and thoughtfulness regarding people with a different background from them, and they may well have much to learn about different ethnicities (don’t we all?), but they are not festering carriers of the disease of “white supremacy.”

Every person has a sin nature, but American society and culture in common grace does not generally reward racism and ethnocentrism in our time—again, praise God for this. Yet wokeness as a mindset encourages us to see both American public life and church life as riven by division and systemic evil. We may not know this, but adopting such a view is in reality the chief victory wokeness wins over us. Whether we buy fully into the system or not, believing that America and the evangelical church are hopelessly divided by hate is the very gateway to the woke worldview, where there is no common grace, and every person is either an implacable oppressor or a perpetual victim (a deeply unbiblical anthropology).

Conclusion

In sum, this little essay has covered numerous ways that CRT, wokeness, and intersectionality weaponize and poison American majority culture and American life in general. How tragic. Our culture is not “systemically unjust” as wokeness tells us. We have much to work on, and much to improve. This is true in the church as well. But our country is not “white supremacist,” and most white people are not, either. We must continually fight sin of every kind, for total depravity is real (Romans 3:10-18). But total depravity, we remember in closing, is not an airy or fuzzy claim. It is terrifyingly concrete. Actual sinners commit actual sins. These sins demand actual repentance. We do not indict people for vague and general evildoing against a holy God; we indict them (and us) for specific sins of heart, mind, desire, speech, and action that flow out of our sin nature (Proverbs 4:23; Jeremiah 17:9).

This, in the final analysis, is one part of the problem with wokeness. It takes a real issue—total depravity, brilliantly clarified in the inerrant and authoritative Word of God—and changes it from something specific to something general. It takes a clear and definable problem (our sin) with a clear and definable solution (Christ’s blood) and makes it everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere. Proving that America is systemically unjust could be doable, though now that law and policy and culture have changed in substantial form, it will take real work to do so in concrete terms. So it is with proving the evils of “patriarchy” past and present, another major target of our era, yet one that is rarely defined–whose “patriarchy”? Whose “oppression”? Which complementarians committed the heinous evils and taught the awful doctrine that is so generically fought on social media? Opinions are not lacking here, but proof often is.

Proving that sinners are wicked, though, is not hard. This is the most tangible, fact-driven, and data-rich task you can imagine. Thanks be to God that his love makes a way back to him for evidentially-abundant sinners like us. Sin abounds; but as Romans 5:20, the grace of God abounds all the more. In Christianity, grace–not division–has the final word.

************

If you haven’t, do watch “Christianity & Wokeness,” parts 1-6; see my book Reenchanting Humanity as well for more on the doctrine of humanity.

"Question for Owen. You mentioned 4 groups. But it seems there is another group that ..."

What Does it Mean to Be ..."
"not simply that one "sees the comprehensive inequity of our social order and the corresponding ..."

What Does it Mean to Be ..."
"He's describing how these deluded people see themselves."

What Does it Mean to Be ..."
"I'm confused. The writer's defines wokeness as "In the most specific sense, this means one ..."

What Does it Mean to Be ..."

Browse Our Archives