This is the fifth article released in a series entitled, “Tensions: Navigating Current Issues as a Kingdom Citizen.” This article is by Pastor Mike Gibbons. You can listen to the podcast version on iTunes or Spotify.
The English journalist and TV host Cathy Newman had no idea going into the interview that she would soon be the subject of a popular meme. Her conversation with Jordan Peterson, author and professor of psychology, in 2018 was punctuated by Newman’s frequent response to Peterson’s answers with, “So you’re saying…”
Paraphrasing what others are saying in a conversation is a valuable active listening skill that we all can learn from. However, Newman’s use of the phrase, “So you’re saying” didn’t reflect what Peterson was saying at all. For example, at one point, Peterson argues that hierarchies in society shouldn’t be surprising given that such hierarchies exist in other species such as lobsters. Newman responds with, “Let me get this straight. You’re saying that we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?” (1) Many on the internet picked up on this, and other examples, and the “So you’re saying” meme was born. Thaddeus J. Williams dubbed this behavior, “The Newman Effect.”
As followers of Christ, we can’t reduce conversations and interactions with those who bear the image of God to tribal, political, or ideological battles, as Newman did. Their eternal destiny is too important to not try to listen and understand. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). This awareness and desire to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19) is so important to keep in mind in our age of seemingly intractable tension about many issues. As believers we seek to live a distinctive life that allows us to provoke and initiate gospel conversations rather than simply provoking.
In this article, we want to explore one of those issues, specifically Critical Race Theory (CRT). We will first seek to define CRT and then explore how to think about it and how to talk about it. All of us can think rightly about a topic and yet talk about it in a manner that doesn’t demonstrate love or grace. This is not to say that truth is not required. Only that grace and truth meld together in the gospel message. Christianity is distinctive in that this grace and truth is embodied in a person – Jesus Christ – who delivered grace through the truth of his life and word, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
What is CRT?
One of the best ways to avoid “The Newman Effect” is to define terms. It is important to allow those who advocate for a position to clarify meaning. Use primary sources. Don’t rely solely on secondary sources. Taking others out of context is at the heart of “So you’re saying.” That being said, for brevity, we will need to summarize many concepts here while providing the primary source. Beginning then with a definition. The Critical Race Studies department of the UCLA School of Public Affairs provides the following definition for CRT:
“CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.” (2)
Before interacting with the definition, we need to look at the history of CRT to provide an even deeper context for understanding. The development of CRT is intertwined with the history of thoughts and ideas, as well as historical events. To get to today’s CRT, we must begin in the 19th century with Karl Marx and his Conflict Theory. This theory proposed that maximizing power is what all groups and individuals are fighting for. Ideologies such as Marxism and Socialism were products of his work. The 20th century saw Marxist revolutions and Socialistic regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and other places fail in their attempts to displace capitalism. In the late 1960s these failures led to “postmodern theory.” Postmodernism rejected broad explanations of society (metanarratives) such as Christianity and Marxism. Postmodernism is “characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism.; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power”(3) and fundamentally changed social philosophy.
Critical Theory was the outgrowth of this radical change. Critical Theory attempted to explain the reasons for the issues that led to inequity across broad categories including gender, class, and race using the Conflict Theory idea of oppressed and oppressor to explain any inequity. Again, allowing proponents to explain their terms, “Critical race theory builds on the insights of two previous movements, critical legal studies [a derivative of Critical Theory] and radical feminism, to both of which it owes a large debt.” (4) It is commonly acknowledged that CRT officially began in 1989 at a conference in Wisconsin sponsored by Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell.
Within that historical context we can begin to ascertain the core tenets of CRT. Again, it is helpful to allow proponents to define terms. From the book Critical Race Theory, we can define the core tenets of CRT as follows:
- Racism is a normal, defining and ongoing action of the human species.
- That those of non-color have no reason to eliminate racism unless it benefits them.
- That this racism has no basis in biology but is a social construct to maintain white privilege and white supremacy.
- That those of non-color have no ability to act correctly in stopping racism because only those of minority status have the competence to speak about race. (5)
How to Think About CRT
Often, those on both sides of this dialogue seem to be talking past each other because they aren’t looking at the issue using the same framework. Therefore, CRT becomes an amorphous phrase used to promote an agenda rather than an idea to critique or defend. There are those who employ CRT as a metanarrative (an explanation of the world) or lens one uses to view reality. There are others who tend to see CRT mainly as a collection of methods that can be used in discussing racism in society. Finally, many have responded to CRT affectively and emotionally as an idea that resonates with their experience in this world. All of these responses have validity. Understanding CRT within a framework of metanarrative, method or mood is an opportunity for us to bring the conversation back “to the cross — a place of justice and mercy, trauma and healing that welcomes both victim and oppressor, black and white.” (6)
CRT as metanarrative is the primary framework used by those who reject CRT and see it as incompatible and irreconcilable with Christianity. The most notable example, as a church who is aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, in this group is the statement from the Council of Seminary Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2020, which reads in part:
“In light of current conversations in the Southern Baptist Convention, we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” (7)
If we think about and analyze CRT exclusively as a metanarrative or worldview, this statement is not untrue. CRT attempts to answer some of the most basic questions of life that any comprehensive metanarrative or philosophy attempts to answer: Who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? What is the answer to what has gone wrong? How are we to live then? The answers that CRT provides to these questions begins with its origin in the hypothesis of oppressed and oppressor. According to CRT we are either oppressed, non-white; or oppressor, white. What has gone wrong is oppression leading to racism, in the view of CRT. Finally, according to CRT, the answer to what has gone wrong, our salvation and hope, is to divest racist systems of power to oppress and dismantle racist structures that subjugate. So, it is a legal solution rather than a spiritual solution. This view of the world is incompatible with the biblical view of God’s world. We are people created in his image. What has gone wrong in this world is rebellion against our Creator. The answer to what has gone wrong, our only hope and salvation, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, we cannot support, endorse, or advocate for CRT as a way to view the world. It is, in many ways, a false religion that is more of a threat to the souls of individuals than race relations. We cannot “Christianize” false religions. We must identify and repudiate them. In the framework of metanarrative, this is a spiritual battle, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 10:3). We are fighting the “cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12) who are using an ideology to lure souls away from the hope of Christ. If we embrace CRT as a lens in which to view the world, we are bowing to an idol of thought that cannot bring true justice or salvation.
This does not mean that the rejection of CRT as a way to understand the world precludes affirming that Christians can find some kernels of truth in CRT. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). When we look at CRT as a collection of methods that may be helpful in understanding racism, we can find some things that we can agree with. For example, one of CRT’s core tenets is that racism has no basis in biology but is a social construct. There are good reasons to accept this claim. Biology talks of populations, not races, identified by genetic lineage rather than racial categories. More importantly, the Bible, though filled with groups, tribes and nations, rarely mentions skin color. The gospel is good news to everyone regardless of skin color.
Historically, we should also be able to affirm the idea that many institutions of power can, intentionally or unintentionally, perpetuate wrong ideas, including racism. Surely, we can agree that we see this in American history in not just slavery but in other events like the Tulsa race massacre and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. This does not mean that CRT explains this history, only that when CRT makes the claim that institutions can promote wrong ideas and actions that we can agree. CRT also rightly emphasizes that oppression is wrong. All these examples are valuable insights and methods from CRT that the discerning Christian can make use of.
Just as we study Hinduism, Islam and Mormonism for insight into those belief systems, so we can with CRT. Employing the insights of common grace does not necessitate or imply an adoption of a new worldview. This is the conclusion that Resolution 9, On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality from the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting was referencing when it stated, “RESOLVED, That Southern Baptist churches and institutions repudiate the misuse of insights gained from critical race theory, intersectionality, and any unbiblical ideologies that can emerge from their use when absolutized as a worldview.” (8) The faulty assumptions in the worldview of CRT should cause us to seek God’s face in discerning the use of any of the methods in CRT and to be careful to use any methods wisely and appropriately.
In our framework structure, the last one to speak to is what we might call mood. God designed us as emotional and affective creatures. We cannot discount the appropriate awareness of and understanding of our emotions. We are not purely “thinking things.” This is perhaps where CRT is most helpful. It acknowledges the hurt, pain, bitterness and grief of perceived and real injustice. Particular events evoke certain emotions in all of us and we should, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Dissecting and analyzing a worldview without addressing the underlying feelings and perceptions comes across as cold and unfeeling. When we dismiss or criticize CRT without appreciating the experiences, hurts and feelings of those of color, we are not showing the compassion and grace our Savior calls us to show. That doesn’t mean that emotional responses are exempt from examination. The use of this framework is not an acceptance of CRT or a pathway to using it as a lens to view reality. It is simply a transition to the cross. We have been endowed with deep emotional registers and acknowledging this leads to intimate conversation as well as worship. “Critical Theory as mood is like looking at the world through one’s tears. These tears — which can at times distort our vision — should not be ignored, denounced, or rationalized. They should be recognized for what they are — profound but not permanent, a true word but not the last word. Eventually, they will be wiped away — first by our hands and one day by our Savior’s.” (9)
How to Talk About CRT
Throughout this article we have discussed ways to talk about CRT. In closing our discussion, we want to encourage you to actually talk. As Christians we know Christ as the embodiment of truth. We have nothing to fear in having conversations about hard and difficult topics. Love the lost and your brothers and sisters enough to contend with them. Do be aware that one of the core tenets of CRT is that, “only those of minority status have the competence to speak about race.” This can have a chilling effect on conversation. It can lead to a monologue rather than a dialogue as it seems to imply that if you aren’t non-white then you don’t understand and should just sit down and listen. The Bible encourages us to engage anyway. The idea of dividing by ethnicity is not consistent with Scripture’s teaching of universal guilt, “For we have already charged that all both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:9-12). This is not to say that there aren’t experiences that a non-white person has encountered that a white person knows nothing of. It is only to say that we need to base the conversation on biblical truth rather than solely experience. It also doesn’t mean that if we don’t accept CRT as a worldview that we are automatically racist. Therefore, as you engage in conversation, may we encourage you to talk about CRT theologically, pastorally and evangelistically.
- Talk about CRT theologically by keeping God’s being and character primary. This manifests itself in remembering that we are not God incarnate. “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Don’t assume the motives of others or yourself: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Ask rather than assume. Talking theologically also means explaining how Christianity sees the world. There is a vast literature across many decades explaining CRT. Even with a good foundation you will still face hard questions. Stick to what you know best – the Bible and its view of the world. Biblical truth will always undermine the core tenets of CRT. We pursue justice on God’s terms. Scripture is perspicuous and sufficient. Trust in the power of Scripture to change minds and hearts. There is not a book in the world better suited to address the issue of race than the Bible. There is not a person in the world better suited to address the issue of race than our Savior. He alone, not CRT, has “made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
- We also encourage you to talk pastorally. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t label, categorize, or generalize those created in the image of God. Don’t fall prey to “The Newman Effect.” Remember our justification comes from Christ alone, not by placing evil on others in order to make ourselves look better. Don’t assume the worst of others. Especially when talking to other believers, communicate, even with your body language, that they can disagree with you and the fellowship, friendship and unity in Christ you have will in no way be jeopardized. The second President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, L.R. Scarborough, once said, “A sound theology manifested in an unchristian spirit is the most dangerous heresy.” Keep the “mood” framework in mind and show compassion for the experiences of those of color. Provoke brotherly dialogue that promotes unity and wins them with the gospel rather than engaging to defeat them in an argument. We are not at war with men and women. We love as Christ did. We battle an ideology.
- Finally, talk evangelistically. There are so many opportunities to bring the gospel to bear in these conversations. Don’t become consumed with the racial identity and reconciliation “conversation.” We have something better than the inadequate view of CRT. Bring it to the gospel. Even amongst believers we need to preach the gospel to each other on a regular basis. Christ has atoned for sin and we are forgiven. CRT doesn’t speak to forgiveness at all. It only offers judgment and fear. We have a God-given opportunity to shine the light of Christ in the darkness.
May we talk to each other rather than past each other. May we not be content to ignore racism. May we find ways to bring the gospel to bear for a hurting world.
(1) At the 27:07 mark, “Jordan Peterson Debate on the Gender Pay Gap, Campus Protests and Postmodernism” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54
(2) “What is Critical Race Theory?” article at https://spacrs.wordpress.com/what-is-critical-race-theory/
(4) Delgado, Richard and Stefancic, Jean, Critical Race Theory (New York, NY: New York University Press), Kindle edition, 4.
(5) See Delgado, pages 8, 9, and 11.
(6) William Murrell, “Critical Theory as Method, Metanarrative, and Mood”, https://mereorthodoxy.com/critical-theory-mood/ I don’t agree with everything discussed in this article but the framework proposed was helpful and instrumental in my thinking on this issue.
(7) The full statement with comments from each of the seminary presidents can be found at https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/seminary-presidents-reaffirm-bfm-declare-crt-incompatible/
(8) The full text of this resolution can be found at https://www.sbc.net/resource-library/resolutions/on-critical-race-theory-and-intersectionality/
(9) William Murrell, “Critical Theory as Method, Metanarrative, and Mood”, https://mereorthodoxy.com/critical-theory-mood/