Critical theory is the academic field that produced concepts like “male privilege,” “white fragility,” “intersectionality,” and “colorblind racism.” Few people deny that these ideas are sweeping through our culture and institutions, but some are skeptical that they play a role in evangelical thought.
The collection Can ‘White’ People Be Saved? should put an end to this debate once and for all. Critical theory informs the language, concepts, and subject matter chosen by these authors, with serious consequences for their theological conclusions.
Is it Critical Theory? Is it Evangelicalism?
The authors’ reliance on critical theory is not subtle but is stated quite forcefully in the book’s Introduction: “the essays in this volume deftly deploy cutting-edge theory in racial and ethnic studies” and draw on “critical theorists [who] advocate for analyses of racism that explore how other communities of color [outside the Black/White binary] experience the effects of racialization” (p. 10-11). The authors’ understanding of concepts like “internalized racism,” “whiteness,” “white supremacy,” “hegemony”, and “anti-racism” will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time reading critical scholars. Writers and activists like Joseph Barndt (p. 3), Carol Anderson (p. 6), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (p. 12), Charles Mills (p. 14), Beverly Tatum (p. 11), Nell Irvin Painter (p. 37), and David Roediger (p. 38) populate the books’ footnotes just as their ideas populate the book’s pages. There is simply no way to read this volume and fail to notice the influence of critical theory.
Similarly, it’s impossible to deny the book’s evangelical bona fides. Can ‘White’ People by Saved? was published by InterVarsity Press (which states on its website that it is “evangelically rooted“) under the auspices of Fuller Theological Seminary (which likewise proclaims that it is an “evangelical, multidenominational graduate institution”). Many of book’s contributors are Fuller professors or alumni. The book received endorsements from Soong-Chan Rah and Mark Noll, both of whom identify as evangelical.
This is critical theory. This is evangelicalism. The only question left to ask is: What are the consequences when the latter embraces the former?
Because critical theory is concerned with how power operates to reproduce social inequality, it often redefines words like “racism”, “oppression” and “justice,” couching its new definitions in structural terms. At best, these redefinitions are confusing. At worst, they are used as moral and emotional leverage to coerce agreement. After all, no one wants to have one’s dissent framed as “a desire to retain power and privilege.”
Redefining “White people”
The redefinition of the titular phrase “White people” is the most egregious example of doublespeak in the book. With regard to the question “Can ‘White’ people be saved?” the authors assure us that “yes, of course, all people, including those who have white skin, can be saved by the name of Jesus” (p. 14). But the authors make a distinction between “people with white skin color who can all be saved by Jesus like all other humans and the culture of whiteness” (p. 14). They continue: “we maintain that this whiteness project (signified by our use of the phrase ‘White’ People in the title) cannot be saved!” (p. 15).
Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t work this way. We can’t redefine the phrase “White people” to refer “the culture of whiteness” any more than we can redefine the phrase “athletic people” to refer to “the sports industry” or “female people” to refer to “the idea of femininity.”
We also need to recognize that the authors did choose this title precisely because they were thinking about a particular group of people. Although they say that the value of whiteness can be “promoted… by people of any color” (p. 14), they immediately add that “We who have benefited economically, politically, and socially, are like that man lame from birth [in Acts 4] in need of walking again… we are lame because of the weight of the sins of the system that have accrued to us. We need the healing of Jesus to make us whole” (p. 15). Despite their insistence that “whiteness” is a condition in which all people can participate, the discussion predictably turns to how white-skinned people in particular are complicit in, blind to, and morally stained by “whiteness” (see also quotes from Jennings’ and Draper’s essays below).
But what is the connection between “the culture of whiteness” and “the sins of the system” from which Whites need to be healed? Read on.
Willie James Jennings realizes that the question “can white people be saved?” is “for some [people]… deeply offensive” (p. 28). But, he says, he is “less concerned about the efficacy of salvation with this question and more interested in the status of two keywords in the question: salvation and whiteness… where whiteness [is] a way of being in the world [that] has been parasitically joined [to] Christianity” (p. 27). He writes: “To speak of whiteness is not to speak of a particular people but of people caught up in a deformed building project aimed at bringing the world to its full maturity” (p. 28). Jennings connects the ideology of “whiteness” to ownership of private property (p. 35-36), nationalism (p. 37), land ownership (p. 37-38), and the honoring of labor (p. 39), all of which he portrays negatively. He concludes that whiteness is “a formation that is yet compelling people to aim their lives toward a vision of maturity that is bound in death. I want to save us from becoming or being White people” (p. 43).
Obviously, Jennings’ definition of “whiteness” is not one you’ll find in the dictionary.
A final example of terms being redefined is found in Andrea Smith’s essay “Decolonizing Salvation.” Her thesis is simple: “The goal of missionization of Indigenous people was not their salvation; rather the project of missionization was essentially a racial project that divided humans from nonhumans. Only humans are suitable for salvation, and Native peoples have been defined outside the category of the human.” (p. 44). She repeats this claim several times on p. 45-47 (see below).
How does Smith make such a startling assertion in light of the abundant evidence that Christian missionaries did indeed regard Native peoples as human? For instance, in 1537 the papal encyclical Sublimis Deus forbade the enslavement of Indigenous people, declaring that “the Indians are truly men [and] are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.” This one document alone seems sufficient to undermine her thesis.
To support her assertion, Smith takes the remarkable approach of redefining the word “human”: “Native peoples are structurally defined as nonhuman because to be ‘human’ is to be White” (p. 45). And “[to be saved] Native peoples had to first become human, which is to say – to cease to be Native” (p. 47).While there is no question that Europeans attempted to “civilize” Native Americans by imposing “White” cultural norms on them, it doesn’t remotely follow that Europeans thought that Native Americans were nonhuman and had to be become human by becoming White.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a particularly powerful kind of rhetoric is being employed here, one that conceals false claims beneath the veneer of academic language.
Deconstructing Western Theologies
Critical theory insists that oppression is manifested not only through overt acts of cruelty, but through supposedly objective values that dominant groups –like whites, males, and heterosexuals– impose on culture. What we perceive to be universal, objective norms are actually social constructs. As a result, critical theorists work to “deconstruct” dominant values, interpretations, and norms and work to “center” the values, interpretations, and norms of marginalized groups.
Theologically, this methodology results in skepticism towards “Western” epistemologies (i.e. ways of knowing the truth) and “Western” doctrines. For example, in “Decolonizing Salvation,” Smith writes: “what we presume to be true of the Bible is primarily the result of the history of European interpretation as translated into European languages… we would have a completely different understanding of the Bible if we read it through Indigenous languages translated directly from Greek and Hebrew.” (p. 54). And “According to the European positivist grammar of truth, if proposition p is true, then not-p must be false. Indigenous epistemologies are not beholden to such logic systems. Beliefs, even systems of belief that seem contradictory to European and Euro-American culture–for example, Christianity and Indigenous religions–can coexist in Indigenous culture” (p. 62). And finally “taking the colonial context of the Gospels seriously requires us to consider that the theology that has emerged from colonizers may not be the most accurate rendering of Scriptures that were written by and for the colonized” (p. 65).
In “Ambivalent Modalities”, Akinade and Clarke write: “White settlers placed themselves at the top of the racial hierarchy by creating entirely new systems of language to determine who was White or who was close to whiteness, which continues to disease our social imagination to this day… [This lead] to the creation of … ‘colonialist theological subjectivity’ in which Christian doctrine was reimagined through a White colonial gaze” (p. 104) and “The decoupling of Jesus from his Jewishness created a scenario in which mission work became primarily occupied with the forced assimilation of African people into a White theological vision [in which] Scripture is demoted and turned into a philosophical, historical, moral, and cultural set of documents detached from the possibility of Christian theology born from African land, language, and culture” (p. 105).
In “Siempre Lo Mismo” Elizabeth Conde-Frazier writes: “White evangelical schools do not expose us [Latino/as] to the rich theological coffers of persons of Color [which] further perpetuates the idea that we do not generate our own theology and that we must continue as a conduit for la sana doctina (sound doctrine), the ‘real theology’ as interpreted by the Anglo church.” (p. 124) and “Racism has built the epistemologies, worldviews, laws, and educational institutions of our times… Colonialism has colored the very lenses with which we read Scriptures and understand ourselves as the colonized and the colonizers” (p. 134).
While Protestants should never be afraid of calls to test our theological beliefs against Scripture, it’s important to notice that something very different is being demanded here. We’re not being called to test all doctrines against Scripture; instead, we’re being told that we should be skeptical of Western theological beliefs and Western ways of reading Scripture. In contrast, indigenous and postcolonial theologies are taken to be more trustworthy because they are untainted by the entanglements of racism, colonialism, and empire and provide a more direct access to Scriptures that were written “by and for the colonized.” For anyone who believes that “Western” doctrines of sin, redemption, the deity of Christ, and the nature of God (many of which, of course, were expounded by African theologians like Augustine) are objectively true, this appeal to distance ourselves from “Western” theology should be troubling.
Divesting from Whiteness
Finally, the theoretical component of contemporary critical theory can’t be divorced from praxis. The redefinition of terms and the deconstruction of dominant narratives is intended to motivate specific actions. Andrew Draper’s essay “The End of ‘Mission’: Christian Witness and the Decentering of White Identity” provides a perfect illustration of the kind of penance that these ideas are meant to evoke.
Like Jennings, Draper starts by redefining “whiteness”: “whiteness is best understood as a religious system of pagan idol worship that thrives on mutually reinforcing circularity between the image (the ideal or the form) and the social construction of those who worship it” (p. 177). This somewhat startling claim leads immediately to a call to action: “As idolatry, whiteness must be dealt with like any such cultic system: its high places must be torn down and its altars laid low” (p. 178).
The following passage is so astonishing that I’ll quote it at length:
“The purpose of this paper is to offer a few concrete practices in which White folks must engage to begin casting down our White idols. Towards this end, I will use language of decentering to describe the posture needed for White people as we engage in these spiritual disciplines. For whiteness as idolatry to be cast down, White identity (traditionally European particularities) must be decentered and not held as normative. Because White worshipers have centered ourselves in the economy of God’s saving activity in the world, specific practices aimed at decentering White identity as universally normative constitute the best path toward tearing down the altars of whiteness. Because white supremacy is arguably the original sin of the West, the United States, and the church, we must speak of whiteness as an effective idolatry. While whiteness has historically been fashioned by White worshipers, its cultic power is such that all flesh may be tempted to render it homage” (p. 178)
Lest readers be left wondering what the “high places” and “altars” of whiteness are (Starbucks? Apple stores?), Draper gets very specific. Again, I’ll quote him at length:
I propose five practices in which White folks must engage to resist the sociopolitical order of whiteness: first, repentance for complicity in systemic sin; second, learning from theological and cultural resources not our own; third, choosing to locate our lives in places and structures in which we are necessary guests; fourth, tangible submission to non-White ecclesial leadership; and fifth, hearing and speaking the glory of God in unfamiliar cadences. If… whiteness is a way of life into which its novitiates are discipled, then a Christian discipleship that entails a deconversion from whiteness is necessary if any true experience of reconciliation with God, others, the creation, and ourselves is to take place. (p. 181)
Needless to say, Christian and secular commentators who see a striking parallel between critical theory and religion are not mistaken. When authors begin speaking about the necessity of a “deconversion from whiteness” we ought to wonder which faith is really operative at the heart of their worldview: Christianity or the “postmodern religion of Social Justice.”
In this short review, I can’t enumerate all of the theological and philosophical problems with the essays in this collection. Below, I’ll include some additional eye-opening quotes, but suffice it to say that this review merely scratches the surface.
To be fair, a few of the essays were less troubling than the ones I’ve cited, like Daniel Jeyaraj’s essay on Tamil concepts of race in India or Hak Joon Lee’s essay on the theology and missiology of MLK, Jr. Yet the majority of the essays, as well as the summaries provided by the volume’s editors in the Introduction and Conclusion, show very clearly the exceptional dangers involved as evangelical theology attempts to incorporate the foundational concepts of contemporary critical theory. As my co-author Dr. Pat Sawyer and I have argued elsewhere, that project is doomed to failure. Either we will abandon historic Christianity in favor of the core tenets of contemporary critical theory or we will abandon the core tenets of contemporary critical theory in favor of Christianity. Any amalgamation of the two will, in the long run, be unstable.
“Even today, Native people are legally defined outside the category of human” – Smith, p. 45
“The problem then with Christian missionization to Indigenous peoples is that only humans can be saved” – Smith, p. 47
“those who came to be called ‘friends of Indians’ organized to save Native peoples. But how to save nonhumans? That was impossible” – Smith, p. 47
“We must decolonialize our perceptions of Christianity by recognizing how Western imperialism shapes what we think the gospel is” – Smith, p. 66
“The centering of whiteness is concomitant with situating the White male heterosexual abled body as constitutive of the Christian body (both individual bodies and the body politic.” – Draper, p. 189
“It is through learning from theological and cultural resources that are not White (read: that are not traditioned accounts by only White males) that White folks can begin a process of decentering our own theological and philosophical presuppositions as universally normative while seeing whiteness for what it is: a weak and pitiable longing to be divine” – Draper, p. 190
“White, male, able-bodied Christians cannot claim to be missional without experiencing how God’s mission to us is embodied in theologies of liberation from people of Color, women, and people with disabilities” – Draper, p. 195-196
“While Western institutions hiring more non-White leaders is a good and necessary step, the centering of Western education usually entails the centering of historically white theological norms, pedagogical practices, and conceptions of truth and beauty. We as White folks must recognize that practicing submissions to non-White leadership means that we must be open to new conceptions of theological rationality” – Draper, p. 203
“Without reparations there can be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there can be no reconciliation” – Tran, p. 239
“Notwithstanding the discussion about whether the Gospel of Matthew is racist, we still have some distance to traverse before we can appropriate the troubling story of the Canaanite woman as a part of a womanist antiracist agenda.” – Sechrest, “Can White People Be Saved?” p287
“The story [of the Canaanite woman in Matt. 15] reminds us of the invisibility that accompanies modern racism and sexism [as] Jesus renders her invisible by refusing to engage her initial request.” – Sechrest, p.292
“the ideology of whiteness has truncated the Christian gospel… [T]o the degree that any of us are white (in Jennings’s sense of whiteness), we are no longer capable of appreciating, much less fully living into, the powerful promises of the good news”- Yong, p. 306
“Ramirez-Johson in addition suggests that engaging Scripture involved not just the rational intellect but the affective and emotional dimensions that inform human cognition, and this is why overcoming the struggle against whiteness can never be merely one of argumetns or words. From another perspective, any retrieval of Scripture, as Sechrest admonishes, risks reading White prejudices onto those that represent struggles in the original Sitz im Leben so that we might presume White biases to be scripturally underwritten when in reality the call of the gospel is to challenge all oppressive hierarchies perpetuated by majority culture” – Yong, p. 312