Part 1 – What is critical theory and why should we care?
Part 2 – Conflicts Between CT and Christianity
Part 3 – Critical Theory in the Church
Part 4 – Advice for Dialogue
VI. Advice for Dialogue
Finally, how can we achieve better dialogue? While I think the church needs to unequivocally and explicitly reject critical theory as a worldview, we also need to be sensitive to the concerns that lead so many people to embrace it. What can we do as a church to talk about issues of race, class, gender, power, justice, and oppression? Here are some suggestions.
Conservatives, are you ready to be triggered? These last few points are mainly for you, because I’m assuming that all the liberals in the audience are already unconscious.
A. Acknowledge and fight racism
Number one, we need to acknowledge and fight racism. Let me speak plainly. Many conservative evangelicals are embracing the language and ideas of critical theory because they are being told that critical theory is the only way for us to truly rid ourselves of racism.
But listen carefully. If you share my concern, if you’re also worried by the inroads that critical theory is making in the church, then the worst thing you can possibly do is to minimize or even worse dismiss racism. We need to acknowledge that it’s a problem. We need to be committed to fight it. Not only will this acknowledgement show that we’re trying to be balanced, it will help lower the defenses of people who might otherwise dismiss what they perceive to be ‘right-wing partisanship,’ so that they’ll be open to listening to our critiques of critical theory.
To that end, you’re about to get a quick crash course in the unearned advantages that whites still experience over blacks in 2019. I’m not going to talk about history or slavery or Jim Crow, even though these are relevant. I’m not going to talk about theoretical models of racial identity formation or white supremacy. I’m a scientist. I’m going to show you data. I’m going to look at the results of surveys and experiments with careful controls to show you that our society is not colorblind and that race is still very much a source of unearned advantage.
First, job interviews. Above are the results of a matched-pair study by Dr. Devah Pager. They provided pairs of men with fake resumes and matched them by age, height, demeanor, even physical attractiveness. The only difference was that one was white and one was black. Then they sent them out to apply for entry-level jobs. What did they find? Whites received callbacks at twice the rate of blacks. What’s more, a white applicant who reported a criminal record was 20% more likely to receive a callback than a black applicant with no criminal record.
Shown above are the results of another study. This time, a non-partisan economic think-tank sent out identical resumes. They only changed one variable: the name. Some resumes had white-sounding names like ‘Emily’ and ‘Greg.’ Others had black-sounding names like ‘Lakisha’ and ‘Jamal.’ Otherwise the resumes were identical. Results? ‘White’ resumes had a 50% higher response rate.
Here’s a review that looked at over two dozen employment studies. All the studies since 1990 showed that the response rate for whites was higher than for blacks, on average by around 40%. What’s more, according to this study, that relative hiring disparity hasn’t changed in thirty years.
Here’s an interesting experimental study from Australia. Actors were recruited to ride a bus with an empty fare card. They had a fare card, but it had no money on it. White bus drivers permitted whites to ride for free over 75% of the time. They permitted blacks to ride for free less than 40% of the time. That factor of two difference was seen for Asian and Indian bus drivers as well, but not for black bus drivers, who showed a much smaller racial disparity. What we’re seeing in all these studies are the unearned advantages that whites have over blacks, in hiring, in public accommodations, and in many other areas.
What about personal attitudes? Things have gotten better, no question. But in 2013, 16% of whites did not approve of interracial marriage (only 4% of blacks did not approve). That’s about 1 in 6 whites who don’t approve of interracial marriage.
Here’s a different survey. Again, things have improved, but 14% of non-blacks would not approve of a relative marrying a black person.
Another poll from 2018: 28% of Republicans and 12% of Democrats think interracial marriage is not just ‘inadvisable’ in some vague sense, but is ‘morally wrong.’
But surely, Christians wouldn’t exhibit that kind of racism? Last figure. In 2008, 34% of self-identified white Evangelicals would oppose the interracial marriage of a close relative. Bradley Wright, a Christian sociologist, notes that “Among Evangelicals… we see no evidence of prejudicial attitudes decreasing with church attendance.” In other words, even practicing evangelicals who attended church regularly showed similar levels of opposition to interracial marriage.
Time-out. Do all these results seem unbelievable to you? Listen, they seem unbelievable to me. My father immigrated here from India in the 1970s. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood and had Jewish friends, black friends, white friends. I can’t name a single person I know who opposes interracial marriage. Not one. All of my experience with very conservative evangelical churches has been unequivocally positive. As a whole, evangelical Christians are the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate people I’ve ever met.
But this is important: my experience is anecdotal. If I have to choose between my anecdotal experience and the data, I trust the data. These data show that racial biases and discrimination persist to this day. If your church is anything like the national average, then 1 in 6 whites in the pews (and around 1 in 25 blacks) oppose interracial marriage.
Serious question: do the people in your congregation know that racism is a sin? I’m serious. Have people understood the implications of the idea that all people are created in the Imago Dei, that we are all fallen, and that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ?
I know you’re worried that if you talk about racism, people might think you’re virtue signaling. But aren’t you more worried that people won’t repent of their sin? Aren’t you more worried that people are embracing a false, unbiblical, and sinful anthropology? I’m not asking you to go into church with guns blazing, calling everyone a racist. I’m just asking you to take this issue seriously. Brothers and sisters, don’t let anyone prevent you from confronting error with Scripture, whether it’s the error of critical theory or the sin of racism. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t ignore it. Talk about it.
B. Avoid labels
Second, avoid labels, especially the ‘M’-word: Marxism. Don’t be that guy. Are there historical connections between critical theory and Marxism? Yes. Are many critical theorists today professing Marxists? Yes. Is it either fruitful or helpful to start screaming ‘Marxism’ as soon as you hear the words ‘white privilege’ or ‘systemic racism.’ No. A thousand times no. Most evangelicals who are influenced by critical theory have no idea what it is or where it comes from. So what’s the point of calling them Marxists? What’s that going to accomplish? They’re going to just write you off as a crazy, right-wing Alex Jones fanboy. My advice is to avoid labels entirely. Why?
Consider the following conversation. Imagine that you’re a conservative and you say something like this: “I think immigration laws should exist.” And this is the response you get: “AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM is captive to RIGHT-WING, FASCIST, WHITE SUPREMACIST, NATIONALIST ideologies that have more in common with the philosophy of AYN RAND than the teachings of Jesus.” Ok, how open are you to further dialogue? How seriously do you take the other person at this point? Not very seriously at all. He’s not really listening to you. He’s just reacting emotionally to some caricature he saw on MSNBC. Thumbs down.
Ok, now let’s imagine that a young, restless, and reformed Christian says to you: “I think affirmative action laws should exist.” How do you respond? “‘WOKE’ EVANGELICALISM is captive to PROGRESSIVE, SOCIALIST, FEMINIST, GLOBALIST ideologies that have more in common with the philosophy of KARL MARX than the teachings of Jesus.” Excellent strategy. That will definitely open him up to a rational discussion of this issue. That was sarcasm, guys. That’s a terrible strategy.
Perhaps the worst aspect of using labels to dismiss ideas instead of engaging them rationally and biblically, is that it’s polarizing people. It’s driving them farther into their camps. I’ve seen it happen. By all means, point out error. But follow basic rules of good dialogue. Find points of agreement. Clarify points of disagreement. Don’t make assumptions. Ask lots of questions. Define terms very carefully. Define terms very carefully. Define terms very carefully. I could hammer this last point for hours. Ask me later.
C. Read broadly
Number three: read broadly. READ broadly. Don’t get your understanding of these issues from the news. It’s sensationalistic and shallow. If you want to learn about some subject like race, read books on it from multiple perspectives, by authors like the ones shown here.
“But wait,” you say, “I thought we’re supposed to get multiple perspectives. Why are all the people in this picture black men?” Right. Because black men all have the same perspective on race? Have you been listening to this talk? Racial groups, gender groups, economic groups are not monoliths. People are individuals with their own ideas. Don’t think that if the authors you read are multi-colored, then they are ideologically diverse. That’s no guarantee. Read broadly. And read critically. In fact, reading broadly will help you read critically because if the authors you’re reading are making contradictory claims, you’ll be forced to decide which claims are true and which are false.
One quick recommendation: if you want a model for pursuing racial unity in your church, pick up Prof. George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock. He’s not offering a magic bullet and I don’t think we even agree on everything. But Prof. Yancey emphasizes the importance of active listening and he grounds all of his suggestions in a deeply biblical, gospel-centered worldview.
D. Put the gospel first
Lastly, we need to uphold the primacy of the gospel for both Christians and non-Christians.
First, let’s talk about keeping the gospel central for Christians. Here are the two most important questions we need to ask when it comes to ‘social justice.’ Number one: is ‘social justice’ an imperative? Let’s set aside the question ‘what is social justice?’ and just ask “does God command it? Is it something we ought to do?” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the answer is ‘yes.’
Number two: “is the gospel an imperative? Is it something you have to do? Is it a moral obligation you have to fulfill?” No. And it’s extremely important to get that answer right.
The gospel is an indicative statement. It is ‘good news’ about what God has done on our behalf, through Christ. It’s the good news of his perfect life, his lordship, his substitutionary atonement, his defeat of death, his resurrection, and his ascension. The gospel is news, not advice. It is ‘done’ not ‘do.’ If social justice is an imperative, an obligation, something that we ‘ought’ to do, then it is very good and important. But it is the Law, not the Gospel.
This idea was crucial to the Reformation and it’s still crucial today. If you think that ‘social justice’ –however you define it- is a Christian imperative, that it’s something Christians absolutely must do, just make sure you don’t insert it into the gospel. Yes, we should live justly, and love mercy. Yes, we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Yes, we should care for the vulnerable.
But we have failed to do that. We are condemned as law-breakers and deserve God’s wrath. The gospel is the good news that, in spite of our failure to pursue justice, Jesus came to save us, the righteous for the unrighteous, the just for the unjust. When we trust in him, then God gives us the power and the desire to follow his commands. But we dare not mingle the glorious “it is finished” declarations of the Gospel with the “do this and live” imperatives of God’s moral Law. The Law condemns. The Gospel saves.
Second, let’s keep the gospel central for non-Christians. Critical theory insists that our fundamental moral duty is working for the liberation of the oppressed. And many people today feel confident in their own righteousness precisely because they are engaged in that pursuit. They care about social justice. They care about the poor. They Retweet the right Tweets, they share the right posts, they vote for the right candidates.
But “seeking the liberation of oppressed groups” is not our only moral duty. God cares about the oppressed, but he also cares about sexual purity. He hates oppression, but he also hates idolatry. Non-Christians, especially those who have been influenced by critical theory, need to hear this truth. None of us has the clean hands and the pure heart that God requires. All of us have fallen short of God’s standards. The wealthiest, most powerful oppressor and the poorest, most degraded oppressed person are both sinners who need a Savior.
We can’t risk ambiguity on this issue because it is this Gospel of the finished work of Christ that creates the church, that transforms hearts, that changes oppressors into servants, and that breaks down the wall between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. Let’s keep the gospel pure and keep it central. Because if we lose the gospel, we lose everything.
Previous: Christianity and Critical Theory – Part 3
- Critical Theory – All Content
- A Short Review of Adams’ Readings for Diversity and Social Justice
- Social justice, critical theory, and consistency
- A Crucial Question about Social Justice