Pastor John Piper recently published a two–part series on critical race theory (CRT) and Christianity, a topic that is of great importance given the tremendous influence that CRT is having on our culture. As someone who has benefited from Pastor Piper’s writings and sermons over the years, I was honored that he framed the first part of his discussion around a debate I had with Pastor Rasool Berry on the radio program Unbelievable? I’d like to summarize major areas of profound agreement I have with Pastor Piper before offering some suggestions for areas in which his argument should be strengthened.
In Part 1, Piper began by addressing how Christians should handle discussions of contentious topics like critical race theory. In particular, he observed that if Christians are using the term “critical race theory” pejoratively, then they should be exceptionally careful about accusing a fellow believer of teaching or being influenced by critical race theory. He did not argue that the label should never be used or that such accusations should never be made, but only that making such accusations falsely or without sufficient evidence is slanderous and therefore sinful. The same biblical argument would apply to any Christian using any label to make accusations against a fellow believer, whether that label is “semi-Pelagianism” or “liberation theology” or “white supremacy” or “Christian nationalism.” He suggests, correctly I think, that it’s often more helpful to focus on whether specific claims are false and unbiblical than on whether they merit the label “critical race theory.”
On the other side, he rightly admonishes Christians not to dismiss concerns about critical race theory by pointing to “blood on the streets.” In other words, when someone raises objections to the claims of CRT, we should not angrily respond “How can you argue about obscure, academic disciplines when people are dying?” As John Stonestreet says: ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims. If critical race theory is indeed fundamentally unbiblical (which I believe) and if it will exacerbate racial problems rather than ending them (which I also believe), then labeling opponents of CRT as “uncaring” –at best– or “white supremacists” –at worst– is also a form of slander that has no place within the church.
These two points should be wholly uncontroversial: 1) do not slander and 2) do not silence.
In Part 2, Piper raises many serious concerns about critical race theory. I won’t discuss them in detail, but he makes statements like these:
in its mainstream expression — [critical race theory] is another manifestation of the age-old enslavement of the fallen human heart to self-deification (“I will be my own god”), and self-definition (“I will define my own essential identity”), and self-determination (“I will decide my own truth and my own morality, without deference to any authority outside myself”)…these are the root problems of the mainstream, scholarly, decades-long development of critical race theory, which is why it is being so hotly contested. And in that sense, rightly contested.
if we go beneath these generic goals of critical race theory to the assumptions and conclusions of its mainstream exponents, things become seriously problematic for Christians with biblical convictions, because this is not a neutral theory. It is laden with assumptions or viewpoints about reality that put it at odds with biblical thinking.
to try to make progress in racial justice and racial respect and racial harmony by absorbing the assumptions and categories and conclusions and strategies of critical race theory is a dead-end street.
critical race theory is not a problem because it raises the challenge of racial justice and racial harmony and racial respect and racial glory. It’s a problem because it fails us as we try to take up these challenges in a hopeful, Christ-exalting way.
In all of these statements, Piper and I are in agreement and I think the intent and overall thrust of these articles is beneficial. That said, I’d like to offer four suggestions for further engagement.
More Than Different Perspectives
First, in Part 1, Piper wrote: “I couldn’t put my finger on any specific disagreement [between Shenvi and Berry] about the rightness or the wrongness of critical race theory in its specific assertions.” I have to admit that this comment surprised me. I can understand that there is some ambiguity about how “critical race theory” is defined (see below) such that two people can talk past each other when they discuss this topic. That ambiguity is heightened because critical race theory has redefined common words like “racism” and “white supremacy” and “oppression.” But even with this qualification, at one point in the debate, the stark differences between Pastor Berry and myself were made crystal clear. I argued that adopting critical race theory’s definition of oppression would logically entail that we must view women and LGBTQ people as oppressed. In response, Pastor Berry affirmed that he did indeed view women and LGBTQ people as oppressed, though he added that he defined “oppression” differently than CRTs — albeit in an unspecified way.
While I have no reason to think that Pastor Berry holds to an unbiblical view of gender or sexuality, this particular exchange highlighted precisely the danger to which I alluded and was one of the key disagreements at the heart of the debate. Ideas and categories are encoded in language. Therefore, to adopt the language and definitions of CRT is to enter an entirely different conceptual universe than one presented by the Bible, a truth that Piper himself notes in Part 2. Thus, the disagreement between Pastor Berry and me is both specific and foundational, even if that disagreement can be obscured by language. As Pastor Berry said on Twitter, he accepts the majority of the central tenets of CRT. I don’t.
Wrong on Race
Second, while Pastor Piper is quite right to point out that rejecting biblical sexual ethics and even biblical authority is the logical consequence of the core tenets of critical race theory, many evangelicals will insist that they do not intend to adopt these views. They will argue that they are using critical race theory only to understand racial dynamics while rejecting its views on sexuality and power. As a result, it’s crucial to show that CRT’s views on race are also wrong and tremendously destructive. Even if we could extract CRT’s racial perspectives from the larger framework in which they’re embedded, what we’re left with would still be poisonous. Moreover, CRTs, especially those working from within an intersectional framework, would be the first to insist that their racial concerns are inseparable from their view on gender, sexuality, class, and power. And that leads to my next point: should CRT be defined “generically”?
A Generic Definition?
In Part 2, Pastor Piper distinguishes between defining CRT “generically with regard to its aims” and defining it “more essentially with regard to its core assumptions and conclusions.” On the one hand, we should make it clear that not all CRTs are in complete agreement on every issue any more than all Catholics or all libertarians are in complete agreement on every issue. On the other hand, there is a central core to CRT that is common to the actual ideas that are running rampant in our culture and, increasingly, in the church. A good example is provided by the webpage to which Pastor Berry appealed in our debate and to which Pastor Piper appeals in his series. The Purdue Writing lab states:
CRT [critical race theory] scholars attempt to understand  how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural conceptions of race and  how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice.
When Pastor Berry offered this definition in our debate, I immediately asked him whether Thomas Sowell, a conservative black economist, would qualify as a critical race theorist under this broad definition, since he routinely talks about race, racism, and discrimination in his books. Pastor Berry responded that he would not because Sowell thinks that the influence of race is waning. That’s entirely correct, but Pastor Berry’s answer shows that CRT is not really defined in terms of incredibly broad and vague goals, but in terms of specific assumptions and conclusions.
Indeed, if you actually read the rest of the webpage, it goes into much greater detail about exactly what CRTs believe:
Prominent CRT scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams share an interest in recognizing racism as a quotidian component of American life…
CRT scholars do not only locate an individual’s identity and experience of the world in his or her racial identifications, but also their membership to a specific class, gender, nation, sexual orientation, etc.
Most CRT scholarship attempts to demonstrate not only how racism continues to be a pervasive component throughout dominant society, but also why this persistent racism problematically denies individuals many of the constitutional freedoms they are otherwise promised in the United States’ governing documents. This enables scholars to locate how texts develop in and through the cultural contexts that produced them, further demonstrating how pervasive systemic racism truly is.
In other words, even the webpage cited by Berry and Piper in support of a “broad” definition lists the core tenets that I mentioned.
For that reason, I appreciate how Pastor Piper repeatedly talks about “mainstream critical race theory” and the “essence” of critical race theory. These are undeniably in conflict with Christianity. What I would question is whether it’s really meaningful to talk about critical race theory “generically” in terms of its goals.
By analogy, if we were asking the question “Is Queer Theory compatible with Christianity?” we would not want to define Queer Theory “generically” in terms of goals like “understanding gender and gender bias.” Indeed, that would be incredibly dangerous because it would give Christians an entirely false impression of what Queer Theory is and how it is actually being employed. Instead, we’d say that Queer Theory is properly defined only in terms of its core assumptions and central tenets, which are obviously radically incompatible with Christianity. To his credit, Piper recognizes that in its essence CRT is indeed incompatible with Christianity. I’d merely suggest that the “essential” definition of critical race theory is the only one that really matters.
Decolonizing Our Theology
Finally, while Pastor Piper rightly recognizes that biblical inerrancy will come under assault as a “tool of white supremacy” if we adopt the assumptions of critical race theory, there is a more subtle threat that is common within evangelical circles. Not all evangelicals who are influenced by CRT will immediately abandon biblical inerrancy as a “white supremacist doctrine.” Instead, under the influence of standpoint epistemology, they will argue that dominant groups are blinded by their privilege and thus have historically misinterpreted the Bible. Consequently (they will argue) we need to center the voices of marginalized groups and “decolonize our theology” in order to truly understand Scripture. In the words of my collaborator Dr. Pat Sawyer, some Evangelicals influenced by CRT will claim that “what is considered historic and orthodox understandings of truth and theology are actually just expressions of white theology and white understandings of biblical interpretation imbued with white supremacy and consequently are worthy of dismissal. They contend such theology and understanding misses the mark of what the Bible is truly about and needs to be rejected and replaced with better, more biblical understandings of truth and theology descending from black and brown voices.”
Of course, we always need to be open to biblical correction. But we cannot assume that white or black or male or female or heterosexual or queer voices contain special insight that we lack, nor can we let anyone’s “lived experience” exempt their views from public scrutiny by virtue of their membership in an “oppressed” group.
I greatly appreciate Pastor Piper’s engagement with this issue. The very fact that he takes it seriously, that he does not dismiss concerns about CRT as a “fundamentalist bogeyman,” is very encouraging. Moreover, his affirmation that the essence of CRT is immensely problematic for Christians and must be rejected is absolutely correct. I would merely suggest that there are areas in which his argument could be strengthened.
As I’ve said repeatedly, Christians need to understand that we do not need to choose between embracing racism or embracing critical race theory. We can and must reject both. For those who believe that Christians can’t have serious discussions about race and racism apart from critical race theory, I highly recommend my recent interview with Pastor Mike Winger.
See all content on critical theory here.