Part 1 – Why study the social justice movement?
Part 2 – What is social justice?
Part 3 – What is ‘critical theory’?
Part 4 – What are the strengths of critical theory?
Part 5 – What are the weaknesses of critical theory?
What are the weaknesses of critical theory?
Having discussed some of the areas in which critical theory offers valuable insights, let me turn next to its weaknesses.
Not everything is reducible to power
First, not everything can be reduced to power. Critical theory views all of reality through the singular lens of power. As a result, you’ll find critical theorists making comments like: “marriage is a class relation in which women’s labor benefits men without comparable remuneration.” But is that plausible? Think about my own situation. My wife is a doctor. I quit my job as a theoretical chemist to homeschool our four kids. So what exactly is going on in our case? Is she oppressing me? Am I oppressing her? Should I start billing her for my time? No, that’s just not the right way to understand a marriage. A marriage based on love, commitment, and mutual sacrifice, not power.
Here’s another incredible example. Numerous critical theorists identify ‘adultism’ as a form of oppression: most of us were oppressed as children through the impact of adultism. Children experience 10-15 years of unpaid labor and brainwashing in our current form of education. Is it really plausible to argue that I’m currently oppressing my four children and that I’m exploiting them for their unpaid labor (side note: I wish. It would be nice if I could get them to pick up their toys once a week.)
Another way in which this singular lens is harmful is with regard to truth claims. People influenced by critical theory will not necessarily ask “Which claims are true?” or “What evidence is there to support that idea?” Instead, they will be inclined to ask “Is this claim hurtful to the oppressed?” “Does this argument legitimize the claims of those with power?”This tendency derives from the premise that oppressors disguise bids for power beneath the guise of ‘evidence’ and ‘objectivity.’ Rather than focusing on the truth claim itself, they dismiss it on the basis of the perceived motivation of the claimant.
But truth is not reducible to power. Evil oppressive people can make true claims and good, oppressed people can make false claims. In fact, powerful people can make true claims that legitimize their own power, and those claims can still be true. If Bill Gates says “I founded Microsoft”, that claim is true whether or not it legitimizes his wealth and status. Reducing all truth claims to bids for power is a bad idea.
Power is context- and person-dependent
Second, power is context-dependent and person-dependent. Take white privilege. Does a particular white person have certain unearned advantages over a particular non-white person, all things being equal. Yes. I’ve shown you data to support that claim. But that data is from the United States. Do you think that privilege would exist if we dropped that same person in Iran? Or North Korea? Probably not. In the same way, privilege can exist in some settings and not others. An identity that is privileged in one context may be a liability in a different context.
Or what about the individual nature of power? Consider three white men: Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, Pajama Boy, and “Almost Politically Correct Redneck” from the meme Hall of Fame. All of these men are part of a group that supposedly wields hegemonic power. Yet which of them wields more actual power? Is it really reasonable to treat all of them as equal participants in a ‘white male oppressor group’?
Lived experience is not an infallible guide
Third, lived experience is not always a reliable guide to objective, generalizable truth. ‘Lived experience’ is supposed to work this way: Someone reports their own lived experienced: “As a woman, I have personally experienced sexism.” Then, we’re supposed to make the following inference: “Sexism is objectively rampant in our culture.” We can’t object to this step, because if we do, then we’re invalidating her experience. Finally, we should reach the following imperative: “we should dismantle the patriarchy.”
The problem with this reasoning is that it’s logically invalid. We’d never reason this way on any other issue or, indeed, from any other perspective. Watch. Let’s change the claim in question and see what happens.
What if a woman says: “As a woman, I have never personally experienced sexism.” And then infers that “Sexism does not exist in our culture.” And finally concludes “We should reject the idea of the Patriarchy.”
Here’s another one: “As a mother, I have personally experienced the damage that vaccines did to my child.” Therefore, “Vaccines are objectively dangerous to children.” So “We should stop using vaccines.”
Last example: “As a cult leader, I have personally experienced the voice of God in my life.” Therefore, “God is objectively speaking to me.” Therefore, “You should come live in my compound and prepare for Armageddon.”
All of these examples suffer from the same flaws. We start with a personal experience. That’s fine. If someone makes a claim and we have no reason to doubt them, then we should accept their testimony. However, personal experiences are subjective. They need to be interpreted and that interpretation may not be correct. Nor are the conclusions that we draw from our experiences necessarily correct.
Critical theory is self-refuting
Fourth, critical theory is self-refuting because it turns a blind eye to the power dynamics that critical theory itself creates and perpetuates. Consider the example of Bret Weinstein, a professor at Evergreen State. He had protested to a ‘Day of Absence’ in which white students and faculty were asked to stay off campus to show solidarity with students of color, who would be allowed on campus. He pointed out that demanding any racial group be excluded from campus was a form of discrimination. In response, students protester demanding his resignation and eventually took over the campus. His wife was threatened with violence and campus police said that they could not guarantee his safety. He eventually resigned.
Here’s an email sent to Jane Mathias, a student at Ryerson University in Canada. She attempted to write a paper on the gender wage gap between men and women. Her professor sent her back this email, insisting that she is not permitted to use “business source” because they “blame women.” She was also forbidden from using government websites because they “[reproduce] mainstream stereotypes, assumptions and misconceptions.” Instead, she should “look at feminist sources on this issue.”
I could list many other examples here, but they all serve to show how influential critical theory is in certain environments. Critical theory itself can be a hegemonic discourse that excludes all other viewpoints. If critical theory is used to justify silencing white or male or conservative or evangelical voices, then hasn’t ‘critical theory’ become a means of oppression? And isn’t it our duty to liberate people from the oppression of critical theory by deconstructing it or silencing those who practice it? Critical theory devours itself and saws off the very branch it’s sitting on. It wields its principles selectively. As soon as we apply it universally, it undermines its own authority.
Critical theory undermines the gospel
Finally, let me close by highlighting the main problem with critical theory from a Christian perspective, by looking at the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee from Luke 18:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
Who were the Pharisees? They were very devout religious Jews who strictly observed the Jewish Law, the Torah. They were well-respected by the people and were known for their piety. In contrast, the tax collectors were despised and seen as grossly immoral. At the time, the Roman Empire was ruling Palestine and brutally oppressing the populace, often killing them by the thousands. Tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the Roman Empire to extort taxes from their own people. Here’s how the parable continues:
“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”
No surprise. The Pharisee is pious. He keeps God’s laws. He fasts. He gives to charity. And, he thanks God that he’s not like this despised, immoral, Roman collaborator, the tax collector. What about the tax collector? What does he do?
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
Here comes the shock. Jesus concludes:
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The tax collector went home justified before God. Declared righteous. Absolved. Forgiven. Healed. Restored. Rescued. This oppressor, this collaborator, a man who had helped a brutal, imperialist, foreign power subjugate, pillage, and kill his own people, is declared right with God. How? That’s offensive.
Right. Exactly. That’s the gospel.
From a Christian perspective, the biggest problem with critical theory is that it undermines the message of the gospel by strictly separating the world into good and bad people. That’s not true. There are not good people and bad people. There are only bad people who think they don’t need to be rescued and bad people who know they do need rescue. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. I am not trying to minimize the actual suffering and oppression you may face. But I am trying to show you that it’s not your main problem.
No matter how oppressed you are, you are still a sinner. You have turned your back on God. You have broken his laws. It doesn’t matter how socially conscious you are. It doesn’t matter how many rallies you’ve attended. It doesn’t matter how hard you work to liberate the oppressed. You stand condemned before God.
And it doesn’t matter how religious you are. It doesn’t matter how much you read the Bible or go to church. It doesn’t matter that you’re a fine, upstanding, debt-free, tax-paying citizen. In our natural state, we are all evil, corrupt, and spiritually dead.
But the good news is that Jesus accepts sinners just like us. Jesus did not come primarily to be our example. He primarily came to be our substitute. As Pastor Tim Keller says, Jesus lived the life we should have lived, a life of perfect justice, righteousness, holiness, and love, and he died the death we deserve to die as unjust, treasonous, rebels and traitors. And God raised him from the dead, defeating death once and for all. When we transfer our trust from ourselves to Jesus, God transforms our lives, God cleanses our hearts, and God raises us to new life.
But this message of mercy and grace for sinners, for people who know they cannot save themselves. As long as we think that we can live a good moral life on our own, we cannot be saved. We are the Pharisee in that parable, who is confident in his own righteousness and looks down on everyone else.
If you’re not a Christian here tonight and you take nothing else away from the talk, please hear this. Christianity does not teach that God sends the bad, evil people to hell and takes the nice, good people to heaven. Christianity teaches that we’re all bad, evil people. But, in spite of our wickedness, God sent Jesus to die in our place and to bear our punishment, so that we can be forgiven. When we turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, we receive new hearts, new lives, new motivations. It is through this unearned gift of new life that we can become people who love God, who love their neighbors, and who seek justice. The gospel has the power do to this, but nothing else can.
So what should we conclude?
First, there is no one, accepted definition of ‘social justice,’ so when you discuss this issue, ask for clear, precise definitions. Second, a large segment of the social justice movement is rooted in the ideology of critical theory. Recognizing that fact helps us understand what binds together the various causes often united under the heading of ‘social justice.’ Third, critical theory is a worldview. It’s a comprehensive narrative, a way to see all of reality. It has many good points, which we should acknowledge. It’s trying to address real issues of injustice and inequality that Christians should care about. However, it also has a number of problems. In particular, from a Christian perspective, critical theory undermines the basic message of the gospel. Christianity insists that our fundamental problem is sin and that Jesus offers us the only solution. In contrast, critical theory insists that our fundamental problem is oppression, and that activism is the solution. Consequently, while Christians can use critical theory as a tool, they cannot and must not embrace it as a worldview.
If you’re curious about other areas of potential conflict between Christianity and critical theory or would like to know how Christians should think about social justice, I’ll be back next week to talk about those topics. Thank you!