Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible? – Part 6

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.

Number one, we need to acknowledge and fight racism. Let me speak plainly. Many 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 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 race and racism in the U.S. I’m not going to talk about theoretical models. I’m going to talk about history and 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, lynching. Listen to this description of the lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert: “The lynching … was planned for … a Sunday afternoon after church so a larger crowd could gather. The murderers strategically chose their location for maximum intimidation of the black populace…. More than a thousand people showed up to gawk at the lynching of Luther and Mary Holbert. The lynchers tied up the Holberts and commenced with ‘the most fiendish tortures.’ First, the white murderers cut off each of the fingers and toes of their victims and gave them out as souvenirs. Then they beat the bodies of Luther and Mary so mercilessly that one of Luther Holbert’s eyes dangled from its socket… ‘The most excruciating form of punishment consisted in the use of a large corkscrew in the hands of some of the mob. This instrument was bored into the flesh of the man and woman, in the arms, legs, and body, and then pulled out.’… They burned Mary first, so Luther could see his beloved killed. Then they burned him…Woods Eastland, who led the mob that lynched the Holberts, did face charges in the murders, but his acquittal was a foregone conclusion. After the all-white jury found him innocent, Eastland hosted a party on his plantation to celebrate.” (Tisby, Color of Compromise, p. 107-108)

According to the Tuskegee institute, 3446 blacks and 1297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968.


Here’s a picture of the aftermath of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, in which a group of white businessmen instituted a violent coup d’etat to overthrow the local Fusionist government and reestablish white control of the city. They burned down the office of the black newspaper The Daily Record and forced the city’s Republican governor and aldermen to resign at gunpoint.


Here’s a picture from the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Dozens and possibly hundreds of people were killed, most of them black. White mobs burned down 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District which had been known as Black Wall Street and was the wealthiest black community in the nation. It’s estimated that 10,000 blacks were left homeless.

Now, why do I mention all of this? Isn’t it all in the past? Why dredge up all this ancient history?


Next picture. Do you know who that is? On the left is Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old who received death threats and had to have U.S. marshalls escort her to and from her home when she integrated her all-white elementary school in New Orleans. On the right is Ruby Bridges today. She’s 65.

This is not all ancient history, folks. Dr. Eric Mason tells a story about his own father, who was falsely accused of stealing from the dry cleaner’s where he worked. A group of white men dragged him from his house and beat him so badly that his mother (Mason’s grandmother) couldn’t recognize him. Mason heard this story growing up. In his book, he reflects on this episode in his book Woke Church and writes the following: “These and other experiences colored how I was raised to deal with whites, whether Christian or not. Just as my father’s experiences impacted my perceptions about race, so my perceptions will mark those of my three sons… This is how it works. One generation’s pain and fears are passed on to the next… It doesn’t mean that we must repeat the sins of racism and bigotry of the past, but it does mean that they impact us in some way.”

Listen, let me be honest. I know that some of us get nervous when people start talking about the U.S.’s sordid racial history. We worry, sometimes rightly, that people are trying to manipulate us. But if that fear is preventing us from even talking about race or history at all, we need to get over it. I’m not saying any of this to argue that you need to repent because you’re white. That’s not how repentance works in the Bible. This is about learning to understand and empathize; it’s not about assigning guilt or coercing behavior.

But what about today? Are racism and racial discrimination entirely behind us? Are they both things of the past? No. Let’s look at the data from job interviews.

Consider 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.


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.

What about personal attitudes? Things have gotten better, no question. But in 2013, according to a Gallup poll, 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.

A different 2016 survey from the Pew research center similarly found that things have improved, but that 14% of non-blacks would not approve of a relative marrying a black person.

Another poll from 2018, showed that 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, Pakistani friends, Turkish friends. 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.

Second: 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? No! Racial groups, gender groups, and economic classes are not monoliths. People are individuals with their own ideas. Just because the authors you read are multi-colored, doesn’t mean 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. If everyone you’re reading says exactly the same thing, you’ll never be forced to think critically.

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.

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: Part V – Critical Theory in the Church

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