In part one of our series on Critical Race Theory (CRT), I discussed how Christians often wrongly frame questions around CRT as an all-or-nothing proposition. In part two, I pointed out ways critical race theorists help us understand the history of racism in America and the role Christians have played. That’s where I want to pick up—let’s examine and evaluate the claims of a few critical race theorists. It bears repeating that CRT is a diverse field, and not everyone in the field makes these claims.
Generally speaking, critical studies proceed through three steps. Step one is to gather facts, step two is to draw conclusions based on those facts, and step three is to propose or implement solutions. From what I’ve read by critical race theorists, my confidence in their work generally diminishes with each step. Let’s look at two conclusions reached by critical race theorists:
Conclusion Number One: Christianity Invented Racism
The critical theorist looks at the history of America and sees Christians responsible for racism at every step. At one level, I do not dispute that. The racism in our history as Christians is to our deep shame. Acts of racism by Christians lie about the character of the God we serve. However, while we agree that Christians have been responsible for acts of racism, it is too far to say that Christianity invented racism, or even the American version of it. Critical race theorist Rebecca Anne Goetz argues as much in her celebrated book, The Baptism of Early Virginia (1).
I disagree with her, but I can see how she got there. If someone views religion as a sociological phenomena, it makes sense that if Christians are consistently involved in racism in history, they might be responsible. Rather than reflexibly object and call the claim ridiculous, as Christians on social media are wont to do, why not sit with the claim to see if it has any merit at all? Have Christians been responsible for racism? Sadly, yes. Solely responsible? No. But if the world thinks that way, it is important for our witness to have an answer to that claim, and we need a better answer than falsely claiming we have been right all along.
Conclusion Number Two: Racism is Permanent
Critical race theorist Derrick Bell looks at the way the South organized after losing the Civil War to disenfranchise black people. He provides penetrating insight into the American psyche and offers compelling examples of how racism persists throughout history. I cannot disagree with him up to this point, and I would do well to consider these facts that make me uncomfortable about my country. But he draws the conclusion from this set of facts that racism is a permanent fact of history which cannot be changed given the power structures that exist. All apparent advancements against structural racism are a sham (2).
As a Christian, I have to disagree with that conclusion. Jesus reigns. All authority in heaven or on earth has been given to him (Matthew 28:19). It has been this hope which has kept so many in the black church working to fight racism for so many years, and God has blessed those efforts. Because the Lord reigns, racism is not inevitable. Perfect justice will be established forever when our King returns, but God’s people have always been those who dare to hope in justice now.
The final step for critical race theorists is determining what should be done about racism. If racism is Christianity’s invention and if racism is permanent according to the power structures which enable it, as these two scholars posit, then the solution to racism is to tear down the existing power structures which have created a racist society. That means Christianity has to go. So-called traditional values have to go. The deeper you go, the more that has to come down. This kind of thinking has become so mainstream that a US governmental agency recently suggested that monotheism and the “Protestant work ethic” create racist social norms.
We could be reflexively outraged. Many Christians were. But it is better to take the time to see how this view developed in scholarship. It came about through a set of facts we agree on—that Christians, particularly ones who claimed to be Bible-believing, perpetuated racism for years. It is too simplistic to claim that these were the only ones perpetuating racism, but the fact that others were doing it does not absolve the people of faith.
We need answers for how Christians were so often so wrong on race. We need to come up with solutions for racism rather than leaving that work to those who believe that our very faith is responsible for the problems we face. And we need the humility—as those who have grown up within those tribes—to acknowledge that we might have persisting blind spots. In terms of engagement with critical race theorists and their field, that humility will be the subject of the final post in this series.
- (1) Her examination of conversion & baptism laws vis a vis slavery in early America is as meticulous as it is depressing. She concludes with this analysis: “This story is one of transformation, from an early seventeenth-century understanding of Christianity that stressed its universality to a mid-eighteenth-century understanding that stressed its exclusivity…English people struggled to explain the differences they observed between themselves and Africans and Indians, and they saw religion as a way of articulating and explaining those differences. The qualities they assigned to themselves as Christians, as well as the rights and freedoms they believed derived from their Christianity divided them from Indians and Africans.” Rebecca Anne Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 169-170
- (2) “We rise and fall less as a result of our efforts than in response to the needs of a white society that condemns all blacks to quasi citizenship as surely as it segregated our parents and enslaved their forebears. The fact is that, despite what we designate as progress wrought through struggle over many generations, we remain what we were in the beginning: a dark and foreign presence, always the designated ‘other.’ Tolerated in good times, despised when things go wrong, as a people we are scapegoat and sacrificed as distraction or catalyst for compromise to facilitate resolution of political differences or relieve economic adversity.” Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well. (New York: Hachette Book Group, 1992), 12-13.
- Lament so much racism by Christians that lends credence to these faulty conclusions.
- Pray that God purge his church of all ethnic partiality.
- Pray that Christians would be interested in pursuing good solutions to racism rather than just decrying solutions we disagree with.