Critical Theory is closer to Jesus’ vision for the world than the Evangelicals are telling you
Truth isn’t an objective matter, contrary to what modernist Christians say
Temple University required students to take sociology classes on race and race relations, and I never came across the term “Critical Race Theory” until the Evangelical Christians that were offended by it brought it to my attention. Neil Shenvi is a spokesperson for the Gospel Coalition in his critiques, which I talk back to in this post. But even Tim Keller, an Evangelical church planter that has a better-than-average track record on race and race relations, has been critical of the theory. Tim Keller’s so-called biblical critique of the theory is that it views justice purely in terms of power. It’s one that Shenvi shares. Shenvi is not as generous toward social justice as Keller is, but their critiques are similar. Here’s a telling paragraph:
Reality is at bottom nothing but power. And if that is the case, then to see reality, power must be mapped through the means of “intersectionality.” The categories are race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity (and sometimes others). If you are white, male, straight, cisgender then you have the highest amount of power… Most importantly, each category toward the powerless end of the spectrum has a greater moral authority and a greater ability to see the way truly things are. Only powerlessness and oppression brings moral high ground and true knowledge. Therefore those with more privilege must not enter into any debate—they have no right or ability to advise the oppressed, blinded as they are by their social location. They simply must give up their power.
Now, my intention today isn’t to critique Keller’s haphazard argument, but you can find a brief critique of it here:
Rather, my intention is to showcase that though “critical theory,” has some ontological failings, it isn’t fundamentally flawed in how it views power in our society. For Keller and Shenvi, both of whom are modernists who think truth is a matter of objectivity and data, this idea that Keller succinctly lays out is deeply offensive, “Most importantly, each category toward the powerless end of the spectrum has a greater moral authority and a greater ability to see the way truly things are. Only powerlessness and oppression brings moral high ground and true knowledge.”
The difference between data and revelation
For them, the idea that the oppressed have greater moral authority and a greater ability to see the truth is wrong because morals and truth come from the Bible, mainly, which has a given objective interpretation. There, of course, is a bigger difference between data and revelation, however. And there is a lack of contextual awareness that they fail to apply, because they are seeing justice through a modernist lens. But we need to consider occasion when we are discerning the truth. Any reading of the Bible that doesn’t consider occasion or context is a misreading, in my view, and we need to exegete the culture as much as we do the text.
The Bible isn’t a static book, and it is written to and for real people, in real contexts. This is why I am comfortable interpreting the Bible contextually, and why I think all the theology that follows is contextual.
Jesus, a Cultural Marxist?
The writers of the Bible use power and status as a means for understanding the world. If Critical Theory considers power when it comes to justice, it isn’t far off from how the Bible considers it. Jesus most vividly states this in Matthew 25, when he says he is in the “least of these.” In this apocalyptic periscope, Jesus makes it plain that the God will judge those who do not care for the least among us—because Jesus is in those.
“‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”—Matthew 25:40
This passage is the foundation for the idea that God is closer to those who are oppressed, and those who are oppressed are closer to God. And so that is not a long way off from the so-called “Critical Theory” idea of “Only powerlessness and oppression brings moral high ground and true knowledge.”
In fact, as I reread that statement, it seems even more Christian than before. The Gospel is all about service and sacrifice. That’s why Jesus responds to the sons of Zebedee, who ask to sit by his side in the age to come, with this:
“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”—Matthew 20:25-28
Jesus says they will both drink from his cup, meaning they will both die. Christianity is a religion oriented in an upside-down power arrangement. Jesus saves us from death by dying. How do you inherit the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus is asked this question twice, and he responds by telling the Rich Young Ruler that he must divest of his worldly power and wealth, and he tells the Torah scholar in Luke by loving your neighbor and then proceeds to tell the most famous parable in Scripture, the Good Samaritan.
I’m citing the text here to showcase that the idea that God is with the oppressed, the least, and the marginalized is manifestly biblical.
Jesus subverts cultural norms by relating directly to women, for example. Paul erases the distinction between Jews and Greeks, slave and free. Throughout the Bible, there are warnings for people who collect power with military might and with wealth. God’s harshest rebuke of Israel comes from their unsavory alliances with foreign powers for military domination. Jesus warns rather plainly that wealth can rot your heart, in the Sermon on the Mount.
The power we have from the world is inherent, not intrinsic.
But these categories are not ontological. One isn’t simply oppressed or not. We are often both of these things, and if we don’t follow the Lord, we will become one invariably. “White, male, straight, cisgender” people are not fundamentally oppressive. That is to say, they aren’t inherently oppressive. You aren’t born an oppressor; you are born into a context that gives meaning to your body that you don’t. One of the lies we hear in our society is that our power is based on our merit, but even our socioeconomic status is largely given to us from birth. You are born into a class, too. Whiteness, maleness, straightness, cisness, and our socioeconomic status, have power in our society. They don’t have power from God, they have power from context. Likewise, oppressed groups don’t have power from birth, they have power from God because of their distance from earthly power. Because they are last, as Jesus would say. So the power that we have isn’t intrinsic, it is inherent.
That doesn’t make it holy however. The project at hand is not to simply exercise power over others and become the oppressors ourselves. In our society, because of how embedded these power structures are, it’s hard to imagine power ever changing hands. Black people have a history of oppression in the United States that the U.S. was indeed founded upon, and that a reversal of course, whether through revolution or gradualism, seems unlikely.
Power changing hands is not the vision of Jesus for the world
However, even a brief overview of history shows how power can change hands, and how the formerly “least of these,” who are close to God, can invest in worldly power and in fact distance themselves from God.
Here’s a telling passage from Holocaust survivor, Eli Wiesel’s Night:
"The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the men call again, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…”
God is with the oppressed. God is with the dead, the lynched, the hanged, the slaughtered. God is with the Jews in the Holocaust. But when Jewish people in Israel instituted apartheid over the Palestinians, they moved themselves from God, and the Palestinians found themselves to closer to God. If and when the Palestinians regain control over their region and oppress the Jews who live there, the tides will change again. This exchange of power is not the liberation and revelation that Jesus is bringing to the table.
What we are going for is more like what Jesus spoke about when he addressed the Torah scholar and the Rich Young Ruler—loving our neighbors and divesting our worldly power. For the people in power, that means doing our best to get rid of power not given to us by God, and by doing that, more closely relating to God. The more power we have, the more divestment and redistribution we need to engage in. We’re going for filled valleys and lowered hills, like Mary sings about in Luke 1. We’re going for redistribution of our wealth, not unlike the Church of Jerusalem in Acts 2. We need the "least of these" to lead us through it.
We are addicted to our worldly power, and God needs to help us get rid of it
Our recovery from our addiction to worldly power is going to take time and consciousness. Power that we get from our race and gender is like cursed treasure on an island. We can’t leave with it safely, it’ll sink our ship. But you know that’s hard, someone is gonna want to take a pocketful. But we can resist together. It’ll be painful, but good work. That’s what it means to take up our cross, that’s what it looks like to follow a Crucified God, and embody a cruciform witness. God divested of God’s power to the point of dying on the cross. It killed Jesus. It won’t kill us, because of Jesus, but it will hurt. Recovery always does.
The power we get from our bodies—that is to say not from God—is like the ring in Lord of the Rings. No one can wield it properly, and the only answer is to destroy it. If Jesus is Lord, if we have no king but Jesus, then we need to make sure that our bodily power isn’t actually the Lord of us. We need to rid ourselves of it and follow Jesus. Put down our worldly power and follow God. That’s a big ask, but the reward is bigger. The feast that will follow is wonderful and it’s for everyone.
In Circle of Hope, our movement toward this divestment is expressed in our Map. That’s why we are hiring an anti-racist consultant, why we’re rewriting our lore to reflect the movement toward anti-racism, why we’re elevating voices of color on our Leadership Team and listening to them, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and why we’re creating safe places for people of color and other vulnerable groups to relate. It’s a start, it’s not the end, but I think it will allow us to divest of our earthly power and move closer to God.