Sometimes patient listening and genuine dialogue can really pay off. Over the past several months I have been interacting with some conservative, evangelical, and charismatic Christians who are very concerned about and even opposed to Critical Race Theory (CRT). I am writing in CRT in my academic work and I am Christian minister who employs CRT so I have been more than perplexed by the outrage and defensiveness of my fellow Christians who are just not open to dealing with issues of race in any meaningful way.
I have asked lots of questions and some patterns have emerged that have helped me figure out what that problem seems to be. It turns out that it is a two-headed monster.
First, they are not actually reading Critical Race. They are reading critiques of critical race from non-practitioners such as famous pastors or authors in other fields.
Second, they are not reading Christian authors who deal with race. They are reading only DiAngelo’s ‘White Fragility’ (or summaries of it) and Kendi’s ‘How to be Anti-Racist’ (or critiques of it).
This makes so much sense why they are so upset! They are not actually reading or listening to Critical Race or Christians who write on race. I see that now. I have said before, I am totally fine if people don’t want to read academic works in CRT … but they are not even reading accessible popular level stuff like Randy Woodley, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong Chan-Rah, Christena Cleveland, Michael Eric Dyson, Drew Hart, Willie Jennings.
This is the problem of not reading on race but only listening to criticisms of it.
There are actually several types of this:
Those who do not read Critical Race but listen to critiques of by famous pastors or authors in other fields.
Those who only know DiAngelo and Kendi and don’t read Christian authors on race.
Those who actually read CRT but as critics and not as practitioners.
Those we actually engage Critical Race research in order to employ it in their ministry and work.
It all makes so much sense now! I had been baffled by the reactionary, simplistic, and erroneous accusations and scare-tactics. It has been fascinating to see some really predictable patterns emerge:
CRT is a competing worldview (or salvation) and so it is anti-Christ and not only should we not listen to it but it will lead astray from the truth.
CRT is Marxist – though no one has shown me a single practitioner who employs Marx.
CRT bears bad fruit like family tensions, conflict in congregations, and social strife.
The Bible (and usually Galatians 3:28) is quoted as saying we should not be focused on Race because Jesus ____ . Not realizing that the ancient (pre-modern) conception of race is entirely different from our contemporary concern or that those passages don’t mean that there is no such thing as race but that the power of the gospel ruptures our categorization and man-made ways of grouping people. I actually use Galatians 3:28 in my critical race scholarship!
CRT pits people and groups in adversarial tension with one group oppressing the other group. And yes – that is the ‘theory’ of history in critical race theory. It would be called a negative dialect by those who use such language.
It is clear to me who the objections by fellow Christians to Critical Race research is so predictable and so sophomoric: they are not actually reading Critical Race and the few who do are reading it as outsiders trying to poke holes in it! This also explains why my first video about all of this ‘Why Evangelicals Can Not Do Critical Race’ hit so close to home and why the evangelicals have no one to put forward who employs critical race in their work!
So I have a 3-fold proposal:
Put down the DiAngelo and Kendi and read your fellow Christians talk about race.
Don’t read non-practitioner’s critiques before you read some actual CRT.
Tell us who you are reading when make a claim (like Marxism) – name the actual practitioner who is doing this.
If you have time to read about Critical Race than you have time to read some actual work of Critical Race. If you don’t want to do that (and I totally understand that) then you at least need to be reading Christian authors dealing with race.
 I will add Austin Channing Brown because I hear so many powerful things about her writing and work.
Listening to your critics or to those with whom you disagree can (at times) be very helpful and eye-opening if you give it long enough and don’t get defensive.
I have been taking in the current concern about CRT for the last couple of months to try and understand the real fear behind the public outrage by conservative Christians. You have to wade through some very distracting and disturbing inflammatory rhetoric at first but once you get past that you find several interesting areas of confusion.
Hammer & Nail Thinking
So after listening, reading, and interacting for the last couple of months here are the biggest objections to integrating CRT with Christianity. On a side note, I have figured out that anything is a good excuse if you don’t want to do something.
One issue is that most (86%) of the outrage is actually about overzealous Identity Politics and not CRT. Opponents of our current focus on racial matters or those who are defensive about whiteness tend to conflate Identity Politics and CRT because they have not taken the time to understand the difference.
The Bible is Used as a Barrier.
Based on things that are contrary to scripture. We can’t believe this because 1 Cor 6:15 says X. I have a dozen examples of this kind of thinking but John 8:34 was recently brought up, that Jesus says we are all slaves to sin so CRT can’t be right because it starts with the premise that some are oppressed and some are oppressors. This is an actual objection from just this week. It’s so easy to reconcile this! Yes we are slaves to sin that is why we participate in systems of oppression and we are oppressed. Those two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one might argue that one is the root of the problem and the other is a fruit or expression of that same systemic issue.
A Competing Worldview.
Christian critics of CRT think that there is a Christian ‘worldview’ and thus any competing ideology or truth-claim or overarching explanation of reality (meta-narrative) must not just be refused but resisted and even attacked. The problem of course is that once you take on this combative and adversarial mentality you tend to project it and create ‘worldviews’ out of approaches or systems of thought that are hardly cohesive or holistic worldviews. CRT is not a worldview, it is an analytic tool to address the disparity and injustice built into the system that these Christian critics are desperate to defend.
CRT makes race everything.
See everything as race. Sees race everywhere. This is a classic Hammer & Nail problem. See racism where it isn’t. They actually create the problem.
But this is where intersectionality comes in.
The biggest sticking points seems to be the binary that can be found in DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi that you are racist or anti-racist and that if you think you are not racist then you are really racist. Most people that have their hackles up against CRT are actually mad about overzealous Identity Politics or the binary approach of DiAngelo and Kendi. I actually think that if we could bracket these three things out we could have a very different conversation. I want to start asking people, “who are you working off of here?” because the vast majority of things that the outrage is focused at isn’t even CRT specifically but just a binary approach to Identity Politics.
I want to ask: who ELSE are you reading? Tell me who you are working off of.
You can read a lot of CRT and never encounter Marx. In fact I never have. In the history of Critical Theory you might but CRT has a different starting point. Its concern is legal, financial, issues of education, and other concrete consequences of the historical past that manifest in in our contemporary society.
I want to ask: Tell me who you are reading … what Critical Race Theorist? Please show me.
Tim Keller utilized this language but it is an odd thing for a Christian to say.
Let me know your thoughts, concerns, questions, or ongoing issues to address in future posts.
Not everyone is thrilled about the presence and work of Critical Theory and specifically Critical Race Theory. And I get it. I have said many times that CRT is not for everyone.
Having said that, it is important to distinguish between two very different groups who are concerned about CRT. The first is people who actually understand Critical Race Theory and have a fundamental or philosophical objection to it. The second group is people who don’t really know what it is, or have not taken the time to look into it, but take exception to its posture or tone on a surface level.
I think that both groups have a legitimate gripe – but they are very different from each other and so I want to look at their actually concerns. I have talked before about The Beauty of Critical Theory, the Upside of Critical Theory, and how it is our salvation from bad religion. Today I want to look at the concerns about Critical Theory.
The first group actually knows what CRT is and is up to and objects to the foundational premise that bases its address in oppression. Critics bemoan that initial division between oppressed and oppressor and say, “Why would begin there? What a terrible place to start. You will divide people up in hurtful ways and you make primary someone’s group identity as a victim when that only feeds their feeling of victimization and marginalization.” It seems to this educated group that you will never build anything healthy or helpful for prioritizing and highlighting someone or a groups disadvantage and alienation. That is not a constructive way to proceed to these critics and they argue that it will never deliver you to a place of empowerment or productivity if you are perpetually deconstructing the very systems or institutions that you feel excluded from or want to participate in. ‘Playing the victim card’ is a bad hand and will never help you win the game.
That is a legitimate concern. Participating in the ‘Oppression Olympics’ is a recipe for continued victim mentality and ongoing marginalization. The mentality behind CRT is feeding yourself on the negative according to these studied critics. If you want a better life, to improve your community, and to have a seat at the table there are better ways to do that than focusing on the deficit and highlighting the deficiencies of the system.
Which brings us to the second group of critics: those who just don’t like the tone and posture. This popular, and growing, concern is with the general mentality or big-picture approach of CRT. This group doesn’t really understand Critical Theory but just doesn’t like its attitude. “Are things perfect? No. But are they getting better? Yes. So let’s focus on that and continue to progress together instead of causing more division and animosity.”
These less-knowledgeable opponents have a core objection to Critical Theory’s obsession with rummaging through the past to find injustice and even atrocities. They see history as “a long arc that bends toward justice”. They love the hallmark version of MLK and fundamentally object to viewing history as a problem and a limitation. We can’t, they argue, “go back and fix the past now – so let’s just move on and make things better now.”
This is a legitimate concern because Critical Theory really does begin with the conviction that something is deeply wrong and a problem to be addressed. It is not fun or cheery or optimistic. It is critical and pessimistic in its tone and posture. One of its founding members, Walter Benjamin, viewed history as an accumulating series of atrocities that piled up at the feet of the Angel of History who was facing backward trying desperately to resist the accumulating pile of these catastrophic events which Critical Theory then sorts through in order to account for, catalogue, and attend to their consequences. This is not a fun way to look at the past and it is not a cheery way to talk about how we got here or where we have arrived at.
Now, having said that, there is an important distinction to be made at this point: those who don’t like Critical Theory also have a pre-existing condition of being generally against Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), liberals in general, poor-me-ism, playing the victim, snowflake culture and ‘every kid gets a participation trophy’ in general. I became very aware of this cynicism in 2015 and 2016 as I got to travel the country and speak with different audiences. There was an across-the-board general sense of disdain for those on ‘the other’ side of the aisle.
So I just wanted to acknowledge that there is an actual disagreement about Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory. It is not just a matter of educating the masses or listening to the other-sides’ perspective. These are fundamental differences about foundational assumptions. Not all of Critical Theory’s critics can articulate what CRT actually wants and may not even be open to hear what its practioners are saying.
They reject the premise outright and object out-of-hand to the presumptions and assumptions that Critical Theory is based on. They refuse to concede the initial point of viewing some groups as oppressed and blaming the oppressors. They take exception to both its goals and its initial starting point and I get that. I always begin by saying that Critical Theory is not for everyone. I don’t think that everyone should do it or that it should be the predominate view.
Here is an computer analogy that might help. Critical Theory is not an operating system that can run the whole machine. It is a diagnostic tool – like a program that looks for viruses and debugs the system. It is not the game it is a referee. it is an internal affairs task-force that is looking for corruption. It is not the business or the bank, it is an auditor. If you are expecting it be the whole thing then you have misunderstood what it is up to. But by the same token, its critics and despisers are like a King who objects to the presence of the Jester in the court. That is the entire point of the Jester – to mock, to point out inconsistencies, to level the playing field, and to expose the ridiculous elephant in the room and to help people see that the King has no clothes on! Is it objectionable? Sure. Is it uncomfortable? Absolutely. Is it needed? Yes.
So when critics object and try to defend the status quo and tell Critical Theorist to back off, get in line, knock it off, and settle down – they are doing exactly what you would expect from people who benefit from the system as it is currently configured and who profit from the as-is nature of the structures and institutions as they currently exist. All they are saying is that, “I don’t like when you name the dysfunction, expose the hidden assumptions, point out the inconsistency of my behaviors, doubt my motives, and call into question my underlying values or priorities. It makes me uncomfortable and even angry.”
That, however, is exactly the point of Critical Theory – to make visible the invisible … or as Critical Theory refers to: ideology. The goal of Critical Theory is 3-fold: to examine, to expose, and to advocate for change. The point of Critical Theory, after all, is not just to explain the world but change it toward a more equitable, just, and beneficial system for those who have been historically marginalized and disadvantaged. It makes total sense why those in the King’s court would object to that. Resisting the agenda of Critical Theory is a no-brainer as they say.
This is a fantastic question. I would like to submit that there are 3 major benefits of CT
It breathes new life into a root bound plant.
It levels the playing field.
It reflects the methods and the model of Jesus.
It breathes new life into a root-bound plant.
Not everyone has been a part of a community, congregation, organization, or institutions that they really loved. If you have been a part of a collective endeavor that meant a lot to you, you will probably know that over time things can become a little too insular or set in their ways or self-referential or internally focused. Unfortunately, this is all to common.
Even significant movements can stagnate, codify, and begin to fall into the rut of maintenance mode. It happens to the best of them. Some (or most) of the energy that once went toward out toward the ‘mission’ or the ‘out-reach’ slowly shifts and becomes about preserving what we already have (or once were) and maintained the administrative or bureaucratic apparatus.
When structures begin to become too limited in their scope, or they leave behind their original passion or vision, it can be like a plant – to use an analogy – that has been left in the same pot for too long. The roots can not expand and begin to grow around upon themselves and the unhealth known as being ‘root-bound’ can happen over time.
Loving the institution, at that point, is being daring enough to undergo the arduous process of pulling the plant out of its pot and pressing your fingers or an instrument into the roots to break them apart and create some space of new life and growth.
This is why the ‘tool-box’or critical theory can actually be a good thing for organizations, C(niche) or too self-referential, exposing ideas that have become taken for granted, challenging systems, bylaws, protocols, regulations, committees and boards that insulated from review or accountability – critical examination can help loosen that which is bound by tradition, set in its ways, or insulated by power and influence.
Loving something means not giving up on it and just walking away sometimes. Doing the hard work critical analysis (or decolonizing perhaps) is a labor of love.
It levels the playing field.
Critical theory (and specifically critical race theory) can be great ways of examining issues related to access, recruitment, training, funding, and empowerment (to name a few). Critical theory is an approach that that brings many tools to a project. The goals are to examine, expose, and advocate – to change, not just explain, an area of need.
Those who practice critical theory have a loose collection of commitments and general set of approaches that roughly configure them as an ‘approach’. Critical theory isn’t so much a ‘thing’ as it is a specific commitment to address a ‘thing’. It has a asymmetrical relationship to power: It wants the power to investigate the power – and will shout, claw, and demonstrate in order to do so.
We all see the disparity and inequality that manifests in our culture historically and currently threatens to pull apart our society. Critical theory starts will the realization (or conviction) that something is wrong with that level of disparity and inequality. Critical theory is concerned about the marginalized, the oppressed, and the left-behinds – the unheard, the under-represented, and the taken-for-granted.
Critical theory wants know the rules of the game, ask who wrote the rule book, interview those that uphold and reinforce the rules, examine the bank statements of those that profit from the game, explore possible bias (or preference) by those who facilitate the game, interrogate those who seeks to exploit the game, expose unjust practices and policies within the game, and advocate for change to benefit those who actually play the game.
One of the ways that CT does this is to expose ideology – that is: mental frameworks that are so entrenched and assumed that someone who holds them and acts on them may not even know that they are there or be able to articulate or explain them. Ideologies can manifest as beliefs, values, convictions, ideas, opinions, attitudes, rhetoric, prejudices, priorities, rules, laws, standards, regulations, moral codes (spoken or unspoken), motivations, practices, disciplines, rituals, ceremonies, polls, surveys, censuses, political activity, economic policies, legal matters, hiring practices, advertisements, financial investments, beauty standards, sexual permissions and so many other manifestations and expressions.
Ask yourself: What I am not allowed to question? What would I get in trouble of asking? What would my community get angry about if I told our critics?
This will tease out the first thread of ideology. Is the fear that if you pull too hard on this thread that the whole thing unravel?
It reflects the methods and the model of Jesus.
Jesus both modeled and employed methods that would be very familiar to those who employ critical theory. As Randy and I say in our recent book [Decolonizing Evangelicalism]Jesus could be seen as doing a proto version of deconstruction. In both his teachings and his use of parables, Jesus models ‘asking the question behind the question’. Where did you hear that? What is their authority? Why do you think things are the way they are? Do you think that is the way that God wants them? Why do you think that person is your enemy? Can the ring of inclusion be expanded? What really ails you?
Jesus challenged the status quo. He interrogated the ‘as is’ nature of society and its institutions. He advocated for those were disadvantaged, neglected, marginalized, and discriminated against. Jesus exposed performative religion, calling out the motivations behind the posturing and practices of the temple system. He even demonstrated against injustice with violent force.
Admittedly, Reading the Gospels through a capitalist lens neutralizes much of this emphasis and gives us a much more sanitized and sterilized version of Jesus. That is why it is important to read decolonial perspectives because the gospels read very differently on the underside of history then they do when one is high in the hog– as they say. The Jesus of empire lacks most of this prophetic witness and critical impulse. That version of Jesus is much more therapeutic then messianic. A postcolonial or anti-imperial reading however highlights the proto critical theory modeled in the life, teaching, in ministry of Jesus.
Those are three of the benefits that a critical theory approach can bring to Christianity: it breathes new life into a root bound plant, it levels the playing field, it reflects the methods and the model of Jesus.
If you are interested in this topic, please check out my other posts:
There were clear themes to the feedback in all 4 issues that I raised and to the thesis I proposed that Evangelicalism has become a set of conclusions.
Individualism: Why does it have to be an either/or issue. I am excited about this consensus. However, if you view of personal sin keeps you from addressing larger issues of systemic racism and structural injustice then it is a barrier.
Scholarship: I am thrilled that there are some PhD students and new faculty hires who engage in Critical Race Theory. I just hope that their insights will be received by the institutions when it comes to hiring practices and funding issues.
Marxism: It turns out the ‘cultural marxism’ is not just a boogeyman but a red herring. My suspicion is the it more about Foucault then about Marx. (Yes Foucault was a marxist for time). It is the legacy of discourse analysis and the genealogy of power that has disseminated into our entire culture in the 21st century.
Diversity: There was wide acknowledgement both of evangelicalism’s racial diversity (a good thing) and that it hides behind this diversity to not deal with other issues of justice such as LGBTQ inclusion and (for us more specifically) Critical Race Theory (CRT) in issues related to recruitment, funding, empowerment, and training.
Evangelicalism: Those who did not like my thesis that evangelicalism has become nothing more than a set of conclusions (or a constellation of convictions) could not provided a better definition of contemporary evangelicalism in N. America. My assertion that is has migrated to become a bounded set with heavily policed boundaries may not be a generous or broad as some may desire but until someone points to a clearer framework for understanding the changes in the evangelical movement over the past 50-70 years then my assertion has merit for consideration.
Let know your thought and we will keep the conversation going.
In the past several months, with the George Floyd protest and Black Lives Matter movement, many people have recently discovered Robin DiAngelo’s book ‘White Fragility’ and propelled it to the top of the both the New York Times and Amazon best seller’s list.
This is a wonderful first step for many white people to begin the journey of their whiteness education and to address the centering of white normalcy.
Now, it is inevitable that initial adrenaline rush doesn’t last and that some serious criticism of her work has come to the surface in past couple of months.
Some are concerned that her experience and her expertise are in a corporate context where people are paid (and maybe required) to attend her workshops (where she is paid) and while she may be an expert in this one highly-regulated environment, that is not how race-relations look out in the real world or on the street.
This is the ‘meta’ of the moment: we no longer want to center white people’s perspectives and white ways of thinking or we recreate the very thing that we are hoping to work against.
Others point out that the phrase ‘white fragility’ was already in use before she claims to have ‘coined’ it. This is a real problem for a white person to both profit off of the work of a person of color and to not give credit is to ‘erase’ the individual or community and make them invisible.
Still others are concern that white people are attracted to her white way of framing and presenting the work and by reading her book (or attending her class) they will think that have done their work … but they have not done anything anti-racist yet that benefits communities of color.
A white person coming to terms with their own whiteness is a great first step but it does nothing for communities of color. That is where the anti-racist work begins so that the end is in trans- forming economically, politically, legally, regionally, socially, religiously, psychologically, and emotionally.
Some white people have gotten defensive or discouraged about this critiques of ‘white fragility’ but I want to submit to you that it is a good thing! This is productive direction to go. After DiAngelo it is time to read an author-of-color who may not say things in ways that you like to hear them or may frame the whole subject in a completely different light and it may be really uncomfortable.
This is the natural progression of becoming a white-ally. Fist, address your own white awareness and fragility, next listen to and learn from a thinker of color, third might be to then be in dialogue and activism (partner) with people of color, and then continue the anti-racist journey by advocating for and participating in organized actions.
White fragility can be a wonderful first step in move beyond it and leave it behind.
This is just the nature of this work. Let me give you two examples – one recent and one a little dated.
In 1988 Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper that has become so influential and so frequently referenced that its success is becoming a problem. McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” of White Privilege is so wide-spread and so elementary that you almost have to reference it in any address of whiteness just to show that you know what you are talking about. A recent academic review said it this way:
In her review of the broader field of whiteness studies, McWhorter (2005) observes that “no thorough over- view of Whiteness Studies ever omits reference to Peggy McIntosh’s article” (p. 545). 
Don’t get me wrong – McIntosh’s list of 46 assumed privileges was (and is) an amazingly helpful lens through which to see issues of assumed white normalcy and to come to terms with their implications. It’s just, as the article points out, not enough to come to terms with one’s own whiteness … one must then utilize that new platform to begin to address issues of systemic racism, class privilege, and discrimination of every kind.
It’s not that McIntosh is bad (she was and is great), but it cannot be the be-all and end-all of that conversation. SO much more is needed. If you have read the ‘Invisible Knapsack’ article in the past 32 years, then well done! Keep going – there is so much more to be learned and to be done.
In the same vein, there is a famous quote from the 1960’s that originated in the boxing world but has been applied in so many other areas of life: the reporter Jimmy Cannon famously said of Joe Louis that “heis acredit to his race, the human race“.
This compliment, at the time, would have resonance because it brought similarity and identification but would soon be out of date because it is based in erasure of difference. Soon people would ask, ‘oh you can only see the virtue in him because is like you? Why not acknowledge his blackness and difference?’
This is how whiteness work goes. There are initial steps that then have to transcended and even transgressed in order to move on to real anti-racist work. It is a scaffolding that begins a project but then must be dis-assembled to create a structure that we can live in.
It is the natural and good progression. Myself, for instance, I want to be a gateway drug. I hope these videos and even the Whiteness Workshop to be starting point that you soon leave behind. In my podcast and book with Randy Woodley I hope to model constructive discourse but ultimately be a stepping-stool that helps you along the way.
McIntosh as Synecdoche: How Teacher Education’s Focus on White Privilege Undermines Antiracism – Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective