Critical Race Theory is much under discussion these days. My first exposure to critical theory was in literary criticism and classical studies a few decades ago. I’ve seen it applied in a host of other areas since, and to my eye, critical theory in general suffers from fatal flaws common to all its applications. It flatters us with a series of comforting lies: that our problem is smaller than it really is, that the solution is shallower than it really needs to be, that our human group identities are bigger and more important than the claims of Christ on us. In more detail:
- The lie that our problem is limited to oppression. Critical theory rests on an inadequate hamartiology in which the only sin of interest is oppression. Relatively few critical theorists would go so far as to claim that the oppressed can do no wrong or that oppression is the only sin, but in critical theory the sins of the oppressed are of no interest, and in practice, un-addressable. As against this, Scripture teaches us not to show partiality either against the poor (Ex. 23:6) or for the poor (Ex. 23:3) in judgment. Paul gives instructions to both masters (Eph. 6:9) and slaves (Eph. 6:5-8). In Scripture, everyone’s sins should be repented of, and there are no rules about just preaching to your own class (however defined). Paul didn’t tell Titus to “stay in his lane” because Cretan foibles are the product of a unique cultural situation, and he’d better let a Cretan preacher address it. No, he said “rebuke them sharply.”
- The lie that the solution is simply a matter of social engineering. Critical theory rests on an inadequate soteriology in which liberation from oppression will solve our social ills. It has this in common with the rest of Marx’s ideological offspring; it’s one of the basic errors that marks Marxism as a Christian heresy. It locates evil primarily in the social system, and posits that if we fix the system, the people will be ok. We know that the problem runs much deeper than that. Evil is located in the people and instantiated in the systems we build, which means that there is no “system so perfect that no one will need to be good” (to borrow Eliot’s phrase). For us, an unjust system should be critiqued and reformed, but even a perfect system — could we build such a thing — will not solve the root problem. There is no way out but following Jesus. Jesus-followers in a less-just system will still seek (and find) ways to do justice; carnal men in a more-just system will still seek (and find) ways to weaponize the system to unjust advantage. This point doesn’t de-prioritize reforming an unjust system, but it does mean that a Christian’s priorities will be different from a critical theorist’s.
- The lie that our human group identities are the most important thing about us. Critical theory rests on an inadequate anthropology in which our various class memberships are given more practical importance than our common identity as created by God and redeemed into one family in Christ. The biblical answer to oppression is to emphasize creation and new creation at the expense of our other group memberships. “These are My mother and My brothers,” Jesus said, thereby subverting the power of clan membership. Paul did the same with Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. Paul exemplifies this approach again when he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave, but as a brother. (And set an example for us all by addressing this particular situation at his own expense).
All of the above doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from the insights of critical theorists about how oppression has played out between particular classes at particular times and places. All truth is God’s, and we should never be afraid to learn our history. I learned about the history of red-lining from a critical theorist — like they say, the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. I am not saying that critical theorists have nothing to offer; whatever the flaws of their ideology, they are bringing neglected history to light. That’s a hard, good thing. We owe them a debt for doing that hard work.
At the same time, critical theory, as such, is a (post-)Christian heresy, and I don’t use that word lightly. It flatters us with a shallow appraisal of our sin and a weak prescription for redemption. As we are gleaning insights from critical theorists, we have to be sure to correct for ideological corruption as we go.