“Critical Race Theory” and Its Dissidents
Given the continued protests and social unrest over structural racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many American Christians have found themselves intensely grappling with the issue. In my own Anglican context, it has become a controversial topic as critiques like “Can the Christian Use Critical Theory” by Fr. Matt Kennedy and “Race and Redemption” by Fr. Gerry McDermott have been published in response to a statement on anti-racism put out by some clergy in the Anglican Church in North America. Frs. Kennedy and McDermott contend that the use of “critical race theory” as a methodology is functionally irredeemable. For example, Fr. Kennedy asserts, “CRT does not add anything of substance to a purely biblical analysis using biblical categories and language.” Fr. McDermott questions “the mainstream media’s account” of race, citing affirmative-action programs as evidence of inclusion and equality. He then accuses church leaders of using “old creation” perspectives that divide people by skin color,” which has ultimately led to Mainline Protestantism’s decline in numbers. Anti-racism, he contends, creates a new religion that mimics Christianity but lacks any framework for redemption. Without grace, talk of race is reduced to “sinful judgment” that “imputes motives to others based on skin color.” Accordingly, Fr. McDermott opposes a “replacement theology” where the Church’s theology of forgiveness is replaced by a secular atonement narrative.
My aim is to provide a rejoinder to Fr. Kennedy and Fr. McDermott. I am certainly not a “critical race theorist,” nor do I advocate the wholesale embrace of any particular organization or of “critical race theory.” I’ve even previously written about how purely activist iterations of Christianity in the Mainline context are Pelagian, and I have been fairly critical of Dr. James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology. That said, I propose that Fr. Kennedy and Fr. McDermott do not adequately argue against what they call “critical race theory.”
The first problem with their critiques is that “critical race theory” is not the monolithic entity it is often made out to be. Not only do voices like Cone’s not represent the entirety of the Black Church, but it would also be virtually impossible, for example, to think that his Black Liberation Theology could be compatible with other variations of “critical race theory” like the “Afropessimism” of a figure like Frank Wilderson. The two might share similar starting points, but treating them as the same would be a fallacy of equivocation. Further, Fr. Kennedy frequently identifies Marxism as the starting point for critical race theory as a means of discrediting it. The role of Marxist analysis within the world of critical race theory, however, is debated. This is clear in Edward P. Antonio’s analysis of the debate between B. Moore and Sebidi about whether the dynamics of South African conflict should be discussed through a lens of class struggle or racialized ideology. Further, Fr. Kennedy’s use of the Marxist label is a genetic fallacy: the fact that certain ideas and grammars may be genealogically connected to Marx does not automatically discredit them. For example, most conservative Christians would appreciate the contribution of Neil Postman’s book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, which employs some Marxist analysis. From a Christian perspective, while it is important to identify competing metaphysical presuppositions, it would be impossible to say Marxist analysis is universally bad (even though we would certainly agree it is not all good). In God of the Oppressed, for example, I think we can affirm Cone’s positive citation of Marx on the social embeddedness of ideas, affirming a connection between economic and political power in socio-cultural definitions of truth. At the same time, I have criticized Cone’s work, such as The Black church and Marxism: what do they have to say to each other, in which he prescribes commingling the “old time religion” of his grandparents with Marxist critiques. In other words, it might be possible to affirm the sometimes insightful diagnoses of Marxism while his prognostication falls short from a Christian perspective. At this juncture, the question becomes whether examples like ACNA’s anti-racism statement is a capitulation to something irredeemable, or rather the baptism of insights which can be gleaned through “critical race theory.”
Contrary to what seems to be asserted by some in the conversation, Christianity is not hyper-individualistic. The person, after all, is always enmeshed in various social situations that work to form them into who they are. I am me because of where I was raised, how I was educated, who I’ve spent time with, and so forth. I do not wholly precede my environment, nor am I exclusively a product of it—I emerge from my participation in and engagement with various social structures.
If we take Christian anthropology seriously, we believe in universal, inherited original sin. Sin, then, permeates the atmosphere of the City of Man, which our carnal and natural selves help construct. The structures built by sinful individuals will inevitably bear their images. It would be naive and ahistorical, then, to assert that American institutions that perpetuated slavery, Jim Crow, and countless other cruelties could be purged with the stroke of a pen. The fact that activism is a kind of Pelagianism cuts both ways then. Approaches that emphasize only incremental progress in the face of urgent demands for transformation recapitulate and re-entrench the myths of modernity. The fact is, such structural analyses are hardly anathema to conservative Christianity: abortion perpetuates a culture of disposability, often aimed at minority communities, and the effects of the sexual revolution are common examples (and rightfully so) used to demonstrate the damage wrought by oppressive structures. Biblically, we see similar rhetoric used in the depiction of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), a project remarkably similar to that of modernity, which warrants collective punishment.
Likewise, collective social injustice is one of the three major sins for which the Israelites were constantly chastened by their prophets (cf. Isa 1:16-31; Jer 22:3; Amos 5:11-15). The question is not whether structures of Sin and violence exist; they certainly do. The question is how an individual who inhabits them should orient themselves in relation to those structures. Perhaps this is why many reflexively react with the common objection “But I didn’t own slaves.” On one level, such retorts are fair—except that they function as red herrings. The goal of the Christian in this situation is not the litigation of individual white people’s culpability, 150+ years after the fact, so much as an interrogation into how we got here, into a world where police brutality, ghettoization, ecclesial segregation, and so forth are very real problems.
And here is where some of the tendencies in Fr. Kennedy and Fr. McDermott’s articles get closer to the truth by asking the question of redemption and grace. But, it should be noted, the question remains fraught and complex. That God is merciful and does not desire the death of a sinner (Ezek 18:23) is hardly up for debate. The question then becomes one of cheap grace and legalism. “Cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer defines in The Cost of Discipleship, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” To name one example, holding up largely ineffectual affirmative-action programs as proof that the problem of racism has been ameliorated is the way of cheap grace. On the other hand, legalism—which could be defined as the foreclosure of reconciliation—is a serious problem we see manifested in the unrelenting rise of cancel culture. The Christian must walk a narrow via media here: God’s mercy is new every morning (Lam 3:22-23), but it is in no way a means for self-justification, license, or presumption. Redemption—individual and collective—can not be devalued by easy answers or self-absolutions. Yet, as Cone notes in God of the Oppressed, too often the pattern is whites asking the question about reconciliation of blacks as an easy out. Part of any good confession is compunction, and that is precisely what seems lacking in this discussion.
In terms of fleshing out some of the practical implications of all this, I have very little to offer, except to say that the anti-racism statement signed by many ACNA clergy seems to be at least a step in the right direction. I would also commend the statement of the House of Bishops in the Anglican Province of America in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, “Notes Toward a Theology of Race” by Fr. Mark Perkins, and the ongoing work of Fr. Esau McCaulley.
However, one proposal I will put forward is that of a robust Christus Victor model of the Atonement. Singular “Atonement theories” are deficient and lack the explanatory power, in and of themselves, to fully express the mystery of Christ’s work. Scot McKnight advises us to think of the various theories as metaphors indwelt by God. Each metaphor is the facet of a gem that refracts light in a new way. All facets are essential and point us to a more complete picture of the truth. What we now call Christus Victor functions as a cosmic framework within which we can understand the story of Satisfaction.
The Christus Victor model allows us to see humanity both as a victim of and participant in Sin. We are ravaged by Sin so that we have deficiencies, but we are not passive because our nature is “inclined to evil” (Article IX). Racism, we can say, is a demonic tendril of Sin that functions on both social and individual levels. The work of analysis that relies on “critical race theory” is an exercise in hamartiology, an excavation of one aspect of the rather insidious human heart which is “wicked above all else” (Jer 17:9). Does this necessarily entail a wholesale agreement with everything to be found in the pages of works deemed “critical race theory” or Black Liberation Theology? Definitely not. However, it also does not mean stopping up one’s ears. It is important to listen, especially to Christians, who are contributing to the discussion.
The Christian tradition rarely provides us with easy answers. Rather, it cultivates in us a sacrificial love for the other, earnest self-examination, and a heart of repentance that prays for souls and for society. The Gospel is only sweet once the Law has crushed our self-righteousness and shocked us into the awareness of our human inadequacy. Have we, as members of the American Church, been properly astonished by our depravity? I don’t think so.
Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.