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Critical race theory doesn’t go far enough

Real power doesn’t always follow intersectional theories

Protesters march in Salt Lake City, Utah Associated Press/Photo by Rick Bowmer (file)

Critical race theory doesn’t go far enough

As Americans continue to debate critical race theory (CRT) and its place in our schools and our national self-understanding, the discussion in some Christian circles has turned to questions about possible similarities between a Reformed doctrine of sin and CRT’s emphasis on the pervasiveness of oppressive systems and structures.

For example, in a new book, Reformed Public Theology, one contributor argues that “Reformed theologians describe the pervasive effects of sin while using comprehensive terms strikingly similar to CRT.” The author then quotes from the famous Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper:

“The stronger, almost without exception, have always known how to bend every custom and magisterial ordinance so that the profit is theirs and the loss belongs to the weaker. Men did not literally eat each other like cannibals, but the more powerful exploited the weaker by means of a weapon which there was no defense.”

I have already seen these lines cited many times on social media, to the effect that, like CRT, a Reformed doctrine of sin leads us to believe in the near inevitability of systemic injustice. What should we make of this argument?

An initial response is to admit that powerful people often do bend customs and ordinances to favor their interests. The weak often are mistreated by those who have the connections and influence to get away with it. In American history, this has meant that whites too often protected their power by mistreating those who were not white. Even in a country deeply influenced by Christianity, oppression is more common than we would like to think.

So far, so Reformed.

But there are problems with connecting the ideology of CRT with the doctrine of the Reformed tradition.

For starters, it’s strange that Kuyperians—who talk so much about redeeming culture, transforming the city, and renewing the arts—can sound so defeatist when talking about the systems and customs of Europeans and their descendants. If the leading proponents of CRT are to be believed, centuries of profound Christian influence in the West have produced little more than a stream of atrocities and injustices. So much for Christ the transformer of culture.

But there is a larger concern: the anthropology of CRT doesn’t go nearly far enough. If Reformed theology reminds us that the powerful often oppress the weak, it also reminds us that all of us “have a natural tendency to hate God and [our] neighbor[s]” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 5). What CRT locates in certain races, sexes, classes, and sexual orientations, the Reformed tradition locates in every human heart.

Recall the quotation above. Here’s what Kuyper goes on to say in the very same paragraph:

“This [oppression of the weak] was not because the stronger class was more evil at heart than the weaker, for no sooner did a man from the lower class rise to the top than he in his turn took part just as harshly—yes, even more harshly—in the wicked oppression of those who were members of his own former class. No, the cause of evil lay in this: that men regarded humanity as cut off from its eternal destiny, did not honor it as created in the image of God, and did not reckon with the majesty of the Lord, who alone by his grace is able to hold in check a human race mired in sin.”

In other words, the story of oppression cannot be told with reference to one race, one sex, one class, one nation, or one civilization. The problem of injustice goes deeper, past the identity obsessions of our age, all the way to our identity as fallen human beings.

Imperfections aside, the American experiment is built upon a more accurate understanding of human nature. James Madison understood that we do not have angels to govern us, and therefore ambition must be made to counteract ambition (Federalist 51). The Founding Fathers would have readily agreed with the notion that people in authority tend to abuse their power. But they would have insisted that popular passions can also be dangerous, which is why they constructed a system dependent upon checks and balances, the rule of law, and the recognition of natural rights outside the reach of majority opinion. 

The fundamental problem with CRT is not its assumption that worldly systems often favor the powerful. The fundamental problem is limiting “power” to the one axis of race, class, and sex, when power does not always work according to an intersectional spreadsheet. Power can be conferred by education, by money, by skin color, by victim status, by intellect, by beauty, by fame, by having the right opinions, by signaling the right virtue, and by a thousand other things. Sometimes people use their power for good; often, they do not.

Reformed theology tells us to be on the lookout for the sinful use of power, and it tells us to find it—even as we look for redemption—far as the curse is found.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, N.C., and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). Prior to the summer of 2017, he pastored at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. Kevin holds a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and received his Ph.D. in early modern history at the University of Leicester. He is the author of several books, including The Biggest Story, The Hole in Our Holiness, Crazy Busy, and Just Do Something. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children.

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