Logo
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Charity, caution, and courage

How Christians should engage with critical theory


Protesters in Los Angeles in June 2020 following the death of George Floyd Associated Press/Photo by Richard Vogel, file

Charity, caution, and courage
T.G. Owens

T.G. Owens

Many WORLD readers have asked for more information about critical race theory. Here’s a useful explanation from a talk that former WORLD reporter T.G. Owens gave earlier this year. Owens recently completed the Brazos Fellows program established alongside Christ Church Waco. She lives, writes, and works in Waco, Texas.

While I have grieved the deaths of George Floyd and others, I’ve also seen how groups like Black Lives Matter leveraged it to amplify a particularly cynical narrative about race and justice in this country.

That narrative is rooted in critical theory, an ideology that has reshaped not only how many Americans talk about social issues like race, but how we talk about reality, the nature of truth, our purpose as individuals, and the purpose of government.

Let’s examine critical race theory and how Christians should engage with it.

What is critical theory?

To understand critical race theory, we have to first understand critical theory. Critical theory emerged as a political philosophy in the 1970s and draws from modern and postmodern thinkers such as Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Antonio Gramsci, the father of cultural Marxism.

Like Rousseau, critical theory sees man as a kind of noble savage, awakened by capitalism out of a relatively stable, self-sufficient existence into cut-throat, self-interested competition. Like Marx, critical theory believes that returning to this state of equitable co-existence will require us to organize a revolution and overthrow these manipulative systems.

But, drawing from Gramsci and looking at the failure of Marx’s economic revolution, critical theory proposes that this revolution will unfold along cultural rather than economic lines, with participants organized by their group identity rather than by their economic class.

To really understand critical theory, we need to look at it as a philosophy. We need to consider the claims it makes about the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, and our telos as humans.

In line with its Marxist and postmodern roots, critical theory rejects a transcendent or sacramental view of reality. Reality is nothing more than a series of manmade systems and constructs that govern human interaction, dictate our identity and organize us into political groups based on that identity.

History, according to critical theory, is the story of one group (straight white men) emerging as the hegemony, the dominant group that has the power to shape the system and that forces their norms and values on the rest of us in order to advance their interests and maintain their power.

Their power is not just economic and political, by the way, it’s epistemological too. Building on French philosopher Michel Foucault, critical theory rejects objective truth, proposing instead that every group has its own truth. So when one group gains dominance, they don’t just have the power to shape systems, constructs and norms, they also have the power to shape what is knowable and true for everyone else.

In this understanding, the human goal is to participate in a never-ending struggle against the social constructs that dictate our identity and oppress our authentic selves, while also struggling with our respective groups to dismantle the hegemony.

What is critical race theory?

Within critical theory there are several different fields of inquiry, each focusing on how a certain construct has been used to hold down one group while advancing the interests of another.

Critical race theory is one such subset that focuses on exploring how the construct of race has been used in America since the 15th century to hold back blacks while advancing white interests.

Critical race theorists believe:

  • That racism permeates our nation’s legal, economic, and political systems and institutions
  • That racism is present in every encounter between whites and people of color.
  • That our nation’s attempts to legally eradicate racist practices only progressed because they advanced the interests of white people, not because of any genuine interest in promoting equality.
  • That the race-transcending ideals of the Civil Rights Movement such as equality before the law, meritocracy and colorblindness do not go far enough in addressing racism; that more drastic measures are needed to truly eradicate racism not just racist behaviors.

It is this obsession with eradicating racism that drives CRT’s activism. The thinking is that we can eradicate racism entirely, if we just had the right policy.

How should the Church engage with critical theory?

Given the growing influence of this ideology in all spheres of society, ignoring critical theory is not an option. So how should the Church engage? I recommend three practices: charity, caution, and courage.

Charity

The Church should begin its engagement of critical theory with charity. We should affirm critical theory’s discontent with human suffering, longing for justice, and search for meaning. It is quite possible to affirm the importance of standing up against injustice and oppression while rejecting critical theory’s ontology and its methods of interpretation. God takes injustices seriously and so should we.

Caution

Yet, the Church should also proceed with caution for several reasons. First, because critical theory represents a certain framework of knowing in which the central claims of Christianity become increasingly difficult, if not impossible to hold.

Three traits of the critical way of knowing:

  1. It denies transcendence and objective truth. Critical theory teaches that we cannot get to the truth. The best we can strive for is to make room for many truths at once.
  2. It sees truth as culturally constructed and rejects the idea that something could be universally true for everybody. Such a claim would be rendered oppressive.
  3. It suspects all efforts at creating and sharing knowledge as efforts by the hegemony to solidify their power and influence, not as efforts to understand reality.

In such an epistemological framework, it is impossible to accept as true God’s existence. It is impossible to accept the idea of God revealing Himself to all people. It’s even more impossible to accept Scripture, testimony, and tradition as credible communicators of truth.

In a society being increasingly shaped by critical theory, Christianity becomes at best one of many truths. At worst, it represents an oppressive narrative and a threat to political and social stability.

We should also be cautious because of how critical theory undermines the principles and processes that are essential to the functioning of a multicultural democratic society such as ours. Critical theory normalizes bad-faith arguments, pessimistic suspicion, and dramatic rather than incremental improvement. In such a climate, the conversation, compromise, and collaboration necessary for democratic decision-making and social improvement become harder to facilitate.

Lastly, we should be cautious of critical race theory because of how it shapes the way we talk about race.

In teaching that racism is permanent and all-pervasive, critical race theory creates a fixation on race that cripples our collective capacity to embrace the principle of universal human dignity, which is critical to our survival as a multicultural democracy.

In teaching that race is to blame for all disparities and problems in the black community, critical race theory suppresses other possible explanations compromising honest dialogue and the discovery of true solutions.

Critical theory establishes a new framework for how to interpret social conflict between people of different races, framing them almost exclusively as episodes of race-based oppression, an explanation that is only likely to brew civic resentment.

Critical race theory teaches that, since racism is so baked into our nation’s systems and institutions, the only means by which we can eradicate racism is by completely dismantling these systems, a perspective that is likely only to exacerbate our problems, not solve them.

Courage

In recommending caution, I am not advocating for a “flight-from-the-world-leave-it-up-to-them” kind of caution. Rather, I am proposing that the church cultivate caution for the purpose of courageous engagement.

First, the Church should engage by making space for dialogue. Everyday citizens are hungry for guidance on this topic, yet are afraid to talk about it with their friends. This fear and silencing is crucial to the success of critical theory’s political agenda.

The Church should push back against this by expanding its vision of pastoral care in such a way that it includes conversations about these kinds of taboo topics. Such conversations would not only provide an opportunity to evaluate critical theory’s central claims, but that, more importantly, would allow the church to demonstrate how the tenets of our faith answer critical theory’s fundamental questions about justice, peace, and life’s meaning.

The Church should also demonstrate courage by fostering an unwavering commitment to the facts about race and racism in this country.

The black American experience is routinely leveraged to justify a push towards a more “equitable” society, but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that we are not being told the full picture of the black experience, neither of our struggles nor of our successes.

We are told that racism, slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining are to blame for today’s black challenges. But during the 100 years after slavery ended, blacks excelled, owning homes, establishing strong families, and launching businesses despite blatant racism and discrimination. Why are we not told about these successes? What happened to this trajectory?

Every year, thousands of African Americans are shot to death, only a few hundred of them by police officers. The remaining 99 percent are killed by fellow black civilians. Yet we are told that the biggest threat to black lives are racist cops, and that we should ignore this epidemic of lethal violence that tears apart families, ruins neighborhoods and destroys children’s futures.

Despite making up only 15 percent of the population, blacks tend to be overrepresented in arrests for violent crimes, driving their disproportionately high incarceration rates. Yet we are told to focus our activism on dismantling racist policing and sentencing practices rather than on educating young black men to resist the allure of crime and empowering them to lead responsible lives.

Black scholars have produced volumes of research showing the importance of family structure and culture to black progress. Yet despite several decades of failed government intervention, we are still told to ignore this research, and to think that the key to black progress is more anti-racist government policy.

Seeking truth on these issues would empower the Church to reject false narratives while more forthrightly identifying injustice and advocating solutions that would truly lift up the marginalized among us.

Conclusion

In closing, I’d like to propose that the real project of the Church is to tell a better story.

Critical theory is attractive because it captures the imagination with a coherent story about the world that gives people a role to play and invites them to participate in something bigger than themselves.

The Church needs to tell a fuller, truer, more captivating story.

We need to tell the story about the creative, Trinitarian love that is at the heart of reality. We need to tell the story of our captivity to sin and of God’s relentless pursuit of our despairing souls.

We need to tell how the incarnation points to a transcendent reality that is bigger than our broken, man-made systems, that points to a God who desires to be known, to a God who can be known.

We need to tell a story in which meaning and purpose come, not from dismantling any system of oppression, but from participating in God’s redemptive renewal of all things.


T.G. Owens

T.G. recently completed the Brazos Fellows program and currently lives, writes and works in Waco Texas.

COMMENT BELOW

Please wait while we load the latest comments...

Comments

Please register, subscribe, or login to comment on this article.


TDAU2907

Excellent article. She obviously has done her homework and explains CRT in an understandable way. I agree with her that CRT is just another deception of the evil one-always lies concealed as truths. Christians need to beware of this because our children and grandchildren are being taught these lies in public schools many times unbeknownst to parents.
Man's social problems will never be solved through political means. The redemptive work of Jesus at the cross has already supplied the answer to every problem man has ever created for himself because of sin. " If you know the truth, the truth shall set you free."

GBIR1886

Whoa, T.G., you hit a home run! And World did the same by putting this as one of the "Best Picks". Other news venues (from any direction) would not have the courage to print this. We do have a "better story".

MHEB3194

Very helpful article. Thank you T.G. Owens for writing it and thank you WNG for making it available.

MARK ROBERTS

Wow! This article is among the very best, if not the best, concise explanation with guidance for Christians of the several to many such pieces I've read. It addresses all the most important points, and Charity, Caution, and Courage is a triad among those for the ages, including Faith, Hope, and Love, and the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Not at all a criticism but a wish: that Ms. Owens had pointed out also that CRT advocates are quick to deconstruct but say nothing or almost nothing on re-constructing a better world, in feasible terms.

JHAN1908

Excellent synopsis and explanation. Thank you.

JENNIFERKF

This is a great article. Saving as a reference for myself and as something that I can pass along to others that will help give clarity on this topic!

Leah B

T.G.,
Thank you so much for this well-thought of piece.
When it came to critical race theory” I knew “something stinks in Denmark” but I admit I never had a strong solid understanding of it.
I feel like I do now.
And as a current education major, I am planning on doing much more research and prayer into this complex issue.
I especially loved your words of “tell a better story”.
That is the gospel.
And we can never be ashamed of it.
Cheers!
Leah Beecher

TxAgEngr

"critical theory rejects objective truth, proposing instead that every group has its own truth." I imagine the CRT disciples would abandon this irrationality if it was suddenly applied to their employment compensation packages.

FIMIKI

"The real project of the Church is to tell a better story"

Yes! The reason why evangelical critique of CRT often fails to persuade is that sadly we have so often been indifferent to the suffering that CRT ostensibly explains and provides a path out of. The (economic) conservative argument to racial economic disparities is often to just "let the market sort it out" and to explain the hardship experienced by many African Americans in cruel Darwinian natural selection terminology. If we were truly committed as a church to stepping out of our comfortable bubbles and coming alongside "the least of these" then would we be in the situation we are now? More than material resources or yet more impersonal government programs, what people need is the love, care, compassion, and friendship of believers filled with and motivated by the love of God and His redeeming work.

Ric

I truly appreciate the clarity of this article. Because of it's highly emotional and divisive nature it is hard to find resources to study CT and CRT. I would appreciate any other resources the author might recommend to further study these topics so in turn I can address this most relevant topic with my congregation in a fair and balanced manner.

Caminho

From what I've seen, this is a good description & analysis of CRT as a thing. I would caution, however, that recognizing the existence of systematic racism, recognizing that sometimes active steps need to be taken for justice and equality, etc, are not "CRT." This author does not make such a confusion, but I've just noticed a trend where many people on both sides seem to think that the only two options are to embrace CRT or deny the existence of a race problem in America. There's a lot of room to discuss real race problems in America while rejecting CRT.

JENNIFERKFCaminho

Hello Caminho,
I do think there's an overarching issue with even terms like "white privilege" or "systematic racism" that helps CRT advocacy (which is bad, in my opinion) and hurts any real conversation or dealing with problems for a few reasons:
1. These terms are wielded as weapons but rarely defined in a way both "sides" can agree with.
2. These terms seem to be used as assumptions of objective truth/reality and disagreement with them is proof someone is racist. It's circular and nonsensical. It's hard to move forward with anything.
I don't disagree that Christians should be (and they are) at the forefront of justice. But I don't think we need to grab onto cultural terms to do a good job of it.

MARK ROBERTSCaminho

Injustices remain in our society and, alas, in all. Fallenness knows no socio-political boundaries. But the phrase "systemic racism" functions as a kind of dog whistle for the pro-CRT movement, and I doubt its claim deeply. May I point to black veterans of the MLK-era Civil Rights Movement who likewise reject that phrase as truthful these many years after the fundamental federal actions to end and reverse what was in the pre-1964 world true systemic racism: please follow Shelby Steele (esp his book "White Guilt" and the YouTube recording of his speaking at the Independence Institute the year of its release, https://youtu.be/HF3VaJdConY , in which he says plainly what whites need to do -- be proud of what the white-majority country did in acknowledging its racial wrongs and seeking to right them fundamentally -- and what blacks need to do -- accept the bracing risks and rewards of freedom and stop denying their freedom by living as if their success continues to depend on how whites treat them; that is, stop blaming as a way of life); then Thomas Sowell (perhaps the most important intellectual in American life far too few know of ) and Dr. Robert Woodson, founder of the Atlanta, GA, Woodson Center, dedicated to supporting grass-roots leadership seeking to build a better society from the bottom up (not via think tank analyses). I continue to be amazed by the number of whites who speak as if they understand the history and reality of racism better than senior black leaders such as these, some of whom walked alongside Dr. M L King, Jr.

Russell in Japan

This is the best concise analysis of CRT I've read anywhere, and her prescriptions are insightful and right on the mark. Thank you!

DSSpencer

This by far the most accurate, insightful analysis of Critical Race Theory I’ve read. At Harvard, studying under one of the original critical legal scholars, my Christian classmates and I discussed how critical theory was incompatible with our faith. I concur with T.G.’s conclusion that there is no belief in objective truth, which includes a rejection of Judeo-Christian values. My professor was constantly telling us the law could be whatever we wanted it to be, and encouraged us to “flip” legal arguments on their head, essentially making right wrong and wrong right. Thank you also, T.G., for the encouragement to compassion.

DSHU7822

This is the best general explanation of critical race theory I have read from any news source. The timing could not be better for those who will be attending Thanksgiving gatherings with family members who do not share a common epistemology. Would it be possible for the author to provide a References list for the article?

Big Jim

Very well reasoned and with a Christ-centered framework. Good job!

And by the way, this will probably get her cancelled.

Beth

I love this! Thank you for such a clear explanation of CRT and how we can engage with it while holding on to God's truth and His love.

Doug

What a great concise and clear presentation of this topic with practical steps we can take to counter destructive thinking with Gospel truth! Thank you!

GHIL4651

Thank you! That was incredibly helpful. I will be sharing this with my teen and young adult children as well as others in my church and family.

JoeMcD

My wife and I were discussing Critical Theory this morning and how we view this topic from Christian perspective. Thank you for this thoughtful article, it gives us a framework and basis to engage our friends and neighbors with Christ’s love.