This piece is the second installment in a two-part series on racial justice debates. Read the first article here.
The words critical race theory, systemic racism, woke, and social justice are case studies in language confusion. People define these terms in radically different ways and use those definitions to distort the views of others.
To some, systemic racism means that discrimination exists in different social, political, and legal structures to varying degrees and intensities. Others think of systemic racism as the idea that all of society is irredeemably racist.
Most scholars define critical race theory (CRT) as a legal movement examining how racism impacts laws, customs, and practices in the United States, despite the gains of the civil rights movement. Critics often use the term CRT broadly enough to include nearly all left-leaning discourse on race and injustice in the United States.
The Book of Common Prayer defines the work of social justice as contending “fearlessly against evil and [making] no peace with oppression; and [helping] us use our freedom rightly in the establishment of justice in our communities and among the nations.” In this reading, social justice is the work of resisting evil and injustice where we discover it locally and nationally. Others contend that social justice is a Marxist idea rooted in the false belief that we can establish a utopia on earth through human actions.
When I was growing up in the Black community, woke simply meant a person who became more aware of our history and more socially conscious as a result. This social consciousness led us to encourage pride in Black achievement and to spur our youth on to greater success. We even had a habit of chiding people who got “super woke” and became too preachy.
That term has now been largely rendered toxic—a holding place for all left-leaning ideas, no matter how extreme. In other words, “woke” has come to be defined as everything the political Right does not like about the Left.
Of course, there are people who speak about race, racism, and injustice in ways that give me pause. But those individuals do not all travel under a simple banner that’s easily identified and dismissed. Mature thought requires more work than that.
Which definitions are right, then, and how can we know? And as Christians, how do we study the semantics of these fraught debates?
Much of this entire conversation violates a basic rule of language that I learned as a New Testament scholar. I went to seminary because I wanted to learn to read and interpret the Scriptures. I sat alongside other people committed to the same. We did the work of hermeneutics.
In that seminary setting, we discovered that word studies are central to biblical studies. Words have what we call a “semantic range,” which simply means that we use them with shades of nuance. Words and phrases can be used in different ways, depending on the context.
For example, when a husband says to his wife, “I love you,” he means something slightly different than a young child who says, “I love cheeseburgers.” Other cases get even more complicated. If someone says a funny joke and you respond with “I hate you,” the word hate actually means something along the lines of “You are outlandishly funny.”
Put another way, words take on meaning in the context of sentences, paragraphs, and larger works. Words also have particular meaning in particular linguistic communities. For example, if a southerner says, “Bless your heart,” that phrase is often not a compliment or statement of praise.
In biblical studies, when we’re trying to find out what an author means by a word or phrase, a good place to start is the writer’s own use of a word. From there, we expand out to common usage in his or her particular linguistic community, and then out from there to the wider society. After that, we have a good understanding of a word’s semantic range—its possibilities. (For example, Paul may have one shade of meaning when he uses a word, and James may have another.)
However, novices in biblical studies often commit a common mistake called “illegitimate totality transfer.” That fancy phrase refers to the habit of taking all possible meanings of a word found across a whole swath of literature and downloading them into one particular use of the word.
For example, you could do a word search on agape and find the different ways this word is used by different authors and then conclude that when any writer says “agape,” they must have all of those uses in mind. However, our particular understanding of that word must be derived from its meaning in context and from what we can glean from an author’s worldview.
All this may seem miles away from the discussion of wokeness, justice, systemic racism, and critical race theory. But I would maintain that many within the “anti-woke” crowd are guilty of the basic fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer, or at least some variant of it.
When Christians discuss justice, some interlocuters have a tendency to go and find all the worst and least helpful definitions of justice or systemic racism and then download those definitions into the use of the term.
But words do not work that way. They have meaning in context that derives from an author’s own use. We are simply not allowed to go and find a definition that we dislike and attribute it to a fellow believer. At bottom, that is slander and the epitome of a straw man. Instead, we must do the necessary and hard work of understanding writers, preachers, and communicators who speak to these issues.
The logical outcome of this practice is vital to Christians. The vast majority of justice issues are openly discussed in biblical texts. Scripture was written to address a fallen world, and our particular sins (personal and corporate) are often variations on the struggles humans have had since the beginning.
When we open the Word, we see biblical accounts of oppressors and the oppressed. We see biblical discussions of systems. And we see biblical definitions of justice, injustice, and liberation. So when we claim to be building upon these definitions and accounts, Christian charity demands that our opponents meet us on the ground where we have chosen to fight, not somewhere else.
Sadly, this fair-minded form of debate is rarely practiced. Here’s the reason why, as I see it: There’s a newfound fear of common grace.
Christian theologians use that term to refer to the fact that truths articulated in the Bible (such as the existence of systems of oppression) can be observed by people who are not Christians or whose Christianity may look very different than ours. God has given humans the ability to think and reason. One does not have to be a believer to discover truths about the human condition.
Furthermore, there are truths and ideas not explicitly addressed in Scripture that cohere with a Christian way of viewing reality. Christianity provides principles, some explicit commands, and definite boundaries that shape our discourse and give us space to discern together the right course of action.
Of course, common grace is often limited and partial. That’s why ideas are judged against the Scriptures, core theological principles, and the wider Christian tradition. But nonetheless, we are called to recognize common grace in others. We do so for many reasons, one of which is that it helps us to practice civil discourse.
Put more simply: When Christians view their interlocuters in the context of common grace, they’re more prone to interpret words charitably, and discussion moves forward rather than backward.
Doing the work of justice requires careful give and take of ideas, and dialogue requires a certain confidence in Christianity and other Christians. It requires us to believe that what we teach is true and can withstand scrutiny. It requires us to believe that we can speak the truth about the best version of our opponents’ beliefs and still be okay. And it requires us to believe that Christianity has the power to change the world and that the world lacks the resources to dismantle Christianity.
There are no threats to the gospel, properly speaking, because Christ is risen and he reigns. We must regain that humble confidence, not in the strength and subtlety of our arguments but in the power of God, who displays his power through weakness. What can be threatened is a particular church’s faithfulness to the Good News, or the spiritual well-being of Christians who may stray from the truth. Paul, an exemplar of faith, resists these kinds of missteps but nonetheless remains confident in God.
By God’s grace, we can find our way forward in the critical race theory debate and the various related disputes. That progress begins with interpreting others’ words and ideas with generosity, not with fearmongering. It begins with seeking semantic clarity and understanding semantic range. And it begins with opening to the world the whole of our faith tradition—including Christian social teaching—with the confidence that he who began a good work will carry it on to completion on the day of our Lord.
Esau McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and the author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.