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March 4, 2021Culture

Pat Sawyer: Cautions Regarding CRT

The second of three posts on Dr. Sawyer's thoughts and concerns about CRT.
Pat Sawyer: Cautions Regarding CRT
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In this second article of our three-part series, I want to offer five of eight cautions regarding critical race theory. As we get into concerns about CRT, we must understand that the postmodern nature of CRT allows for the receiver of the CRT text to partly determine how he or she wants to interpret and embrace the CRT text. To put it another way, the authority of determining what a particular CRT tenet means lies to some extent with the one reading and receiving the tenet and not exclusively with the one authoring and offering the tenet. While it is certainly the case that one could interpret a CRT idea in a way that is ultimately ‘wrong’ and diametrically against the spirit of the knowledge area, it is still nevertheless true that the knowledge area is a reflexive, and to some degree, contested space that makes room for diverse interpretations and applications that are still considered within the realm of CRT.

With that said, what follows are concerns that are rooted in a legitimate understanding and application of CRT. This does not mean that everyone will have these identical takeaways when engaging the ideas of CRT, but it does mean that these takeaways are not only genuinely possible but are in fact happening with a number of people who name the name of Christ in various quarters of the larger Church. Again, it is possible to understand aspects of some of these tenets in ways that are not opposed to biblical Christianity, but my concern is the ways in which these tenets can possibly lead people into false societal and cultural viewpoints and, most importantly, into heterodoxy. As I unpack the following cautions, bear in mind that the individual tenet associated with each caution may only have a minor or slight influence on the caution being elaborated. Again, this is critical social theory – a fluid, reflexive, highly interpretive knowledge area where combined strands of thought can have a compounding effect.

Caution 1) Through tenets 8, 9, 12, 13, and 15, CRT emphasizes identity categories fraught with racialized oppression and underscores the need and mandate to emancipate those under oppressive conditions. This can lead Christians to effectively forget that from God’s standpoint our spiritual deliverance is infinitely more important than any temporal deliverance (Matt 16:26, Mark 8:36-37) and consequently the thrust of our witness and ministry should reflect this reality. There should be no rival, or worse, conflation between these two perspectives. This conflation will deaden our urgency towards the salvation of the lost, or worse lead us to adopt a functional, then doctrinal, universalism. While God is concerned about our temporal welfare and is indeed a Liberator of His people concerned about liberating those under oppressive and unjust temporal conditions (‘Let my people go’ – Ex 5:1), God is first and foremost concerned about liberating us from the power and penalty of our sin (Luke 19:10, Rom 1:16, Rom 6:23). God’s concern over our temporal welfare is radically subordinate to His concern over our spiritual welfare. For the Christian, God accomplishes immediate spiritual salvation at conversion, yet God may (and often does) withhold temporal relief from oppressors or oppressive conditions until eternity, where our eyes must remain fixed (2Cor 4:7-18).

To put it another way, there is no immediate 1:1 correspondence between thriving spiritual conditions and thriving temporal conditions at the point of salvation (2Cor 4:16). To be sure that day is coming in eternity, praise God, but this side of heaven they are not inextricably linked as if they were twin, concurrent, simultaneous fruits of the gospel. Confusion here can lead to false doctrine around what actually constitutes the gospel (1Cor 15:3-4) by confusing what is downstream from the gospel (such as concern for the legitimately oppressed and their deliverance) and what is the gospel itself. This can also lead to false interpretations of biblical texts where one adds a temporal emphasis where it doesn’t exist (such as 2Cor 5:18-20) and where one misapplies texts (such as Luke 19:1-10) to support societal reparations between current groups based on past sin and victimization of long dead group members (so identified) when those texts actually speak to restitution by the actual perpetrator to the actual victim.

Caution 2) Relatedly, tenets 5, 8, 9, 12, and 13 demonstrate CRT’s strong attention to racial or ethnic identity. Such an emphasis can lead one to put too much stock in one’s racial or ethnic identity. Our ethnic identity is important and will even be recognized in heaven (Rev 5:9; 7:9), but it is inconsequential compared to our identity in Christ (Gal 2:20; Phil 3:4-11). This means that black identitarianism is high sin (just as white identitarianism is) and is non-starter to authentic Christian identity as well as authentic Christian unity. To be clear, it is not wrong to have a degree of pride in our racial/ethnic identity and even eminently reasonable, if not outright needed, for certain racial/ethnic groups who have faced significant trials that compelled a pronounced existential need to bind together. Nevertheless, our racial/ethnic identity must not be allowed to rival our identity in Christ. Moreover, it is no safe harbor to reject black identitarianism (or white identitarianism) with one’s words but to be functionally living it. God sees all (Prov 15:3) and true unity will still be thwarted.

Caution 3) Through tenets 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, and 14 CRT can lead people to believe that racism is everywhere and there has been essentially no reduction in racism over our history, only a change in how it is contextualized. I have colleagues who assert this. The question is not if racism has happened but how. This is false. Racism is not everywhere. Aside from the seed of it being in every human heart (and even that is anthropologically and theologically debatable), racism is not at work in every situation. Moreover, such a heart perspective is emphatically not CRT’s point. CRT is concerned about actual racist attitudes and actions in society, not a nascent precondition intrinsic to fallen human nature.

During slavery, black code laws, and Jim Crow, racism could be said to be everywhere in U.S. society because it was codified into law at the federal, state, and local levels of government, and in the official policies of institution after institution. Today, two generations out from the civil rights movement, this form of de jure institutional and systemic racism is almost universally absent from society and where de facto institutional and systemic racism exists (and it does) it is not nearly as pervasive as it once was. While the notion that racism can be hard to recognize is not wholly without merit, such accusations of racism are often false and such a standpoint is often weaponized as fuel for identity politics. It is true that ‘colorblind’ perspectives and discourse can egregiously erase the cultural qualities and offerings of POC (which should be celebrated), however, it does not follow that ‘not seeing color’ is bad, always, and entirely divorced from merit when genuine efforts of fairness and equality are at work.

In addition, language itself, has been under assault for decades in the academy and more recently in popular culture concerning words related to racism including racism itself. The term white supremacy is another such word that has had a sea change in how it is used and understood. It used to be reserved for hardcore, abjectly evil white power and white nationalist groups pushing for a white ethnostate. Now its meaning has been simultaneously watered down and expanded. This is a fraud in many ways (not always). While the term, white supremacy, carries the freight of a moral breach and cultural scourge, the cultural or societal phenomenon being described often (not always) refers to something that is merely a product of white majoritarianism and consequently something not automatically immoral and/or something that is actually intrinsic to humanness and not whiteness exclusively. CRT’s relentless focus on white supremacy can have an almost totalizing effect on how one sees sin. The Enemy of souls can use this perseveration to diminish concern and necessary action regarding a range of other sins strangling society and the Church that need attention and mortification. To put it another way, white supremacy becomes the most urgent sin, then the main sin, and then the only sin worth discussing. This is a precarious position for any church or believer.

Finally, the emphasis on white supremacy and the ostensible ubiquity of racism can lead one to believe that any disparity plaguing POC is rooted in racism. This is emphatically false. While we cannot deny that racism has some impact on disparity today in certain cases, it is nevertheless false to assume racism is always at work. Moreover, today racism is rarely the singular cause of disparity. In other words, the reasons for any disparity are hardly ever monocausal, instead they are almost always multivariate.

Caution 4) Through CRT tenets 9 and 12, professing Christians can come to believe the only way to authentically fight racism is to champion the rights of the gay and trans communities via the rules of engagement offered by critical social theory. While Christians are called to love and care for all people, including gay and trans people, and must actively seek to do so, they must do so while maintaining fidelity to God’s word including honoring His views regarding sexuality and sexual ethics. In fact, love will demand this fidelity. Applications of CRT tenets 9 and 12 can lead to an erosion and then displacement of God’s view of sexuality and sexual ethics which portends a larger deconstruction of the faith at work where a biblical understanding of the doctrine of soteriology has been compromised and is possibly being overthrown.

Caution 5) CRT tenets 8, 9, and 12, and 14 can lead one to embrace an oppressor/oppressed binary as an interpretative lens for understanding current society. Setting aside spurious definitions of what constitutes oppression, this lens can lead one to believe that an ‘oppressor’ status is intrinsic to and synonymous with ‘whiteness’ and that an ‘oppressed’ status is intrinsic to and synonymous with ‘blackness’. A number of Black intellectuals, including Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Larry Elder, John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and Coleman Hughes, among others, have rightly expressed significant frustration and pushback against any victim status being resident in what it means to be Black. Notwithstanding the egregious racial history of the United States, the notion of an ‘oppressor’ status and ‘oppressed’ status being tied to whiteness and blackness respectively is patently false. It is a purblind contention that defies world history, not to mention anthropological and ontological reality. There are no immutable or permanent attributes assigned to whiteness and blackness along the vector of privilege and oppression. Such a view is an assault on Christian identity and an insurmountable obstacle to Christian unity. Moreover, it is an affront to God who made ALL people in HIS image. In addition, confusion here can lead to erroneous views regarding sin, guilt, and corporate repentance where all modern whites are regarded as complicit in the racial sins of some historical whites. Such factitious claims are an offense and provocation to the biblical understanding of hamartiology and the Imago Dei and will be a non-starter to Christian unity.

Having offered five cautions regarding CRT, in the next and final article I will offer three more cautions, a salient concluding point, and final exhortation.

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Pat Sawyer: Cautions Regarding CRT