These sorts of qualifications on how thoughtful Christians can (and cannot) acknowledge and respond to systemic injustice will leave many convinced that we don’t really take the problem seriously. In this and so many other matters, we must accept the fact that we will often be misunderstood (John 15:18-20). However, every Christian ought to be clear that we believe in a more terrible sort of systemic injustice than the most radical advocates of CRT. We know that whether the law is written, enforced, prosecuted, or applied by any people group or subset of it, there are things that the law simply cannot accomplish (Rom. 8:3).
Today I came across a detailed but readable interaction from a Christian point of view with Marxism, Postmodernism, and Critical Race Theory. In the chaos of the current societal conversations these are topics we need to think clearly about. After all, “empty philosophies” really do take people captive (Colossians 2:8). But in a love for truth we also need to avoid caricatures and misapplications of the truth. The author of that interaction, Brant Bosserman, gave permission to have it posted here on Gentle Reformation. As a disclaimer, it’s fairly long, but, of course, these are not things that can or should be addressed with brevity. I’m thankful for his labors and I trust that all who will read will gain new perspective and clarity.
Brant lives in the greater Seattle area with his wife Heather and four children — two 11 year old girls (Nicea and Chalcedon), and his 8 and 5 year old boys (Augustine and Calvin). He is the planter/minister of Trinitas Presbyterian Church, in Mill Creek, WA (PCA) which was launched in May 2013, and particularized in October 2015. He has his PhD in philosophy of religion from the Welsh, Bangor University. His M.A.T is from Fuller, and his B.A. in Religion & Philosophy/Biblical Lit is from the Pentecostal University, Northwest U., where he has taught philosophy courses in an adjunct capacity for over 10 years. He is a Van Til scholar, and published “The Trinity and Vindication of Christian Paradox” available here. –K.B.
A friend of mine recently asked me to share my thoughts on “Critical Race Theory,” especially as it relates to movements like “Black Lives Matter” and “systemic injustice.” I figured that others who enjoy reading (a lot), and philosophy and theology in particular, may find these reflections helpful.
At its roots, Critical Race Theory is a legal/social/political theory that belongs to the postmodern philosophical tradition and has certain neo-Marxist tendencies. To flesh out this description, let me begin by briefly describing a classical Marxist vision of things. According to classical Marxism, contemporary societies are divided into a ruling (Bourgeois) class and a working (proletariat) class. The former inherits and sustains social/legal/political conditions which enables them to control the lion’s share of wealth and resources. The latter finds itself in the otherwise inescapable condition of poverty and social abuse. The only way to advance society to a more just state of affairs is by the unification of the proletariat against the ruling class by way of violent revolution. The ruling class, after all, has no incentive to alter a system which has served it well. After the proletariat overturns the previous state and effects a more balanced distribution of resources/power, they too will, in many instances, set up a government that better serves some over others, but perhaps less so than the previous government. Thus, they too will likely have to be met by violent revolution, until at some point this oscillation between ruling/ruled classes births a communist eutopia marked by the equal distribution of wealth and labor among all citizens In this ideal condition, there may not be any need for rulers, political orders, or even law-enforcement. Due to the facts that Marxist revolutions were (a) the leading ideological cause of death in the 20th century (claiming 100 million+ lives), and (b) widely regarded as unsuccessful at achieving more just conditions than had previously prevailed, the strict theory had fallen on rather hard times by the end of the 1900’s.
Postmodernism is a philosophical movement with fuzzy boundaries encompassing a variety of philosophers (the later Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, etc.), and overlapping with other philosophical schools (feminism, neo-Marxism, etc.). At its roots, postmodernism is radically relativist, which is to say that it denies the reality of objective moral standards that ought to govern human conduct everywhere and at all times. At the same time, it attempts to offer broad strategies for how to affect some sort of justice between fundamentally different visions of the world that prevail in different communities. Broadly speaking, postmodern political theories share with classical Marxists a deep suspicion of all prevailing power structures; not only of wealthy and powerful classes, but of the narratives (stories) with which we commend certain behaviors and condemn others; and of the manner in which language itself tends to favor some and suppress others. However, postmodernists have jettisoned the classical Marxist hope of achieving a utopia where perfect balance is finally achieved. More pessimistically, postmodernists are convinced that every political and social order, indeed, every language, is an assertion of power by some group over others. And it will always be that way. To propound a particular worldview as capable of achieving “liberty and justice for all” (as enlightenment, constitutional republics consciously aimed at), or perfectly equitable distribution of resources (as Communist revolutionaries aimed at), is the most violent assertion of all. Why? Because, says the postmodernist, there can be no perfect system which fosters total equality. For, every community has its own distinct code of ideals that competes with others. Thus, when an ideology masquerades itself as equally interested in the well-being of all people, it is necessarily a ploy meant to achieve political power for some and the political domination of others. The very same can be said of any manner of describing reality which claims to be objectively true—be it scientific, ideological, religious, etc. Pretentious claims to “objective truth” ultimately dominate and suppress other people’s vantage points. What then can be done, when every story we tell, every theory we develop, and every language we use does violence to some community? Well, the closest thing to achieving “justice” (remember justice itself has different definitions in different communities) is to ever and again (a) take up an aggressive stance toward current power-structures (whether they be manifest in literature, film, religion, family structures, politics, etc.); (b) expose the way that they suppress others, even though their values are no more objective than others’; and (c) labor to replace the currently dominant community values, with the community values of the currently disenfranchised. Hence, to destabilize any one set of community values is the best way to achieve something akin to justice. In fact, all binary contrasts, where one side has classically dominated the other—male/female, black/white, straight/LGBTQ…., nuclear family/alternative family, individual rights/community rights, Christian values/non-Christian values, etc.—must be “deconstructed.” “Deconstruct” does not mean “destroy.” It rather means to expose the dominant term as being dependent on, subject to, and in many ways indistinguishable from its supposed opposite. Deconstruction apparently reveals that there is no inherent reason why the marginalized group ought to be marginalized, and invites people to elevate it to the status of a new norm. The result of this back and forth between central and marginalized groups, has been called a state of “play,” although it is generally recognized that the pendulum swing between dominator/dominated is necessarily painful and violent.
Critical Race Theory (CRT)
Critical Race Theory is a branch of the postmodern tree. In its most basic form, Critical Race Theory holds that the “White (-male)” system which prevails in the Western world is inherently oppressive of minorities of all kinds, especially to people of color. White men are generally the most-wealthy, hold the highest positions of power in government and business, occupy the majority of seats on the highest courts, etc. White men who openly espouse racist views have been allowed to govern. They continue to be celebrated and commemorated as major contributors to society. The legal system created by white men protects their wealth and power, and disproportionately charges, incarcerates, and even executes people of color. It does not uphold a timeless, objective, God-given ideal of justice as it claims. For, there is no such thing. But, even these data points and critiques are too superficial to get to the root problem as understood by CRT. The very stories that we cherish feature white heroes—a white Christopher Columbus who courageously discovered America; a white George Washington who fought for independence; a white Abraham Lincoln who saved the union; a white Santa Claus who regularly checks up on whether children have been good or bad; a white Jesus, who saves the world; etc. And these heroes are associated with what have been called “white” ideals of righteousness and success. They form constitutional republics (which promises representation for all, but really overlook minorities of all kinds). They embody capitalist success (which promises that everyone can “make it,” but really protects white wealth); etc. Even classical “Aristotelian” logic has been denounced as a distinctively “white” manner of arriving at true conclusions, over against emotion, community reflection, inspiration, intuition, etc. etc. Even if the predominantly white leadership in America were to “listen” to oppressed communities, and implement their very best ideas, it would do nothing to undermine the narrative of “white supremacy.” Rather, it would only confirm the narrative of a white savior who fools the masses into believing that he can achieve liberty and justice for all, while retaining ultimate power for his own community. Thus, critical race theorists have argued that the decision sought after (and won) in “Brown vs. the Board of Education” (rendering racial segregation in schools illegal) was not motivated by altruism or genuine love for black communities. It was motivated by the desire to foster a better image with potential third-world allies in the American fight against communism. More recently, when the white Mayor of Minneapolis offered to reform, restructure, and revamp every aspect of the city’s law-enforcement, he was shouted down for failing to express his intention to abolish law-enforcement entirely. Again, anything less would involve the retention of white power and (allegedly) white power structures. Finally, attempts to argue that white America has, on the whole, accomplished “more good than evil,” is but another assertion of white privilege. The argument supposes that the dominant white (-male) culture has the right to decide just which sorts of harms and losses are acceptable collateral damage in order to achieve certain goods; not to mention, which people groups (people of color, native Americans, women, etc.) may acceptably suffer the said harms. Hence, the only solution to the problem white privilege is a revolutionary one—a total restructuring of society, language, and of the very narrative that defines righteousness and justice, by and for those who have been oppressed.
Two things are very clear about the “black lives matter” movement, the first distressing and the second encouraging. First, the formal Black Lives Matter “organization” is committed to critical race theory (this is clear from a cursory read of its website, an elementary understanding of its history, and a basic awareness of its methods). Second, perhaps not even 20% of the people who have embraced the black lives matter “movement” have any idea what CRT is, and would simply like to see the longstanding plight of black Americans more widely recognized and changed for the better. After all, the phrase itself—“black lives matter”—is completely unobjectionable. Any Christian who really loves Jesus ought to heartily agree with its basic sense. The phrase would even seem to convey the opposite point of postmodern relativism; namely, that black lives objectively matter precisely because black men and women are made in the image of the eternal God. A big part of me hopes that the phrase “black lives matter” will continue to outgrow the organization that coined it, shedding its relativist and revolutionary elements. At the same time, I am genuinely concerned that many Christians who have taken up the BLM mantra have imbibed much more than a healthy love for their black neighbors. Many have taken a tone, advocated ideas, and even participated in belligerent activities that belong to a neo-Marxist vision of justice, rather than a Christian one. People who are understandably angry, disillusioned, and deeply distressed by the injustices committed against people of color have joined in hateful instigation of law-enforcement, destroying public and private property, and creating violent situations where people have died. This is classic revolutionary behavior. Marx himself was convinced that reason could not ultimately change the world (remember that reason is often the abusive tool of a ruling class). Rather, pure force would have to get the job done. Thus, it isn’t necessary for the majority of revolutionaries to be consciously aware of the theory that justifies their uprising. There only needs to be enough dissatisfaction with the disparity of wealth, power, and justice to fuel a successful uprising.