Part one of this series on critical race theory discussed how Christians often wrongly frame questions around critical race theory as an all-or-nothing proposition.
Part two pointed out ways critical race theorists help us understand the history of racism in America and the role Christians have played.
Here, we will examine and evaluate the claims of a few critical race theorists. It bears repeating: Critical race theory is a diverse field, and not everyone in the field makes these claims.
Critical studies generally proceed through three steps—gathering facts, drawing conclusions based on those facts, and proposing or implementing solutions. My confidence in the work of critical race theorists generally diminishes with each step.
Let’s consider two conclusions reached by critical race theorists.
Conclusion one: Christianity invented racism
The critical theorist looks at the history of America and sees Christians responsible for racism at every step. At one level, I do not dispute that. The racism in our history as Christians is to our deep shame. Acts of racism by Christians lie about the character of the God we serve.
However, while we agree Christians have been responsible for acts of racism, it is too far to say Christianity invented racism, or even the American version of it.
Critical race theorist Rebecca Anne Goetz argues as much in her celebrated book, The Baptism of Early Virginia. Her examination of conversion and baptism laws vis-a-vis slavery in early America is as meticulous as it is depressing.
Goetz concludes with this analysis: “This story is one of transformation, from an early seventeenth-century understanding of Christianity that stressed its universality to a mid-eighteenth-century understanding that stressed its exclusivity. … English people struggled to explain the differences they observed between themselves and Africans and Indians, and they saw religion as a way of articulating and explaining those differences. The qualities they assigned to themselves as Christians, as well as the rights and freedoms they believed derived from their Christianity divided them from Indians and Africans.”
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I disagree with her, but I can see how she got there. If someone views religion as a sociological phenomenon, it makes sense that if Christians are involved consistently in racism in history, they might be responsible.
Rather than reflexively object and call the claim ridiculous—as Christians on social media are wont to do—why not sit with the claim to see if it has any merit at all?
Have Christians been responsible for racism? Sadly, yes. Solely responsible? No. But if the world thinks that way, it is important for our witness to have an answer to that claim, and we need a better answer than falsely claiming we have been right all along.
Conclusion two: Racism is permanent
Critical race theorist Derrick Bell looks at the way the South organized after losing the Civil War to disenfranchise Black people. He provides penetrating insight into the American psyche and offers compelling examples of how racism persists throughout history.
I cannot disagree with him up to this point, and I would do well to consider these facts that make me uncomfortable about my country.
Bell wrote in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: “We rise and fall less as a result of our efforts than in response to the needs of a white society that condemns all blacks to quasi citizenship as surely as it segregated our parents and enslaved their forebears. The fact is that, despite what we designate as progress wrought through struggle over many generations, we remain what we were in the beginning: a dark and foreign presence, always the designated ‘other.’ Tolerated in good times, despised when things go wrong, as a people we are scapegoat and sacrificed as distraction or catalyst for compromise to facilitate resolution of political differences or relieve economic adversity.”
He draws the conclusion from facts of history that racism is a permanent fact that cannot be changed given the existing power structures. All apparent advancements against structural racism are a sham.
As a Christian, I have to disagree with that conclusion. Jesus reigns. All authority in heaven or on Earth has been given to him (Matthew 28:19). It has been this hope which has kept so many in the Black church working to fight racism for so many years, and God has blessed those efforts.
Because the Lord reigns, racism is not inevitable. Perfect justice will be established forever when our king returns, but God’s people always have been those who dare to hope in justice now.
The final step for critical race theorists is determining what should be done about racism. If racism is Christianity’s invention, and if racism is permanent according to the power structures enabling it, then the solution to racism is to tear down the existing power structures that have created a racist society.
That means Christianity has to go. So-called traditional values have to go. The deeper you go, the more that has to come down. This kind of thinking has become so mainstream that a U.S. governmental agency recently suggested monotheism and the “Protestant work ethic” create racist social norms.
We could be reflexively outraged. Many Christians were. But it is better to take the time to see how this view developed in scholarship.
It came about through a set of facts we agree on—Christians, particularly ones who claimed to be Bible-believing, perpetuated racism for years. It is too simplistic to claim these were the only ones perpetuating racism, but the fact others were doing it does not absolve people of faith.
We need answers for how Christians so often were so wrong on race. We need to come up with solutions for racism rather than leaving that work to those who believe our very faith is responsible for the problems we face.
And we need the humility—as those who have grown up within those tribes—to acknowledge we might have persisting blind spots.
Ways you can pray:
1. Lament racism by Christians that lends credence to these faulty conclusions.
2. Pray God will purge his church of all ethnic partiality.
3. Pray Christians will be interested in pursuing good solutions to racism rather than just decrying solutions with which we disagree.
Austin Suter is the editor of United? We Pray. He is a member of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. This article originally published Sept. 19, 2020, and is republished here by permission. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Baptist Standard.