The controversy surrounding how America, and, specifically, the American Church must reckon with her racist history has reached a fever-pitch in the last few years. There is broad disagreement both on whether historical racism continues to affect minority populations at all, and, if so, how severe and systemic those effects actually are. There is even less agreement on meaningful remedies for historical racism. In more recent days, Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become something of a flash point, with both proponents and decriers of CRT using it as a rallying cry and litmus test for their thought-tribes.
At their most coarse, the arguments have devolved into either:
1) If you don’t see the value of CRT as a tool for measuring the effects of racial oppression, you’re a racist (and in America right now, there’s no sin greater than racism); or
2) If you do see the value of CRT as a tool for measuring the effects of racial oppression, you’re a Marxist who wants to destroy America.
Sadly, the tone, language, and substance of these arguments continue to be echoed in the Church. In other words, there’s really no difference in the dialogue happening in the public square from the dialogue happening in the Church (especially “Christian Twitter,” if one can forgive an oxymoron). I wonder at times if the dialogue in the church is actually more acrid than in culture. Clearly, God called out a people (His Church) to be different, to live differently, and to love differently. “Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord…” (2 Corinthians 6:17). “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).”Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children, and walk in love…” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Why then are we not acting or sounding as a set-apart community that God designed to witness to His redeeming love and Spirit-filled reconciling work in this world? Would to God the Church was under fire for living this way!
We are arguing about the wrong issues and arguing about them in the wrong way. CRT will neither save us or destroy us, Church. “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).
If the American Church were released from having to borrow ideas from the world to use as arbitrary lines in the sand, what then would be the basis of our dialogue and disagreement? If the current spat was not centered on CRT, what other options do we, as the church, have to engage ethnic sin?
(As an aside, we as a church already successfully navigate a myriad other concepts, tools, therapies, lenses, and sociological theories that could be divisive. By the Spirit, we are able to look at the relative truth and helpfulness of attachment theory, family system theory, cognitive therapy, and so on. As believers, we have the freedom to recognize truth, in whatever system or setting it presents itself, as being God’s truth. We can apply theories and frameworks in a uniquely biblical way, even if the main proponents of those works do not or cannot. This is our birthright and heritage as children of God – using and applying truth in redemptive ways in a world cursed by sin.)
I know, CRT naysayers, what you might be thinking: But some theories are so philosophically and theologically flawed as to warrant their wholesale disregard and warning to the church at large.
I know, CRT proponents, what you might be thinking: Oh great, another post that doesn’t deal with CRT but rather tells us to simply preach the gospel and our racial disagreements will melt away.
Stay with me, please.
Back to my earlier question: if we didn’t have to frame our race discussion in the same way the world does how would we frame it? What would be central, if not CRT? How do we avoid fighting over the wrong things because we are too full of the flesh to see and respond in a Spirit-filled way to one another? What if, before we ever looked at the relative truthfulness or helpfulness of CRT, we addressed our preexisting conflict in a thoroughly-biblical way?
We can start by centering Christ.
Christ is the Head, the King, the Center. Let’s starting acting on that reality. All things flow from Him and He is over all. He is Head of the Church, and we are joined simultaneously to one another and to Him at the same time. So before we jump to labeling one another as heretics, cutting one another from fellowship, or characterizing one another by hostile political stereotypes, let us pause to look for guidance from Jesus. “Jesus, what do you have to say to me-to us, your church? Jesus, I am taking my cues from you today in how I think about and respond to others with whom I disagree. Jesus, how can I bring honor on your name and on your Church by how I speak? Jesus, what sins are you seeing in me that I am blind to? Where am I in error? Jesus, please renew my mind.”
We can recommit to unity within the body.
Biblical unity is not a pass to gloss over truth nor an excuse to erase the real and historic concerns of people. It is a spiritual ideal for which Jesus gave His life and by which His people are to proclaim their strongest Christian apologetic in this world. This is something for which we are to strive and labor and fight to maintain.
If my Black brother or sister has been unsuccessful in gaining my spiritual attention or compassion and must resort to CRT to try to explain why they, their family, and those who look like them have struggled and continue to struggle, my response cannot be to attack CRT. It must first be to recall that Christ is my Head and I am connected under Him to my Black brother. It must be to recommit myself to biblical unity, not look for a way to prove my rightness and gravitate towards a camp that only affirms what I already think. From those rock-solid theological starting places (Christocentrism and biblical unity), I can begin to listen, love, and understand. Where I have contributed, knowingly or unknowingly, to the sin of partiality or any other ethnic-based sin, I can and must repent and change my ways, submitting to the mutual discipleship and sanctifying work that God has provided in the Body.
Can CRT help illuminate the compounded effects of marginalization and sin that have exacerbated my brother’s pain? Can it be a tool to build empathy in me? Can it help me look at and build systems within the church that are more shepherding? Perhaps, yes. But CRT isn’t The Guide here; Jesus is. It’s really only helpful inasmuch as my heart is ready to submit to Jesus and fight for unity already. CRT isn’t transformative; Jesus – as the perfect image of Truth and Grace, is. Maybe we’ve made CRT a boogeyman because in so doing we do not have to do the hard work of listening, understanding, repenting, sharing authority, and being discipled by a holistic, diverse Body of Christ. So long as we center CRT in the fight, we can use the threat of CRT to create a fear and therefore a following.
Could it be that those of us who have been saying, “Just preach the gospel and stop talking about ethnic sin,” show just how shallow our gospel understanding is and how sinfully dismissive we have become to others?
On the other hand…
If I have been sinned against and have allowed bitterness to grow in my heart because of ethnic sins committed against me, CRT is a poor savior. Because CRT does not include a framework for sin, it also carries no true remedy for sin. It can describe a power dynamic or attempt to illuminate intersections of oppression on certain types of people. But in the end, its only remedy is to dismantle systems or reshuffle power and call it “justice.”
So what if CRT was not the starting point for the sinned-against, either? Is Jesus and His Word sufficient to address historic, systemic ethnic sins? He is. It is.
We can start by centering Christ.
Jesus is the Head of the marginalized, hurting church, too. He represents ultimate power, and He shares that power and Spirit with us, His body. We belong to the most powerful King and are members and inheritors of the kingdom. Satan, along with death itself, are enslavers who will be dismantled by Jesus on the day He returns. Though He is King, He was also a suffering servant. We know that being attached to Him means we will not be spared pain, but that our pain will have ultimate meaning and will be the means of sweet redemption and fellowship with Him. Our experience of marginalization matters intensely to a God who feels it with us. Because our hope in Him is steadfast, we are released from creating a perfect heaven on earth.
We can recommit to unity within the body.
The sinned-against are not exempt from commitment to biblical unity, either. Biblical unity is not the weak rolling over for the strong; it a mutual giving up of self to honor and celebrate the other. It is forgiveness and grace on display because Christ, the Head, is the Chief Forgiver who deals with our sin in a way that can only be described as ultimate and final. Biblical unity is a value not just to get along, but to elevate a Christ who is able to redeem and transform knuckleheads and racists like Peter (see Galatians 2). Biblical unity builds Christ’s body, it doesn’t dismantle it. In some contexts, unity looks like a historically-marginalized person taking up the mantle of servant leadership, leading and serving those whose histories include ethnic sin.
If Christians on either side of the CRT issue were to humbly sit down and recommit to these two theological starting points, what a difference this conversation could take! Maybe, just maybe, we could place less importance on CRT’s position to define our positions, illuminate our sins, or roadmap our solutions. Maybe we could engage in the nuance of eating the meat and spitting out the bones with this theory like the Church has done many times before.
Maybe we could stop arguing over the wrong things.
Maybe we could fight about the right things.
Maybe we could point out blind spots, tell the truth, grieve, repent, forgive, heal, share space, advocate for one another, and do mission in the context of diverse and unified family.
Maybe we could rally around Christ.