Critical theorists help us understand history
In the introduction to this series, I argued that we often think of critical race theory the wrong way. We see it as a unit to be taken up or rejected as a whole. We view it as a monolith, rather than seeing it as a complex field of study occupied by social scientists and historians making conflicting claims.
Rather than talking about critical race theory as a unitary discipline, we will instead engage and assess some of the claims of individual critical race theorists.
There is a lot to criticize about the claims of critical race theorists, and we’ll get to it. But first, let’s see how critical race theorists can help us be more faithful Christians by helping us understand our own national history.
The Racial History of American Christianity
Christian theology is not meant to be practiced by hermits independent of all society and history. We must understand our situation in order to faithfully apply the scriptures to it. Just as missionaries strive to understand their specific contexts and pastors get to know their people, we all need to understand the world around us to bear a convincing and faithful testimony of Christ.
The problem is, when it comes to American history, white Bible-believing Christians have not done well on the issue of race. In fact, looking at the history of racism in America, we have done some terrible things. Christians have too often actively participated in racism and have not fully taken into account the historical failures of predecessors whom we otherwise claim and cherish.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr., written to the white clergy in Birmingham, Alabama prison that the biggest stumbling block to justice was not blatant racists, but white Christians who did not care enough to step in and help.
In essence, Christians have been accused of complicity in an unjust system. While this may be true in some cases, I think the reality is much worse. Christians were not only silent in the face of injustice. Much of the racial injustice in American history has been perpetrated by people who call themselves Christians. Worse yet, by people who claimed to be doing a lot of truth and caring a great deal about theology and faithfulness to the Scriptures. What do we do with it?
Our national story
We can call it something like a disturbing inconsistency. Or an unfortunate faux pas. Or we could dismiss it and not talk about it. To minimize is its own form of lying.
The Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answer 145 defines lying, in part, as “undue silence in a just cause, and the maintenance of the peace when iniquity calls for either a rebuke from us or a complaint to others.”
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But some lie even more boldly and buy lost cause story. In examining the historiography of the race by people who call themselves Christians, these are the approaches you are likely to find.
Racism and all of its heinous children – slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, redlining – are seen as nasty footnotes to an otherwise idyllic society and heritage. We worship our heroes and minimize their sins.
This is where critical race theorists can help us, if we let them. They don’t have heroes whose reputations they feel obligated to protect. Many of them took stock of the racial sins of American Christians and painted a damning picture. While this may make us feel bad, is it true?
When political pressure mounted against slavery, a new biblical proclamation Presbyterian and Baptist denominations formed to protect the practice, or not? Even a century later, during the civil rights movement, the political muscle of conservative Christianity supported him, or Southern Baptists such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms oppose it politically?
Perhaps the worst sin of white Christians was not complacency. It wasn’t just that King didn’t have allies on the pews of moderate white churches, as he called them. He had enemies all over the place, like Thurmond and Helms.
Critical race theorists have done a good historical job in pointing out the complacency, sins of omission, and outright racism of American Christians across the centuries. We have to let them do it. It will help us understand the legacy of racial tension and ignorance that we inherit. It will help us understand how we are seen by the world. And it will help us decide what corrective actions need to be taken.
A good use of critical race theory
You’ve probably heard an argument that goes like this: America must go back to the values and practices of yesteryear in order to achieve the desired moral or political outcome. But breaking down this pill forces us to ignore a number of compelling facts.
Was America morally better in previous centuries? If so, who benefited? This is where Christian historians and critical race theorists suffer from opposing problems. Many Christian historians ignore the facts in order to reinforce our favorite account of the past. Critical race theorists painstakingly piece together the facts, then pass them through ideological prisms to project a vision of the future that we should not support.
We should not buy solutions that go against the word of God. But it would be irresponsible to ignore facts that do not correspond to our preconceptions of our history. We should learn from critical race theorists who shed light on the historical blind spots we have.
Many articles on critical race theory by self-identified evangelicals or Reform Christians will admit that Christians can benefit from knowledge of critical race theory. But the conclusion of many of these pieces is that Critical Race Theory has fundamental incompatibilities with Christianity and, as such, is too dangerous to read and study. If this is the conclusion, the utility admissions are only lip service. What one hand gives, the other wins.
Our own historiography on race issues is sorely lacking. Let us not divert ideas from common grace. The correct way to assess a truth statement is not to ask whether the individual making it has been infected with critical race theory.
Once we have established the veracity of historical claims, we come to an important question: “What do we do about it?” We will address this issue in Part Three of this series.
Ways to pray:
1. Pray that God will make us receptive to the truth no matter who says it.
2. Pray that God will make us humble enough to recognize facts that we don’t like.
3. Pray that God’s people will care more about eradicating racism than about defending themselves against accusations of racism.
Austin Suter is the editor of United? We pray. He is a member of the Oakhurst Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC This article was originally published on September 10, 2020 and is republished here with permission. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Baptist standard.