In part one, we explored how critical race theory is not some monolithic field of study with a universal set of shared presuppositions or conclusions.
In part two, we looked at some helpful ways critical theorists have shown ugly truths of American history that many Christians have been more comfortable ignoring or trying to explain away.
In part three, we showed how those same theorists drew conclusions based on those facts that Christians could not get behind.
Where does that leave us?
I don’t claim to have solved everything in this series. I hope we have seen the value in engaging the work of critical race theorists as a corrective for the particular failings of white Christians over many years. I hope to have articulated a vision for reading the work of critical theorists in a way that does not treat them as necessarily radioactive.
This posture presumes a confident grounding in biblical truth that brings God’s word to bear in evaluating the claims and solutions by critical race theorists.
This kind of discerning work is not for the new believer or the poorly taught. I would not hand a Derrick Bell book to a young Christian and say: “You know, there’s some good stuff and some bad stuff in here. Figure it out.”
But I find concerning some patterns I see among Christians who engage critical race theory. I think we can do better. Here are a few ways:
Lean into hard conversations.
I see a lot of folks who are highly educated, biblically discerning, discipled Christians who take the lazy way out when confronted with claims by critical theorists. Rather than doing the work of evaluating the historical validity of a claim or the biblical morality of a proposed solution, many Christians will pull a parachute cord out of the conversation.
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It is easier to accuse someone of Marxism than to engage in a nuanced argument. But it doesn’t mean the accusation is true. Many who make such claims have only read summaries of critical race theory, rather than engaging primary sources, meaning they often critique caricatures rather than real arguments.
Let’s take the time to understand what is being said before we launch into arguments.
Ask questions, rather than appointing yourself the language police.
It is easy to accuse someone of an opinion or broader worldview they actually don’t hold. That can happen because we are lazy and do not actually engage, or it can happen because we insist on talking about race and racism with our preferred terms.
If a term developed out of critical race theory, some Christians won’t use it or have meaningful conversation with anyone who does. We need to remember our history.
Conversations about racial justice were happening in America long before most white Christians cared. It is unfitting for white Christians to show up to a conversation 30 (or more) years late and demand a whole new set of terms to proceed.
We need not assume just because someone uses a term with origins that have baggage or make us uncomfortable, they have a fully developed ideology behind it. Language does not work that way. People use words in different ways. Context matters.
Work to understand the person you are talking with, rather than insisting they talk just like you before you’ll engage them.
Be fair in how you represent others.
Teachers throughout my years have reminded me of some variation of the first rule in engaging ideas: Always present your opponent’s argument accurately, so he or she would agree with your representation. This is simple obedience to the ninth commandment.
To our shame, critical theorists often seem to do a better job representing Christian claims than many Christians do explaining what critical theorists believe. We tend to oversimplify. We commit category errors, trying to shoehorn critical methodology into something familiar to us as Christians. We ought to be the last people in the world to do that kind of thing.
We have the word of God. We need not be threatened by any argument to the point of having to take a shortcut to defeat it.
Accept hard facts of history.
We discussed this at length in part three, but it bears repeating. When considering race and racism in American history, many white Christians often have been worse than ignorant. We misremember history in ways that obscures sins of racism committed by Christians in the past. Every time that happens, it requires moral compromise.
The Christians who tried to justify slavery sinned. Later Christians who did not own slaves but sympathized and participated in sustaining an oppressed Black class of people, sinned. Still later Christians who did not hold Klan rallies but who created Blacks-only water fountains sinned. The Christians who did not discriminate at the water fountain but who participated in redlining cities and effectively creating a Blacks-only part of town sinned.
How will subsequent generations understand us? As the naïve generation who believed we were disconnected from our sinful heritage? As those who shouted down any complaints or concerns from Christians of color, because it’s not the 1960s anymore, so we should all move on?
When we misremember history, we end up writing ourselves and our heroes onto the right side of it, rather than considering what actually happened. There can be no way forward without accurately representing the past and present.
Be humble, rather than incredulous.
Critical race theorists make some bold claims. Some claim Christianity invented the American brand of racism, or that Christianity is inherently racist. When confronted with such claims, Christians tend to be incredulous. We can react severely, as if the claim is ridiculous, and those making it are acting in bad faith.
But hang on. At what point in American history were white, Bible-believing Christians the leading advocates for racial justice?
Not in the 17th century, when we were some of the first to practice chattel slavery in America. Not in the 18th century, when many of our theologians were working to justify the practice of the day. Not in the 19th century, when we were forming new denominations in the South to protect said beloved institution. Not in the 20th century, when many of the politicians opposing the civil rights movement were prominent members of white Southern churches.
So, what are we incredulous about? The burden of proof is on us as white American Christians to show our faith leads to love of neighbor. I believe with all my heart it does. I also know our history suggests otherwise. That inconsistency belongs to God’s people, not God.
We ought to be humble, rather than pretend there never has been a problem.
Present positive visions, rather than just criticize.
Some in my circles take great pains to point out every problem they see in the work other people are doing. Most will acknowledge we have not yet arrived at a place of perfect racial justice, but these folks might as well wear a sign on their chest that says, “Don’t do it that way!”
But Bible-believing, white Christians never have represented the bulk of any group of heroes for racial justice in America. Abolitionist movements never gained the momentum in the Bible-belt South they did in the North. Jim Crow was protected actively by Christians.
These days, if we among the white, Bible-believing tribes of Christianity have opposition to works of racial justice, we better have an alternative vision, instead of just shooting down every idea that walks past.
Isaac Adams, founder of United? We Pray, was right when he wrote to evangelicals earlier this year: “The easier thing to do is critique the Black Lives Matter org. I’m not saying there’s nothing to critique. But it’s the easier thing to do. The much harder thing to do is look in the mirror and ask why the church isn’t leading in addressing today’s racial injustices?”
Much more could be said. I hope to have set some guardrails for Christians to be more civil, humble, godly conversation partners as we protect biblical orthodoxy and learn from God’s common-grace insights from all his image-bearers.
Let’s resolve to be fair-minded and kind, and try to reduce the temperature of this conversation in the public sphere. Let’s abandon simplistic, reductionistic conversation tactics, even if they make us feel like we’ve won an argument.
Let us test every claim by the supreme standard of the word of God, and seek always to be more conformed to the perfect image of Jesus.
Ways you can pray:
1. Pray for a more civil, productive discourse around complicated topics.
2. Pray Christians wouldn’t retreat into tribes, only to lob grenades at each other.
3. Pray truth would prevail, regardless of who is telling it, and that God’s people would be known for seeking justice.
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. 25, 2020, and is republished here by permission. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Baptist Standard.