Carol Swain is a retired professor of political science and law from Vanderbilt University. One of twelve children, she grew up in a two-room, tar-paper-covered shack with a tin roof. Her bedroom was the kitchen floor. The house was drafty and lacked indoor plumbing. Heat came from woodburning stoves, and water from a spring that looked more like a mudhole than a fresh water supply. She and her siblings had to haul water in buckets up to the shack that was our home.
As a child, I remember hunger, ill-fitting clothes, missed days and weeks of school, and regular fights between my alcoholic mother and stepfather. Eventually my older sister and I ran away as teens to live with a father we didn’t know. I became a ninth-grade dropout and later, a teenaged wife and mother.
Swain is black. She faced her share of racism from whites. She had to overcome failed marriages, bouts of depression, and ostracism. Recently she wrote about how she succeeded against such overwhelming odds. “I was convinced that I was born into a land of opportunity. Despite being born black and poor, I learned that one’s attitude toward life was far more important than your race or social class in determining what you will accomplish” (Race and Covenant, Acton Books, 2020, chapter 10). More recently she has written that “being black actually advantaged me because the whites I encountered seemed eager to offer a helping hand to someone who was perceived as a talented hard worker.”
If Swain had put her trust in Critical Race Theory, she might have given up early on. It might have persuaded her that the American system was stacked against any poor black woman, and that it was useless to try.
Now she thinks CRT will only “create anger, frustration, and despondency” in the black youth it purports to help:
How will it help inner-city blacks to perpetuate this narrative . . . that they are victims of white supremacy and privilege? Should we keep telling them that they cannot thrive because of slavery in centuries past and white privilege today? Will this really help them? Is it even true?
I don’t think so. There are plenty of blacks, like me, who have come from dire circumstances and have risen above the circumstances of our birth. One thing missing from the usual narrative is the role of individual autonomy: individuals make choices about how they are going to spend their time and their money. What they believe about the world influences their actions and, if they believe the wrong story, can limit their opportunities (ibid.).
Swain also thinks that the basic vision of CRT is opposed to that of Christian faith. It divides the world up into racial groups whereas “the New Testament teaches a trans-racial unity that breaks down all racial and class barriers: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus’” (Gal. 3:28; ibid.).
- CRT redefines the gospel. Philosopher Max Horkheimer, leading theorist of “critical theory” from which CRT was an offshoot, said that the aim of all critical theory is to “create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of human beings” (Critical Theory 1972, 246). CRT is an alternative gospel with its own depiction of the basic human problem and its solution. Its theorists say that the basic human problem is racism that is perpetuated by social and economic systems of Western liberalism. Liberation comes when “woke” whites join people of color in tearing down the existing system and replacing it with new structures run by people of color. Because people of color have “competence,” their new structures will satisfy basic human needs.
For classical Christian faith on the other hand, the basic human problems are sin, death, and the devil. God brings the solution through Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection–and through the Church that mediates that resurrected life to the world. The Church is called to be a city on the hill where Christians let their light shine, but they are reminded that without reconciliation with God human dignity cannot be restored. Followers of Jesus are to fight racism, but only while realizing that “we fight not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places” (Eph 6.12). They are to beware of being taken “captive by philosophy” that promises liberation by “human beings who cannot save” (Col. 2.8; Ps. 146:3).
- CRT redefines truth and its pursuit. It proclaims that truth comes from below and is found in the lived experience of people of color. Because that experience has presumed competence over all other narratives, it becomes the criterion which judges all other claims to truth, beauty and goodness.
Christian faith proclaims that Truth has come from above in a Person who has given us the overarching narrative that judges all other stories, no matter what experience has given rise to them: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14.6). There is no race of presumed competence, for “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Eph. 3.28). God “shows no partiality” to one race or another but accepts “anyone who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10.34).
God’s truth is not racialized. God shares it with those of every race who are “humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at his word” (Isa. 66.2). Wisdom begins not with racial understanding but with “the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 9.10).
- CRT redefines the moral life. CRT is a kind of salvation by ideology in which virtue is having the right view of racism, and the moral life is activism against liberal societal structures. CRT’s disciples are to join the fight against social and economic systems that are said to pervade every facet of society. What is important is the fight against structures outside the self, not the spiritual forces that tear the self away from God. It must recognize that at the center of the moral life is the recognition that whiteness is perhaps the greatest source of evil on the planet.
Christian faith asserts in contrast that we can win the world and lose our soul. We “can understand all mysteries” about the evils of society and “give away all we have” for social causes, but if we “have not love, we are nothing” (1 Cor 13.2-3). Following Jesus is not about rage against oppressors but recognizing the potential oppressor in each one of us. In other words, humility. It is not filled with bitterness toward another race but love for enemies. It recognizes that we cannot fight against social evils if we are not fighting the evils of lust and anger and worldliness within each one of us.
In other words, the moral life for Christian faith is not about having the right opinions about oppressors but “walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.1-2). Rather than assuming fundamental human difference because of race, it seeks union with those who are different (Rom 14.13). Rather than assuming the worst of a brother or sister because of skin color, it considers the other as better than yourself (Phil. 2.3).
- CRT redefines our identity. For CRT, the world is divided into two groups, the oppressors and the oppressed. Each person is defined by his or her group. Even those who condemn racism are defined as oppressors if they belong to the wrong (white) group. People of color are victims of systemic oppression by whites and so are considered innocents in the cosmic war between good and evil. White people are “complicit” in white society’s war against color, no matter what they say they believe or do.
Your identity is therefore determined by the racial group that society claims for you. Your virtue or vice are also determined by that group into which you were born. If you are white, there might be personal liberation if you confess your complicity and join the worldwide movement against racism and its systemic structures. Then you might gain solidarity with the forces of light that are gradually driving evil out of the world.
The Christian faith does not recognize race as significant to personal identity. In fact, the Bible that formed much of the Western tradition suggested what biologists and anthropologists now affirm–human unity that transcends what society has called races: “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17.28 KJV).
Classical Christianity has proclaimed that all humans are united both as fellow creatures made in the image of God and as sinners standing under God’s judgment. “None is righteous” in himself, “no not one” (Rom 3.10b).
The Christian faith has added a third identity marker for those who have submitted to Jesus’ Lordship—they are Christian believers washed by the blood of the Lamb through faith and baptism.
For both CRT and historic Christianity, there are two groups of human beings. For CRT the line that separates those two groups divides races and power, but the line for Christian faith divides those who submit to Christ and those who do not. In the City of God there are people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Rev 7.9), and the people outside the City are also from every nation and tribe.
In short, CRT would have people find their identity in their racial group and relation to power, while Christians find their identity as sinners saved by the blood of the Lamb, united with fellow believers of every race.
- CRT enjoins its devotees to participate in sinful practices. Teachers of CRT tell their followers they need to recognize that “no white member of society” is “innocent” of racism. Every white, whether she knows it or not, has a “need to guard [her] position” and this “powerfully determine[s her] perspective.” They should also recognize that people of color have a “unique voice” that “brings with it a presumed competence.”
This encourages people to practice what Jesus condemned, judgment of another person’s thinking and character: “Do not judge, lest you too be judged” (John 7.1). It imputes motives to another person on the basis of that person’s skin color—bad motives to one skin color and good motives to other colors. This is racism by another name. It is also sinful judgment.
It is a violation of Jesus’ Golden Rule, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7.12). No one wants to be judged by the color of their skin. Jesus forbids them to do that to others.
Because CRT teaches a new racism in the name of a fight against racism, it instructs its devotees to do what the New Testament condemns—“do[ing] evil that good may come” (Rom 2.8). In effect, CRT endorses the principle that the end justifies the means.
Let me be clear. Slavery and Jim Crow were evil and systemic. Racism is sin. But Christians must not allow their hatred for the sin of racism to so cloud their vision that they put their faith in a philosophy that has become a new religion for its devotees—a religion that in significant ways conflicts with historic Christian faith.
The danger is the same that has tempted Jews and Christians for millennia–idolatry that seduces men and women away from the living God.
Professor Gerald R. McDermott is the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. Among his many books are six on Jonathan Edwards. This is adapted from a three part series on his blog The Northampton Seminar.