For at least the last year there has been conflict over the question of race and the Gospel in the ACNA. This conflict has grown much more heated over the last two weeks in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and the subversion of those protests by rioters and looters.
The debate within the ACNA is not over whether racism is a sin or whether it exists, but over how we recognize it, the extent to which it underlies our systems, who is implicated by it, and what the Gospel offers in response. The argument can be quite heated. Recently the Anglican Compass published an open letter, Anti-Racism; A Letter to Our Fellow ACNA Clergy. Those who signed the letter believe it to be an important Gospel call to repentance and justice. Those who reject the letter believe that the ideas implicit in it are more consistent with Critical Theory than the Gospel. I am presently working on a commentary on the Letter in which I will explain why I could not in good conscience sign it.
In the meantime, I had a productive discussion with the Reverend Dr. Matthew Wilcoxen, Associate Rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Washington DC. Dr. Wilcoxen, who signed the aforementioned Letter, rejects Critical Theory and Critical Race Theory. But he argues that Christians might profitably engage with and employ certain aspects of critical theories under the governing rule of scripture. He recently posted an explanation of his views on Facebook. I responded and he and I had the exchange that I have, with his permission, reproduced below. I think it is a healthy and productive one that both fleshes out our differences and moves us past some of the mischaracterizations that inevitably arise in the midst of heated conflicts.
Dr. Wilcoxen: As conversations about race and justice swirl, people keep asking me about “Critical Race Theory”. Often the term has been used by others to tell them that the thing they are reading, or even the language they are using, is deeply dangerous and must be avoided at all costs.
So, here’s an attempt to provide some much-needed context:
Critical Theories are interpretive approaches to the world that see nearly everything (texts, laws, systems, institutions, practices) as socially constructed for the purposes of maintaining and consolidating power of some people over others. The primary prescription of critical theories is, therefore, deconstruction—recognizing the cultural-situatedness of these constructs so that they can be dismantled and rebuilt to be more just (where justice = radical equality).
The main problems with critical theories are: (1) the assumption that human life is organized *only* (or at least primarily) by the will-to-power, (2) the way [critical theorists] see things as social constructs all the way down, and not rooted in any enduring “nature”, (3) the fact that they offer no real, credible alternative to a world organized around zero-sum notions of oppressive power.
So, it makes perfect sense that Christians, who must reject (1)-(3), are worried about Critical Theory.
However, Christians do not reject the reality that the culture in which one lives is, in significant ways, constructed. (One need only look at the existence of other cultures to realize this.) Christians also do not reject the fact that the ways in which cultures are constructed can be, and often have been, evil and oppressive. (Though some elements are perhaps neutral, and others certainly good).
There is, therefore, no reason in principle that Christians, rooted in sound doctrine, should not engage in a form of Critical Theory. There is also no reason in principle that they cannot make an ad hoc use of the analyses of critical theories. In all things, this ad hoc foray into critical theory must be done under the authority of holy scripture and the church’s creeds. It is further, therefore, erroneous to see any Christian use of the language or even the analysis of critical theory as somehow dangerous.
Matt Kennedy: I think the things Wilcoxen rejects are at the very heart of Critical Race Theory. The things he thinks we might utilize as tools, I’m unclear about. What specific advantage does any CRT analysis hold over a biblical analysis employing 1. the biblical categories of impartiality and 2. the biblical principle of ethnic equality of being grounded in the imago dei and the Gospel?
Dr. Wilcoxen: “Partiality” is a radically individualistic way of conceiving of sin. To seek to recast the discussion in that way is to ignore the fact that we are part of a larger culture that has influenced us in deep ways. It is to foreclose the possibility of deeper critique that is, in fact, needed.
Now, I am not saying that we *need* critical theory. But I am saying that we need to do something similar to what it does in cultural critique (but our critique is more critical!), and I would argue that Christians have been doing this well before critical theory became a thing.
Matt Kennedy: I don’t think partiality is necessarily an individualistic perception of sin at all, much less “radically” so. Aparthied was, by definition, a partial system, so was Jim Crow. I don’t need a Marxist analytical tool to see that.
As to your second paragraph, I agree which is why I don’t understand why anyone would want to use such a corrosive system. Nihilists, for example, are correct about the futility of life (if God does not exist) but why use a Nihilist analysis, corrosive as that system is to Christian thought, when Christian categories provide a more accurate analysis with a far better conclusion?
Dr. Wilcoxen: This raises good questions. A lot could be said about the relation between theology and philosophy. For now, I’ll just say that I think the insistence on only “biblical categories” can be a dangerous move. It tends to assume that one has immediate access to the scriptures, access that isn’t mediated by one’s cultural lens and personal experience. The result is a greater tendency to produce categories that already agree with what one thinks. The way to have critical distance is to read scripture alongside the church’s tradition, first, and in dialogue with surrounding culture, second.
Scripture is supreme and authoritative, but we recognize that our interpretation of what constitutes “biblical categories” is not necessarily identical to scripture.
Matt Kennedy: Don’t get me wrong. I do think some extra biblical systems of thought can be helpful and provide insights into aspects of the truth. So I am not suggesting that we use “only biblical categories all the time”. I think Hans Boersma has done some interesting work with regard to the influence of Platonism on Christian sacramental thought before it was eclipsed by the rising Aristotelian influence in the latter part of the middle ages. And certainly, extra-biblical categories were employed in the fourth and fifth centuries to articulate the thoroughly biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
My contention, however, is that there are some philosophies that are so antithetical to Christian ideals that employing them as tools actually serves to do harm rather than add anything of value to Christian thought. That’s why I think your rejection of core Critical Race Theory assertions is interesting. Your three rejections actually do away with Critical Race Theory (and Critical Theory) as a system. But then you go on to argue that some aspects of CRT analysis might be helpful (perhaps in some way like Boersma sees Platonism as helpful).
But my argument has been that unlike the Christian engagement with Platonism, CRT does not add anything of substance to a purely biblical analysis using biblical categories and language. In fact, the biblical analysis is far more decisive and accurate. I think the reason for this is that CRT (like CT) is a counterfeit of Christian ethical thought. It simply cannot do better than the original. I wrote about this in my second article on CT/CRT:
“Imagine that a skilled artist paints a portrait of a beautiful young woman. A less skilled rival sees the painting and recognizing its quality decides to copy the portrait to the best of his ability, presenting it to the world as if it were his own. But his skill is not like that of his rival. The strokes, the color, the beauty, the texture, all of it is similar from a distance. But when viewed up close, the degradations of the counterfeit become plain. It might be interesting to study the counterfeit by way of contrast with the original to get a better sense of the original’s quality by comparison. But one would not look to the counterfeit as a positive development from the original or as a complementary companion to it. One would certainly not wish to adopt the style and emulate the methodology of the counterfeit as if by doing so the style and skill of the original artist might be better expressed. Likewise to adopt the language and paradigms of CT to express Christian principles is to adopt a counterfeit and lose sight of the original altogether.”