How many books by people of color do you have on your shelves? How about women? When you reach for a commentary do you inevitably grab one written by a white male? What about the Bible you read, were the translators mostly white and male? My guess is that you have encountered some of these questions on social media of late, perhaps you have even been challenged with similar queries from the pulpit? Indeed even some prominent Anglican clergy ask them. If you do not have a sufficient answer, if you realize under such questioning that you do not have the right proportion of authors of color and women on your shelves, you will likely come away burdened by a sense of guilt, as if you have sinned in some way. This is how Critical Theory works.
Critical Theory(CT) is the term used for a system of social analysis and revolution, Marxist in origin, that arose from within what is called the “Frankfurt School” in the early twentieth century. To understand the categories of thought embraced by critical theorists it is helpful to have at least a basic grasp of Karl Marx’s historical ideology.
Historical Roots of Critical Theory
As the industrial revolution swept across Europe in the 19th century there began a massive population shift from country to city. Men, women, and children desperate for employment took factory jobs, most working long hours for low pay. Meanwhile, a growing middle class began to assert itself. Merchants, businessmen, and professionals became increasingly affluent, enjoying the fruits of working-class labor. Industrialists became immensely wealthy while laborers who produced the items upon which their wealth was built lived and toiled in despairing, inhuman conditions. Various labor movements sprang up in protest, some calling for labor reform, others for revolution. Karl Marx was by no means the first or the only revolutionary of the Industrial Age but he was responsible for articulating the predominant revolutionary paradigm which provided the foundation for the tyrannical and bloody communist regimes of the twentieth century.
Marx theorized that eventually and inevitably the working masses, the proletariat, would take ownership of the means of production (factories, mills, plants, etc) from the bourgeoisie (the capitalist owners of most of society’s wealth and means of production). They would establish a utopian state (Communism) in which the proletariat, rather than the bourgeois, would own the means of production and have an equal share in their products. Private ownership would wither away and all things would be shared in common.
While Marx held Communism to be an historical inevitability, Vladimir Lenin argued that history must be given a violent nudge. Subsequent to the Russian revolution, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party took power and bourgeois and aristocratic blood began to flow, along with that of peasants unwilling to surrender their small plots of land or their stores of produce to Bolshevik thugs. Lenin initiated a totalitarian murder apparatus that succeeded in killing tens of thousands of such “class enemies.” But Lenin’s achievement pales in comparison to the millions his successor Stalin slaughtered, and even he was outdone by Mao in China.
Atheism underlies the Marxist ethic. Judeo/Christian understandings of right and wrong are, according to the Marxist ethos, inherently bourgeois notions and therefore counter-revolutionary. The Revolution is god. In Lenin’s adaptation of Marx, the Party is the Revolution. The Party is also the State (there is no distinction) and the true embodiment of the proletariat or, more simply, the “people.”
To be bourgeois is to stand condemned as an enemy of the Revolution and thus the Party and thus the People. It does not matter how hard you have worked to earn what you own, nor how little you own, the fact that you are bourgeois means that you have necessarily profited from the labor of the proletariat. Your wealth is the fruit of capitalist exploitation. You are a class enemy. The only chance for redemption is reeducation which, if you submit to it, will produce a “raised consciousness” through which you renounce your class privileges and repent of your exploitation.
According to revolutionary logic, even a worker can be a class enemy. If you would rather have the Church and Tsar, if you are content to work in your factory, take home your pay, and provide for your family you are, despite your objective employment as a factory worker, bourgeois. Should the vast majority of workers prefer the Tsar to the Party, they would, in spite of their numbers, not be counted as belonging to the People.
“quantitative indices alone cannot be taken as the decisive determinants for judging the real nature of a revolutionary grouping. More fundamental are such qualitative features as the program and relationship with the class whose interests it formulates, represents, and fights for. ‘The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party,’ wrote Trotsky in ‘What Next?’— ‘The class, taken by itself, is only raw material for exploitation. The proletariat acquires an independent role only at that moment when, from a social class in itself, it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious.'”(James P. Canon, “The Revolutionary Party and its Role in the Struggle for Socialism“)
On the basis of such reasoning, the affluent intellectuals who ran the Chinese totalitarian police state named their nationalized prison camp the “The People’s Republic” while systematically murdering the People.
Critical theorists broadened the scope of Marxist thought beyond economics and class into the realms of race, culture, and sex. Those who possess social power by virtue of cultural dominance occupy, within CT, the role filled by the bourgeois in classical Marxism. Social power or “privilege” takes the place of the “means of production” and “wealth”. Those who do not possess social power, the “oppressed,” occupy the role of the People. The highly educated and affluent intellectuals who recognize these inequities and agitate for a redistribution of power and a material redress of historical wrongs, occupy the role of the Party.
Critical Theory Today
The white European male, to take a contemporary application of critical theory, enjoys social privileges that the female person of color does not. His privilege has been gained by stifling non-privileged voices. Whether he has personally taken part in colonization, slavery, racial discrimination, rape, or sexual abuse, he enjoys the social benefits procured by the same and therefore bears responsibility for them. The social privilege he enjoys is an ill-gotten gain that must be redistributed. He must be disempowered. His personal behavior is irrelevant, his actual heritage (Irish, German, French) is also irrelevant. His maleness and whiteness are inherently oppressive. To be redeemed he must be reeducated, become aware, enlightened or, as they say now, woke. He must renounce his whiteness (not his skin color per se but the exploitation inextricably bound up with it), divest from his social privilege and give place and deference to oppressed groups. In other words, he must adopt the language, speech, and thought patterns of critical theory. But, of course, he can never quite undo his maleness or whiteness. He must, therefore, live a life of public penance and self denunciation until he lets loose the mortal coil.
CT, like classical Marxism, has no place for God or for Judeo/Christian norms. These are considered tools of oppression, the means by which the forces of “whiteness” and “patriarchy” have suppressed the voices of people of color and women and cultural minorities. A married Latina woman who sleeps around with other women, for example, is not an oathbreaker, adulteress, and homosexual offender. She is a revolutionary, a romantic icon of liberation, taking hold of the freedoms that have been denied to her by centuries of white patriarchal cis-culture. The proper response from her husband and from society as a whole will be, must be, applause and affirmation. Should a female person of color harbor intense racial animosity toward Caucasians, she is not guilty of racism. Racism is prejudice coupled with power. The powerless, by definition, cannot be racist. Racism is an evil only the white person can commit. Sexism is a sin only men can commit.
The civil rights ideal of “color-blindness” or impartiality also has no place in CT. To treat the white man and the woman of color equally, paying no heed to the color of skin, but to the content of character, is anathema. Color, sex, whether you are or are not a member of a victimized group, these are the most crucial aspects of a person’s humanity. To ignore them is to protect privilege and succor the oppressors. To measure ideas articulated by caucasian thinkers alongside those espoused by thinkers of an oppressed group, applying equal scrutiny to both, is to protect privilege. Worse, it is to employ the tools of colonization (western thought) to suppress the voices of the exploited. The thoughts of the oppressed inherently carry more value because they are the thoughts of the oppressed.
Under Marxist systems, one can be classed as bourgeois even though objectively a member of the proletariat. So it is with Critical Theory. A person of color who embraces politically conservative principles and traditional values, who favors “colorblind” impartiality, is not really a person of color. He is an “oreo,” black on the outside but white within. Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and Voddie Baucham would all fall under the “oreo” classification.
While in its secular form, CT, in keeping with its Marxist roots, is materialist and atheist, the model, borrowing the language of liberation and principles of corporate responsibility from the Christian worldview, provides an attractive paradigm for Christian thinkers looking to apply what they believe to be the Gospel to contemporary political and social questions. Too often it also becomes the paradigm through which these thinkers re-read and often reinterpret scripture.
Critical Theory: Another Gospel
The scriptures say much about protecting and providing for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Those with wealth and authority are to use their power to lift up the needy from the ash heap. Generosity is not optional. There is no place in the New Testament for ethnic hatred or partiality. Jesus’ death on the cross tore down the wall of division between Jew and Gentile. While ethnic and sex distinctions do not fade away or become meaningless, in Christ they enhance rather than inhibit the union he bled and died to establish. No one has ever come close to offending another man or woman to the extent that we have all offended God. And yet he has mercy, he forgives our debts, he bleeds for our iniquities.
Christians who embrace CT, however, take up the biblical language of the Gospel, calling for “repentance” and “reconciliation” while subtly replacing biblical definitions of sin and repentance and notions of justice with those borrowed from CT. This is often difficult to spot because CT is, itself, a counterfeit of the Christian worldview and it mirrors the biblical pattern of law, conviction, confession, repentance, and redemption.
Liberal Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism has long been under the sway of various forms of Critical Theory. Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Black Theology, and Queer Theology all begin with CT assumptions. The works of the late James Cone, who sought to baptize racialist partiality in the name of liberation, have lately become widely influential within evangelicalism and probably explain the recent surge of CT language and thought by evangelical and, perhaps, some Anglican leaders.
In broad terms, the narrative tends to work along the following lines. The Gospel is less about God saving sinners from eternal condemnation through the righteous life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection of his Son than it is about God’s solidarity with the oppressed and his demand for justice. God identifies with the poor, the victim, the minority, the immigrant. God picked a particular group, the Jews, liberating them from slavery. He sent his prophets to speak truth to power, offending exploiters and giving hope to the exploited. He came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as an impoverished peasant, a refugee threatened by a murderous king, an immigrant born to an unwed mother. He sought social justice. He refused to submit to the privileged of his day and called them to let loose the chains of greed and power. So they killed him. They hung him on a tree. He was lynched because he refused to conform. But by his life and death, God himself says to the world that he is One with the victim, the stranger, the outcast, the refugee, the woman, the person of color. Wherever there is inequity, Christ is the victim. He calls all those occupying privileged social places to repent of their racism, sexism, and exploitation.
Baptized Critical Theory is a complete soteriological system with its own law and gospel. The white person must not ask: am I a racist? He must ask: in what ways am I racist? He must repent of his whiteness. Should he object, his objection will be dismissed as fragility. The classic doctrines of the church, because they reflect values and voices of the victors, must be challenged and give way to theologies of the oppressed. The male must renounce any notion of patriarchal headship and give way to egalitarian relationships. To refuse these renunciations is to deny the Gospel and continue in sin and unbelief. This “Gospel” is exclusively for those who are deemed powerless. They have little of which to repent. They rest in the assurance that Christ is embodied in their struggle.
By subverting the true Law and true Gospel in favor of Marxist categories, the Christian form of Critical Theory endangers the soul. Some labor under condemnation for sins that are no sins at all and/or from which there is no redemption. Others, encouraged to focus on injustices done to them, are blinded to their own need for forgiveness and mercy. Christ is reimaged as a contemporary revolutionary, his universal call to personal repentance and faith silenced. The cross of Christ is robbed of its propitiatory power and is reduced to a symbol of divine sympathy. The resurrection of Christ becomes a metaphor for social liberation. Critical Theory is poison to the Christian faith made more deadly by the ease with which its proponents appropriate Christian language and patterns of proclamation.
Of course, not all those who use the language of CT fully embrace its tenets or understand the paradigm underlying the language they use. Its subtlety is part of its great strength. Many continue to hold an orthodox understanding of the Gospel while using CT as an “analytical tool”. But there are some, and their numbers increase, who have so embraced CT that the Gospel has become synonymous with it.
In the coming weeks and months I plan to provide illustrations of Critical Theory’s growing influence within the evangelical and Anglican realms. CT is, at first, difficult to spot but once you know what to look for it is hard to miss. Alongside these illustrations I hope to offer biblical responses that will equip Christians to answer CT advocates charitably but definitively.