Culture

Understanding Critical Race Theory, Part 2

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Editor’s Note: there has been a great deal of conversation in and around Christian spaces regarding critical race theory (CRT), a framework that has become a lightning rod of controversy in both the church and political sectors, especially in recent years. Missio Alliance wanted to invite two people who have both done the work of thinking through and writing about CRT to our site, to help explain what CRT is and how Christians should evaluate it as well as the surrounding controversies about it. This is the second of a two-part series; today’s entry is by Jeff Liou, director of theological formation at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. You can click here to read part one from UCLA professor Robert Chao Romero.


At this point, you have seen from Robert Chao Romero’s reflections that Christians can view some of the key ideas within CRT through traditional biblical and theological lenses and themes. Why, then, all the fuss? More specifically, why has CRT been deemed “incompatible” with some specific doctrinal systems and entirely “unbiblical” by some critics? I’m going to focus on several concerns about CRT; I hope readers will find these explorations generative in their own discernment in how to respond to them. I’ll also get personal; my own experience of Anti-Asian racism during the global pandemic will illustrate why making a decision about CRT is important for us all and our faith communities.

Let’s consider the first major tenet of CRT that Robert described regarding sin. Much of the objection to CRT actually occurs here. When CRT began, only a few critical race theorists had theological training. It is not scandalous, then, that the word “sin” (or any other theological vocabulary) is mostly missing from the early law journals where CRT was first articulated. Some skeptics would seize upon those so-called “secular origins” by asserting that CRT is in no way necessary nor able to understand what Christian theology has already established in its doctrine of sin.

To say that “general revelation” or “common grace” make CRT potentially useful (which the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC] did in 2019), but also that CRT is unnecessary to understand that racism is sinful (which then-SBC president Al Mohler did in 2021) could easily be experienced as a mixed message.1 To be clearer, most skeptics that I have read do not object that CRT offers a high-resolution analysis of the awful workings of racism within the legal system, the educational system, and so on. Rather, CRT is “incompatible” to them because, in part, its ruthless critique of white supremacy does not reflect the doctrinal language by which skeptics narrate their world.

To say that 'general revelation' or 'common grace' make CRT potentially useful (as the SBC did in 2019) but also that CRT is unnecessary to understand that racism is sinful could easily be experienced as a mixed message. Click To Tweet

When the SBC Council of Seminary Presidents declared CRT incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), they were at least being compatible with their own theological framework. The BF&M emphasizes freedom of choice, moral agency, as well as the prerequisite of “the regeneration of the individual” for “truly and permanently helpful” engagement in the social order. In contrast, a critical race theorist might reply with the same theme that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr did long before CRT: that individuals, despite their noblest, most personal intentions, come together in social groupings to protect interests that can (and do) disadvantage those outside their grouping. In other words, if Christian doctrine must be shaped by “accountable freewill individualism” in order to be harmonious with the Bible (a posture which Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s work has correlated with a white evangelical approach to issues of racism and racial injustice), then we really do have a durable incompatibility, at least between the BF&M and CRT.

Fortunately, we can rely on other doctrinal formulations to help evaluate CRT. For example, the Confessions of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective articulate the scope of sin as including “powers, principalities, and elemental spirits of the universe [that] often hold people captive and work through political, economic, social, and even religious systems to turn people away from justice and righteousness.” Even in my own tradition, Abraham Kuyper argued the following in 1891:

Sin insofar as greed and lust for power (expressed either through force or through vicious custom and unjust law) disturbed or checked the healthy growth of human society, sometimes cultivating a very cancerous development for centuries. In time, both error and sin joined forces to enthrone false principles that violated human nature. Out of these false principles systems were built that varnished over injustice and stamped as normal that which actually stood opposed to the requirements for life.

Where does this leave us? I believe that it’s possible to understand some Christian traditions to have engaged in a kind of critical social analysis well before CRT. Certainly, many Christian communities of color (which may or may not be invested in this admittedly theoretical conversation) have already organized and operationalized their collective memories of racism and understanding of systems and structures that work against them in order to stand firm in the gospel. I am personally more concerned about those who would lean into a declaration that CRT is “antithetical to the Bible” and what such a declaration might mean for their fellowship with Christian traditions and communities that have taught and believed differently from the BF&M for decades and even centuries. What might it mean about ecumenicity and about interdenominational cooperation against racial injustice?

I'm personally more concerned about those who would lean into a declaration that CRT is 'antithetical to the Bible' and what such a declaration might mean for their fellowship with Christian traditions and communities that have taught… Click To Tweet

The difference in responses couldn’t be more dramatic or pastorally significant. On March 16, 2021, eight people were shot and killed in two separate spas in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of these victims were Asian American women. (Their names have been released elsewhere, but for this article, I have withheld them as I process the complexities of how and whether naming victims might shame or honor them and their families at this time and at this intersection of racial and sexual violence.) The mass murderer, a 21-year-old white man, took responsibility. The Southern Baptist church where he is a member issued a formal statement that illustrates the limitations I have attempted to describe. The statement takes pains to clarify that the church does not believe that the victims should be blamed.

However, in the course of making that clarification, the statement reads, “He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires… These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which [he] is completely responsible,” and, “Each person is responsible for his or her own sin.” The total failure to take any responsibility for the shaping of this man’s heart and mind is endemic to the “accountable freewill individualistic” doctrine of sin in which we are not necessarily our siblings’ keepers. In such a selectively biblicist logic, doctrine, theology, and ecclesial institutions play no role and therefore require no redress. It should be clear that this decades-long commitment to such doctrine functions as an apologetic for inaction.

Over the last year, as anti-Asian epithets have become increasingly lethal, I have pictured my own parents and friends being targeted for their racialized vulnerability. Due to my own communal imagination, I also picture the faces of many other “aunties” and “uncles,” both known and unknown to me, that I have seen victimized—one precious “auntie” I loved, murdered brutally. As I have sojourned through this lonely trauma, I recall what CRT has elaborated.

I could have settled into the mistaken notion that these incidents are isolated, or that they’re the province of a lunatic fringe. I could have given quarter to the inability of clergy to call this what it is—a racist pattern and live threat. I could have indulged anti-Black and anti-Brown sentiment which tells Asian Americans that cultivating proximity to whiteness is safety. I could have fallen victim to what Justin Tse warns about when he writes, “…[I]f all we try to do is to make people more ideologically powerful than us care that we exist, what might get lost, I feel, is why we care…”

To the contrary, CRT enables us to identify the ways in which certain theologies, in an ill-fated attempt to same-ify and flatten what God has made beautifully diverse, result in the most polite, psychological, and physical death-dealing. In believing that “racism is ordinary,” I don’t have to internalize the lie that the Asian American experience of racism is a figment of a hypersensitive imagination—as we’ve been told for decades. In order to condemn racism in all of its forms, one must understand the novel, viral strains of racism that are emerging. CRT is actually indispensable in this regard because it, too, organizes and operationalizes the collective memories of racism and understanding of systems and structures that work against Asian Americans.

CRT enables us to identify the ways in which certain theologies, in an ill-fated attempt to same-ify and flatten what God has made beautifully diverse, result in the most polite, psychological, and physical death-dealing. Click To Tweet

As I write, I realize that I am addressing the percentage of clergy and church leaders who are still discerning their way through this theological, theoretical, praxiological, and pastoral jumble. Simplistic dismissals of CRT are alluring amid tension and turbulence at this time. Those dismissals offer only false peace by resolving the cognitive dissonance between the desire for ease and a longing for justice. Hence, I want to be quick to point out that an academic movement does not cry out for your attention in the same way that communities racked by racial injustice do! So, as I write this, a single word rises in my spirit: neighbor. Driven by love of neighbor, I trust you will seek to understand “racism in all its forms,” including those forms articulated by CRT. I trust that you will subject your study of CRT and your very selves to the lordship of Jesus Christ as we meet him by the Holy Spirit in Scripture, read alongside the rest of the body of Christ around the globe. As you study in community, I trust that you will be diligent to grant greater honor to those from whom it has been withheld. Finally, I trust in Jesus’ immanent return with all the saints to finish the work of justice to which we are all called.


[1] “General revelation” is the idea that God reveals divine truths through the Creation. “Common grace” is the extension of God’s care to all humans, regardless of their reception of God, the gospel, or of Jesus.

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