I am often asked for my take on Critical Theory and related issues (such as “Social Justice” and “Identity Politics”). Last week I offered a brief summary of these ideas. This week I’ll offer my response.
A Response to Critical Theory
Much can be said in response to Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement it has spawned (again, capitalized). First, like all ideas, these are based on some truth. Yes, those in power have often used their power to oppress others. Yes, minorities, women, and others have often been dehumanized and denied equal dignity, worth, or respect. Biblical teaching on love for others and justice for all should cause us to acknowledge, repent of, and oppose such practices whenever they are identified. We must work toward biblical justice and show God’s love in redemptive ways for all people.
This is the way of the gospel. It is not to ignore issues of injustice, including injustices various groups of people have and continue to experience. It is to join with all others in solidarity when there is injustice and to work for biblical justice to prevail. As we are commanded in Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O moral, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
However, Critical Theory takes as its starting point a different foundation, leading to quite different conclusions. It begins by seeing all reality through the lens of social groupings of people (based on the Marxist ideology it is derived from, as I discussed last week), such as black, gay, female, etc. In doing so, Critical Theory negates two truths that are important in seeking true justice and shalom. In the words of scholars Pluckrose and Lindsay, “collective experience trumps individuality and universality.” (Cynical Theories, p. 48) For a much more detailed discussion of these two themes of Critical Theory, including citations from Critical Theorists in favor of this reductionism, I highly recommend Cynical Theories.
Refusal to Acknowledge Our Shared Humanity
First, Critical Theory refuses to see people as ultimately united in our shared humanity. Rather, group identity is taken as most fundamental and essential to defining us. Therefore, no universal solutions applicable to all persons regardless of their identity group (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) are possible. The only acceptable solution is to liberate the oppressed group from its perceived oppressors.
Refusal to See Individuals as Individuals
Similarly, Critical Theory refuses to see people as individuals and thus as capable of thinking or acting in ways contrary to how their identity group thinks and acts. For instance, white individuals cannot act in any way other than racist. They are not fundamentally individuals with the ability of self-determination. Rather, a white person is fundamentally and essentially part of the white identity group, which, by definition, is racist. Many grant a white person can become less racist, and thus less oppressive in their contexts. Hence the push for diversity training or implicit bias training. And those who are white and are “woke” are often held up as examples of this. But the racism (sexism, homophobia, etc.) of an individual in the majority identity group can never be fully eradicated.
In the same way, those of a minority ethnicity are fundamentally and essentially anti-racist, and so by definition they cannot say or do anything that is racist. For instance, we see this in Critical Theorists not condemning but affirming the rioting and property destruction in Portland. They reason that those of oppressed minority groups must do whatever it takes to be heard and influence change. On the other hand, the same Critical Theorists readily speak out against the rioting and storming of the Capitol Building in Washington, for this was rioting by mostly those of the majority identity group (white, etc.)
I condemn both cases of rioting. In neither case are the motivations, actions, or results consistent with the biblical values I discuss below.
Therefore, Identity Politics Is Not the Solution
From this comes identity politics, which is the solution offered to the problem Critical Theory allegedly identifies. All desires, choices, and outcomes are defined completely and without remainder in terms of one’s identity group, once the universal and individual are removed. Therefore, some identity groups are ultimately responsible for oppressing other identity groups, and the oppressed groups must rise up and overthrow the oppressing groups.
But this conclusion is only as strong as the assumptions it is based upon. I have made a strong case in my series “What Are We? The Three Answers Underlying Many Spiritual, Moral, and Political Disagreements that we all equally share humanity and the image of God.
In my series “Predestination or Free Will?” I show that we ultimately have the ability to make free choices, even against proclivities to do otherwise. Though my discussion focuses primarily on the theological context of our salvation, the arguments apply equally to the broader question of freedom.
Therefore, since these two foundational assumptions are wrong, the views they support are wrong as well. Identity Politics has no solid foundation on which to stand, given its grounding in Critical Theory. And thus the solution is not to make injustices perpetrated by one group on another the ultimate issue.
The Only Grounding for True Justice and Shalom
The only perspective that will ensure true justice and the shalom of all people is one that does not ignore the universal or the individual but embraces both.
Affirming the Universal
We must affirm that every person, regardless of how we may differ, is ultimately the same. We are all human, and so we are all equal at the most fundamental level. Furthermore, when God created us he made us in his image–the “imago Dei.”
This provides an ultimate grounding for true, deep, and lasting equality. We are all of equal worth and value as all image-bearers of God (which I’ve said more about in Ideas Have Consequences, in the section titled, “No one is a “Mere Mortal” (Or Less)”.) This then gives us a well-grounded rationale to seek justice for all, rather than justice only for this or that identity group. Group identity is not the key here. Rather, the equal humanity we all share is the grounding of our ability to love all others equally, as all equally share the image of God.
Due to natural moral law and general revelation even Critical Theorists cannot help implicitly acknowledge this truth and live accordingly. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement implicitly affirms all people matter, and so it follows that black men and women, as people, matter equally. Yet this is only justified and consistent within the biblical framework, not the framework of Critical Theory.
Affirming the Individual
A proper perspective on injustice must not ignore the fact that people are individuals. Each of us, each day, chooses how to respond to the injustices we encounter. For instance, we always have the ability to choose how we respond to those of other ethnicities–will we respond in racist or non-racist ways? Our answer is determined by our free choice, which in turn molds our individual character.
From this affirmation of our ability to act freely as individuals and not only as members of an identity group, moral praise and blame is not to be placed on one identity group or another. Rather, moral praise and blame is for those who act in moral and redemptive ways, regardless of one’s identity group.
However, as fallen men and women, we must also affirm that we do often choose to act in sinful ways. Whatever our ethnicity, gender, or other identification may be, we are all guilty of wrongdoing toward others, including, and perhaps especially, those not like ourselves, resulting in injustices. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.
The good news of the gospel is that we can all be forgiven of this. We can repent when we act in unjust ways and commit to loving one another as we love ourselves (the greatest commandment, according to Jesus–see Matthew 22:36-40). Thus the solution is ultimately the gospel, This has far-reaching implications not only for each of us individually, but society as a whole.
This also gives us the ability to show empathy and grace toward one another when we fail in our efforts to seek justice and shalom. Contrary to Critical Theory’s tendency to believe the worst of the motives of those in “oppressive” groups, we will be in a position to believe the best. Even those who are redeemed by Christ and fully committed to acting justly and expressing Christ’s love to all others will often fail. This solution allows us to acknowledge this and to be gracious to one another when we do fail.
In summary, the solution to the injustices we see is not that of Critical Theory. Only from within the biblical framework can true justice, mercy, peace, and shalom be found, showing the way forward to truly loving one another and living together in harmony and solidarity.
Much more can be said on this topic. So I close by suggesting others who have engaged in this discussion in more depth than I am able to do here.
Even some who have been strong proponents of Critical Theory and its related commitments are beginning to reject this extreme framing of reality. For a wonderful critique of how the notion of “justice” is being redefined in terms of Critical Theory, Social Justice, and Identity Politics, and the harmful effects that result, I suggest “How I Left the Social Justice Cult,” an interview with Cari Smith of “Unsafe Space.”
For a more theologically nuanced evaluation of Identity Politics and the Social Justice movement, I suggest the recent book by Thaddeus J. Williams–Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice. The foreword is by John Perkins, one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement–that’s quite an endorsement! You can also find a number of interviews with Williams on YouTube discussing the themes in his book.
For similar concerns offered by an African-American woman steeped in Critical Theory, Identity Politics, and Social Justice and now an outspoken critic, see the work of Monique Duson at her Center for Biblical Unity.
A well-reasoned, balanced, and insightful article by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer is available on The Gospel Coalition’s website, The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.
I also recommend the outstanding New Discourses website by James Lindsey. Though not a believer (as far as I can tell), Lindsey, through the light of general revelation, does a wonderful job of cutting through the clutter and identifying the fallacies, inadequacies, and egregious implications of Critical Theory. The articles are very practical as well as carefully reasoned. A friend of mine who was being pressured to endorse and promote Critical Theory at work found especially helpful his article How to Talk to Your Employers About Anti-Racism.
As mentioned above, for a book-length treatment of all issues related to Critical Theory, I highly suggest Cynical Theories; How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity–and Why This Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Approaching the issue from a secular and “insider” view, the authors do a masterful job of identifying the underlying assumptions and sinister implications of Critical Theory. (This includes describing how Critical Theory is a logical outworking of Postmodernism, with its rejection of transcendent truth, and thus the reframing of issues solely in terms of power). Helen Pluckrose was recently interviewed here and provides a great summary of her concerns and critiques.
Until next week, grace and peace.