The broader evangelical world is currently in turmoil over how to evaluate Critical Race Theory. In fact, six Southern Baptist seminary presidents signed a statement declaring Critical Race Theory to be incompatible to the non-binding doctrinal standards of their denomination.
Because the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is a confessional denomination, such a statement, or counter-statements, would be unnecessary because the Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), the Presbyterian tradition, and covenant theology allow Presbyterians to take an “eat the meat and spit out the bones” approach to cultural theories like Critical Race Theory and other legal or social science theory that attempts to give a secular account of evil. The Christian tradition offers something better.
What is critical race theory? Professors Antonio de la Garza and Kent Ono explain that “Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an intellectual movement that seeks to understand how white supremacy as a legal, cultural, and political condition is reproduced and maintained, primarily in the US context.” CRT wants to centralize the issue of race in ways that drive how we interpret the histories and struggles of people of color in America. CRT scholars scrutinize how “the production and maintenance of white supremacy against racial minorities is normalized,” and, in their view, how white racism is taken as a given in America’s past and present.
CRT proponents believe that white supremacy must be dismantled wherever it is found. They propose doing this by rigorously interrogating white racism, using personal narratives of experiencing racism, focusing on immediate structural reform, pledging commitments to social justice, and calling into question the ways that all academic disciplines maintain white racism. For many CRT scholars, white supremacy is everywhere and naturally explains many, if not all, of the negative disparities between whites and blacks.
As controversial as this may be to some, at the end of the day, CRT is merely one account of how racism has operated in American society. One can (and should) learn what one can from it while rejecting what is wrong. CRT is an attempt to give an account of the historic phenomena of racism in America and the vestiges of how racism may linger in how we treat our neighbors and how institutions may operate today. But it is not an account we must accept or reject wholesale. This is an essential point as many progressives today treat CRT as a complete doctrine that must be applied through every level of society while conservatives react against this and reject CRT in its entirety. Both approaches are wrong-headed and simplistic.
As a Christian, I can understand the impulse to find causal narratives to make sense of a broken world. It makes sense in the secular West to seek such a story given the role that Christianity used to play in providing that story. The social sciences are simply attempting to provide replacement narratives. Without seeing the world through the lens of God’s redemption of the entire cosmos, it is simply human nature to invent a story to that end.
However, if you are Presbyterian, believe in the authority of Scripture, and have a theology that summarizes the Bible’s teachings in the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and understands covenant theology, one could easily see the strengths and limitations of CRT and propose something even better to account for what we see in the world today on the intersection of America’s racial history with contemporary culture.
A series of questions and answers could guide such a cultural analysis: Does racism exist in America? Absolutely. How do we know this? Because the fall happened (Gen 3) which set the stage for slavery in the Americas and the institution of Jim Crow at the close of Reconstruction. American history is a history of individual and structural racism. Does racism exist today? Yes. People are still affected by the fall (Gen 9:6). Moreover, the devil is real and works through people (Luke 8:29). Does racism exist in institutions and structures in 2020? It depends. Because of the fall and reality of the devil, it is not inconceivable to believe that structures of sin exist but the evidence will need to make that clear on a case-by-case basis. Does white supremacy explain everything that is wrong in America? No. Does racism explain all racial struggles and racial disparities that non-white faces in America? No. That view is overly simplistic, unsophisticated, and monistic. The world is too complex for one theory to explain all of the differentiated ways we see the implications of the Genesis 3 reverberate throughout American culture where class and race intersect.
What are we do with all of this in the PCA? My answer: Do not pledge allegiance to the secular conservative hysteria over CRT. Eat the meat, spit out the bones, use the resources of the Christian and Presbyterian traditions for analysis and proposals for solutions, and pray. With that foundation in our own tradition and our own resources, we can then approach other schools of thought in a careful, wise way that discerns true insights and rejects false claims. CRT can be and is useful in some limited contexts for identifying where race may be a variable just as other forms of secular theories (including much classical philosophy!) can be useful as tools for analysis.
Because of the history of redemption, Presbyterians believe in the goodness of creation, the reality of the fall of Adam, and the power of the Resurrection (Philippians 3:1-14, Colossians 3:1-17). The Resurrection gives us hope that although things are not the way they are supposed to be today, evil will not always undermine the goodness of creation.
The work and person of Christ, and our union with Christ, means that we are free to acknowledge evil where it exists but also acknowledge evidence of mercy, hope, and grace wherever God the Father is sustaining goodness, justice, mercy, and peace. We are free to protest and invest by unlocking the goodness of creation, blessing our neighbors, and fighting evil.
The Value of Scripture and Tradition
While I am able to see that CRT may have a certain limited usefulness in pointing out analytical blind spots in examining the role of race in American life, as a theologian, it is clear that there is a sense in which I do not really need CRT to interrogate racism. In fact, I am free to see how CRT may identify racial issues without having to pledge allegiance to its presuppositions about the nature of reality.
As a covenant theologian, I need not wholly accept or reject secular frameworks for understanding reality. I can eat the meat and spit out the bones. Because of the fall, I am looking at society to see where the curse is found (Gen 3:14-24) and where the devil is at work (Eph 2:2). This curse and work includes racism and much more.
In the book From Creation to Consummation, Gerard Van Groningen explains the reality of the parasite kingdom of Satan wreaking havoc in the world. The Bible uses terms and phrases like powers (Romans 8:38; Eph 6:12; Col 2:15), authorities, and spiritual forces of evil (Eph 6:12; Rev. 16:10; 17:17) to talk about Satan’s strategies in the past and the present. Van Groningen observes,
The kingdom of Satan, however, is a parasitic kingdom. A parasite is an organism that is totally dependent on another living organism…Satan’s kingdom is a parasite because it cannot exist independently. It is totally and completely dependent on the cosmic kingdom of Yahweh. Satan as a created being is not autonomous; he draws all the essential aspects of his existence and activities from his source, the Creator and Ruler of the cosmic kingdom (103-104).
In other words, wherever we see God’s mercy and grace at work, we should not be surprised when the parasitic work of Satan may be adjacent. We see these parasitic realities in individuals as well as systems and structures. CRT is attempting to give an account of evil and salvation. It is merely a form of Gnosticism. CRT’s version of Satan is “white supremacy” and, instead of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, CRT simply wants to dismantle racism in an attempt to achieve cosmic salvation from their perception of the worst of all evils. For CRT, anti-racism will set us free.
As a Christian, I can acknowledge that racism is part of the American story but I also know that parasitic work of Satan is much, much more expansive than racism as well as any other social phenomena that intersect with race. In the end, then, by centering racial injustice as the prime evil in American society, CRT is a reductionistic theory of human evil and suffering. It is precisely for this reason that CRT is not a threat to the PCA! It is woefully inadequate to explain the nature of reality and to offer non-coercive solutions. That is, CRT is not good enough.
In contrast, the Presbyterian tradition introduces an exponentially more comprehensive way of looking at human goods, motivations, failure, and evil. To start, the WCF teaches that “after God had made all other creatures, He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it” (4.2). This tells us something about the importance of human dignity in our conceptions of justice and human flourishing. Therefore, one of the ways that we know where injustice occurs is to identify where the parasite kingdom is preventing people from being truly human and bearing the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28) either interpersonally or through structures of sin. Neither individual Christians nor the Christian church can remain passive or turn a blind-eye to aggressive assaults to the image of God.
The Church of Scotland makes this very clear. The Church of Scotland believed that acting on behalf of others made in God’s image was the church’s calling. In the second edition A Manual of Christian Church Doctrine: according to the Church of Scotland (1960), Scottish Presbyterians say that the church is to be correlative of the three mediatorial offices of Jesus Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King (Westminster Larger Catechism 34-45; WCF 8.1). By extension, according to the Church of Scotland, the church mirrors Christ’s kingly role as watching over the Kingdom as a shepherd. To those inside the church there is a pastoral role to feed the sheep, and, for those outside the church, the Church’s calling to social responsibility is a calling to mercy. The Church of Scotland explains,
Representing Christ in His fullness, it has a ministry to need, bodily as well as spiritual. All works of charity lie within the Church’s duty. Every work of reclamation or of preservation, all protection of helplessness, or prevention of evil, or defense of the oppressed, or rebuke of injustice, is proper to it. The Church is called to speak and to act for Him who had compassion on the multitude because they were as sheep not having a Shepherd, and it works must agree with its word” (6).
CRT cannot compete with the culmination of over 460 years of reflection on the intersection of human goods, motivations, failure, and evil with the power of the Resurrection. Dismantling racism will not rid the world of the evils CRT seeks to purge. It might be helpful in identifying some aspects of some forms of evil but Christians need something better. Christians need something more robust, comprehensive, and differentiated. CRT is a limited analytical tool, not a solution framework.
Therefore: CRT is not a real threat to the work of the Presbyterian Church in America. It does not tell us any more than what the Bible and the Christian tradition already acknowledge as a point of fact—namely, that people can be evil and that the parasite kingdom is wreaking havoc as far as the curse is found. There is racism in America and, at times, that racism can take on structural forms. It is proper to the work of the church to actively seek to bring solidarity and peace where there is racial conflict because of the hope of Resurrection. Presbyterians, then, can eat the meat and spit the bones of CRT, or any other secular social theory that does not presuppose the Triune God because the real war is against any manifestations of the principalities and powers (Eph 6:12) at work parasitically undermining the goodness of God’s creation.
What really matters for Presbyterians in the 21st-century is whether or not they are willing to reflect the mediatorial offices of Jesus Christ and protect of helpless, work to prevent evil, defend the oppressed, and rebuke injustice like Presbyterians are positioned to do or are they going to follow American evangelicalism which tends to allow secular political ideology to direct how it understands the work of church until the return of Christ.