Critical Race Theory (CRT) is one of the most controversial issues today in not only the academic world but in our politics and personal conversations. Last fall, a presidential executive order banned CRT in diversity training in federal agencies. Just this past week, the state of Idaho cut off funding for the teaching of CRT at Boise State. At the same time, many other colleges and universities require CRT to be taught in various forums and classes.

So, the familiar battle lines are drawn. Conservatives see CRTas an un-American Marxist insurgency against our democracy while liberals see CRTas a way to better understand our racial tensions so we can improve our democracy. Which is it? Or is there a way to examine CRT that takes into account both its value and its weaknesses—and leads us back to God’s call to love one another?  

What is Critical Race Theory?

CRT is an application of Critical Theory developed in the Frankfurt School of social research nearly 100 years ago. Since then, Critical Theory has been used in a variety of disciplines such as law and history. In 1989, it was appropriated in the study of racism as Critical Race Theory.

CRT views our history and political judgments through a lens of race. It opens our eyes to how systemic racism from our country’s past affects the lives of people of color every day—from centuries of slavery, to the Homestead Act in 1862, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. CRT helps us see that while we might not have had a personal part in systemic racism in our past, we can be aware of how such laws have had a ripple effect throughout generations.

What Is Valuable about Critical Race Theory?

  1. Provides Valuable Research: A foundational value of CRT is its sympathetic research into the role of race in the laws and societal norms that invariably favor the majority culture. For instance, hundreds of studies show tremendous disparities between Whites and Blacks in health, education, hiring, income, criminal justice issues, and housing. Some might argue that these disparities are the result of more intact families, a stronger work ethic, or better money management skills among Whites. But suggesting that Whites are simply superior in these ways only furthers the assumptions that have led to these disparities over the centuries while ignoring the historical and present reasons for the inequalities. It also leads to a racist addiction to White Supremacy.
  2. Authenticates the Experience of People of Color: A second value of CRT is that it gives people of color an objective understanding of what they experience. They do not have to depend on “politically correct” sensitivities of others to establish that they are in fact being underrepresented and under-resourced in so many dimensions of our society. Just last week, for instance, it was reported that Black farmers received only 0.1 percent of the money from the economic stimulus bill known as the CARES Act last year, while White farmers received 99 percent of the funds even though they didn’t own 99 percent of the farms either by size or number. Whether this was intentional or not is not known but the result is the same. Race evidently made a huge difference in the amount of money our government distributed to White farmers versus Black farmers.
  3. Identifies Institutional as well as Individual Racism: CRT also shows us that racism is not just a matter of “a few bad apples,” but it has and continues to be systematized in many of our laws and organizational structures. We see in the current murder trials of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, for instance, how policing practices for Blacks are often different than for Whites. The efforts of so many Republican state legislatures to restrict or hamper voting among minorities (such as having fewer ballot boxes and voting locations in minority districts) is further evidence of institutional racism.

What Is Controversial about CRT?

  1. Marxist Influences: The most politically charged accusations against CRT are those of guilt by association. Some claim CRT is Marxist and contrary to capitalism and democratic principles. Others see it as just an academic justification for the excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. Still others decry it as lacking and even contradicting a Christian philosophical foundation. There is some truth to all of these concerns. The original Critical Theorists were indeed engaged with Marxism but not without critique. They understood that although the Marxist view of life as a struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoise was too simplistic, much of the political life of a culture could be understood as a battle between majority and minority peoples. As Winston Churchill and others have said, “history is written by the victors,” but the same could be said of the present while history is being made.
  2. Misused to Create Divisions: Some of the more radical CRT proponents (and some in the Black Lives Matter organization) have been involved in weaponizing CRT to create destructive power conflicts between racial minorities and a White majority. It too easily can attribute everything to White privilege or focus on microaggressions that can quickly repel Whites from a deeper understanding of the issues. CRT as an ideology can be threatening and counterproductive in effectively dealing with racism.
  3. Avoids Spiritual Truths: It is also true that CRT does not have explicit Christian underpinnings. CRT does not deal with inherent or individual sin but focuses primarily on institutional racism as being the cause of many social problems. CRT is also not nearly as helpful in a prescriptive way as it is in a descriptive way. It has no spiritual framework of reconciliation through confession and forgiveness. Nor does it reflect the limitations of a completely racialized view of life. It is a sophisticated but at times very blunt instrument that cannot solve our great racial and political divisions.

The Bible and CRT

CRT is a divisive concept but not nearly as divisive as the racial realities it addresses. So how do we take what is valuable from this imperfect theory to love one another better?

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah quotes the Lord saying, “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). This welcoming invitation has often been used as a prelude to negotiations and conflict resolutions—it recognizes that there is a conflict but that there is also a possibility of reconciliation through reason and mutual respect.

This openness to resolution rather than resignation to continued enmity suggests a relational posture for us to take as we seek to heal the tremendous racial tensions in our country. We need all of the insight we can learn through CRT without idolizing or misconstruing any biases that might be part of it. We can recognize CRT’s limitations while also recognizing it as a resource that provides the opportunity to develop greater understanding and compassion.

With humility and reason, we can also acknowledge the many good things about the United States, our Founding Fathers, and our democracy, while simultaneously recognizing racism in past and current laws and attitudes. Awareness of our country’s weaknesses makes us no less American or patriotic; it can make us even more eager to see the United States truly offer “liberty and justice for all.”

It is also significant that in the context of Isaiah’s prophecy quoted above, the Lord is angry about the hypocrisy of the Jewish people on matters of social justice. He tells them that he hates their worship services and won’t listen to their prayers because of their “evil deeds” (Isaiah 1:16). Then, between his words of anger and his call to reconciliation, he urges his people to “seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Pursuing social justice is a biblical mandate.

Responding to CRT

One of the common arguments against CRT or the idea of systemic racism in general is, “I wasn’t around at the time of slavery and had nothing to do with making these racist laws. Why should I feel guilty?” This may be a natural question to ask, but it’s also a question that consciously or unconsciously reveals an individualistic and inadequate approach to sin.

Although the Lord does not hold us personally accountable for the sins of others, we are affected by them—often for generations. God instructed Moses to make a provision of both sacrifice and forgiveness for unintentional communal sins (Numbers 15:22-26). Nehemiah obediently prayed in confession for the sins of his ancestral family (Nehemiah 1:6).

We also need to be aware of the sin of omission. The Apostle James says that if you know what to do and don’t do it, that is sin (James 4:17). Racism is an overt sin against all people created in the image of God. Ignoring racism is similar to what the two religious leaders did who walked by the desperate man in the story of the Good Samaritan. They did not beat the man themselves but they avoided or omitted doing anything about his condition. The primary issue then is not whether or not we are personally responsible for social injustices, but whether or not we recognize those injustices and engage with doing something about them.

Consequently, instead of either rejecting CRT carte blanche or using it as a cudgel against every racial injustice no matter how big nor how slight, we would do better to urgently reason together about what is racially unjust in our country and work to remedy those injustices with both individual and collective resolve. In other words, to make CRT a political football only relegates it to being a game. But to use CRT as even an imperfect prompt to respond to God’s command to seek justice is a way of loving others as ourselves.

We hear a lot about “cancel culture” in the media right now, but the term seems to mean very different things to different people. For instance, several weeks ago, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) held their annual convention with the theme of “America Uncancelled” to proclaim that they were for free speech. Ironically, they cancelled Senator Mitt Romney from speaking at the conference because of his vote to impeach President Trump.

A few days later, Dr. Seuss’s estate put six of the beloved author’s books out of print for racial and ethnic stereotyping. This led to intense debate and accusations on social media of a liberal cancel culture going wild.  

Last week, Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo blamed “cancel culture” for his sudden political isolation after seven women came forward accusing him of sexual harassment and a federal investigation was launched due to allegations that Cuomo underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing home.

These stories alone might lead us to ask, “Is ‘canceling’ something always bad? How do we balance the value of free speech with the value of respecting others? Most of all, how can we show love in our personal relationships when our opinions about what should or should not be ‘cancelled’ are so different?”

When Our Freedoms Conflict with Each Other

Many conservatives argue that cancel culture, particularly related to racial or gender issues, threatens free speech and religious liberty. Many with more liberal political views argue that silencing or calling out people and groups who exhibit prejudiced language is essential to our freedom of diversity and actually enriches our culture. Which is right or best?

To refer back to the Seuss controversy, it was Seuss’s estate—not the media nor the government—that chose to pull the six books that included images of such things as a White man whipping a man of color (To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) and a White boy holding a gun while standing on the heads of three Asian men (If I Ran the Zoo). Though social media feeds suggest that many Christians are upset about these books being put out of print “for the sake of being politically correct,” it seems as if the estate’s sensitivity to racism in Seuss’s books is actually a reflection of Christian values, whether or not it was intended that way.

We can, of course, find a variety of accounts from across the political spectrum of people trying to cancel the cultural influence of others. The right wants to eliminate the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, while the left wants to remove statutes of presidents who were former slave holders. Colleges promote acceptance, freedom, and social justice even as they refuse to allow Christian student groups that have a traditional view of marriage to meet on campus.

“Cancel culture” has consequently become a term of derision attributed to political opponents but rarely to one’s own efforts to exert control and power over public discourse. Even the trendy term, “wokeness”—coined to describe greater social awareness—has become a symbol of divisiveness. Those who think they are “woke” look down on those who aren’t and vice versa.

Cancelled Cultures

Like so many ideas that seem new to a generation, “cancel culture” in practice if not as a defined term has actually been around for centuries in America. Our country has cancelled not just what people say but who people are.

The most obvious example of this broader understanding of cancel culture is the slave trade beginning in 1619. Our Constitution even specified that Black men were only three-fifths human. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it took another hundred years before all African Americans were given the right to vote and even now there are numerous state efforts of voter suppression in African American neighborhoods and counties.

Our country also cancelled Native American culture through the genocidal Trail of Tears, when Native Americans were forced to migrate from the southeast to Indian reservations in the west. A conspiracy-laden political party in the 1850s wanted to prohibit Catholics and immigrants from holding public office—a party known, ironically, as the “Know-Nothing Party.” And over the centuries, women have consistently been cancelled from leadership roles in government, business, and churches.

In other words, our history is laced with efforts to “cancel” other cultures. One significant difference now is that minority cultures have a voice that is being heard as well. This is threatening to a White majority culture and perhaps best explains the growing influence of White nationalists. They don’t like the feeling of White culture being challenged by the policies and pronouncements of those they see as liberal cultural elites in education, media, and government.

In recent decades, for example, it’s often conservative groups that want to keep certain young adult novels out of school libraries. Many Christian schools banned the Harry Potter series due to “witchcraft and sorcery.” Other books are challenged due to “revisionist history,” LGBTQ characters, and offensive language.

But when a children’s book is pulled from publication due to racist images, some jump to the conclusion that the government will soon be putting “other sacred texts such as the Bible” out of print. We are left with the uncomfortable reality that free speech is a two-edged sword.

In the next few decades, as we move to a non-majority racial country with greater wealth and education disparities, we can expect that these battles of who feels unjustly cancelled will greatly shape our political and social climate. But are we doomed to a never-ending family-splitting, church-splitting, country-splitting existence?

The political aspiration in our Pledge of Allegiance of “liberty and justice for all” is inspirational but not transformational. As broken people, can we be liberated and also be just? As Amanda Gorman asked in her profound poem at President Biden’s inauguration, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

The Illumination of Humility

Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics within our cancel culture debates is the sense of self-righteousness we are tempted to feel about our opinion. To use a straightforward example: “Cancelling a book for [my reason] is moral, right, and a reflection of biblical values. But cancelling a book for [your reason] is restrictive, oppressive, and even a bit silly.” This attitude leaves little room for listening to others.

By contrast, the word humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means, “fertile ground.” When we speak and act humbly, we help create fertile ground for relationship, for truth, and for godly freedom.

The prophet Micah tell us that the Lord requires the people of God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We would do well to filter our personal and collective opinions through the rubric of, “Am I acting justly? Am I acting mercifully? Am I practicing humility?”

This holy triad of values can also inform our decisions about what to “cancel” in our own lives, whether we are making business decisions or parenting choices or wondering whether or not we should speak up when a friend uses a derogatory term toward someone else.

Considering what should be “cancelled” or not is important because words, art, and media have a profound effect on our culture and the way we treat others. We may not have much control over politics or children’s literature or university policies, but we do encounter opportunities every day to speak both love and freedom. In a time that may feel dry and dusty, may we each find fertile ground in our relationships to love one another well.