It’s particularly interesting when Christian and academic worlds intersect, particularly on a current socio-political issue like “critical race theory”. Across the Christian world, we see a lot of debate about what this really means and how it affects us as Christians. In fact, we hear a lot of allegations that it’s fundamentally “anti-gospel”.
One particular resource I would like to recommend is the recent series by Asher Witmer on “Critical Race Theory”. Coming from a Kingdom worldview, he discusses this issue in a very Biblical and discerning way.
- Ask Me Anything: “How Should Christians Process Critical Race Theory?”
- A Christian Thinks about CRT: 3 Clarifications
- A Biblical Theology of Creation, Sin, and Justice (the place to start with our view of the world)
- Don’t Stand on CRT; Walk with People
- Critical Race Theory: Discerning the Problem
If you would like to engage with this issue and have thoughts to share whether in response to the larger debate or in relation to Asher’s articles, do let us know – we’d love to publish writings and thoughts on relevant issues from across the “Kingdom theology” community.
This post is a follow-up to the above video we produced in July, a combination of a transcript with additional notes.
As a researcher who’s used more than one research paradigm, going from “social constructionism” to exploring using critical methodology, the whole debate around critical race theory (CRT) is both intriguing and also foreign. I ‘ll be the first to admit that since I’ve never used CRT in research, many elements of the debate continue are new and foreign. However, I wanted to take a step back from critical race theory to share a little bit about critical theory in general and its applications for postcolonial researchers.
I would say a major difference between CRT and postcolonialism would be the context of inquiry: CRT is concerned with particular societies, like in America, while postcolonialism explores the history of global colonization, which affects 84% of the world’s landmass and around 75% of the world today. That colonisation happened is a historical fact. That colonisation ended and that we are in a post-colonial world is also a fact. With regards to how this applies to philosophy, literature and so forth… well, I would say this is again a a somewhat “neutral” method not because it is value-neutral, but because it can be applied in a variety of ways, some of which from a Christian perspective is more in line with my beliefs and some of which are less so. Nevertheless, critical race theory is perhaps more controversial because it is “closer to home” for some North America and also, perhaps, because the the denial of systemic racism is more prevalent. Again, I don’t see how anybody can deny that colonisation happened, and that it caused violence, war and many other evils in recent world history such as in the Belgian Congo.
Here is a chart referenced in the above video, from a textbook titled “Scientific Inquiry in Social Work”. It gives a very good overview of positivism, the scientific method approach focused on objective truth and factuality, social constructivism, which focuses on how humans perceive and construct ideas, and critical theory.
|Positivism||Objectivity, knowability, and deductive logic||Society can and should be studied empirically and scientifically.|
|Social Constructionism||Truth as varying, socially constructed, and ever-changing||Reality is created collectively. Social context and interaction frame our realities.|
|Critical||Power, inequality, and social change||Social science can never be truly value-free and should be conducted with the express goal of social change in mind.|
|Postmodernism||Inherent problems with previous paradigms.||Truth is always bound within historical and cultural context. There are no universally true explanations.|
In short, critical theory is one way in which we do research. This can involve conceptual research, that is, critiquing ideas, philosophies and theories. It can also involve empirical research, that is, going out into the real world to conduct surveys and interviews, conducting numerical, verbal, textual and observational data. I see research methods like surveys, interviews, and various forms of critique (such as using critical theory) as being neutral in themselves.
Here is an edited transcript of the video above:
Now the main thing that I think people feel is a sense of frustration, like you can feel like you’re being overrun by all these ideas that come from somewhere else and that you feel are being forced on people. That is a very valid feeling because academia should never be about pushing one point of view – academia is about a lot of people having conversations about things that they really care about and they really believe in, not unlike theology.
If you really care about and believe in something you might say it in a very forceful way, but really academia is about discourse, disagreement and discussion. It’s about conversations that happen. I can tell you that things said and proclaimed 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or 40 years ago… these things have changed. One of the things that has changed is secularization theory.
Secularization theory came about in 1914 when Max Weber said, “Look religion is going to end, science is going to take over religion.” In actual fact, that didn’t happen. Religion is thriving in the 21st century. Many cultures around the world and many religions are not finding themselves pushed out by science or modernization. Quite the opposite is true – the developing world is seeing a see a surge in religion. Secularization theory is understood to be no more. It was popular in the 70s in the 80s – it isn’t a thing anymore and we’re actually in so-called a post-secular age. People are realizing that religion continues to shape the world that we live in and faith continues to be important to many people. We cannot push people out or say they don’t have a place in the modern world because they’re people of faith.
Just because it was popular it doesn’t mean that it was true or that it lasted. So that is academi. You know if you read a journal in a particular field like reformation historiography (the history of the reformation and how it’s written), things change all the time and scholars can disagree with each other for decades and decades and decades throughout their entire career. They’re all intelligent people who argue their point fantastically and have great points to make but these points contradict each other. Person A and Person B don’t agree and that’s okay. They’re both valid and they’re both published. They’ve both written booksaand all of that. You don’t know which one is absolutely true because it doesn’t have to be absolutely true. It’s not about finding the universal truth and proclaiming that and insisting that this is it.
If you feel like that if you feel like discourse surrounding like critical race theory is pushing you out and saying that you can’t think you just have to accept something then that is not real academia, that’s not real academic discourse. It’s actually watered down
I would blame the media. I’m a communications and media graduate andI would say that the media is about making money. It’s about selling things that people want to hear or selling sensation… things that make it to national headlines are things that sell. It’s a very dog eat dog world out right there especially because if you look at like printed magazines and print newspapers, those are going obsolete and media outlets have to find a new way to make money. They make money out of dividing people. Social media makes money out of dividing people. When these these things go from the world of academia into the world of mainstream discussion sometimes the s discourse… the critical thinking, the rigorous thinking, the questioning gets taken out of it. Then it’s turned into something that’s “absolute” – you have to do it like this you have to agree like this and if you don’t…
You may feel like you’re disenfranchised. You feel less than. You feel disregarded. You feel like you don’t have a place in the conversation because you feel like you’re not accepted. Tat is a very valid feeling and I would blame media sensationalization. There are studies like Brady et al. (2017) that show how division, emotionally charged content and extremist views thrive on platforms like Twitter. If you say something balanced and neutral or something that considers different points of view, you’re not going to be heard. If you say things that are divisive and extreme you actually get way more traction. This has colored the discussion of critical theory.
Critical theory is not about pushing an ideology on you and saying “this is the way and nothing else is the way. If it is then you have every right to reject the way that it’s being presented to you because no one should ever accept something that is pushed on your focibly.
So let’s have a reasonable discussion about what critical theory is. Five years ago when I first did my honors dissertation I didn’t know what a paradigm was. It’s still difficult to understand. A paradigm,, as best I can explain is, is a way of viewing the world. It’s like this pair of glasses that helps me to see the world. If I were to put on sunglasses it would change the way I see the world but it could help me see some things better. If it’s a really bright you know it could prevent me from getting headache while I’m outdoors. There are different lens and academia is likea tool kit of different analytical lens that you can choose through which to study the world. We’re talking about social science, which is interpreting the world around us and studying it.
Social science is a little bit different from pure science. It’s different from biology where a cell is a cell and the sun is the sun and the color blue is a specific wavelength. Social science studies people and ideas and societies which means that you can’t really be so exact. Traditionally, the old school approach to research would be called positivism. Positivism is about absolutes. It’s about objective truth, something that you can absolutely figure out and know and put down on paper and say, “This is true”. It’s often related to pure science because certain things are more absolute in science in studying the natural world.
However, a lot of things are not absolute as well. Positivism says that society can and should be studied empirically and scientifically. It’s treating human society like a part of science like it’s biology. Positivism is not really used in social science very much anymore here’s another view, one that I have used. It’s called social constructivism it says that truth is about interpretation, it’s about reality that you construct. When i did my thesis I used the social constructivist paradigm to study how teachers view the internet, whether it’s useful to their lives. I studied seven different people – i interviewed them and put their experiences their experiences, thoughts and opinions at the forefront. It’s people-focused research. It’s about interpretation. It says reality is created collectively and that social context and interaction frame our realit.
Positivism in science would say that blue is blue and red is red and it’s a wavelength. A constructivist view or social constructionist view would say that, for example, different societies perceive color differently. Some societies two words for different types of red like pink and maroon or maybe different words for different shades of blue. In their mind they are two different colors. To us, maybe scientifically or maybe from a different perspective, these are the same color in different hues. For someone from a different society, these are two different colors completely different. This is how society and culture shapes our view of something “scientific and factual”.
Let’s talk about a third approach – critical theory. This is the one that triggers people. Yeah, it’s controversial and divisive but really in academia it doesn’t have to be that way. Critical theory is a different approach to doing research altogether that’s different from these two other approaches because critical theory doesn’t just study the way things are, critical theory is critical. Critical theory questions the way things are and asks us how should things change.
Now, of course this is controversial. Everyone has different ideas about whether things are good and bad, what things need to change and don’t need to change. I would say people who use critical theory (I wouldn’t call them critical theorists because nobody is the actual theorist of critical theory anymore)… people who use critical theory as a lens through which they view society often have ideas about how society should be changed or improved and they have a lot of different idea. It varies a lot, but it’s not necessary to agree with their method or the solution that is being proposed, because that is hypothetical.
It’s theoretical. It’s a suggestion. There are two things that they would point out: how society is and why that perhaps needs to improve. I often find that I can agree with the the problem that is being pointed out especially when I want to validate somebody else’s lived experience.
Then there is, you know, the solution proposed. We don’t always have to agree with the solution. What Ithink what people assume is that when you use something like critical theory, that academia is being positivist and being absolute and saying this is objective truth. It’s more like: “This is how I view it. This is how I think it can change. This is how perhaps things need to be improved.”
It can be put across in very absolute terms because that is what people who are passionate do: I can say things in a very strong way because I really believe in it, but that doesn’t mean that it is the sole truth that everyone must believe. This basic lens of critical theory.
Let’s talk about um how critical theory can affect research, say in healthcare or in medical science. Let’s say medical science says, “Okay we discovered. We’ll study the effects of this treatment or that population.” It’s studying things from a very neutral perspective and just observing society. Critical theory would want to dig a little bit deeper… being “critical” means that you are critical about the way things are so you’re you’re uncovering things. You think that there might be something more to the story, there might be something that is unseen and unheard. You’re looking at healthcare and realize, looking at the data, that two women can enter the hospital who are going to have babies. They are the same age and have the same level of health. Why is it that the mortality rate for Woman A is higher than that of Woman B? Maybe the statistics uncovers that their ethnicity affects how healthcare workers respond to them.
If two women they enter the same hospital but one person is more likely to come out alive, which is currently a statistical fact in America, then you have to ask the question, “Why?”. Then you must question biases in the system that could affect the quality of healthcare. Maybe it has to do with migrant women and their ability to communicate – language issues could be at play. Maybe you’re less likely to be understood and therefore the quality of health given healthcare given to you results in a different outcome. Factually, there are are systemic inequalities in health care that affect outcomes when they shouldn’t affect outcomes.
Scenarios like this lead you to question things and that leads to bigger thoughts and bigger inquiries and that might uncover certain things that might be uncomfortable to think about and uncomfortable to look at.
Now let me talk a little bit about postcolonialism. It is a theory that I employ in my own research. Postcolonialism is a type of critical theory.
Postcolonialism looks at the world today as being a world that’s after the age of colonization and in the age of maybe neo-colonization. The age of European imperialismfrom about the 1500s to about 1950 when most of the nations that are in the Global South: Asia, South American, Africa regained independence after a long history of European control. Where I live we’ve had the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonize some parts of our country for a very long period of time. Postcolonialism affects the reality of so much of the world that we live in. It is simply what it what was and is.
We can look at look at the research being done in this area and realize that this is something that we actually need to talk about. We can’t just pretend that it didn’t happen. We actually have to look at the effects of what happened, coming from where I come from, looking at the missionization of Asia for example. A city two hours away was where the first Chinese bible was translated by someone who was working for the East India company. He then took it to English and presented it to King George IV and it was part of an overall project. Spreading Christianity was very much tied to colonialism.
People basically believed they could go to other countries, take over, make out of someone else’s land and promote their religion to make people more favorable to trade. Some had noble ideas about improving the lives of people, giving them education and healthcare, but they saw “tribal” or “indigenous” people as beneath them and needing their benevolent aid. Sometimes it was the opposite of the kind of servanthood Jesus taught.
It’s a complicated subject. If the bible hadn’t been translated at that time, the gospel would not have spread in China. On the other hand, there is this legacy that it is mixed with. This is what post-colonial criticism does – looking at the hard facts, the controversies and the messiness of history and Christianity, theology, systematic theology, etc.
I never realized it before, by theology is shaped by European voice, particularly male clerical European voices. These have definitively shaped how we view God and talk about Him (theology). It’s not necessarily wrong, but it is limited as one kind of voice. It differs very much from first century Christianity in culture, thought and expression. Christianity spread to the modern world from a European perspective and that’s why a lot of Christianity feels very European over. Here, if you became a Christian during the colonial era, you were supposed to have an English name. You were no longer considered part of your tribe or ethnic group, you were rejected from your culture but at the same time in a society where you wouldn’t be considered part of the ruling class, so you ended up in a kind of limbo. Cultural orphans.
I don’t necessarily agree that Christianity needs to be considered from the perspective of other religions. That’s a place that I’m not going to go. What I want to explore, that’s relevant to me and my faith is the original Christian faith.
If you are a Christian who believes that the early church represented a more faithful representation of the historic faith, then what you are essentially doing is critical theory. You’re thinking critically about the way things are in the church and the way things should be now. You’re uncovering perhaps hidden or lost perspectives.
I’m not saying that you’re the same type of “critical theorist” as the people writing articles for the newspapers or posting on social media but you are using critical thinking.
Something that’s been a part of my own faith journey was thinking about things like church traditions. Why are churches like that? Why do they have steeples and bells and stained glass windows? Did the early church have that? No, they met in homes. We are using critical thinking to really think about the historic faith, exploring he things that Jesus considered important.
One of the huge questions that we ask is about non-violence: How did Christianity historically become tied to state power to military conquest, to the Roman empire? How did that shape Christianity? Why did Christians engage in colonialism and conquest of other countries? Is that something that Jesus wanted us to do?
Here at the Kingdom Outpost we believe that that is not what Jesus sent the church to do. We believe that if we follow the way that Jesus interacted with political systems, Jesus said and did, if wetake away all the excess baggage of a history of Christianity tied with power we would arrive at the same position as the Apostolic era Christians: Jesus calls us to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hook.
All of this to me is very much tied to postcolonial criticism, since it is a criticism of violence.
Are we hearing the voice of Jesus, or are we listening to what people tell us that Jesus taught? Are we hearing him for what He said or are we hearing a theology that tells us that we can in fact spiritually not throw the first stone but physically throw the first stone to condemn someone.
Are we listening to Jesus’s plainest words, “Whoever has no sin cast the first stone?”
Critical theory to me is realizing that a few, limited, dominant voices have taken center stage and shaped Christianity for the rest of the world, even today. Why are these ideas given priority, why are these ideas heard more and accepted so widely?
You have the center, the locus of power, and then you have the margins. Sometimes it feels like certain voices are inside and certain voices are outside. Some voices are at the center and certain voices are marginalized, considered less valid and important.
Why was so much of our theology built on voices of Christian enslavers (“slave-owners”) like George Whitefield? How could they teach and preach the gospel while doing this? This leads us to question why systematic theology is so concerned about some things compared to other things. Why is Christian non-violence not considered an essential core doctrine , something that Jesus talke? Why are we more concerned about deontology or Christology It’s all in the mind .You can know all the facts about God as omniscient and omnipoten, but what about that God is afflicted when people are afflicted, that God hates violence and suffers when people suffer? Things should be central to theology but they’re cut out of systematic theology.
Why do we have a system that has a set of beliefs you can adhere to about God, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into action? If you were to read Robert Friedman’s “theology of Anabaptism”, he talks about why certain topics it were very important in Reformation Protestant theology and very different topics were important to the Anabaptists.
The anabaptists were in this position of being the minority of people who didn’t have power in society, who were on the margins and who were pushed out of of society. People were saying, “You can’t even exist. We don’t want you among us because you have these different beliefs.”
They were not the ones in positions of power. They were peasants and people who who were suffering because of heavy taxation and oppressive feudalism. They were associated with the German peasants and so forth. There’s a lot of research into this but I can definitely tell you that if you wanted like take a critical theory approach to topics like church history and theology, it can be a very very productive discussion.
Imagine for a second you were in 16th century Switzerland as a peasant and didn’t believe in infant baptism. What you believed and did in practice was considered illegal and therefore you had no power and no voice and you could be hold up in front of the magistrate and maybe drowned or burned. Compare that situation to the position of someone sitting in a prince’s castle or seated in the Zurich city council. One is powerful, one is powerless. One historically became the oppressor and one historically became the oppressed, the minority.
Then, i you look at how histories were written, you were not only marginalized then but that you were marginalized over centuries of history, discredited. What you believed and stood for was maligned. People would write letters and pamphlets calling for you to be burned at the stake and saying that you have no place in society. Centuries of “Church history” would paint you as completely nuts and without credibility using false or exaggerated accusations. That is on example of what it’s like to have no power.
Four expressions of violence and domination are as such:
- Marginalization, pushing someone out and saying you don’t belong
- Oppression, particularly using power that you have over somebody to oppress them.
Now if we were to look at the New Testament, it is a narrative of a people suffering under colonial oppression, under the Roman. The disciples were longing to be free people in their own land, asking Jesus to restore the Kingdom back to Israel.
They were a suffering colonized people. A Roman soldier had all the power a disciple of Jesus or just a random person in Judea did not have. The soldier could compel you to carry his pack with him. He could kill you possibly and not face any retribution. Taxes were oppressive. We see marginalization, oppression, violent and exploitation in the world of the New Testament. Jesus and the disciples were the outcasts and even within their society there were also more outcasts that Jesus cared about like the Samaritan woman at the well who was even ostracized from the Samaritans. Jesus acknowledged the outcasts by saying,” when you have a meal don’t invite people who will pay you back and invite you back for another meal. Invite the lame, the blind, the outcasts, people sleeping in the highways and byways that and nobody will invite into their homes. Jesus saw and empathized with people like these, the unheard and unseen.
Much of the world today is not necessarily being colonized but is under economic exploitation, that’s why there are people working in sweat shops and in factories, suffering under very unjust conditions for someone else’s profit. People are earning money off underpaid labourers, just like what James 5 described. Is a simple fact of everyday living for people every day around the world. They are being oppressed, they are starving, because of greed and corruption.
If it’s something you live under, it’s real to you and it’s the reality of your world. Whereas if you don’t live under it you may not even know that it exists because it is so outside of your lived experience.
We know that racism exists and racism is very real for many of our brothers and sisters. Post-colonialism deals with the bigger global system of racism and critical race theory would be within more specific cultural or national contexts. I think it’s fair to ask questions about this, not because we come from a moral basis of critical theory but because we come from a basis of being Christians following Jesus who told us to “love your neighbor as yourself”.
We shouldn’t put critical theory on a pedestal, become obsessed about it and see the world in only this way. Nor do we need to agree with every one of the solutions suggested. Academia is not in agreement: it is always engaged in a huge debate. However we can look at things critically as Christians. I do believe that while this is a modern theory, the subversiveness of the kingdom that Jesus brought and the antithetical way we’re supposed to look at the world pre-dates critical theory.
We are to look for the people who are suffering and have no voice. We are to have compassion and mourn with those who mourn. We are to be servants of all. These are all principles that should underlie our theology, our way of life and our approach to the world.
People often react against oppression, then they they institute something that’s just as violent and just as oppressive because at best we can only invent a human solution to human problems. The gospel points out this enslavement in cycles of sin and violence, with Jesus showing us a new and better way. Jesus completely turned human systems of power upside down by coming as a lamb and coming as a servant. The whole beauty and mystery of the gospel gives us hope. I believe that the kingdom of God is the only solution, the only antidote, the only force that will overcome empires of the world. Oppressive power can only be overcome by the Kingdom, turning the world upside down and proclaiming Jesus as the King of Kings.
I hope this is a redemptive way of talking about critical theory. Blessings!