Editor’s Note: This is a longer post then some, but critical theory is a major topic in our current cultural discussion and deserves the length. In fact, this is only a brief summary. We do feel that this is an important issue, and it is covered well here.
We (the admin team) agree with and support Thomas’ position, but we recognize that not all of our writers will agree. As such, this article should not be taken as Radi-Call’s official position. We encourage our writers to give their honest, well thought out opinions. Our desire is not to be controversial but to begin discussions that encourage our readers to think about what they believe and why.
This article was written by Thomas Diener and was originally published in the December 2020 issue of the Sword and Trumpet.
Injustice, oppression, inequality, systemic racism, implicit bias, intersectionality, minoritization, hegemonic power, privilege, allyship, antiracism, reparations, empowerment, social justice. These terms (and many more) are being heavily used in modern discourse about ensuring equality and justice for all people in the United States. Some of these terms are likely familiar while others are obscure.
At first glance the narrative proliferating these ideas might seem so vague and confusing that it would seem unprofitable for one to invest his time in understanding it. On the contrary, having a basic understanding on this issue is quite profitable because it is the driving ideology behind much of the societal upheaval and division in both the recent past and the present of our nation. More importantly, this ideology is gaining ground fast in the Christian church and some of its key tenets are being embraced by men with vast influence in Christian circles. It is quite likely that every reader of this article has at the very least acquaintances within the Mennonite community who are being influenced by this worldview.
This vast and complex ideology has multiple mainstream labels such as Neo-Marxism or Cultural Marxism (which aren’t necessarily inaccurate) but the label most consistent with the literature is Critical Theory. This brief article will be at best an introduction to Critical Theory. It’s main goal is to raise awareness of the insidious nature of Critical Theory and the disastrous consequences it will have on both the individual believer and the body of Christ if left unchecked.
A Brief History
Modern Critical Theory (coined “Contemporary Critical Theory” by Neil Shenvi) originates from a group of German philosophers collectively known as The Frankfurt School. These philosophers employed both Marxist and Freudian ideas in their societal studies. The Frankfurt School assembled first in 1923 at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. In 1933, the Nazis forced The Frankfurt School to flee Germany. They settled at Columbia University, New York in 1935 and in the following decades gained credence within American universities.1
Modern Critical Theory has evolved extensively beyond The Frankfurt School and now broadly refers to many critical social theories such as critical race theory, fat theory, queer theory, feminism, post-colonial theory and many more. Although there is a distinction between these theories and The Frankfurt School (most notably the postmodernism of modern critical theories), the goal and method of these disciplines are similar enough to be brought under the same label of Critical Theory (CT).
Critical Theory Defined
So what exactly is the definition of a CT? Here it is helpful to demonstrate the contrast between traditional theory and critical theory. In short, traditional theory is descriptive in practice and critical theory is prescriptive. Traditional theory’s goal is to study and understand society as it presently exists. In contrast, critical theory’s goal is to determine how society is not what it ought to be and then implement change to rectify the issue. Critical theory’s goal is to detect inequities within a society, identify the source of that inequity, problematize and deconstruct the source, and then reconstruct society so that equity (ultimately utopia) is achieved.
The stated goal of CT raises some extremely important questions. Who should wield the power to determine how a society ought to be? What moral standard is to be used in this determination? What are the ethical guidelines of both deconstruction and reconstruction? Is CT compatible with Christianity? These questions can be answered by taking a look at the key worldview tenets that drive modern CT.
As previously stated, CT is a comprehensive worldview. It operates upon a framework of tenets which provide a lens through which to view and understand reality. This is an essential point, because it is advertised as merely an analytical tool. We will now run through the basic worldview tenets of CT.
Postmodern View of Truth
A foundational tenet of CT is having a postmodern view of truth. In short, CT denies the existence of objective truth. Rather, that which is thought to be true is merely a product of society. Knowledge cannot mirror reality. It is a reflection of one’s social conditioning. In this way, all truth becomes subjective truth 1. CT goes a step further by adopting Michel Foucault’s theory “power-knowledge”. His theory states that knowledge and power are inextricably linked together, thus labeling any truth claim as ultimately a power move. Like any relativist position, CT is ultimately pragmatic. Truth claims are acted upon as objectively true when doing so works toward the desired end goal.
Scripture obviously disagrees with the postmodernist on this matter of truth. All of Scripture, reason, and morality operate on the assumption of objective truth. God describes Himself as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God is the unchanging standard of truth, regardless of what humanity is socially conditioned to believe. Man does not create truth, he discovers it as he studies the world and the Word. Truth is also always true regardless of the motives of the one stating it. Even if one uses truth as a power grab as Foucault theorized, this does not make the claim any less true.
Oppressor vs Oppressed
Another foundational tenet of CT is viewing the world as divided into two groups: the oppressor and the oppressed. The oppressor group in a society is one who has gained and maintained power in the society through the systemic oppression and marginalization of another group of people within said society. This latter group is labeled the oppressed. One’s identity as an oppressor or the oppressed is viewed as one’s primary identity.2 In most cases, there is no removing oneself from either group since the classification is based upon mostly immutable attributes.
This leads right into another tenet of CT: intersectionality. Intersectionality puts forth the idea that one’s identity and lived experience are too complex to simply have one identification. For example, a black man can be both an oppressor and the oppressed. As a man he is complicit in sexism, yet as a black man he is also victimized by racism. Intersectionality charts the respective levels of complicity or victimization for every individual within a society, thus mapping the hierarchy of oppression and privilege. It is with the combination of these two tenets that an individual can know which groups are oppressing him as well as which groups he is in turn oppressing. It is upon the basis of this knowledge that one is expected to fill his place in society.
These two tenets of human identity fall very short of true human identity as outlined by Scripture. While CT’s tenets divide humanity into two separate groups, Scripture teaches the equality of man in three different areas: our worth as God’s image bearers, our depravity and the salvific work of Christ. Scripture does make an important division between the saved and the unsaved, but this is the only primary division put forth in Scripture. And we do well to remember it. Scripture does sometimes identify people by different economic levels (rich and poor), nationalities, and even sometimes by the oppressor and the oppressed. However, these identifiers are never used as one’s main identity as CT uses them.
Additionally, this method of identity breeds its own form of prejudice because it accuses certain individuals of being complicit in sinful activity based solely on immutable attributes (race, gender, social status, etc.), and it denies the depraved nature of every person regardless of his place in society. Scripture affirms that all peoples have the capability of sinning against all others they come in contact with regardless of social status.
Another tenet of CT is the oppressor’s use of hegemonic power to maintain control over the oppressed. The hegemony is a system of laws, traditions, education, norms, language and morals used by the oppressor to maintain dominance over the oppressed without needing to use force. The system establishes certain lifestyles as right and others as wrong. It declares certain truth claims as accurate and others as false. This runs contrary to CT’s postmodern view of truth. These claims are seen as the oppressor’s effort to maintain power over those who make contrary claims. The system creates this narrative to convince all individuals within a society that these designations which all favor the oppressor are right thus ensuring the unconscious compliance of all parties in an oppressive system.
CT views this process as oppression rather than the traditional definitions of oppression which would always imply a conscious decision being made by the oppressor. In CT’s definition, an oppressor need not be aware of his biases or his complicity in oppression in order to be guilty of oppressing others. Nor does the oppressed individual need to be in agreement with CT about his oppressed state for him to be considered a victim.
Christianity can at least partially agree with this tenet insofar that there can be agreement on the existence of hegemony. What should not be agreed upon is that hegemony is always a bad thing, for Scripture is hegemonic in nature. It confirms a certain lifestyle as right and all others as wrong. It makes truth claims and condemns any counterclaims as falsehoods. It prescribes authority roles for men and women. It declares that there is only one way to be at peace with God. It should be acknowledged that hegemony can be used to lead a society to commit large-scale atrocities, but this does not automatically make all hegemony evil. It should also be noted that an individual will sin against others regardless of whether he is following a major narrative or merely his own sinful desires.
Standpoint epistemology is another basic tenet of CT. It contends that the oppressed have special access to truth based on their personal experiences. It is theorized that each intersectional group has a unique set of experiences along with a unique set of truths about the world around them. Because each of these minority groups have experienced their own unique form of oppression they are then best qualified to speak authoritatively when it comes to identifying that oppression within society as well as the solution to stop the oppression. The oppressor is expected to disagree with these special truth claims because of his desire (conscious or unconscious) to maintain his power. Those within an oppressed group that disagree with the resulting narrative are said to have “internalized oppression.” These individuals are considered brain-washed by the hegemony and are no longer true representatives of their intersectional group.
Standpoint epistemology must be rejected because it rejects objective truth and promotes a false way to discern between truth and falsehood. This postmodern epistemology judges all truth claims and moral values, not on the basis of whether they align with reality, but on the basis of the identity of the one making the claim. The claims of the oppressed are considered superior and unchallengeable because their lived experience of oppression grants authority.
It is most certainly true that one’s personal experiences may expose him to truth to which others have not been exposed. However, that individual has no claim to that truth as personal truth. There is no such thing as “white” truth or “black” truth. There is only the truth. Additionally, one’s personal experiences do not automatically grant authority on the truth of any topic. One’s worldview determines his interpretation of personal experience, but only a Biblical worldview can produce consistently true observations.
The final core tenet to be discussed is the end goal of CT which is social justice. “Social justice is both a process and a goal. The goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are psychologically and physically safe and secure.”3 Equity is a key word in this given definition of social justice. Here equity refers to a lack of any disparities within society. The only way to reach this end is to adjust the systems of society in favor of the oppressed until there are no longer disparities. This is well demonstrated in the words of the Prophet of Anti-racism, Ibram X. Kendi, “The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist. . . . The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”4 Once all economic, inclusive and normative disparities have disappeared (utopia) CT has achieved its sole moral goal: social emancipation from systemic oppression.
CT reaches this end by creating revolutionaries who will disrupt and dismantle the hegemony around them. One becomes a revolutionary by understanding and accepting his place of privilege or oppression as mapped out by intersectionality. This is referred to as becoming “woke.” Those who are of the oppressor class that become “woke” are referred to as “allies”. Allies seek to use their privilege to aid those lower on the intersectional totem pole while also mourning the injustice of their favored place in society. With both oppressor and oppressed revolting together in this manner, the unjust hegemony will eventually collapse and, theoretically, an equitable society will rise in its place.
Social justice as defined by CT must be entirely rejected because it is unjust in both goal and method. Socialism is obviously being proposed in the above definition of social justice. In this system, personal property is taken by force for the equitable distribution of resources among all individuals. This theft is justified by the assumption that those who have succeeded did so by standing on the neck of those who have not. This is not a Biblical assumption and the resulting partiality and injustice is forbidden by Scripture (Ex. 23:3; Lev. 19:15).
Additionally, not all disparities should be considered intrinsically unjust. If we are seeking to live under the authority of Scripture, there will be a disparity of power within our church and family as we follow biblical gender roles. Those who live in unrepentant sin will feel minoritized as they are excluded from the body of Christ. These disparities are good because they follow from living in submission to God.
Since the only moral goal of CT is freedom from systemic oppression, it opens the door for much immortality to be committed towards achieving that end. A very recent example of this is the tragic destruction and loss of life which has been brought about by BLM (Black Lives Matter) riots all across the US. The BLM chapter leaders do not condemn the violence because in the worldview of CT this is justified as the oppressed fighting the oppressor. This is an extremely dark view of morality as one could use this reasoning to justify any action against those who are considered the oppressor. There is obviously no room for agreement on this matter as God’s law applies universally.
Because of its postmodern view of truth and morality, CT brings no justice or peace for anyone. The moral shallowness of CT results in the use of discrimination and oppression to end discrimination and oppression. Obviously this is a contradiction that when taken to its logical end shows the utter foolishness of CT. If social justice is successfully applied, it is only a matter of time before the oppressor can claim to be the oppressed and use CT to gain liberation from his oppression. This would create a cycle of perpetual revolution as all parties in a society grasp for the status of victimhood. The Marxist vision of a society ever reaching utopia through societal reformation is an evil lie that has already destroyed many lives and will likely destroy many more.
Consequences of Accepting Critical Theory
So, what effect will this extremely anti-Scriptural worldview have on the believer who accepts it? Just like any non-Scriptural worldview, it will slowly distort his interpretation of Scripture until he can be comfortable with the two coexisting. In order to make this example more relevant, we will be looking through the lens of the most influential critical theory of our day: Critical Race Theory.
For context, Critical Race Theory uses the basic tenets listed above in the study of America’s past dealings in slavery and segregation as well as present disparities with the goal of eradicating systemic rascism and bringing equity for the black community. With this worldview, the church is divided between white (oppressor) and black (oppressed). White Christians have set up a racist hegemony within their churches so that they can unconsciously maintain power over the Black Christian. This is how the CT worldview explains the disparity of low black church attendance within Mennonite churches as well as the low numbers of black church leaders. This injustice should be fixed by empowerment of the oppressed through a major push for black leaders within churches, increased normalization of black culture within Mennonite circles, and repentance on the part of white Christians for their racism. Once this has been accomplished then there will be reconciliation within the church between black and white believers. Unfortunately, this is a real discussion happening within Mennonite circles.
A Different Gospel
One of the most fundamental shifts that CT has brought to Christianity is a new definition of the gospel. In the very recent past, quite a few strong Biblical teachers have come out with the confession that they have been preaching only half of the Gospel. So what is the other half of the Gospel according to them? Justice. All of these men (speaking broadly) seem to have had their theology changed towards some form of liberation theology. (Liberation theology was formed by Catholicism in Latin America during the mid-1900s. It attempted to combine Marx’s social ideals with Scripture and came to a general conclusion that Christ’s sacrifice gives us freedom not only from personal sin but also systemic sin.)5 The Christian is then encouraged to transform society through social and political means so that the society will become more equitable and just. With this theology, one can easily assert that the Gospel is indeed about justice as well as grace. The call of this other gospel is not only to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, but to also bring all oppressed peoples Biblical justice.
The Biblical Gospel tells a different story. It tells us that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). The Gospel is not about what we do, it is about what Christ has done on our behalf. The Gospel is not about us getting what we deserve (justice), it is about God giving us a free gift that we do not deserve (grace). We should tell the world about God’s justice, but as a warning of impending punishment and not a promise of bettering their circumstances. We should desire to live justly for we as new creatures are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). However, the church is never given the job of reforming society by implementing justice. Rather, the societal change that we bring comes as a result of individual hearts being made alive through the spreading of the Gospel.
The exact same Gospel principle applies when it comes to unity and reconciliation within the Body of Christ. Ephesians 2:14-18 instructs us that Christ, who is our peace, has broken down “the middle wall of separation” (v14) between the Jew and the Gentile. He makes “in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace” (v15). He has reconciled “them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (v16). Here we are told that the church does not accomplish its own unity or reconciliation. Christ has already accomplished that for us! Galatians 3:26 tells us that “you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” Because of this “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Now, this statement does not mean that ethnicity, class and gender cease to be. Rather it means that these identities are so minor in comparison with being one in Christ that they are no longer issues of division. Nor should they be. For if Christ broke down the God-ordained wall between the Gentile and Jew, He most certainly has the power to break down all barriers established by sinful humanity. In the words of Voddie Baucham during his sermon on racial reconciliation, “We are reconciled in Christ. We don’t need to achieve racial reconciliation, we just need to walk in the racial reconciliation that Christ achieved at the cross.”6
So, what should the Body of Christ do as we look ahead to this coming storm of false doctrine? First, we should be praying for guidance. Any attempt to spiritually combat on our own power is foolish. Second, we must be sure that we know true doctrine well. The best way to detect a falsehood is to be spending quality time learning from and living out of the Word. Third, we must be Christlike in our correction of those who are espousing this worldview. We should be gracious and loving in dealing with those we disagree with even while we are firmly uncompromising on the truth. We must be humble and be willing to repent of our shortcomings if legitimate criticism is brought against us for unjust practices. Finally, let us live in light of this wonderful truth that “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2). This precious faith in what Christ has accomplished for us is the core of our unity regardless of color, tongue, or gender. Oh that we may never forget that! May God help us.
- Corradetti, Claudio. “The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, iep.utm.edu/frankfur/.
- Shenvi, Neil. Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible? – Part 2.9 Jan. 2020, shenviapologetics.com/social-justice-critical-theory-and-christianity-are-they-compatible-part-2-2/.
- Bell, L. “Our Social Justice Definitions.” Our Social Justice Definitions | Resources | Diversity, Equity & Inclusion | Brandeis University, http://www.brandeis.edu/diversity/resources/definitions.html.
- Kendi, Ibram X. “Ibram X. Kendi Defines What It Means to Be an Antiracist.” Penguin Books UK, 10 June 2020, http://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/june/ibram-x-kendi-definition-of-antiracist.html.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Liberation Theology.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Feb. 2020, http://www.britannica.com/topic/liberation-theology.
- Baucham, Voddie. “Racial Reconciliation.” Founders Ministries, 18 June 2020, founders.org/sermons/racial-reconciliation/.