One of the more frustrating trends in Evangelicalism is the incessant accusation of “Cultural Marxism” or “Critical Theory,” leveled against any who speak of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” This rhetorical move has insidious historical roots, but seems to have gained currency through wide-spread ignorance of both that which is being criticized and Critical Theory itself. We have sought to dispel this ignorance in the last two posts, clarifying precisely what distinguishes Critical Theory from its competitors. But I want here to likewise expose the absurdity of this further claim, viz., that the theme of “oppressor” and “oppressed” is a distinguishing characteristic of Critical Theory, such that all who appeal to the theme are liable to be lumped into this tradition.
No one denies that this theme is important to Critical Theory; it is, after all, a project of emancipation. But it is only one approach among many—many which likewise affirm the historic and persistent tragedy of human oppression via social institutions and relations.
In the following, there will be many readings as we move through the rough contours of this theme through history, so please forgive the lengthy quotes. I believe they are necessary for some to see the pervasiveness of the theme among many traditions. I also have left a tremendous amount out; it is impossible to draw out every thread, especially in a blog post that is already way too long. As such, it may appear somewhat scatter shot and does not address many ideas available to make the point. (I really wanted to include, for example, the development of the Black Power movement in contrast to Critical Theory, and Adam Smith’s critique of Colonialism, but, alas. I apologize.)
“Oppressor” and “Oppressed” Prior to Marx
From the Historic and Ancient Church’s consistent call to “loose every unrighteous bond, dissolve the terms of wrongous covenants, let the oppressed go free, and avoid every iniquitous contract; deal thy bread to the hungry, and lead the homeless poor under thy dwelling” (Justin Martyr on Isaiah), to G. W. F. Hegel’s dialectic of “Master and Slave,” to Paulo Freire’s recasting of Hegel in the language of “oppressor and oppressed,” mere men and women have always been cognizant of the oppressive social relations which mar fallen humanity. In the words of Simone Weil, a fierce critic of Marx and Marxism,
Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men—oppressors and oppressed alike—the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured, and thus reduces living humanity to being the chattel of inanimate chattels. (Oppression and Liberty , p. 66)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells this same historical story—as does Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and nearly every other Enlightenment luminary—of man progressing from the state of barbarism, to a system of local oppressors, to a government of national tyrannies, all due to humanity’s urge, ungoverned by reason, for economic security on one hand, and ever increasing wealth on the other. Lust for “luxury,” according to Rousseau, drives the story to its inexorably oppressive end:
Luxury, which cannot be prevented among men who are tenacious of their own convenience and of the respect paid them by others, soon completes the evil society had begun, and, under the pretence of giving bread to the poor, whom it should never have made such, impoverishes all the rest, and sooner or later depopulates the State. Luxury is a remedy much worse than the disease it sets up to cure; or rather it is in itself the greatest of all evils, for every State, great or small: for, in order to maintain all the servants and vagabonds it creates, it brings oppression and ruin on the citizen and the labourer; it is like those scorching winds, which, covering the trees and plants with devouring insects, deprive useful animals of their subsistence and spread famine and death wherever they blow. (Discourse on Inequality )
The very basis of Denis Diderot and D’Alembert’s Enlightenment project, Encyclopédie (1751-1777), was Liberty; liberty from the tyranny of kings, nobles, land-owners, and clergy, all by means of supposedly unshackled and unencumbered reason. The pure application of reason, they thought, would be the answer to Rousseau’s bleak historical assessment. Accordingly, both the American “Declaration of Independence” (1776) and the “French Declaration of the Rights of Man” (1789) appeal to the right of rational agents to free themselves of “oppression,” included among the rights of life, liberty, property, and security. Liberty in the face of oppression was the raison d’etre of both revolutions, though conducted in different manners and on different principles.
The simple fact is, Karl Marx’s ideas were not born in a vacuum. He did not create the categories of master and slave, oppressor and oppressed; he was not the first to notice the miserable conditions of the laborer, nor did he manufacture the revolutionary ethos of his age. In fact, many socialists had gone before him. Babeuf had already written his “Manifesto of Equals”; Sainte-Simone, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen had already offered a vision of communitarian Utopia; Louis Auguste Blanqui, Proudhon, and Louis Blanc had already critiqued the justness of private property; and Fichte and Hess had already formed the basis of historical dialectics before Hegel.
“Oppressor” and “Oppressed” in Liberal Contemporaries of Marx
There were also, of course, contemporaries of Marx who were firmly in the Liberal tradition, and opposed to Socialism, who likewise recognized oppressive forces at work in society. John Stuart Mill tells the same critical story as Rousseau and other Enlightenment figures in his On Liberty (1859), but includes also the failures of the “enlightened” liberal democracies and republics of his day, e.g., England and the United States. After outlining the tyranny of modern governments, he turns to the social artifact, “the tyranny of the majority.”
Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. (Ch. 1)
An example of this tyranny, “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression,” is the oppression of women, born, according to Mill, of the solidification of “might” into social and political “right” that has smuggled oppression into even the most liberal societies.
They convert what was a mere physical fact into a legal right, give it the sanction of society, and principally aim at the substitution of public and organized means of asserting and protecting these rights, instead of the irregular and lawless conflict of physical strength. Those who had already been compelled to obedience became in this manner legally bound to it. … But this dependence, as it exists at present, is not an original institution, taking a fresh start from considerations of justice and social expediency—it is the primitive state of slavery lasting on, through successive mitigations and modifications occasioned by the same causes which have softened the general manners, and brought all human relations more under the control of justice and the influence of humanity. It has not lost the taint of its brutal origin.
The whole social system conspires to maintain this “slavery.”
All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. (“The Subjection of Women” )
Liberal (again, as opposed to Critical) feminists of the same period located their subjugation in precisely the same historical narrative of society-wide oppressive forces as had Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Mill. Sarah Grimke wrote the following in 1837,
The lust of dominion was probably the first effect of the fall; and as there was no other intelligent being over whom to exercise it, woman was the first victim of this unhallowed passion. We afterwards see it exhibited by Cain in the murder of his brother, by Nimrod in his becoming a mighty hunter of men, and setting up a kingdom over which to reign. Here we see the origin of that Upas of slavery, which sprang up immediately after the fall, and has spread its pestilential branches over the whole face of the known world. All history attests that man has subjected woman to his will, used her as a means to promote his selfish gratification, to minister to his sensual pleasures, to be instrumental in promoting his comfort; but never has he desired to elevate her to that rank she was created to fill. He has done all he could do to debase and enslave her mind; and now he looks triumphantly on the ruin he has wrought, and says, the being he has thus deeply injured is his inferior.
Woman has been placed by John Quincy Adams, side by side with the slave, whilst he was contending for the right side of petition. I thank him for ranking us with the oppressed; for I shall not find it difficult to show, that in all ages and countries, not even excepting enlightened republican America, woman has more or less been made a means to promote the welfare of man, without due regard to her own happiness, and the glory of God as the end of her creation. (“Letters on the Equality of the Sexes”)
This connection between the oppression suffered by women and the oppression suffered by slaves leads us on to another class of non-Marxists, non-Critical Theorist contemporaries of Karl Marx, who nonetheless spoke clearly on “oppressor” and “oppressed”: those of African descent in America. On July 4th, 1852, Frederick Douglass spoke sharply to the American Church on this very subject, not shying away from dialectic:
But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty and leave the throne of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation—a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God. In the language of Isaiah, the American church might be well addressed, “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons, and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.” (Selected Speeches and Writings, pp. 200-201)
[W]hen humanity is insulted and the rights of the weak are trampled in the dust by a lawless power; when society is divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor, there is no power, and there can be no power, while the instincts of manhood remain as they are, which can provide solid peace. (“There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 1878, p. 629)
Again, this identification of “oppressor” and “oppressed” is not a fabrication of Karl Marx. It was recognized and confronted by both his predecessors and contemporaries. Marx’s intended contribution was not to divide the world into oppressor and oppressed, but to solve the riddle that he believed had eluded the Enlightenment project, by locating and explicating the fundamental conditions under which the Dialectic of Master and Slave find historical necessity. Again, Simone Weil,
Throughout history men have struggled, suffered and died to free the oppressed. Their efforts, when they did not remain sterile, have never led to anything except the replacing of one oppressive régime by another. Marx, who had observed this, thought he was able to demonstrate scientifically that things were different in our day, and that the struggle of the oppressed would now lead to a true emancipation, not to a new oppression.
… In his ponderings over this resounding failure … Marx finally came to understand that you cannot abolish oppression so long as the causes which make it inevitable remain, and that these causes reside in the objective—that is to say material—conditions of the social system. (Oppression and Liberty, pp. 2, 55)
“Oppressor” and “Oppressed” Between Marx and Frankfurt
Between the period of Marx’s death and the rise of the Frankfurt School, we have many others in the Liberal tradition who likewise explicated and struggled against oppression. For example, it was in this period that W. E. B. Du Bois—long before his turn to Marxism later in life—articulated the concept of “Double Consciousness” (1903) and “Second Sight” (1920), the basis for our modern conception of the unique voice of color; he also gave us the notion of “Psychological Wage” (1935), the basis of our modern conception of White privilege; and we can thank him for the genesis of Whiteness Studies, inspired in part by his “The Souls of White Folk” (1910). These all were born in the Liberal tradition, not the Marxist or Critical tradition.
And if we draw this thematic thread out to the 1950’s and 60’s, we can hardly claim that Civil Rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were mere followers of contemporaries like Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse, when they offered scathing critique of the oppressive systems that white men had created to subjugate those of color. One can hardly quote a speech of Dr. King that does not include “oppressor” and “oppressed” or their cognates. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” See also the whole of if his 1968 book, Where Do We Go From Here? For example,
The dilemma of white America is the source and cause of the dilemma of Negro America. Just as the ambivalence of white Americans grows out of their oppressor status, the predicament of Negro Americans grows out of their oppressed status. (p. 109)
And it is notable that folks accused him of Marxism, though he vehemently rejected it and never offered any arguments characteristic of Critical Theory, just as critics accuse antiracists of the same today.
Further, in this period after Marx and prior to the popularity of Frankfurt, will we also attempt to paint international rights activists like Mahatma Gandhi as Critical Theorists? How about early Liberal feminists like Lucretia Coffin Mott, Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Frances Willard, Simone de Beauvoir, etc.? Are we to believe these advocates of the Liberal virtues of “rights” and “equality,” in opposition to tyranny and oppression, were also Critical Theorists?
“Oppressor” and “Oppressed” in Libertarianism, or “Classical Liberalism,” Contra CT
Another important development running parallel to Frankfurt was the rise of (or return to?), what we would now call, Libertarianism. This movement was as antithetical to Marxism and Critical Sociology as any I can imagine. But even this movement also saw the history of oppressive social relationships as the target of its research program. Seventeen years after the founding of the Institute for Social Research and four years prior to Horkheimer and Adorno’s publication of Dialectic of Enlightenment, Ludwig Von Mises presented his system of “Praxeology” in his seminal work, Human Action (1940). In this work, Mises recognizes history as marred by tyranny and oppression, and just like Marx and Frankfurt, he locates its source in the nature of social relationships. While governments bear much of the blame for oppressive relationships—”ruthless oppression of the masses by clusters of self appointed dictators” (p. 851), Mises, in near historical materialist fashion, locates the social “bond of hegemony” as the culprit of oppression and the “contractual society” of “market economics” as the solution:
There are two different kinds of social cooperation: cooperation by virtue of contract and coordination, and cooperation by virtue of command and subordination or hegemony. (p. 196)
What differentiates the hegemonic bond from the contractual bond is the scope in which the choices of the individuals determine the course of events. As soon as a man has decided in favor of his subjection to a hegemonic system, he becomes, within the margin of this system’s activities and for the time of his subjection, a pawn of the director’s actions. Within the hegemonic societal body and as far as it directs its subordinates’ conduct, only the director acts. The wards act only in choosing subordination; having once chosen subordination they no longer act for themselves, they are taken care of. In the frame of a contractual society the individual members exchange definite quantities of goods and services of a definite quality. In choosing subjection in a hegemonic body a man neither gives nor receives anything that is definite. He integrates himself into a system in which he has to render indefinite services and will receive what the director is willing to assign to him. He is at the mercy of the director. The director alone is free to choose. Whether the director is an individual or an organized group of individuals, a directorate, and whether the director is a selfish maniacal tyrant or a benevolent paternal despot is of no relevance for the structure of the whole system. (p. 197)
There is no kind of freedom and liberty other than the kind which the market economy brings about. In a totalitarian hegemonic society the only freedom that is left to the individual, because it cannot be denied to him, is the freedom to commit suicide. (p. 280)
Mises charges this oppression of hegemonic society not only to the account of socialist governments, but to “interventionist policies as practiced for many decades by all governments of the capitalistic West” (p. 851). Modern Libertarians, Anarcho-Capitalists, and Anarchists proper have preserved this notion that coercive intrusion into the social and economic is, by definition, violent and oppressive.
Further, there are Libertarian antiracists, feminists, and Libertarian representatives of every other marginalized people-group.
There is nothing inconsistent or un-libertarian in holding that women’s choices under patriarchal social structures can be sufficiently “voluntary,” in the libertarian sense, to be entitled to immunity from coercive legislative interference, while at the same time being sufficiently “involuntary,” in a broader sense, to be recognized as morally problematic and as a legitimate target of social activism. … There is nothing un-libertarian, then, in recognizing the existence of economic and/or cultural forms of oppression which, while they may draw sustenance from the state (and vice versa), are not reducible to state power. One can see statism and patriarchy as mutually reinforcing systems…. (“Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”)
“Oppressor” and “Oppressed” in Liberal Egalitarianism, Contra CT
Arguably the most prominent opposition to Critical Theory in modern discourse is the Liberal Egalitarianism of, e.g., John Rawls, Richard Dworkin, Will Kymlicka, Susan Moller Okin, and the like. These men and women, like nearly all who had gone before, acknowledge the oppressive ravages of poverty, racism, sexism, and Neo-Colonialism, but emphasize the need for social contract theory, expanded and equally applied “rights,” and distributive justice as solutions.
In Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971), he invites the reader to consider what sort of society men and women would create if they had no idea what advantages and disadvantages they’d be allocated in the “lottery of birth”; that is, if you did not know whether you’d be born rich or poor, brilliant or dull, disabled or abled, Black or White, male or female, etc. In this “original position,” Rawls argues, a rational agent would hedge his bets. Though the possibility of being fantastically wealthy and powerful would be limited by a system created where all were blind to their personal “luck” of birth, the possibility of living in the most dire of circumstances would also be limited. As such, society as a whole should be constructed to eliminate the distributive power of individual traits. According to Liberal Feminist Elizabeth S. Anderson,
The proper negative aim of egalitarian justice is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression, which by definition is socially imposed. Its proper positive aim is not to ensure that everyone gets what they morally deserve, but to create a community in which people stand in relations of equality to others. (“What is the Point of Equality?,”pp. 288-289)
That is, Liberal Egalitarianism does not ignore oppression—”marginalization, status hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and cultural imperialism” (Anderson, p. 312)—but seeks to eliminate the disparities produced by reducing the importance of natural sources of discrimination.
Accordingly, Liberal race and legal theorist Richard A. Wasserstrom envisions the “ideal society” as one where race and gender are insignificant to the distribution of “basic political rights and obligations,” “nongovernmental…benefits and burdens” (e.g., employment), and interpersonal relationships, “including such matters as whom one will have as friends, and what aesthetic preferences one will cultivate and enjoy” (“On Racism and Sexism” , in Morality and Moral Controversies, 3rd edition, p. 461). He calls this the “assimilationist ideal.”
According to the assimilationist ideal, a nonracist society would be one in which individual’s race was of no more significance in any of these three areas than is eye color today. (p. 461)
In order to remedy the discrepancies from this ideal, Liberal social philosophers advocate well-known measures to justly distribute the benefits of social life. Accordingly, Legal theorist Ronald Dworkin argues for Affirmative Action in “The Rights of Alan Bakke,” but not in order to redistribute power or change the underlying nature of historical and social relations, but in order to reduce the significance of race and work toward a society that is no longer “conscious” of race. Critical Theorists do not disagree with Liberal Egalitarianism because the latter do not recognize some fundamental construction of “oppressor and oppressed,” but because they do not see the fundamental requirements of recognition and integration at the basic level of social relations; that is, they do not see the disparities as “normal” and pathological, immanent to historical processes. For example,
Equality of opportunity integrates some African Americans into white institutions, but it does little to change the informal sources of power, rooted in an institution’s culturally structured norms and practices, that still privilege white members. It may shuffle social positions, but it does little to address underlying social relations. (David Cochran, The Color of Freedom, p. 62)
According to Todd Franklin,
[M]any critics believe that insofar as egalitarian liberalism is dedicated to the creation of a healthy, and therewith equitable, society, it must also recognize the incumbent need to facilitate the transformation of institutional standards and norms in the name of social justice…. (“The New Enlightenment,” p. 287)
The Biblical Theme of “Oppressor” and “Oppressed”
But all of this is truly of only historical importance. What ultimately matters is what God says, and the Scripture is rife with the theme. From Cain’s murder of Able, to the mighty cities whom he and his children built, to the world-wide oppression recorded prior to the great Flood, to Israel’s oppression in Egypt, to Solomon and his son’s social and economic oppression of God’s people, to Israel’s exile under oppressive foreign powers, to Israel’s return to the Land yet under oppressive international control, to the Roman tyranny, to the coming of He who promised to loose the bands of oppression, to the social, religious, political, and economic oppression of God’s Church while yet in its New Testament infancy, the theme of “oppressor” and “oppressed” runs throughout sacred history.
The ideal of social righteousness is stated plainly throughout the Scripture, and it includes the theme in question.
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (Prov. 14:31)
Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth? (Isa. 10:1-3)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa. 58:6-7)
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zech. 7:9-10)
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal. 3:5)
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? …
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. (Jas. 2:5-7; 5:1-5)
This theme also fits prominently within our Lord’s own preaching of the gospel, declaring His purpose according to the prophets,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4:18-20)
(For more on the connection between “gospel to the poor” and “oppressor”/”oppressed,” see “The Gospel, the Social Gospel, and Gospel-Only-ism, Part 2: ‘Gospel to the Poor’.”)
I think Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) explicates the Biblical ethics of social righteousness quite well:
One of us has oppressed the poor, and wrested from him his portion of land, and wrongly encroached upon his landmark by fraud or violence, and joined house to house, and field to field, to rob his neighbour of something, and been eager to have no neighbour, so as to dwell alone on the earth. Another has defiled the land with usury and interest, both gathering where he had not sowed and reaping where he had not strawed, farming, not the land, but the necessity of the needy. Another has robbed God, the giver of all, of the firstfruits of the barnfloor and winepress, showing himself at once thankless and senseless, in neither giving thanks for what he has had, nor prudently providing, at least, for the future. Another has had no pity on the widow and orphan, and not imparted his bread and meagre nourishment to the needy, or rather to Christ, Who is nourished in the persons of those who are nourished even in a slight degree; a man perhaps of much property unexpectedly gained, for this is the most unjust of all, who finds his many barns too narrow for him, filling some and emptying others, to build greater ones for future crops, not knowing that he is being snatched away with hopes unrealised, to give an account of his riches and fancies, and proved to have been a bad steward of another’s goods. Another has turned aside the way of the meek, and turned aside the just among the unjust; another has hated him that reproveth in the gates, and abhorred him that speaketh uprightly; another has sacrificed to his net which catches much, and keeping the spoil of the poor in his house, has either remembered not God, or remembered Him ill— by saying “Blessed be the Lord, for we are rich,” and wickedly supposed that he received these things from Him by Whom he will be punished. For because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. (“Oration XVI: On His Father’s Silence, Because of the Plague of Hail”)
Conclusion to Part 3
So, what has been the point of this lengthy post?
Simply put, it is plainly absurd to identify the central distinguishing characteristic of Critical Theory as the narrative of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” If there is any age-old staple of historic social observation, it is that men and women have oppressed other men and women—not just on the individual level, but through fundamental institutional, social, economic, religious, and governmental relations. Therefore, it is likewise absurd to identify traditions and arguments distinct from Critical Theory as properly motivated by Critical Theory, or even as amenable to the Marxist/Critical tradition, by inclusion of this narrative. Countless socialists, Classical Liberals, Egalitarian Liberals, Libertarians, and Anarchists alike have identified this theme as a central concern of sociological research and public action. I didn’t even mention the Analytic Marxist, Logical Positivist, or even some of the various Liberation Theology traditions that likewise identify the same problems, but part fundamentally with the Critical Method; there are so many more examples that could be shared.
Again, as per our last post, the central distinguishing characteristics of Critical Theory can be summarized—according to Critical Theorists themselves—by the themes of Social Pathology, Historical Immanence, Anti-Essentialism, and Social Change as Rational Participation, not “oppressor” and “oppressed.” If there is indeed something unique about Critical Theorists’ use of the category “oppressor/oppressed,” it is precisely because of these four distinguishing characteristics. That is, social, economic, political, racial, gender, or any other form of oppression, is considered by Critical Theorists to be properly pathological, resulting immanently from the very fabric and construction of created human social structures, and is therefore to be addressed by the relentless critique of everything, even the most mundane cultural artifacts and social relations. No individual act of racism, sexism, etc., occurs in a vacuum, and every action and cultural artifact in some way, and to some degree, carries within it the systems and structures which cause and sustain such social oppressions. In turn, oppression can only be addressed through reorganization of the whole.
Lord willing, we will next move to the critical analysis, from a Biblical perspective, of Critical Theory on its own merits.
Click to continue to Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 4: Is CT Anti-Christian?