The “World”: Sin as Both Individual and Systemic
As Christians, we should be very aware of the pathological nature of both individual and social ills. That is, social ills are not just easily individualized and conceptually isolatable bad actions, ideas, practices, policies, or stereotypes. Rather, just as a pathological liar habitually lies without even taking note of it, or just as a disease can infect a whole body with looming death yet appear perfectly healthy, so economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and the like can be embedded within whole social systems, producing symptoms that may even seem quite normal and ineradicable, though we feel the existential burdens of their bitter fruit.
We call it sin, and we recognize its far-reaching effects. Not only has sin brought about spiritual and physical death, but sin has broken man’s community with God (Gen. 3:24-25), broken his community with neighbor (Gen. 3:16; 4:1-8; Gal. 5:14-15), corrupted his economic activity (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 3:5; Mic. 2:2), corrupted his habitation and environment (Rom. 8:19-21), and has even distorted his very mind and reason (Matt. 15:19; Rom. 1:28; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18). In fact, the Scripture declares that our minds must be “renewed” in order to escape conformity “to this world” (Rom. 12:2).
“This world,” according to the Scripture, comprises not only individual sinful acts but corrupt interpersonal relationships, oppressive political and economic structures, and even systemic sins which characterize whole churches (Rev. 2-4) and nations (Tit. 1:12). The “world” is the global systems, patterns, powers, and principles (Col. 2:8) under the tyranny of the “Prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2) who claims to have all its kingdoms at his disposal (Matt. 4:8). Albert M. Wolters argues that “world designates the totality of sin-infected creation. Wherever human sinfulness bends or twists or distorts God’s good creation, there we find the ‘world'” (Creation Regained, Loc. 738).
James also writes of this “world” in his Epistle:
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (Jas. 4:4)
And what is the immediate context of this passage? Humanity’s unbridled passions, greed, and pride:
You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (4:2-3)
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (4:6)
As the Apostle John tells us, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 Jn. 2:16).
Throughout his epistle, James explicates this “friendship with the world,” contrasting the rich and the poor, the high and the lowly in chapter one, condemning partiality against the poor, calling the rich oppressors, interpreting Christ’s “blessed are the poor” as about literal poverty, and analogizing blessings to the poor, without action to change their physical circumstances, with “dead faith” in chapter two. He goes on to condemn “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” in chapter three and, finally, sternly warns the rich, telling them of the impermanence of their material gain, lists their frauds and oppressions of the laborer, and condemns their presumptuous expectation of profits without God’s blessing in the final chapter.
This is “the world” according to James, and friendship with its systems and its oppressions is enmity with God.
Recognizing the Worldly Systems We Inhabit: The Invention of Racial Hierarchy
Throughout every society, whether past or present, East or West, North or South, this corruption of sin proves endemic. But like individual sin, it manifests and has manifested in different ways in different societies at different times throughout history. In our own context, the World—with its corrupt systems and oppressions—has, in part, manifested in the creation of human hierarchies, specifically, racial hierarchies. In fact, the very concept of “race,” at least as we know it in the West, was created for exploitation and to justify dominant/subordinate group hierarchy. Understanding this specific history of racial formation in the United States is necessary for understanding the scourge of racism, both individual and social, along with its fruit: vast society-wide racial disparities. These truths demand the attention and interest of the evangelical Church, including her willingness to employ the intellectual tools God has provided.
Prior to the development of colonial governments in the Americas, people-groups were largely identified by nationality; there were Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians, etc. At the beginning of the 17th century, these men and women worked side by side in the construction of the New World, primarily as indentured servants subject to the term of six years under British common law.
But as it became increasingly clear that Africans were not only capable farmers, but also in abundant supply with the trade itself quite profitable, efforts were made to separate this group of people from those of European descent. By offering protections to indentured servants from “Christian” nations and removing protections for those from “pagan” nations, leaders were able to quell organized rebellions by peeling the European poor away from those with whom they’d formerly worked side by side.
A class to be exploited, stolen from Africa, separated from family, religion, and hallowed soil, the “Negro” became the perfectly powerless subject of Colonial exploitation. At first this was justified by the distinction between “Christian” and “pagan”; later it would be by phenotype, “proving” them uniquely suitable for heat and toil; then it would become the supposed stupidity, lack of culture, and need of white fathers; then the so-called Curse of Ham, the example of the Patriarchs, and the writings of the Apostle Paul; then the development of the pseudoscientific field of racial biology, including categorization according to assumed historic development through climate, separate creation, or evolution.
A notable divide first appears in the American record when, in 1640, a group of indentured servants, mostly of European descent, escaped from their master in Virginia and were captured. When the captives were sentenced, John Punch—the lone African—was sentenced to lifelong servitude, whereas the Europeans were simply given additional years of service.
Next, Elizabeth Keys, the daughter of a wealthy European man and an African slave, sued and won her freedom in 1656. How? Because her father was European, had asked for her emancipation in his will, and she was a baptized Christian. Laws were soon changed to state that the status of a child was to come from the mother and not from the father, coupled with laws stating that non-European men could not have marital relations with European women, effectively allowing “white” men the special status of having sex with and impregnating whom they will, while their offspring would increase their human property. Just five years later, it was also determined by the Virginia General Assembly that Christian baptism would not require manumission.
Then in 1682, the Virginia House of Burgesses—the model of our U.S. Congress—limited citizenship to those of European descent alone, specifically excluding “Negroes, Moors, Mullatoes, and Indians” who were to be considered “slaves to all intents and purposes.” Then, largely, in response to Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-7) wherein both European and African slaves revolted against their masters, legal protections for indentured servants were granted to all and only those with “Christian” nations of origin (“Virginia Slave Codes” of 1705), with the “Negro” alone failing to meet the stated conditions for such protections, becoming thereby the lone permanent chattel slave class. Why the Slave Codes? To ensure that Europeans, no matter how poor, landless, or indentured, would never again unite in rebellion with the permanent slave class, viz., those of African descent.
It was in 1690 that we see the first use of “white,” as distinguishing a people-group, in the legal code, via Virginia’s House of Burgesses:
Whatsoever English or other white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro, mullato, or Indian man or woman, bond or free, shall within three months after marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever. (“An act for suppressing outlying slaves”)
“White” was now a legal category, and included all of European descent—specifically all those not “negro, mullato, or Indian.” (“Indians” would likewise later be excluded from life-long servitude, as had the Irish been excluded before them.)
Further, in the 18th century, we are given pseudo-scientific reasoning to buttress these constructed human hierarchies through, e.g., Carolus Linnaeus’ and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s fabricated anthropological “race” categories. Of course, “Whites” or “Caucasians” were determined to be the undisputed superior race. It was also at this time, though already disproven by Robert Boyle a century earlier, that the Curse of Ham was peddled by Christians to claim the “White Race” as descendants of Shem, the “Negro Race” the descendants of Ham, with the latter cursed by God Himself to perpetual slavery under the former.
Last, we could say the needle of racial categorization and hierarchy was fully threaded at the first gathering of the then newly formed U.S. Congress in 1790. The first census counted only white men over 16, white men under 16, white women, all other free persons, and slaves (at 3/5’s). But even more importantly, the very first act of this very first United States Congress, the Naturalization Act of 1790—deciding who were to be considered citizens, who could vote, receive land, etc.—excluded all non-Whites:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof…. (March 26, 1790)
It is no wonder that the Dred Scott decision would later declare,
When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its ‘people or citizens.’ Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them.
And, of course, “citizens,” as stated many times throughout the decision, included only the so-called “white race.”
It is also no wonder that, in the 20th century, men like Takao Ozawa (Japanese) and Bhagat Singh Thind (East Indian) would have to prove their “whiteness” in federal court in order to receive citizenship—and no wonder that both were denied, and on contradictory grounds. Ozawa had adopted Christianity, was light skinned, and spoke only English, but was denied because he was not Caucasian; Thind proved that he was Caucasian, but was denied the very next year based on religion and skin color (see Takao Ozawa v. U.S.  and U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind ).
And, finally, following the Civil War, the abandonment of Reconstruction, and 100 years of both legal and de facto nationwide Jim Crow, it is no wonder that in the 21st century the average “white” child is born into a family with ten to twenty times the wealth of his “black” peer, is twice as likely to live through infancy, 2.5 times as likely to live in a two-parent household (though will likely spend less time with his father than his black peer), is much more likely to go to a well-funded, academically superior school, is more likely to be put into advanced coursework as opposed to remedial or special needs coursework, regardless of ability; the white child is likely to live in de facto segregated neighborhoods, attend de facto segregated schools, and worship in de facto segregated churches, is much more likely to make it to college without being incarcerated, even if he commits the same or similar crimes as his black peer, is more likely to graduate from college, is much less likely to be shot and killed by a police officer, is more likely to secure a job, even with precisely the same resume, is likely to be paid more for the same work, is likely to accumulate 3 times the net worth of his black peer, is likely to have significantly more wealth mobility, while his black peer is more likely to spend what he has to care for his aging parents, is much more likely to own a home, will likely have greater access to healthcare, and the care his black peer does receive is likely to be lower quality, and in the end, the white child is even likely to outlive his black peer. (See “ Confronting Racial Disparities in America, From Cradle to Grave: A Reading List.”)
Critical Race Theory: A Tool or Threat for Christians?
In the words of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Critical Race Theory (CRT) “is a way of seeing and thinking about race that denaturalizes racial inequality” (“What Is Critical Race Theory and Why Are Some People So Mad at It?”). In other words, a central purpose of CRT is to demonstrate that the vast society-wide racial disparities discussed above are unnatural, contingent, and man-made. And CRT does this by taking seriously a basic tenet of CRT, viz., that race is a socially constructed phenomenon. Race is not a natural, biological, “out there” entity such that it exists independently of law and society. Rather, it is a product of human social interaction, a construction of social reality. Further, as we have shown above, race and racial categories were historically created to justify and maintain social hierarchy, slavery, and other forms of group-based exploitation, as well as to distribute rights, citizenship, privileges, access, and disparate advantages/disadvantages.
This leads directly to another central tenet of CRT, as described by its founders:
Critical race theory challenges ahistoricism and insists on a contextual/historical analysis of the law. Current inequalities and social/institutional practices are linked to earlier periods in which the intent and cultural meaning of such practices were clear. More important, as critical race theorists we adopt a stance that presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service. Our history calls for this presumption. (Words that Wound, p. 2)
If race is in fact very real, though not biological, nor essential, but rather an historical social construction, then it is inseparable from the historical context in which it was constructed. This includes the purpose for which it was constructed, the hierarchies for which it was structured, the stereotypes, ideas, and inner-logics embedded within the construction of individual races. And of specific importance to CRT, race is inseparable from the legal system from which it was born and by which it continues to be shaped.
In short, if race is socially constructed, then it is inescapably non-neutral and inescapably political. If races are socially constructed, then there is a when, a how, and a why associated with their current existence, social function, and meaning. As such, many of the other tenets of CRT flow logically from this context-bound, socio-historical understanding of race. Differential racialization, intersectionality, that racism is endemic to American life, skepticism of claims to objectivity and color-blindness, etc., are all logically connected to the social construction thesis.
According to CRT’s basic premises, therefore, social group hierarchy is not a reflection of inferior or superior people-groups, but a product of avarice, greed, theft, exploitation, and oppression—i.e., a product of sin in all its individual and social fullness. Racial hierarchy and the social consequences which it has inflicted on American society is a feature of “this World,” with its corrupt systems and oppressions, as described in the Epistles of James and John. And though Critical Race Theory is, on its best construction, simply a tool of those seeking to “unfriend” the World by means of the gospel and its implications, it is a social analysis which does in fact lay bare many of the historical causes and constructions which have led to the subordinated circumstances of people of color in the United States and beyond. Which is a good thing.
In order to exegete and apply God’s call to care for the poor and to liberate the oppressed, as found throughout the Scripture, we must become careful exegetes of our own society and our own social, legal, and historical context. Even to accurately identify the poor and the oppressed in our midst, to more fully understand their social predicament, and to apply the appropriate remedies, we must employ all the tools of analysis that God—in His kind providence—has provided.
Finally, to conclude, it is blasphemous and contradictory to use the gospel as an excuse for social inaction; the need for individual regeneration can never serve as terms of compromise with human suffering. In fact, our actions will be judged on the Last Day “according to the gospel” (Rom. 2:15-16), when God will judge the lawless, “the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,” again, “in accordance with the gospel” (1 Tim. 1:8-11), and Paul declares that prejudicial and oppressive systems, even if apparently natural or innocuous, are “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).
The gospel is not simply a set of propositions to be believed, but an announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, and He lays claim to the whole of it. Heralding this transforming gospel into our society and culture, while living consistently with its individual, social, and cosmic claims, is the primary means given by God to overcome “the world.” To ignore, or even condemn, the many tools He has given us to accomplish this is to live in illicit tension with His Kingdom.