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.
Behind every work of art is an uncommitted crime. ~Theodore W. Adorno
[This post is a continuation of, “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt.” (And again, this is not an endorsement of these ideas; critique is forthcoming.)]
From Enlightenment to Critical Theory
In what is considered Critical Theory’s most seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodore W. Adorno critically interrogate the principles, goals, location, and historical effects of the project of Enlightenment. Consistent with the dialectical approach discussed in the last post, they see within the project both the immanent seeds of current human bondage and suffering, as well as the immanent seeds of emancipation therefrom. For Frankfurt theorists in general, social artifacts and systems are not to be analyzed in terms of a-historical transcendent ideologies; rather, they are to be critiqued as the products of contradictory internal forces which produce both the pathologies experienced by its individual actors, as well as the immanent forces of its own dissolution, both of which reside in the tension of existential experience until transformational crisis ensues.
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ~Walter Benjamin on Angelus Novus (1920)
Introduction to Part 1
I have been asked multiple times for my thoughts on Niel Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s article, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.” In short, I believe it is a great article and I am genuinely appreciative of the work they are doing. But what has brought me some discomfort throughout their project is the sense that they are offering a characterization of Critical Theory, rather than a faithful explanation or definition; maybe even a caricature? In particular, treating the identification of “oppressor” and “oppressed” as the definitive core, or premise, of Critical Theory seems more a collocation of a common theme pulled from disparate quotes than that which has (and does) distinguish Critical Theory from its “traditional” competitors.
I was asked recently by a friend if it was correct to say that every American—whether white, Latinx, black, etc.—is a participant in systemic racism, and therefore racist. Given that social structures and institutions have been historically formed in America to benefit white people at the expense of others, then isn’t everyone who participates in such systems also participating in white supremacy? I think this is a very important question. As the wider culture finds itself engaged in deciding who is racist, who isn’t, and why I am not and you are, the binary assumed, viz., “racist” or “not racist,” not only de-emphasizes the distinction between racism as individual and systemic, but also bifurcates what is obviously a much more complicated spectrum. It is easy to say that a Neo-Nazi is a racist, but what about an African American who ascribes the vast current social and economic disparities to black laziness or immorality? Or ascribes segregated churches to blacks’ disinterest in sound theology? And what about white and black Americans who simply give little thought to the disparity or segregation at all, but continue to travel the same worn paths?
Here is where Ibram X. Kendi’s categories “segregationist,” “assimilationist,” and “antiracist” can be so helpful.
Article 12, Mississippi State Constitution (1890):
Sec. 243. A uniform poll tax of two dollars, to be used in aid of the common schools, and for no other purpose, is hereby imposed on every male inhabitant of this State between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, except persons who are deaf and dumb or blind, or who are maimed by loss of hand or foot; said tax to be a lien only upon taxable property. The board of supervisors of any county may, for the purpose of aiding the common schools in that county, increase the poll tax in said county, but in no case shall the entire poll tax exceed in any one year three dollars on each poll. No criminal proceedings shall be allowed to enforce the collection of the poll tax.
Sec. 244. On and after the first day of January, A. D., 1892, every elector shall, in addition to the foregoing qualifications, be able to read any section of the constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof. A new registration shall be made before the next ensuing election after January the first, A.D., 1892.
[To be fair, this is a long post, and it ends with “To be continued….” I do believe this is one of the most important discussions within modern conservative evangelicalism, so if you have the time and inclination, I believe you will be rewarded.]
To me, the existence of systemic or institutionalized racism, i.e., “polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities” (Vernellia R. Randal), is a simple deduction from three premises:
- Well documented and vast social and economic disparities between black and white Americans, as well as continued neighborhood and church segregation.
- All racial groups are equal; in Ibram X Kendi’s words, “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever.”
- The majority of Americans are not overt racists, members of a neo-Nazi party, or intentionally discriminating against black Americans due to conscious prejudice and hatred.
If we are committed to the truth of the above three premises, then we must begin to look for explanations that do not—intentionally or unintentionally—assume the inferiority of any race. And a very short walk back through history gives us all the data we need: four hundred years of legal and de facto marginalization for the sake of exploitation accords perfectly with the circumstances we find ourselves in today; in fact, how could we expect it to be otherwise? Truly, God has been fantastically kind to this Nation, given our history. Much worse circumstances could have justly been predicted.
Example of Systemic Racism: “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church (NSoC)
I had promised in “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism” to give specific examples of systemic racism, both from church and society, to further explicate the concept. But I have decided here, rather, to focus solely on the church—particularly the Reformed and Presbyterian Church, of which I am a member.
The following is from Francis Fedric’s Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky (1863), wherein he describes his own conversion to Christianity. It is just more confirmation of Peter Randolph’s conclusion quoted at length in an earlier post: “[a]fter such preaching, let no one say that the slaves have the Gospel of Jesus preached to them.”