There has been a lot of kerfuffle about Critical Race theory of late, most of it unhelpful and much of it misleading. So on this anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre and Juneteenth, I thought I would take this moment to offer what I hope will be a helpful (thought surely imperfect) analogy for understanding Critical Race Theory. My proposal is that CRT explains racism in the United States in much the same way the doctrine of Original Sin explains the sinfulness of humanity: a structural brokenness—a brokenness that opens the door to evil—rooted in historical moments of ignorance and selfishness.
The doctrine of Original Sin is, of course, a lot more complicated and contested than that, but this is the definition I’m rolling with for now. Because Adam and Eve (or in my opinion Cain) did something stupid and self-centered (Cain was also cruel), creation was disordered, and humanity’s moral core was weakened. We have been set up to be more likely to think of ourselves before others, ignore the misery of others, and even to find some pleasure in others’ suffering. The problem is not that we are inherently evil, but that we are vulnerable to the power of evil. So how does this help us think about Critical Race Theory?
The idea of CRT is that the United States, from its inception, established the category of race as a feature of our laws and culture. More important, that category was constructed to keep one race dominant over others, i.e. “whites” over others, especially but not exclusively “blacks”. In short, the earliest settlers on the continent and the society they built did things that were stupid, selfish, and cruel. In the same way that Adam and Eve (or Cain’s) deeds set evil loose on our lives, our American forebears turned racism loose in America.
Remember, though, that we do not teach that people are inherently evil. The corollary is that people are not inherently bigoted. At the same time we are all broken. We inherit the brokenness of our spiritual and national ancestors, a tendency toward sin, and for those of us raised in the U.S. that includes the sin of racism. That kind of sin, like many others, will sneak up on you and make a fool out of you. It will use you to perpetuate itself when you are not paying attention and will drive you to despair. So what are we to do about it?
Well, the good news is that we are already forgiven, but this does not mean we are not responsible. It means we must not waste our time with feelings of guilt, but instead look with clear eyes on historic and present-day injustices—which is to say we need to repent—and then go about the work of repairing the damage. That’s what Critical Race Theory is about: refusing to deny the sins of the past or the responsibilities of the present. CRT teaches us that racism is a shared problem that each of us must tackle, but none of us can overcome alone.
As far as I can tell, that’s simply the Gospel applied to a specific American sin. As Christians, we already know that sin is the brokenness of all people, not just individual bad behavior. We also know that we have the hope of salvation from sin by the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Stay awake, therefore! Repent! Look unflinchingly to your own sins and the sins of our nation, not with despair but with the confidence of one saved by Grace.