Critical Theory, Pragmatism, and the Good News: Reflections on the White-McKenna Debate

A few weeks ago, Justin Brierley of the Unbelievable? radio program hosted a discussion between Australian pastor and social activist Jarrod McKenna and Reformed theologian James White. The conversation centred around whether progressive concepts like ‘social justice’, ‘privilege’, and ‘intersectionality’ ought to play any role in the preaching of the Gospel; concepts that the framers of the recent ‘The Statement On Social Justice And The Gospel’ consider pernicious to the Church and its message. White, who played a key role in framing the Statement and was one of its key signatories, argued that those who utilize these concepts in their message are doing so at the cost of sound exegesis and importing foreign ideas that contradict the Gospel’s most fundamental claims about Christ’s work on the cross. Conversely, McKenna insisted that the application of these concepts only makes our Gospel presentation more Christlike, for it emphasizes the needs of the most oppressed members of society, just as Christ did in His day.

For the sake of full disclosure, I confess that I agree with White on this matter. I do, however, believe that there were certain important issues left unaddressed in that discussion, probably due to time constraints imposed by the radio format. I will attempt to lay out the beginnings of a response to a few of these issues, hoping that they will be addressed in detail by others in future conversations.

The Problem of Irreconcilable Worldviews

A portion of the debate was dedicated to discussing the terminology of the social justice movement that has since been adopted by more progressive Christians, including terms like ‘intersectionality’, ‘oppression’, ‘white supremacy’, ‘power’, etc. White argued that the concepts that these terms represent are extra-biblical, derived from philosophies that are contrary to Scripture, and that conflating these concepts with Biblical definitions of mercy and justice only leads to theological and doctrinal confusion within the church. McKenna strongly disagreed with this claim, arguing that concepts like intersectionality (a term defined in the next paragraph) permeate several Scriptural passages. He  also argued that understanding these terms is essential to “understanding the water we swim in”; an understanding that equips us to show how the good news of the Gospel is relevant to resolving the social problems that these terms represent. While White provided a great response to McKenna’s argument by highlighting that reading these modern concepts into those passages constitutes poor exegesis, I would like to respond to the same claims from a slightly different angle.

Like any other set of terms, social justice terminology did not arise in a vacuum. As Neil Shenvi (a Christian apologist whose extensive writings on critical theory have been cited by William Lane Craig himself) demonstrates, the language of social justice is deeply rooted in critical theory. Critical theory, Shenvi explains, is a worldview that started with a group of neo-Marxist social theorists now known as the Frankfurt School. He highlights certain fundamental principles that are characteristic of critical theory: (1) The inextricability of our individual identity from our group identities (such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.); (2) Our inevitable belonging to either the ‘oppressors’ or the ‘oppressed’ groups in society, the oppressors being the ones who use pre-existing societal structures to dominate oppressed groups; (3) Our fundamental duty to work towards the liberation of these oppressed groups; (4) The supremacy of ‘subjective lived experience’ over objective evidence and reason in understanding societal oppression; (5) Any claims of ‘objectivity’ being disguised tools of tyranny wielded by the oppressors; and (6) The importance of acknowledging the existence of intersectionality, or the unique form of oppression suffered by those who hold membership in a multiplicity of oppressed groups simultaneously.

Shenvi points out that while many well-intentioned advocates of critical theory do a good job of emphasizing the need for Christians to care about the oppressed and downtrodden, critical theory and biblical Christianity are mutually incompatible worldviews. Firstly, he points out that the critical theorist views relationships involving power relations to be inherently oppressive. The Bible requires us to stay within many such relations, including child’s submission to their parents, a wife’s submission to her husband, and the Church’s submission to Christ, yet none of them ought to be viewed as oppressive. Secondly, he argues that critical theory wrongly assumes that power is the primary corrupter of our sense of right and wrong; it tells us that the ‘oppressors’ are mistaken in what they consider to be ‘good’ because power has corrupted their perception. Conversely, the Bible tells us that all of us have a corrupted perception of right and wrong, given our being born in sin; the oppressors are not wrong by virtue of their possessing power and the oppressed are not right by virtue of them lacking it. Whether or not an individual has the correct perception of right and wrong must be judged against the only infallible source of moral authority that we possess, namely Scripture. Thirdly, Shenvi claims that the moral asymmetry found between oppressor and oppressed groups is unbiblical. Actions that are viewed as immoral when committed by oppressor groups are viewed as permissible when committed by oppressed groups; a common example would be the claim that there is no such thing as ‘reverse racism’. The Bible holds all people equally accountable for their actions; an act that is immoral for a ‘privileged’ group is equally immoral for a non-privileged group, and vice versa. Lastly, Shenvi states that critical theory’s treatment of groups, rather than individuals, as that upon which moral standards apply is unbiblical; the Bible teaches that sin and guilt are individual and that each person will be held accountable by God for no more than their own sins, while critical theory, through concepts like ‘white guilt’ or ‘white privilege’, argues that individuals can be guilty based on their group identity, and ought to be held responsible for things that they are not individually responsible for. These four points, in addition to several practical contradictions that Shenvi also lays out, demonstrate that critical theory is incompatible with a worldview that is faithful to the Bible.

Critical theory being antithetical to biblical Christianity has serious implications for any brand of theology that tries to reconcile the two. Attempts to read the language of social justice into any Scripture passage ipso facto constitute bad exegesis; this conclusion can be reached without countering every passage that the critical theorist cites in support of their views.

The Problem of Pragmatism

Towards the end of the conversation, moderator Brierley brought up the section of the Statement that says the following:

We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice. 

Brierley then mentioned McKenna’s affiliation with Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, a church that is well-known for its ‘black theology’ (a subset of liberation theology, a brand of theology based on the oppressor/oppressed conflict discussed above), the prominent role it played in the Civil Rights Movement, and most recently, for its controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He asked McKenna whether passages like the aforementioned one placed the Statement in opposition to the theology of Trinity United, a church that does endorse concepts like ‘white privilege’, ‘intersectionality’, etc.

“Yeah, goodness Justin, I hope not,” McKenna responded, “Because if it is [in opposition to black theology], it’s actually a statement against the theology of the Civil Rights Movement…if there is a problem with his [Ottis Moss III, current pastor of Trinity United and son of Ottis Moss Jr., one of the leaders of the Movement] theology, it’s a problem with a theology that put an end to Jim Crow and the American realities of segregation…”

The above quotation is an example of what I shall refer to as a pragmatic approach to theology, where the adherent of a particular theological perspective justifies holding to the truth of that perspective because of the desirable consequences it is responsible for producing — in this case, black liberation theology having played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement and promoting the welfare of our African American brothers and sisters. While McKenna’s response doesn’t contain a positive endorsement of such an approach, it does hint at it, for he is saying that there is something wrong in denouncing a brand of theology that has played a seminal role in bringing about much good for humanity. I was disappointed at not hearing White respond to this, particularly because he has spoken against the pragmatic approach in several of his Dividing Line episodes; this was probably due to a lack of time, and because the rest of the discussion digressed into other tangential issues, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christology.

The problem with the pragmatic approach is that judging a worldview by the amount of good it does for the world is a bad test for its truth; it is entirely possible that a worldview achieves a great amount of good, and yet does so without conforming to the truth. Mahatma Gandhi formed his principles of satyagraha or non-violent resistance partly based on Vaishnav Hinduism, Jainism, and the monistic Advaita Vedanta. Yet, it does not follow that I have to believe that any of Hinduism, Jainism, or Advaita Vedanta are true, or that I’m supposed to refrain from criticizing any of them, simply because they were the theological perspectives that played a role in freeing my native country of India from colonial rule. I can acknowledge the role that Gandhi (and his views) played in the struggle, while simultaneously holding him to be mistaken in his theology.

The late James H. Cone was one of the earliest and most prominent proponents of black liberation theology, and is a figure McKenna admits to holding in high regard. Here’s a brief description of Cone’s theology, as stated by Black theologian and expert Jonathan Walton.

James Cone believed that the New Testament revealed Jesus as one who identified with those suffering under oppression, the socially marginalized and the cultural outcasts. And since the socially constructed categories of race in America (i.e., whiteness and blackness) had come to culturally signify dominance (whiteness) and oppression (blackness), from a theological perspective, Cone argued that Jesus reveals himself as black in order to disrupt and dismantle white oppression.

In his book Black Theology and Black Power, Cone says,

All white men are responsible for white oppression. It is much too easy to say, “Racism is not my fault,” or “I am not responsible for the country’s inhumanity to the black man.” (p.24)

And a few pages later:

Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil’. The white structure of this American society, personified in every racist, must be at least part of what the New Testament meant by the demonic forces. (p.41)

And further on,

Therefore, simply to say that Jesus did not use violence is no evidence relevant to the condition of black people as they decide on what to do about white oppression. (p.140)

Or as he says in his A Black Theology of Liberation,

The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. (p.63)

Right away, you will see clear signs of Cone’s theology being entrenched in critical theory. According to him, American society is divided into the black oppressed and the white oppressors, with all members of the white community sharing equal guilt for this oppression, regardless of whether they are individually responsible for perpetrating acts of racism or discrimination. In addition, God also seems to make decisions based on group identity, rather than judging people as individuals; He identifies as ‘black’, and is the enemy of ‘whiteness’. Cone also seems to think that an Afrocentric theology is the perfect way to combat the oppressive Eurocentric one that has been forced upon black folks for centuries.

Compare these words to the words of the Apostle Paul, who happens to be one of the inspired authors of the New Testament that Cone claims to believe in:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)


…you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Col 3:9-11)

From these (and other) passages, it isn’t difficult to infer that the Apostle Paul (and the New Testament as a whole) disagrees with James Cone. In God’s eyes, there are no groups that are inherently good by virtue of their being the ‘oppressed’ or inherently evil due to their being the ‘oppressors’; there are only individuals who will be rewarded and punished according to what they have done. He does not see all men of a certain ethnicity as responsible for the sins of their ancestors, and He certainly is the God of all people. Among His redeemed children, there is no distinction on the basis of caste, ethnicity, past tradition, or status in society; His Spirit dwells in us without discriminating based on any of these socially constructed categories.

Cone’s theology, then, is out of touch with the core message that Jesus and the apostles preached, regardless of the numerous Biblical references he might cite to claim otherwise. Whether or not Cone’s theology played a role in the Civil Rights Movement might be an interesting thing to examine, but its status as a valid theological perspective cannot be judged on this pragmatic basis; the only standard for that is Scripture itself, and this is a standard that Cone’s theology fails to conform to.

A further argument against the pragmatic approach would be that the Biblical message did not always have desirable consequences for those who stayed faithful to it, particularly during the apostolic period; it was not always ‘liberating’, and it often put its adherents through more ‘oppression’ than before. Yet it did not motivate its adherents to contemplate violence or a ‘revolution’ against their oppressors; instead, they embraced their fates for the sake of the Gospel they preached and the Lord they loved. They did not preach the Gospel because it provided them with an opportunity to liberate themselves from their oppressors; as a matter of fact, they even shared the message with their ‘oppressors’, bearing no ill will against them, for they loved their enemies enough to not want them to perish. They cared little for earthly results, and focused on the greater prize that they would receive once they had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.

If resolving earthly oppression is an essential component of good theology, the Gospel preached by the apostles is terrible theology; it only added to their earthly oppression. But if the Bible is the standard of good theology, the pragmatic approach must be wrong, and the Gospel we preach must not be judged by the earthly results it produces for its adherents.

A Scriptural Basis for Social Activism

Does this mean that Christians should refrain from all forms of social activism? Does it mean that Christians should not work for the betterment of society, and should not defend the poor, weak, and defenseless? Not at all. As the Statement itself says,

“…believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society.”

Yet, our social activism must be driven by our Scriptural convictions and a desire to honour God through our actions, rather than being driven by ideologies like critical theory that are contrary to Scripture and that inspire animosity towards our fellow men. For instance, I am vehemently opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether it be on the basis of age, gender, skin colour, or religion. Why? Because Scripture tells me that all men are created in the image of God, and to treat one of my brothers or sisters as anything less than one who is created in the image of God is something I would disapprove of and actively fight against. It is for this same reason that I am against elective abortion and actively support the pro-life movement, for Scripture reminds me of the sacredness of every human life, and abortion constitutes a violation of God’s image in an unborn brother or sister of mine. And most importantly, I believe in the importance of preaching the Gospel whenever I get the opportunity, for I cannot help but share the message that delivered me from the bondage of sin and death to those who are still under than bondage, in hope that Christ might work in their lives and deliver them as He delivered me. There is no greater ‘activism’ than that.

In short, we are called to uphold justice and mercy and all the other Biblical virtues in the societies that God has placed us in. But it is important to keep our activism founded on Scripture, lest we stray into pernicious man-made philosophies like critical theory that are contrary to it.

The Liberating Power of the Cross

There was one point in the debate where I wholeheartedly agreed with McKenna. It was when he spoke of the effect of the transformative power of the cross in our own lives, and went on to say, “If a war was called, and Australia and America are on different sides, because we come without those identities [our identities before the power of the cross transformed us], we would not take up sword against each other, because Christ is Lord.” It is something that I wholeheartedly applaud and say ‘Amen’ to, but only wish McKenna would take it further; for the transformative power of the cross also frees us from identities like ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ that once pitted us against each other, and it now unites us under its banner of love and forgiveness, and asks us to come together as one body.

This is precisely why I think ideas like intersectionality are contrary to Scripture; for aside from deriving from an ideology that contradicts Scripture, they also go against the liberating message of the cross. While Scripture tells us through the Pauline passages referenced above that Christ’s sacrifice and victory on the cross has broken down the socially-constructed barriers between ethnicities, genders, traditional backgrounds, classes, and cultures to unite us into one Body, intersectionality attempts to reemphasize our differences that were supposed to be abolished by Christ’s work; an attempt that only leads to more division and unrest within the Body of Christ.

This does not mean that the Civil Rights Movement was a bad thing, or that we ought not to fight against evils like slavery and racism. Instead, we ought to fight these evils for the right reasons, namely because they are actions that violate the image of God in our fellow brothers and sisters, and such an affront ought not to be tolerated. And we must fight these injustices, not as a black church or a white church or a brown church, but as Christ’s church; a Body bought and united by the blood of our Lord, the members of which find their ultimate identity in Him alone. We must see each other as Christ sees each of us, as children of the same Father, members of the same family, responsible for our own actions and not for those of a certain socially-constructed group that society assigns us to. We must learn to forgive those who do not deserve it, just as God forgave us, the undeserving murderers of His Son. And we ought to stand up for the widowed and the orphaned and the refugee, for the poor and the weak, for the defenseless and the forsaken, with black brothers standing up for their white brothers and white brothers standing up for their black brothers; not because of some societal obligation or an attempt to atone for the sins of our ancestors, but because Christ commanded us to love one another just as He loved us — unconditionally.

To listen to the Unbelievable? debate referenced in this piece, click here. To view the Statement on Social Justice, click here. To read Neil Shenvi’s work on critical theory, race, and other topics in cultural apologetics, click here.

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