By Matthew McBirth
My grandad is from the South. While my dad grew up during the Civil Rights Movement decades of the 1950s to 1960s, Grandad was raised during the age of Jim Crow. I have a vivid memory of watching a home video of Dad and Grandad visiting Grandad’s childhood community in the rural South during midsummer. While watching the highlights of the trip, the video showed Grandad next to a massive field covered in white. Upon seeing this, preteen Matthew (me) said aloud, “Wow, it snowed while y’all were there?” With a slight chuckle, Dad responded, “No, that’s cotton.” That conversation was seared into my memory as Dad mentioned the softness of the cotton and the vastness of the field.
THE CONFLICT OF TWO STORIES
In my mind, the image engendered history that took place throughout the country. I thought about what life was like for Dad growing up as a black teenager in the urban South and what life was like for Grandad growing up during the reign of Jim Crow. But I also considered what life was like for so many people during and before those times. This history is part of who I am. These stories—the bad and blessings included—are part of my story.
On the day I was baptized, I accepted an invitation to be part of another story—the story of God, through Christ, redeeming and reconciling creation to himself. However, a conflict occurred upon entering this story. Within one person, and one church, there now exist multiple stories.
Let’s call the first set of stories “ethnic history” and the second story “the gospel.” Herein lies the tension: How are Christians supposed to view ourselves regarding our ethnic history? This question, I’ve noticed, is answered vaguely; it often involves quoting Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek . . .”) or saying something like that—out of context—and then ending the conversation. We need to recognize one of the unfortunate ramifications of not letting the text win in this conversation on ethnic and Christian identity. Namely, another option claims to have the answer to this question, and this option has become so notorious that most people know it by its acronym: CRT.
CRT’S CONFLICT RESOLUTION
I want to explain critical race theory (CRT) concisely, how it addresses identity, and how, albeit helpful in a sense, it ultimately falls short of Jesus’ answer. But, I want to make two statements before doing so.
First, the debate on CRT is not a superhero movie. Superhero movies are simple: the plot is discernable and it’s easy to identify the heroes and villains. Our conversations on CRT should not be treated this way. We should not label people as either heroes or villains based on where they stand on CRT. The gospel tells us that there is only one hero (Jesus) and there really is only one team of villains (sin, death, Satan).
Second, I’m not here to totally affirm or denounce CRT. With this said, how in the world is this acronym causing so many not-so-peaceful debates?
CRT originated in the late 1970s/early 1980s as a response to the persistent racial inequality in the United States, primarily in areas of society that could benefit or harm an individual or community (e.g., education, housing, job market). Legal scholars decided to use their discipline to ask and answer the question of how—even after passage of Civil Rights legislation—racial inequality could persist.
CRT contends that a system of racial inequality persists, despite the fact that the racially discriminatory laws that gave birth to that system have been ruled unconstitutional. Due to centuries of legislated racial discrimination, the U.S. is a society wherein the majority of one race (Caucasians) receives an overabundance of wealth and access to social benefits, while the majority of racial minorities (non-Caucasians) receive an inequitable amount of these social benefits. The removal of such overtly racist laws—though undeniably beneficial—cannot alone change the inequitable environment because we still must live with the harmful consequences of centuries of such laws.
CRT’s solutions to this problem are diverse, but they all share two commonalities: (1) the idea that racism is persistent and pervasive in the post-Civil Rights era because racism is a part of our nation’s DNA and (2) the resolve that the only way to bring racial equity is to construct new racially conscious laws and procedures that will socially benefit the racially marginalized.
CRT has developed streams into the area of education. It must be stated, however, that “critical race theory” as a subject is not being taught in schools (unless you are taking a class on law); instead, two common components of CRT are being taught. This normally looks like the pedagogical recognition of systemic racism and intentional work toward the demarginalization of racial minorities.
So, how are Christians supposed to view one another with regard to ethnic and Christian identities? CRT’s answer is that our ethnic history and the gospel are to coexist without the latter compromising the former. Therefore, we are to see ourselves as Black Christians, White Christians, and Brown Christians, where race is primary. I appreciate this approach in at least one way: it reminds us that inequality can exist even within the church due to ethnic/racial distinctions. However, I don’t think this observation originates with CRT.
Acts 6:1 says, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” The New Testament church struggled with treating every ethnic group fairly, but Luke tells us the Twelve responded to this ethnic tension not by saying, “Hey, we’re all Christians, don’t make this an ethnic thing.” Instead, they acknowledged it as ethnic discrimination and responded by designating leaders to fix it. CRT reminds Christians that the way to deal with ethnic inequality is not by overlooking ethnic distinctions but by acknowledging that differences can lead to injustices.
THE GOSPEL’S CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Yet, I don’t believe CRT is offering something new to Bible-reading Christians when it comes to the idea of acknowledging ethnic distinctions and history. An overwhelming number of passages show that God’s family isn’t “colorblind.” In fact, Scripture seems to highlight and celebrate the ethnic distinctions that are physically present in the church (e.g., Matthew 25:35; Luke 10:29-37; John 4:1-39; Acts 13:1; 17:22-32; Ephesians 2–3; Revelation 7:9). We must read Scripture in light of Scripture, which includes reading Galatians 3:28 within its own context (which is an argument against cultural uniformity) and in light of the above references. To think that Paul was stating that our ethnic stories are annihilated in the waters of baptism contradicts the rest of the New Testament and would contradict Paul’s own practice of becoming Jewish to win the Jews and Greek to win the Gentiles so that we might all share in the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
As a college freshman, I worked a phone-a-thon to help raise money for a nonprofit. I always looked forward to work. The job provided snacks, I worked with friends, we got breaks, and the nonprofit provided the nectar of energy called coffee. When I started there, I had never had coffee. So, one night, I headed over to the pot of already-brewed coffee. My colleagues—seasoned coffee drinkers—watched as I poured some coffee into a cup, filling it less than halfway. I then reached for the creamer and poured it until the cup was almost full. I then emptied several packets of sugar into the cup and stirred it all together. Before I could take a sip, one of my peers asked, “Got enough coffee for your cream and sugar?” That first “cup of coffee” didn’t taste like coffee at all. The creamer practically consumed the distinct taste of the coffee.
The Bible doesn’t deal with a Christian’s ethnic history this way. The gospel doesn’t become like the creamer in my example and gobble up the distinct ethnic flavor and stories of Christians. The two can coexist without one annihilating the other. However, this is when CRT ceases to be helpful with regard to identity, and here’s the reason: CRT desires for racial history to be left uncompromised by the gospel. This often leads to pessimism and further division. Scripture, however, offers us a better solution.
Jesus is in the business of redemption. Every person and everything Jesus encounters is transformed: the leper, the deceased, the sick, the lame, the mute. Even death was transformed by Jesus. I believe the gospel of Jesus is powerful enough to do the same with our identities. When Jesus encounters our ethnic history, he doesn’t annihilate it (colorblindness), but neither does he allow those stories to have equal say in who we are (the CRT approach). The gospel redeems the ethnic history. Instead of seeing racism as too deeply ingrained in our communities to overcome, Jesus shows us that he can bring life out of death, peace out of chaos, joy out of sorrow.
So, what becomes of our distinct ethnicities? The gospel says the church is a family of people who have been wholly redeemed by Christ—and that includes our ethnicities. We are, therefore, Christians from different ethnic stories who are all being redeemed by Christ.
I am not a “bi-ethnic” Christian, because in that sense my ethnicity is left untouched by Jesus. If true, the story of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, hate crimes, and inequality would remain unredeemed. Instead, I am a Christian who was born into a bi-ethnic family with a lot of painful and beautiful history. In this sense, I proclaim that Jesus is making all things new, including our history of progress and pain.
By the amazing grace of God, I see those who are ethnically different from me not solely or firstly based on their ethnicity, but as sisters and brothers in Christ with different stories who are also being redeemed. In Christ, we can have unity (John 17) amid celebrated distinctions and not feel the extra-biblical view to have uniformity.
As I think back to that image of my grandfather in the cotton field, I consider all the ethnic heritage that comes with being born into this family and culture. And I wonder, “How can I forget all that history that makes me the person I am today?” The story of the gospel tells us we don’t have to forget it, but we must let Jesus reign over and redeem it so it is put in its proper place. If Jesus can reign over and even transform death’s effects on creation, I’m sure he is powerful and gracious enough to do the same for our identities.
Matthew McBirth serves as director of diversity at Ozark Christian College in order to raise up servant leaders who love, honor, embrace, and encourage ethnic and cultural diversity for the sake of the gospel.