Let’s Talk CRT: Christian Race Theory
By Stephanie Spellers
CRT is nothing new. I distinctly recall reading legal theorist Derrick Bell in the early 1990s. He flicked on the light for a generation of college students first learning about critical race theory, an umbrella that covers the study of structural racism and the intricate ways that white supremacy is baked into the very fabric of American life.
Conservatives cried foul, but their fearful, quasi-patriotic, racism-laden arguments were easy to dismiss. I couldn’t imagine they’d come back. But they’ve returned with a vengeance, just in time to derail a historic racial reckoning that was shaking the foundations of American life. Now the anti-critical race theory forces are sweeping not only classrooms and school boards but also legislatures and courts. One might say the empire is striking back.
And yet … if you listen closely, you may discover the “CRT” so many critics decry doesn’t sound that scary or problematic. If anything, I’ve found it sounds like what I understand about following Jesus. All of which makes me wonder if perhaps CRT isn’t critical race theory but actually Christian race theory. Here are four reasons why:
POINT 1: The reality and naming of structural racism was no mystery to Jesus or to the biblical people of God. If anything, God seems particularly concerned about divisions and hierarchies that leave one group protected and privileged while another group is outcast and vulnerable.
It’s in the first books of the Bible: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). It’s in the Psalms: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3).
Of course, it’s all over the prophets, including Jesus’ own mother, Mary, who sings:
[The Lord] has brought down rulers from their thrones(Luke 1:52-53)
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
Her son Jesus keeps up the family tradition. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). And don’t forget the Apostle Paul’s fury at the Corinthians. He says they “show contempt for God” whenever they allow the rich to eat and drink with abandon in front of their poor, hungry siblings in Christ, then all gather at the table for the Lord’s Supper as if everything was OK (1 Corinthians 11).
Scripture regularly cites power relations between groups, where one category of people lords over the other. It also tells us where God stands in the face of those power imbalances. In Christ, hierarchies are named for what they are and then leveled. Oppressive systems are not ignored, not covered up, but dismantled and healed. That’s how Christians reckon with racism.
POINT 2: I once heard a sincere Christian woman ask, “Isn’t designating and highlighting our identities sinful and selfish?” Absolutely not. Difference is a given and is not in and of itself bad. Diversity is a key feature of God’s glorious creation. It is God-made. Hierarchies are the problem, and they’re human-made.
So don’t be fooled by people who want to erase difference in the name of Jesus. Some will point to Galatians 3:28, where Paul famously declares that, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, but all are one in Christ.” Obviously, those groups and identities remained. His point is that the power imbalances and hierarchies aren’t supposed to carry into Christian community. So I’m free and you’re a slave. I don’t get to lord over you or expect you to bow to me. (If anything, according to 1 Corinthians 12:22-25, I should bow to you and tip the scales the other direction—how’s that for affirmative action?).
In Revelation 7:9, we see the image of people from all nations and races gathered around the throne and worshiping God. That vision doesn’t merge us all into one race or nation. It says we’ll be united in love, not uniform in identity. That’s the dream of God. That’s how Christians embrace the grace of race.
POINT 3: Speaking of difference, Christians worship and pattern our lives after a God who became human in a specific place, time and social location. It cannot be a coincidence that Jesus was a poor boy from a backwater town with an unwed teenage mother who was taken in by a man willing to raise her son as his own. Born on the margins, he blessed and preferred the company of people marginalized because of their culture, ethnicity, gender, economic status, physical ability, age, education, and religious affiliation. He was executed by the state for the crime of defying authority.
Christians worship a God who came from a particular social location—the underside—and stayed allied with people in a particular social location—the underside. Whenever Jesus encountered difference, he clearly acknowledged power differentials and opted to stand with suffering groups. He constantly lifted up stories, people and wisdom from the underside: women, poor people, Samaritans (a different race), and more.
Christianity is—at its core—a conscious reversal of dominant racial, cultural narratives and patterns. It retrieves and holds aloft what has been forgotten, left for dead, called unclean or blasted as unholy, and it says “God works through this.” Likewise, Christianity seeks hidden stories and brings them forward, in order to correct narratives once controlled by the powerful. Correcting and reversing false narratives and declaring the goodness of things cast to the underside is no problem for Christians. That’s our specialty.
POINT 4: The airwaves are full of parents who grind against CRT because they say it makes their children (and many of them) feel bad. First of all, if all you feel in the presence of these difficult truths is bad, then it probably isn’t being done responsibly. My husband is a middle-school social studies teacher, and I know how hard he and his colleagues work not to bludgeon anybody with guilt. He’s trying to teach history correctly and to help shape citizens who will be thoughtful, fair members of their communities (he has a sign over his classroom door that says “Beloved Community”).
Not everyone can handle that nuance. We say racism is bad. We say White people are racist (insofar as they participate in racism rather than consciously resisting, dismantling and healing it). So are all white people bad or is it bad to be a white person? No. You can choose not to be racist. It’s tough, but it is possible.
Jesus loved everyone and invited everybody into his radical community of love. He also told them what it takes to join and truly inhabit that community, and he didn’t lay out the same path for everyone. If you occupy the higher rungs of a social ladder based on personal or group identity, you’ll need to relinquish your hold on privilege, admit what you got at other’s expense, change your ways, and make amends to those who’ve been hurt. Remember the rich young man who wanted to know about eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22)? Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. You got it at their expense; now you’ve got to heal what’s been broken.
When the rich young man felt bad, hung his head and walked away, Jesus didn’t chase him down and reverse the message. He spoke a true word to his brother in love, and then he let the young man walk, pray and re-examine his life in light of this troubling reality. He trusted the young man could bear the truth, and he didn’t shield him from it. Jesus knew this young man would experience abundant life, if only he could stay with the painful feelings long enough to emerge into a new state of wisdom and freedom.
We have the same option. A Christian approach to dismantling racism holds out grace and hope, and at the same time treats us like morally accountable human beings who will not break when faced with painful, once-hidden realities. The truth will not destroy you. The only thing the truth destroys is narratives and structures built on lies, none of which should have stood in first place.
By the grace and love of God, we can rebuild and transform systems and stories and lives together, rooting out White supremacy and replacing it with truth and hope. That’s Christian race theory. I long to see followers of Jesus rising up across this land to preach and practice it.
Canon Stephanie Spellers is the Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Creation Care and author of The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline and New Hope for Beloved Community .