Recognizing Critical Theory – and Why It Matters

Critical theory, an ideology based on the analysis of power dynamics between the oppressed and their oppressors, is becoming more and more influential in our culture. MagnifyingGlass.jpgAt the same time, it is becoming less and less visible as people assimilate it into their worldview. Certain ideas are so ubiquitous that they are like the air we breathe; we absorb them without giving them a second thought. Consequently, recognizing their presence in a discussion can pose a challenge. In this essay, I’ll explain how the assumptions of critical theory surface in everyday conversations and will then provide a tool to help us recognize them when they appear.

Critical theory and its implications

Fundamental to critical theory is the idea that our individual identity is inextricably linked to our membership in certain groups, particularly as these groups play the roles of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ in society. Our fundamental moral duty is to seek liberation from all forms of oppression, whether that oppression is based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. As a tool, critical theory is useful in its analysis of power dynamics between groups. But as a worldview -that is, as a fundamental lens through which we view reality- it will compete with all other comprehensive systems of thought.

Implication #1: Asymmetry

Critical theory first surfaces in conversations through its assumption of an inherent asymmetry between participants. For example, if a man is in a conversation with a woman, then -as a man- his role is fundamentally tied to his ‘oppressor’ status. In the same way, if a heterosexual woman is in a conversation with a sexual minority, then her role is fundamentally tied to her ‘oppressor’ status. Of course, either people from the oppressor groups in these first two scenarios could express their solidarity with the oppressed groups and claim the status of ‘ally’. Nevertheless, an asymmetry remains.

Out of this asymmetry flow several important consequences. First, the rules which govern the behavior of individuals from dominant groups are different from the rules governing the behavior of oppressed groups. Comments, actions, prohibitions, and attitudes which would be condemned from a member of the dominant group are implicitly or even explicitly tolerated from a member of an oppressed group. Second, a member of the dominant group is generally not permitted to challenge the claims of a member of the oppressed group; disagreement is seen as hurtful. Instead, members of the dominant group are asked to affirm and validate the claims of the oppressed group. Finally, ‘lived experience’ is often emphasized over evidence because any appeal to objectivity is seen as implying a level playing field, which is inimical to critical theory. In all these cases, asymmetric standards are adopted to offset the oppression of the victim group; assuming a symmetric standard of behavior, of critique, or of evidence is seen as unjust given the preexisting unjust treatment of the victim group.

When men are prevented from talking about abortion, when lived experiences are used to settle moral debates, or when alternative viewpoints are excluded on the grounds that they are hurtful, we are probably seeing the effects of critical theory.

Implication #2: Groups versus individuals

A second way in which the assumptions of critical theory emerge in conversations is through an emphasis on the group, rather than on the individual. For example, one might assume that in the context of a college class, the professor has more power than the student. However, if the professor is a member of an oppressed group, she could still claim oppression at the hands of her non-oppressed student. Even more interesting, the rules don’t generally apply to individuals from oppressed groups who are seen as not properly representing the views of their group (possibly because of “internalized oppression.”) A  woman who rejects feminism will not be accorded the same deference as a man who is an ally of the feminist movement because individuals are meant to represent the groups to which they belong.

These two manifestations of critical theory suggest a helpful test. Consider the comments, actions, or attitudes of a particular individual in a discussion. If we were to reverse all the group labels in the discussion, would this person’s behavior still be acceptable? For example, imagine that we substituted the oppressed group for the oppressor group, swapping ‘female’ for ‘male’ or ‘poor’ for ‘rich’ or ‘Muslim’ for ‘Christian.’ Would the sweeping generalizations, ridicule, or bitterness that often characterize such conversations be acceptable if the roles were reversed? If the answer is ‘no, not at all’ then there’s a good chance that the conversation is being conducted along the lines of critical theory.

Why does it matter?

Up to this point, I haven’t said whether critical theory as a worldview poses a problem for Christians. I’ve only outlined the ways in which critical theory is manifested in conversation. However, if we turn to the Bible, we see that critical theory comes into conflict with Christianity in a number of important areas.

First, the Bible shows that God’s moral requirements are equally applicable to all people. With the exception of a few specific commands given to particular demographics (husbands/wives, children/parents, etc…), all of God’s commands are for all of God’s people. In particular, God insists that we show complete impartiality in judgment: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15; see also Ex. 23:2). God’s moral requirements are not contingent on the demographic group to which we belong. This consideration is important for the behavior that is incumbent on Christians in discussions. We are all to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. We are all to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of our brother’s eye. We are all to regard others as more important than ourselves. To demand that some Christians adhere to such standards while other Christians are exempt is deeply unbiblical.

While Christians can prudentially recognize that a person who has been victimized should be treated especially gently and charitably, we must also recognize that their victimhood does not absolve them from moral responsibility. And, as their brothers and sisters in Christ, we must at some point them show them that God expects an attitude of forgiveness, love, gentleness, humility, and purity of speech from all Christians, not just those in certain demographics.

Second, even if we were to ignore the fact that God’s moral law applies equally to all people, we would still have problems trying to justify critical theorists’ emphasis on groups over individuals. For example, the Bible does recognize that certain sins take place under extenuating circumstances (see Prov. 6:30, 1 Tim. 1:13). While they are still sins, they are mitigated by the situation that the individual found himself in. But the magnitude of the offense is lessened by the circumstances of the individual, not their membership in a certain demographic group. If a woman is a victim of perpetual domestic violence at the hands of her husband, it is understandable (though still sinful) if she harbors hatred of all men in her heart. But it would be incorrect for a woman who has not personally suffered domestic violence to justify her hatred of men on the grounds that she is part of an oppressed group. To condone this kind of reasoning is, in the end, to enable her to justify her own sin. As Christians we are called to speak the truth in love. That includes calling people to repentance when they, like all of us, fall into sin.

My main concern in this discussion is that, by adopting the attitudes of critical theory, we are turning a blind eye to the sins of oppressed groups. I will certainly grant that -far too often- the church has been guilty of the opposite error, condoning the sins of the powerful, while ignoring the suffering of the oppressed. But the answer to erring in one direction is not to err in the other direction. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “[the devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs–pairs of opposites…He relies on your extra dislike of one to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”  It is a sin to allow power to blind us to the needs of the vulnerable.  But it is also a sin to allow bitterness and self-righteousness to creep into our hearts through our concern for the oppressed.

All people are sinners: the powerful, the powerless, the wealthy, the poor, and privileged and the underprivileged. As critical theory is embraced, we are seeing more and more people covet a victim status which confers on them an immunity from criticism. Taken to its logical conclusion, we can use our victimhood to avoid the gospel entirely. If the culture is telling us -and we are telling ourselves- that we are only the victims of sin and not also its perpetrators, then we will see no need for a Savior. We will see no need for repentance, no need for redemption, and no need for regeneration. And, ironically, we will have no desire to extend grace to those who mistreat us or even disagree with us because we see ourselves as morally blameless.

In all of the above, I am not asking anyone to dampen their thirst for justice or to change their attitudes towards the vulnerable by one iota; I am only asking that we adhere to what Scripture teaches. When we find people who champion the causes we care about, we can unconsciously begin to absorb their worldview without ever asking if it’s compatible with the Bible.  If we’re not careful, we’ll drift.  Let’s make sure we’re standing firm with our feet planted on the rock of Scripture, testing all things, and holding fast to what is good.


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