Unintended dog whistles
I try my best to come to peace with people that come from different traditions, especially within the larger tradition of Christianity. I am doing a specific thing in a specific context for a specific reason. Circle of Hope is particular and not everyone needs to get down with us. Likewise, I don’t need to get down with everyone else. But sometimes, I encounter a point or an idea that I think does some damage to the basic idea of Christianity, or at least the idea I want to work with, and I think it needs some talk back if you will.
This time it was The Gospel Coalition. Honestly, of all the New Calvinists on the Internet, they are far from the worst, but this one played into a few dangerous ideas that I wanted to bring to light. It was about the incapability of Christianity and what the authors terms “critical theory,” and later defines as “cultural Marxism.”
Now, “cultural Marxism,” like “global elite,” “globalism,” “deep state,” and other such terms, is often a dog whistle for something much more nefarious. Some people have called it a dog whistle for anti-Semitism. It’s not surprising that it is seen that way, since it is very close to the term Hitler himself used, “cultural Bolshevism.” It is ironic because the use of that term implies a global elite that controls our ideas and our thinking (they make us think in terms of power structures, in particular). And the authors are criticizing the idea of separating us by ruler and ruled; oppressed and oppressor, and yet in actuality are making a dichotomy between them and the cultural Marxists who seek to impose their will on them. They are making themselves out to be the ones who are oppressed. The cognitive dissonance that that sort of thinking requires is so glaring, I’m surprised the authors are not self-aware about what they are doing.
So when that term is casually used by Christians, it is time to speak up. I do not mean to simply disregard the entire post because of that word, for though the use of the term is deeply problematic on its own, there is more to be had.
For what it’s worth, the authors do try to distance themselves from “cultural Marxism,” and say they prefer “critical theory.” Aside from the former being a dog whistle for anti-Semitism, and the latter not being, they don’t offer any substantive disagreement. It appears like it is simply a quieter dog whistle. I have no basis for this thought, but I suspect most of the critiques of critical theory in the post began as critiques of cultural Marxism, and now the term is simply switched out.
A friend offered a helpful critique: “Unfortunately, the actual substance of the arguments against critical theory or cultural Marxism can lead to the same place, because they’re attacking the same ideas using the same logic. Using a less loaded term is good, but the benefits are blunted when you’re making what’s fundamentally the same case.”
I have to note that Neil Shenvi does not go to any great lengths to differentiate the terms. You see, in this tweet, he simply says critical theory is also known as cultural Marxism. He and I did have a nice exchange on Twitter, though.
Jesus meets us where we are, not all of us are equal
The authors essentially say that critical theory creates a paradigm between oppressed and oppressor. In critical theory’s framework there are unique sins that the oppressor commits, and unique insights that the oppressed have. This is completely in line with Circle of Hope’s proverb: In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable.
So The Gospel Coalition’s claim is fundamentally an affront to some of our thinking. But the difference of experience is a challenge, I’d say particularly for someone with a very individualized view of personal sin, and someone who thinks that all humans, because they are fallen, are equal in one way or the other.
In fact, the idea of oppression being a framework to see the sin of the world seems to be fundamentally incompatible with the authors’ view of Christianity. In my opinion, though it is an incomplete framework, it is not contradictory. However, if one’s primary understanding of human beings is centered on their own sinfulness, and that thus, everyone is equally condemned, then I can see why evaluating your own contribution to oppression or your own experience of oppression can be problematic. Here’s how the authors put it:
Or consider the question of our fundamental problem as humans: Is our fundamental problem sin, in which case we all equally stand condemned before a holy God? Or is our fundamental problem oppression, in which case members of dominant groups are tainted by guilt in a way that members of subordinate groups are not?
The issue that I think the authors are facing is the challenge of addressing one’s own positional privilege in the world. It can be a challenge to do that since we all have a variety of privileges and our lives are a fight for power. The notion of implicit bias and inequalities of opportunities (and the results that follow) is hard to experience and empathize with. I think that the only way to move in the direction of understanding one another is to listen to each other. Here’s the thing: we aren’t all equal, but Jesus meets us right where we are.
We arrive at truth together, not individually on our own
Unfortunately, the unique insight that an oppressed person brings to something like the Bible seems to be too much to bear. If they read something differently because of their lived experience, as the authors put it, it seems unfair. It seems like they are demonstrating an advantage over someone else (and if you see the world in terms of power and privilege, especially unconsciously as I think the authors in fact do), and this can be an offense. What the authors aren’t aware of is the fact that they bring privilege to their reading too. I know they don’t know it because they think a defense of themselves might just appear like a defense of racism. And that’s the part that stuck with me.
Here’s how they put it: “If a person from an oppressor group appeals to Scripture, his concerns can be dismissed as a veiled attempt to protect his privilege.”
In other words, many Christians have argued the ideas of the Exodus story or any of the Prophets are stories of liberation from oppression, and we should do likewise in our time. If a member of the dominant or ruling groups argues against that, the authors think they will be detracted, unfairly, for defending their own privilege. And in their defense, it is hard to have a good faith conversation about these matters, largely because they existentially affect the people making the arguments, on both sides.
Nevertheless, in my experience, those arguments against the liberation of Jesus, completing his liberation from death (the ultimate oppressor), are not thinly veiled at all. They are rather obvious, just as I think this whole piece is.
Scripture as a final objective authority without mention of interpretation is just an ignorant reading of the text. Our lived experience colors how we see the text and why we use it. Put another way, minorities derive new truths from it that the dominators haven’t.
My advice to the authors is to take their own, “Christians should be known for graciousness toward those with whom they disagree, particularly those who profess faith in Christ.” Minorities have a unique perspective on the truth of scripture that should be uniquely submitted to and learned from. And yes, the dominators, the ones born of the Enlightenment with the self-assuredness of their monopoly on objectivity, have often read the text in a way that protects their privilege. I can only read the text through my experience. If you think you don’t do that, you are lying to yourself. Want my advice? Read it in community and learn from people different than you.
The Gospel liberates the oppressor too
I do want to note that the dominators, especially the ones that were recently awakened to their domination, tend to obsess over the problems they have caused—usually they are white Christian men. And they can’t seem to let go of their own sins, condemning themselves not just uniquely, but hyperbolically, to the detriment of their own point. Maximizing one’s “oppressor guilt” is not the idea. I’ll admit, one of the issues being that I left a place where white people didn’t know they were talking about themselves because their race was invisible, and went to another where all they do is talk about themselves because theirs is the chief sin. It’s still supremacist.
This becomes even more problematic when we fail to decolonize the Bible or understand the Bible isn’t a colonial text. We need to read the Bible as a book written by and for the oppressed (it is a vast book, or really series of books, so there is some variety even within that framework that we should care for). If we read it as the oppressor, and we think Christians today are oppressing people (because, let’s be honest, sometimes, and oftentimes they are), I think we do ourselves a disservice. In the memory of the Exodus, the Israelites are the oppressed and the Egyptians their oppressor. Their liberation comes from finding the land set out for them. The violence that follows that conquest is problematic in its own right, and certainly would be deeply problematic to victims of colonization in the West. But seen as a memory told by an oppressed group of people from their own captivity or after their captivity (when it was likely composed), I think we can see a different perspective on the text. God may seem genocidal or violent, but that violence is a comfort to the oppressed in their memory of how their nation is formed.
Nevertheless, today, Christians see themselves as oppressors too. And the idea of sharing their faith, or spreading the Good News, can be seen as colonialism. I consistently hear this rhetoric from my woke friends. And, much like the authors above, they can’t seem to unlock themselves out of their oppressor worldview. They are still oppressing others, even when they share their faith. They still see Christianity as a tool for oppression (which is why the authors above are so heated it seems), instead of the way of liberation. Seen as the way of liberation, if indeed the Good News is real, than it must be shared. Sharing our faith isn’t colonization, it’s in fact liberation.
I think we need to decolonize the text, but also ourselves. If you want to be an ally to the oppressed, share a version of Christianity that frees people. Don’t spend your time sulking about your guilt. That’s not the work.