Perhaps you saw the video. A woman stares down the lens of the camera, straight into our eyes. Her expression is weary, her tone angry. “How can you win?” she cries, with the air of a question she’s asked a thousand times. “You can’t. The game is fixed,” she answers. “So when they say, ‘Why do you burn down the community? Why do you burn down your own neighborhood?’—it’s not ours. We don’t own anything. We don’t own anything.’”
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Kimberly Jones’s viral video gave voice to the anger and anguish felt by many black men and women in the United States and beyond. She spoke of a society rigged so that most black people cannot succeed—however hard they work and whatever the content of their character.
Though the assumptions and commitments informing this view of a systemically racist society go by multiple names, here I’ll use “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) as a general term to capture the set of concerns. (To be clear, lamenting the presence of systemic racism does not necessarily make one a CRT proponent.)
When discussed in Christian circles, CRT is often explicitly or implicitly contrasted to a version of classical liberalism: not the liberalism of the liberal/conservative divide, but the liberalism of individual freedom, universal rights, and the importance of property propounded by thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. Some Christians, rightly sensitive to the problems of CRT, end up espousing a secular liberalism because it provides an off-the-shelf alternative. Others, whose education or life experience have primed them to see liberalism’s dangers, give a free pass to CRT as the go-to tool for addressing them.
But both reactions sell the Bible short, not by opposing it at every point but by isolating an aspect of its interconnected truth, distorting it, and making it into the whole truth. Many of today’s social and political pitched battles are staged between complementary biblical truths that have been dismembered, isolated, and opposed. This tragic and unnecessary spectacle characterizes much of the struggle between CRT and liberalism.
Errors rarely deny the truth completely—they instead tend to isolate part of it, making it into the whole truth.
To be clear, my aim in this article isn’t to keep score between these secular ideologies and pronounce which error is worse or which is more compatible with biblical Christianity. I simply aim to show how both reduce the complexity of biblical truth, often in symmetrical and opposite ways.
The Bible is not, of course, a book of secular political philosophy: it addresses ultimate realities and calls people to find eternal life in knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (John 17:3). Nevertheless, the Bible does describe the world, human beings, and the flow of history in particular ways (in a forthcoming book I call them “figures”), and these ways have implications for how we think about political and social issues. So let’s consider the key biblical turning points of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation as a grid through which to compare CRT and liberalism to the biblical truth they both simplify and distort.
CRT: Identity markers like race are basic to human existence. The fundamental unit of social life is the group united by a particular identity marker.
Liberalism: Identity markers like race are incidental to our shared, universal humanity. Society should be colorblind. The fundamental unit of social life is the individual.
Bible: Like liberalism’s universal, all humans are equally in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Within this overarching framework we can each belong to many groups, but they can never capture my identity at its most fundamental level. People are more than their group identities (Gal. 3:28), but they aren’t abstracted from those identities (e.g., Col. 3:18–22).
CRT: Society is violent, and oppression is endemic and ineradicable. The world is divided into groups of oppressors and oppressed. I am guilty of, and responsible for, the historical and contemporary actions of the majority-culture groups to which I belong.
Liberalism: Society is fundamentally consensual and is progressing inexorably toward greater happiness and concord. Guilt and responsibility are individual: no one is guilty simply because of the group to which he or she belongs.
Bible: Oppression is not fundamental to God’s world (Gen. 1–2), but it is inevitable in this present age (John 16:33). Alongside the classic liberal, the Bible affirms that sin and guilt are universal (Rom. 3:10–12) and individual (Deut. 24:16). But with CRT it shares the view that we’re responsible for the past and for our social groups—not in the sense that the actions of others were our fault, but in the sense that it’s our burden to confess, lament, and, where possible, remedy them (e.g., Dan. 9:4–19).
CRT: There’s an endless struggle between oppressor and oppressed. Justice for the latter can only come at the price of overthrowing the former: it’s a zero-sum game.
Liberalism: Each individual finds justification in choosing his or her own version of the good life.
Bible: Salvation is not the victory of one group over another, nor is it found in choosing one’s own vision of the good. It’s a gift received by grace—which cuts across both CRT’s racial identities and liberalism’s idea of the autonomous individual.
CRT: Racism will remain endemic. Society cannot be reformed without first tearing it down. There’s no prospect of racial justice short of this radical unmaking of society.
Salvation isn’t the victory of one group over another, nor is it found in choosing one’s own vision of the good. It’s a gift received by grace.
Liberalism: Radical change to address questions of justice is rejected in favor of incremental and consensual progress.
Bible: The Bible avoids CRT’s tragedy of perpetual conflict as well as liberalism’s incrementalism. Instead, it has an eschatological vision of radical, transformative reconciliation in which members of every tongue, tribe, and nation will sing praise to God with one voice (Rev. 7:9–10) and all injustice will be held to account (Rev. 20:12). This grand vision motivates practical efforts in the here and now (1 Cor. 15:58).
Biblical Politics of Hope
This analysis doesn’t leave us with a blueprint for a third “Christian” political party, nor a wishy-washy “third-way” compromise between existing political ideologies. But it does show us how the Bible presents a complex view of reality and how modern political ideologies dismember parts of this complex reality, isolate them, and treat them as the whole. And it helps Christians to engage with liberalism, CRT, and other political ideologies in a way that doesn’t invest them with ultimate, messianic hope or allow them to become the uncontested and sovereign ideology of our souls.
In contrast to both these errors, the Bible’s view of reality blossoms in a social and political hope that’s both intensely practical and outrageously radical: a sober delirium that leaves both CRT and liberalism in its expansive shadow.
The Bible holds out a vision for working toward societies that benefit everyone, not just liberalism’s associations in which no one is to blame or CRT’s perpetual struggles of one group against another. Christians engage with issues of racial justice neither to justify themselves nor only to bewail their sin but in hope that the best aspirations of both critical race theory and classical liberalism will be transformatively, subversively fulfilled by the God in whose name the nations put their hope (Matt. 12:21).
A longer version of this article appeared at Cambridge Papers.