As a Christian who cares deeply about social justice I find myself dogged by a nagging question: why are white evangelical Christians so vehemently oppositional to most contemporary renderings of social justice? I mean no one really debates that justice is a major theme of the Bible. It’s a subject where even the theologically questionable practice of proof texting cannot credibly absolve a Christian of their responsibility to seek justice. It is literally everywhere in the Biblical text. Why then, do so many Christians seem to have a distaste for our societal conversations about justice?
After wrestling with this for a long time I think I may have actually found the culprit: intersectionality. For those who may not be familiar with the term, intersectionality is a theory within the field of sociology coined in 1989 by the leading critical race theorist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. In it, Crenshaw suggests that our various categories of identity intersect to create an identity that is unique from any of its individual components. These intersections then become a lens through which we can understand systems of oppression, domination or discrimination that take shape in our social fabric.
This theory rose to prominence particularly on college campuses in the late 2000s and spawned discussions that resulted in the dialogue around “safe spaces” and issues of censorship and offensive language. It also coincided with a particular flavor of racial dialogue characterized by the concept of privilege. Privilege is the idea that these various identities confer advantage and disadvantage to those who identify that way. One result of this dialogue is a rhetorical structure in which subjective experience became the primary currency of ideas deemed valid. It is easy to see why this might be since the intersections of any given person’s identity are relatively unique, thus discussions about the validity of that person’s status in society are forced to rely almost exclusively on self-reporting of conditions, rather than statistics or economic data. A key issue here is that anecdotal self reporting is often not representative and thus creates a poor foundation for contentious discussions around race.
But the issue with intersectionality isn’t really so much about the merits of the theory itself. It has certainly contributed to a more nuanced discussion of the ways human persons constitute their identities and how those identities interact in society. The problem is actually with the defacto story that intersectionality leads us to tell about ourselves, almost without intending to.
You see intersectionality arose as a tool of critical race theory, so the questions it is preoccupied with are obviously oppositional in nature. That is clearly appropriate as there are a number of oppositional forces, both personal and institutional, at play in the history of race, particularly in America. However, once it became a theory not just about race but about justice, its underlying perspective became a normative lens, a way of discerning morality, for life generally. It became a worldview, and in that role it fails spectacularly.
You see, any worldview starts with assumptions about the nature of things. And intersectionality as worldview starts with the assumption that the primary dynamic of society is various forms of oppression. This is again an appropriate place to begin discussion on critical race theory, but not a coherent foundation for a worldview. If something is true of one context, it does not make it true universally. To distill it down to a narrative story would go something like this:
Human history is one long story of how we oppress one another. It has been narrated by and for those with the most power. And those power structures are preserved through the often unacknowledged use of identity to maintain advantage over others. The antidote to this oppression is awareness. If we acknowledge the various ways our identities advantage us, and actively seek to participate the undoing of that advantage, then the world will be more just.
It’s an interesting story, and one that seems true in certain contexts, but is that really a story that captures the whole of human history? Its soaring victories and its worst moments, its faults and its virtues? I think most people would say pretty emphatically no. In fact I would suggest that many people reject intersectionality and its various iterations out of hand, not because they don’t care about justice, but because the worldview it engenders seems to them deeply flawed.
Its flaws as a worldview are deep and many:
- It insists upon an oppositional posture. If awareness by the advantaged is the only antidote, then accusation is the only means of proselytization.
- It creates its own hierarchical structure. If awareness is the antidote then believers are elevated above the ignorant who refuse and the enlightened become self-righteous.
- It insists that interpersonal or social power dynamics are to blame for all forms of oppression. This assumes that oppression can never be self inflicted. We know this is not true of many forms of addiction, or simply poor choices.
- It inadequately deals with brokenness manifested in places that do not conform to an oppression narrative. For example, greed would only be bad in that it motivates oppressive behavior, not that it corrupts a human person’s soul.
- It divides the entire universe into neat categories of oppressors and victims. We know that the world is far more complex than this. Everyone finds themselves in a mixture of these roles at some point.
For Christians who care about justice, it should be obvious that this is not the Christian story. The Christian story goes something like this:
God made all of creation by calling forth order from chaos and said it was good. God made human beings in his image, built for relationship with him and each other, and he called us good. But where it all went wrong was our sin. Instead of using God’s image within us to sustain the relationship we were created for, we instead sought to become like God ourselves. And so we broke the intended order of creation and we unleashed the chaos of our own will on the earth. But the antidote to this brokenness is a return to relationship, a restoration of who we were meant to be. Because Jesus gives us both an example of who God is, and the means to be forgiven for our rebellion. If we confess our sins, to God and to each other, we can be made whole.
This is a very different lens through which we might work for justice. We are not self-righteous accusers who call oppressors to awareness, we are sinners who plead with one another to follow in the way of Jesus. We beg one another to participate in God’s renewal of all things, rather than finding new ways to unleash the chaos of our own will as we impose ourselves on each other and on creation. The real root of the problems in this world are not because some of us are bad and they take advantage of the weak, those are but narrow symptoms. The cause is the sinfulness of us all, that we all want to be like God and inflict our own will on each other, not realizing the destruction we wreak on all of creation as we get our way.
And this fundamentally changes how we approach those we believe to be guilty of injustice. We do not get to accuse. We merely proclaim the truth: that we are all sinners who would rather impose our will upon others than seek real relationship with God and with each other. This is what Jesus meant when he said to turn the other cheek and to love your enemies. Oppressors are your enemies, and your posture towards them is not to be oppositional, it is to love them.
You will not transform anyone’s heart by accusing them of wrongdoing without first loving them.
Read that a few more times and let it sink in because it is not something most people accept easily. This is the core shortcoming of our societal conversations on justice: if we pursue the narrative of intersectionality, where we must make oppressors aware of their privilege, we actually harden their hearts and our own. We make fellow sinners into enemies and instead of love we show them contempt.
There are a number of sociological phenomena that back this up. For example the fact that during a period of supposed social enlightenment, when conversations on race were happening almost constantly and often facilitated by having a black president, public perception of race relations declined and a majority believe things are getting worse. This is because awareness does not naturally lead to reconciliation, it leads to hardened hearts and bitter combatants.
It is also no coincidence that as this paradigm has taken root in our society political polarization has increasingly divided us against one another. Even twenty years ago the difference between the average Republican and Democrat voters was not terribly vast and there were huge areas of overlap. Today there is only a tiny sliver of people who overlap the median position of the opposite party. Because when accusation becomes the primary means of political advocacy everyone’s response is bipolar: you either get on board, or you turn your back. We settle into ever narrower camps where become insular and self righteous towards those on the outside.
This happens in microcosm in social media all the time. You might have a minor point of nuance disagreement with someone of similar political persuasion to you, and suddenly you can feel the tide shift against you. You have been made into an enemy, and your partner in dialogue has become your accuser. They then enjoin their social following to pile on against you and mob mentality takes over and two people who agree on 90% of things engage in an all out verbal assault over that 10% of nuance. This is a direct product of the intersectional awareness mindset. Because if the ultimate economy of the world, the one that really matters, is oppression and its solution is awareness then we are no longer co-performing a civilization to further human life, we are instead fighting a Hobbesian death match of ideas.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of Christianity, all people should at least be able to acknowledge that the Judeo-Christian tradition has spent the better part of 5000 years wrestling with the problem of human brokenness. The key question of Christian faith could be summarized as simply: What is wrong with us and how do we fix it? Sin and the salvation from it, virtually every tradition of Christian practice is built on a particular variant of answers to these questions. Even if you are not a Christian you should take note of these answers:
- If you really want to heal the world, turn the other cheek. Be the one who ends the cycle of retribution just as Jesus became sin’s ultimate victim.
- If you really want to heal the world, love your enemies. A warm embrace and sacrificial love bring real transformation where accusation and awareness have destroyed relationships.
You see the pursuit of intersectional awareness can easily become a means of coercion. Its evangelists will try and set boundaries around what is acceptable and aggressively censor those who violate their norms. This is because they conceptualize their task not in the human economy of relationships, but in the paradigm of ideas made manifest in society. The advent of universal communications in our world has inadvertently suggested to us that it is our ideas that are primary shapers of our shared life, and that we must align ourselves properly in the mental constructs we carry around before we might act justly.
Christian faith tells us precisely the opposite: that it is our very flesh and bones that were made for relationship with each other and with God. That it is our breaking of relationship that has polluted our ideas and caused injustice, sin and evil. And it is the physical body of Jesus as the means that God choose to reorient the world towards right relationship, through non-coercive, sacrificial love of even our enemies.
That is how we might actually bring about wholeness in this world. We confess that by virtue of our sin, we are all oppressors and victims at once and that only through confession, repentance and the restoration of relationships will we heal the world of its persistent brokenness. We must fight the temptation to self-righteousness with humility and engage even those who despise us as loved ones.
In some ways it is a much less satisfying story, where we do not get to be the heroes and where the desire for retribution is expunged from our hearts, but it is the only one that truly leads to life.