In 2017, the ACNA consisted of 1,037 churches. By my best estimate, there are 31 African American solo rectors in the ACNA. Of these 31, 27 are in the historically Black Diocese of the Southeast. There are only 4 in the rest of the United States.
(The terminology can get complicated here. When I say “African American,” I have in mind Black Americans born in the USA, many of whom are descendants of slaves.)
Given this sobering reality, I wish that discussions of ethnicity in the ACNA focused on building multi-ethnic churches as a manifestation of our stated aim of reaching North America with the transforming love of Christ. I wish that there were task forces in every diocese dedicated to reaching communities that we neglect. I wish that we approached questions of race, ethnicity, and justice with the awareness of our profound need for growth in this area.
I first heard of critical race theory (CRT) when a friend in another tradition was accused of being a critical race theorist. This person, who shall remain nameless, was of unquestioned theological orthodoxy. He believed in the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, his church’s confessions, and just about any other benchmark for what we call orthodoxy. Nonetheless, he was quickly accused of believing all sorts of things that he did not believe. He clarified his beliefs in private and public, but this only led to more questions. Pretty soon, the accusation spread to others in his tradition.
Many Black Christian speaking about justice and against systemic racism have been accused of being a subtle or an unapologetic critical race theorist. Recently this conversation that began elsewhere has made its way into the Anglican Church in North America, and some have raised the concern about CRT.
(For those who are wondering what critical race theory [CRT] is, you can find the beginning of a description here.)
I am not going to address the merits or pitfalls of what is popularly known as CRT here. My aim is narrower. I want to focus on how the debate about CRT functions in certain spaces and how the ACNA can avoid making similar mistakes if it wants to be a part of the biblically faithful multi-ethnic community of faith lauded in the Scriptures (Rev. 7:9–14). The working assumption is that all involved want the church to thrive. Thus, these are the words of a friend, even when they are not received as such.
Much of the debate centers around whether one can use elements of CRT when describing the Christian battle against systemic racism. The question is seemingly rather simple. Can one use terms or ideas associated with CRT without adopting the whole worldview that (some claim) comes with CRT? Most critics would answer in the negative and maintain that any use of CRT entails taking an entire worldview that is at its core opposed to Christian orthodoxy.
This debate raises further, broader questions. How do ideas relate one to another? Can ideas from secular spaces be adapted for Christian use? These questions could lead to an interesting conversation if those who criticize CRT were accurate in discerning the origin of ideas. Sometimes, they are; sometimes, they are not.
Therefore, the first question is not the compatibility of elements of CRT with the Christian faith; but instead, the origin of the ideas identified as CRT. And, as I argue below, many ideas that get labeled as CRT actually come from the theologically orthodox Black Christian tradition.
There are four reasons that this whole conversation is riddled with problems:
- Much of the dialogue fails to take the Black Christian tradition seriously;
- It creates a climate in which Christians of color are presumed guilty until proven innocent;
- It is a word out of season in the communities most concerned with its impact;
- Those accused of CRT are often those actually contending for the viability of Black/White/multi-ethnic Christian cooperation. Thus, the consistent accusation of CRT hinders the mission and cooperation of the church.
The Search for Critical Theory and the Black Church
One could write a long article outlining the history of theological reflection in the Black church that includes
- a history of a strong critique of racism and a call for justice rooted in the Scriptures;
- a long history of belief in all the traditional theological terms with the traditional meanings;
- a note that this tradition long developed without the help of Karl Marx;
- a claim that tradition is “liberationist” in the biblical sense (think of the Magnificat, the Exodus, Jesus’s first sermon in Nazareth, and the Prophets) and not the revisionist sense.
However, space makes that impossible here.
To oversimplify, there are roughly four strands of African American theological reflection:
- The traditional Black church, which combines orthodoxy and orthopraxy, including strong and clear language about justice and racism. One can find this in most Black denominational faith statements and many pulpits in the North and the South.
- The Black progressive tradition (also a part of the Black church) that speaks about God as a liberator from oppression, which many in the traditional camp would agree with. This tradition is sometimes revisionist as it relates to certain beliefs that have marked the Christian church since its founding.
- Black accommodationists, who adopted the negative self-perception arising from a long legacy of racism in this country.
- Black pietists, whose focus on individual holiness has led them to say little about injustice and racism
The major problem is that most critics of CRT are not very good at discerning the difference between the traditional Black church and Black progressive tradition. Many tend to like Black accommodationists and pietists because neither upset the status quo.
There is a long history of White Christian disagreement with these claims about injustice coming from Black Christians. But the nature of the disagreement is not a difference between Marxism and Christianity. It is the difference between what (1) some White Christian critics and (2) Black Christians believe that the Bible has to say about the disinherited.
White Christian critiques of CRT often, not always, function to accuse Black Christians of being theological heretics for speaking about ethnicity and justice in ways that make people uncomfortable. But the prophets, the Psalms, and Jesus all use strong language when talking about the mistreatment of the weak. This does not excuse everything that Black Christians say. All sides are capable of a lack of charity. Rather than saying, “I don’t like that,” it is much easier to dismiss it as CRT. To speak plainly, much (not all) of what is identified CRT is actually traditional Black church stuff that falls well within the bounds of theological orthodoxy. This CRT debate is a manifestation of an age-old divide cloaked in a new guise.
Here is where things get even more complicated. Sometimes Black Christians with traditional theological beliefs will notice that things said by critical race theorists correspond to things that Black Christians have been saying for centuries.
One example is the idea of institutionalized racism. This is something associated with CRT, but Black Christians complained about systems like slavery and Jim Crow long before Marxian dialectic theory spread around the world. So, does the idea of systems of oppression come from Karl Marx, or from Black Christians reflecting on their years of experience in those systems?
It is paternalistic to assume that Black Christians can’t come up with these ideas on their own and that we are really parroting the ideas of long-dead German intellectuals.
To be clear, I do believe that some ideas and implications of CRT are at odds with orthodoxy. But a true criticism of CRT would not simply be finding an idea stated by a Christian of color that was also stated by a critical race theorist. Instead, one needs to prove that
- an idea associated with CRT arises from CRT, not the wider Black Christian tradition;
- said Christian of color has indeed adopted the worldview that one claims is associated with any use of CRT (without falling prey to either the slippery slope fallacy or what Alan Jacobs calls “in-other-wordsing”);
- said idea has no biblical support if read with a hermeneutic of trust.
Critical Theory and Guilty Until Proven Innocent.
This brings us to the second problem associated with CRT discussions: the guilty until proven innocent culture that surrounds the entire conversation. Since any Black (or white or Latino/a or Asian) Christian talking about racism and injustice can be accused of CRT, this has become a witch hunt as it relates to a claim of the acceptance of an entire worldview that is antithetical to the gospel. It has created a “we are watching you” culture around the discussion of race and injustice at a time when the church should be united and speaking with a clear voice on these issues.
Within this frame, one will be accused of CRT unless they agree to talk about racism and injustice using terms approved by the majority culture. Can we not see how problematic this is?
It is a Word out of Season
The ACNA is a little over ten years old, and in that short time, we have made tremendous strides in the area of church planting, concern for the poor, and catechesis. One of the places where we still have room to grow is in our ethnic diversity. We have very few African American, Latino/a, or Asian American rectors, canons, or bishops. If our goal is to reach North America with the transforming love of Christ, then we should try to look like the North America we are trying to serve. This is a basic evangelistic strategy.
Some Anglicans seem to think the biggest danger as it relates to race in the ACNA is the spread of CRT. If so, why do the vast majority of Black and brown Anglicans disagree?
I know the majority of African American clergy in the ACNA, and I am in regular contact with our Latino/a brothers and sisters. Even though we are the people best-equipped to raise the theological alarm about CRT, there is no widespread concern about CRT in these circles. We are not asking anyone to address this issue.
Instead, we are repeatedly asking our brothers and sisters to address our feelings of isolation and discouragement. We are asking fellow believers to speak about injustice in our society. We are asking for other Christians to speak about racism. We are asking for help in developing concrete plans for making our churches more ethnically diverse because we believe that the gospel is for everybody.
Put simply, we think that racial bias is a more pressing issue for the ACNA to address. A conversation about racial bias is more likely to challenge congregations or dioceses to follow faithfully in the way of Christ than a conversation about CRT. This is not to say that we can’t discuss CRT. It is a question of what gets attention and why.
The Mission of the Church
For many of us, our lives and ministries are spent in ministry with actual Black Christians and skeptics. We also minister to White, Asian, and Latino/a Christians and skeptics who are worried that being a Christian involves a certain attitude toward the disinherited and the needy. Our goal is to contend that one doesn’t have to abandon orthodoxy to contend for the justice depicted in the Scriptures. We have no secret schemes. Our goals are evangelism, the diversification of the ACNA, and fidelity to the faith once delivered.
Our dialogue partners are those who contend that orthodoxy is inherently oppressive to people of color and women; and that the only path forward is a deconstruction of traditional belief. In other words, we live at the intersection of orthodoxy and what many critics of CRT fear. Thus, when people considering the Anglican way see us attacked for contending for these ideas from within an orthodox framework, they tend to respond, “there is no space for us here.”
I am convinced that the path forward is not an endless battle about the origin of ideas, but a positive case for a biblically faithful concern for justice and multi-ethnicity under the lordship of Christ. Every time we have to stop the work of making that case to explain that we are not the enemy, it is a distraction. But that distraction is only temporary. We have other work to accomplish, namely the kingdom-oriented mission that God has given us. We are here. The Anglican way is a gift that belongs to all, and God will decide its future.
The Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is also a Canon Theologian for the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO), director of Next Generation Leadership for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), host of The Disrupters podcast, one of the co-founders of Call and Response Ministries, and author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (November 2020).