Student Life

President Lindsay Hosts Conversation on Critical Race Theory

Last Wednesday (3/24), Dr. Michael Lindsay discussed Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the Gospel with “three exceptional thought leaders” in a Conversation with the President.  The participants included Rev Dr. Nicole Martin, a professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and author of the book “Made to Lead: Empowering Women for Ministry and Leaning In, Letting Go,” Dr. Michael Emerson, head of Sociology department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and Paul Tokunaga, President of MELD (Multi-Ethnic Leadership Development). Tokunaga helped Gordon College develop the Shalom Plan

The event opened with a short history of CRT by Dr. Emerson. He detailed how the theory could originally be traced back to the Frankfurt school over 100 years ago. The “critical theory” attributed to this school came from a group of professors “disillusioned with Marxism” as formulated by Karl Marx. Their assessment was “a critique of society itself,” he stated. CRT spawned in the 1980s from the “Harvard Law School” as a “critique of how race in America works.” It was primarily concerned with addressing the reason for why “vast racial disparities exist.” As he explained it, theorists were dissatisfied with the results of the Civil Rights Movement because it “accepted the American system as fundamentally good,” while “CRT would say that ‘no, the system itself is flawed and needs to be changed.’”

After Emerson’s brief outline, Dr. Michael Lindsay asked each of the panelists their opinion on the theory. In his opening statement, Tokunaga emphasized that, when analyzing CRT, it is important to recognize it is as Calvin said: “‘All truth is from God’” and “consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it for it has come from God.” “It’s important that we become a student of critical race theory,” he elaborated, “before we become a critic of critical race theory.” 

As for CRT itself, Tokunaga believed it provides “insights into race problems” helpful for Christians:

“When I read some of their core documents, they resonate with me and my experience as a person of color, when I read them, I feel seen and understood…When news spread about the recent killings in Atlanta, why have the cries of anguish grief from the Asian American communities been so heartbreaking for them? If you’ve followed us on the news or on social media, the reason why is because as a people we are so communa⁠— when one suffers, all suffer. When a Korean American woman suffers, I as a Japanese American man, even whose ancestors brutalized Korean American women, I suffer with them and CRT gets that. That’s something that I’ve learned from and am helped by: a value of CRT.”

Dr. Martin sympathized with this sentiment, expressing that “I want us to get to a point where we say: the gospel gets that. The gospel gets a child whose life was cut short. The gospel gets a family member, a member of our community that was brutally murdered.” As she went on, Martin regretted that though CRT can be “an enhancement in the sense of giving language and explanation for people of color,” it can also be a distraction from the Christian message:

“The Gospel precedes CRT. It is the gospel that comes in and ushers in the language of lament and solidarity. It is the gospel that comes in and brings a language of unity with distinction. It’s the gospel that says, yes, Jesus was Jewish and he died for all. I mean, there has to be a foundation where we, as Christians say yes, CRT, thank you for reminding us of systematic racism. Thank you for reminding us of the value of all people. But thank you, Jesus, for setting in place a theology⁠—a principle⁠—a biblical worldview that supersedes the theory that reminds us that we’re called to this.”

When asked by President Lindsay in what way, if at all, CRT should inform the reflections and work of Christians on race, Dr. Emerson noted how CRT⁠—like any academic theory⁠—should be in dialogue “with our Christian understanding of a biblical worldview.” Even non-believers can communicate important truths, he said, “if it’s confirmed in the Bible, then it’s something we should take seriously.” Critical race theory provides “a wonderful opportunity to have a dialogue.” If we’re more interested in resisting it “than meeting the needs of the least of these,” Emerson emphasized, “then⁠ there’s something about our theology going awry.” However, the biblical worldview “is our motivation…We’re constantly trying to inform it. We’re constantly trying to hold it up against ideas to see if it, if we can speak better to the ideas or it can help us better understand our theology. That to me is the importance of these kinds of discussions, just like we’re having right now.”

Throughout the event, Michael Lindsay asked each participant if they considered themself a critical race theorist. Each answered no, but affirmed CRT as an important framework with which Christians should engage. Tokunaga, who considers himself a “diversity consultant,” “coach,” and “trainer”, explained how, like John Calvin, he grounds his work in the Scriptures and builds upon it with “sources like critical race theory…because all truth is from God.” Likewise, Dr. Emerson considers CRT to be “a very astute critique.” Dr. Martin stated that though she doesn’t “ascribe to any full theory that is outside of the Bible,” her family history in America “says to me that I can’t afford to ignore critical race theory.” She urged listeners who do not ascribe to it to not “miss out on what you can learn from this theory as a way of shaping how we can be better together.” 

When asked whether one can reject CRT and still pursue biblical justice, Dr. Emerson promptly replied, “absolutely.” What is amazing, he noted, “is when you read the Bible with the idea, does the Bible ever say anything about justice, about equality between people or fairness? Wow! I mean, it’s mind blowing how much it says, so yes.” White evangelicals have been given a lens to avoid these issues⁠—“an injustice,” he lamented. 

Later on, throughout the conversation, President Lindsay noted the tension between American evangelicalism’s individual focus and the institutional perspective. He asked whether it is possible to reject “some of the stronger structural elements of CRT, whether it’s the persistence of white supremacy, the absence of individual agency” or on the legal structures in America, and “still be on the side of loving folks who have been oppressed in one way or another.”

In response, Dr. Emerson noted how it is not either or between the individual and the institutional. “If I’m just looking at the issues individually, I will never be able to address the issues that we heard described to you today. If I only look at the structural, I completely miss.” “Sure our laws can be unjust,” he stated, “but individuals together make the laws, right? You have to be able to think and hold both. For some reason it’s so difficult for us, but we have to.” Tokunaga agreed: if one digs deep and asks, “you’ll see the systemic and the individual are so tightly bound together.”

In light of the systemic dimension of this conversation, Dr. Martin stated: “I think some people do need critical race theory.” “I think sometimes as we’ve kind of said in a number of ways,” she explained, “it is hard for people to see systems and I think theories often help us to see systems at work.” CRT in light of this context “is just to help us understand what may be behind the scenes⁠—what may be barriers.” On race, it “shows up as one touch point that we can’t lose.” It is there “to say your experience is not the only one.”

“Sometimes we do need to pay attention to these theories⁠—to be a wake up call for people that we may have forgotten or stories that we may have forgotten, like my own or narratives that are really deeply needed to be part of the body of Christ,” said Dr. Martin. Dr. Emerson agreed, stating that CRT serves to remind us there are “have and have nots by race.” As Christians, we should be “doing whatever we can to overcome that,” he affirmed, “That is our charge.” 

To read the whole event transcript, click here.

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Emily Jones

Thank you, Liam, for this article! It was helpful to read as I was unable to listen to the actual event. Keep writing for God’s glory!