CRLC and Critical Theory

In the September and November editions of CORE Voice, Dennis Nelson analyzed the activist constituency of the members of the Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church (CRLC). The fact that there are a number of activists on the Commission is not surprising, since the Churchwide Assembly’s directive to the ELCA Church Council was to create a commission to recommend restructuring the church being particularly attentive to the church’s commitment to “dismantling racism.” In other words, whatever recommendations the CRLC makes must take steps to dismantle racism within the denomination.

For many members of the ELCA, the question of racism in the church is confusing. In this instance, why is there a move to restructure the whole denomination around dismantling one particular sin?

To answer this question, it is important to understand the chief philosophical assumption of ELCA policymakers, namely, Critical Theory. In critical theory, the world is viewed chiefly through the lens of power and how some groups use their power to oppress other groups. There are oppressors and victims, especially in the sense that some groups are kept from having full access to the power that opposite groups enjoy. This oppression is racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. This means that oppression like racism is much more than personal prejudice (which is how most of us would understand the term); rather, racism is systemic and institutionalized.

The assumptions at work in the ELCA’s effort to “dismantle racism” rely on a subset of Critical Theory usually called Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory has been popularized recently by books like How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. In Mainline Christianity, Critical Race Theory has long been defended by ELCA Pastor, anti-racism advocate, and author Joseph Barndt. Barndt offers the distinction in his work that power can be used by Christians for good when it is shared without exclusivity.

The modern anti-racist movement based on Critical Race Theory makes a fundamental claim: You are either a racist or an antiracist. Within this framework, you are either supporting racism or you are working to dismantle racism. Because, in this view, racism is so enmeshed in American culture, one cannot simply be “not-racist.” There is no neutrality. If you are a White person, racism is your original sin. Furthermore, because racism is institutionally enmeshed, to be anti-racist is about supporting particular political policy changes that deconstruct supposed hierarchies of power within society.

Connected to this understanding of Critical Theory is the understanding of Intersectionality, which asserts that there are interlocking systems of oppression that affect more than one individual trait. Thus, oppression based on race is intricately tied together with oppression based on sexuality, gender, ability, etc. Under this framework, for example, opposing the full inclusion of practicing homosexuals on the roster of Word and Sacrament is descriptive of institutional racism. To be anti-racist is to support the full inclusion of any group that claims oppression.

Understanding this will help one understand many of the ELCA’s policy commitments. Working to end so-called Global Climate Change is an anti-racist policy, because it is argued that Global Climate Change disproportionately affects minorities. Likewise, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s statements such as those regarding Israel and Palestine or the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, which drew the ire of many moderate and conservative ELCA members, can be understood through the oppressor/oppressed framework of Critical Theory.

The question is, what will it mean to restructure a church around the tenet of dismantling racism? Barndt answers this question in his book Becoming an Anti-Racist Church: Journeying toward Wholeness, providing six steps: Commitment to Institutionalizing, Full Power Sharing, Assured Cultural Inclusion, Mutual Accountability, Multiplying Inclusion, and Restored Community.[1] The purpose of these steps, according to Barndt is, “The ultimate vision that drives the process of institutional change is a future in which both the church and the wider community overcome systemic racism.”[2] Consequently, this means that the fundamental goal of a church restructured to be anti-racist is to be an institution that can partner with the world to overcome systemic racism. In other words, the anti-racist church will be on the leading front of the anti-racist policies that shape the world.

Understandably, when one hears the phrase “dismantle racism,” it is easy to hear it through what we all know: Racism is a sin. There is no question, and the church must always call racism what it is; however, when you hear ELCA policy makers using phrases like “anti-racism” and “dismantling racism,” please understand the goal is to structure a church around political activism. This ought to concern those in the ELCA who understand that Christ has given his church a different commission, a commission found in Matthew 28:16-20 and John 20:21-23.

[1] Barndt, Joseph. Becoming an Anti-Racist Church: Journeying toward Wholeness. 1517 Media, 2011, p. 188-189.

[2] p.194