Monday, June 29, 2020

Kelly Hamren Facebook Post

Reflections from a Christian scholar on Social Justice, Critical Race Theory, Marxism, and Biblical Ethics
During the weeks following the death of George Floyd, I have been following the news with an increasing sense of sadness and concern for the problems facing the United States regarding race and racism. I’ve been unsure how to respond as I’ve scrolled through social media and watched increasingly polarized rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle—except to listen to the voices of Black friends and neighbors who are hurting and to pray for justice. I’ve tried to apply the biblical principle of being “slow to speak” (James 1:19), but I’ve been convicted recently about joining a particular thread of the (inter)national conversation taking place among those who share my faith in Jesus Christ and want to support truth and justice without compromising on principles peculiar and integral to our faith—principles that they are afraid might be stealthily replaced by rhetoric from other, incompatible frameworks of thinking.
Two frameworks I’ve been hearing about increasingly often are familiar to me from my own field: Critical Race Theory and Marxism. Because I have some expertise in these areas, I want to offer some thoughts and, hopefully, clarification to the conversation.
I’ll begin by giving some credentials, not to ask for accolades but to indicate why I want to address these areas of the cultural conversation in particular. I have two English degrees (B.A. and M.A.) from a Christian university and a Ph.D. in literature and criticism from a state university. In my field, Marxism is one of the most commonly studied and most influential perspectives, and Critical Race Theory is also a significant force and gaining momentum. As a result, I’ve studied these theories extensively.
What gives me an unusual perspective in my field, however, is the fact that my primary research interest—and the topic of my doctoral dissertation—is twentieth-century Russian literature. My studies have convinced me that the sufferings and deaths of millions are not only correlated with but largely caused by the Marxist-Leninist agenda, and I am therefore deeply opposed to Marxism as a framework. I hope that, knowing this, those patient enough to read these notes will acquit me of being a closet Marxist covering a secular agenda with a veneer of Bible verses.
That said, I do believe that some reactions to the protests following the death of George Floyd in particular and the Black Lives Matter movement in general are based on a failure to recognize important nuances in the conversation. I’m going to address what I believe to be some problematic reasoning I’m seeing come from Christian sources on race:
Argument #1: Like all sin, racism originates in the human heart. Therefore, the solution to racism is for people’s hearts to change. “Systemic racism,” on the other hand, is a Marxist idea.
Response: The first sentence’s claim is true. If you believe in original sin (Genesis 3, Romans 5), you have to admit that any sin originates in the human heart. Sin might be aggravated by circumstances, but circumstances don’t cause sin. However, the conclusion that the solution to racism is for people’s hearts to change is true but incomplete. If people are born in sin and people build a society, that society will be structured in ways that reinforce whatever sins dominate the hearts of those who build it. Therefore, even if many people’s hearts change a few generations later, those structures might still perpetuate the problems associated with that society’s “original sins.”
This is why—and I believe this is an important distinction as well—it is possible to recognize that many individual police officers might not be racist and still believe that changes in police departments need to take place to discourage injustice. What those changes might be—alterations in training, changes in criteria for which areas are patrolled more often, etc.—is an important conversation, but having it does not mean condemning all police officers, many of whom are no doubt grieved at the horrific actions of other officers, such as the murderer of George Floyd. The problem can be built into structures and (some) individual hearts.
Here is how the above arguments are distinct from Marxism:
Marxism posits that socio-economic forces create the problem, not that they perpetuate the problem. A true Marxist does not believe that individuals have essential selves apart from the historical contexts in which they develop. As an atheistic philosophy, Marxism does not allow for belief in a soul, and therefore, people are merely the products of the world they live in (referred to as a “superstructure” of social norms, historical forces, religious ideas, etc.). The way to change people is to change society, and, for those who follow the most progressive version of Marxism, to dismantle society and recreate it from the ground up (this is what Lenin tried to do in Russia and Mao Tsetung tried to do in China). I know people who hold to the most extreme version of this philosophy.
If you believe (as I do) that sin, such as racism, originates in the human heart and merely manifests itself in society, you can recognize the above project as fundamentally utopian. It won’t work because whatever society you build from scratch will still have problems (perhaps new ones, perhaps the same ones) because you won’t have fixed the source of the problems (the human heart). Only one Person can eradicate sin from the world, and I pray for that Person’s coming with an increasing sense of urgency these days.
However, to reject the claim that “fixing society at the structural level will fix everything” does not mean that we should reject the idea of being good stewards of the society in which we live. The fact that we will never be able to eradicate sin (this side of the resurrection) does not mean we should sit back and allow it free reign. Those among my fellow believers who oppose abortion are already recognizing that sin and its effects can be addressed on both individual and societal levels. Meeting with a desperate woman outside a clinic and convincing her not to end her baby’s life is addressing it at the individual level. But many who reach out to prospective patients outside clinics also campaign for legal protections for the unborn and support clinics (like our local Blue Ridge Women’s Center) that provide desperate women with other options, resources, counseling, and support. Other systemic changes might involve better guarantees for parental leave, stronger incentives for paternal involvement or financial support, and funding for adoptive and social service venues. Addressing the problem of abortion at the systemic level does not mean caving into Marxism unless we believe that doing so is the only, complete, and permanent solution.
I firmly believe that if we are to work toward racial reconciliation, we need to admit that the history of racism in the United States (slavery, Jim Crow, etc.) has left us with problems that need to be addressed at the heart level AND at the structural level.
Argument #2: Critical Race Theory is a Marxist framework, and therefore, it is antithetical to the Gospel.
Response: Critical Race Theory is indeed deeply informed by Marxism. As a result, I recognize that, as a Christian scholar, I will not agree with all of its tenets. However—and bear in mind, this is coming from someone who wrote a dissertation about the ways in which Russian poets coped with Marxist-Leninist oppression—Marx was not wrong about absolutely everything. Very few thinkers are (probably because they are all made in God’s image) wrong about everything.
Here are two statements on which I, as a Christian scholar, actually agree with Marx—while vehemently rejecting his philosophy as a whole:
1) Power does exist, and people do sometimes use it to oppress others.
Reading the Old Testament will make these truths abundantly clear (Nebuchadnezzar, Pharaoh, the list goes on). And everyday experience makes these truths abundantly clear. Just ask anyone whose boss fired him/her for no good reason. Even Marx’s cited evidence for the above truths was legitimate. During the Industrial Revolution, factory workers had few legal protections, worked overly long hours in unsafe environments, and received few benefits and low pay.
2) Oppressed people do suffer, and their suffering is often unjust.
I actually believe that as a Christian, I have a much better foundation for supporting the above statement than Marx did. If people are merely cogs in the wheel of history, it’s hard to explain why anyone should care if they suffer. The fact that most Marxists I know are deeply compassionate people is, I believe, a testament to their humanity (being made in God’s image), not their philosophy. Because I believe people are made in God’s image (Genesis 1); the God whom I worship warned his followers repeatedly not to oppress the poor, widows, foreigners, etc. (cf. Deuteronomy 15:7 and countless other passages); and Jesus reached out to those whom society despised (women, Samaritans, etc.); I can argue with confidence that my faith is wholly consistent with working to mitigate oppression in the society in which I live. By doing so, I am not embracing an alternate gospel but merely living in a way consistent with the Gospel I have embraced since I was a child.
What some are referring to as “social justice” these days—making sure our laws and institutions don’t make it easier for the powerful to oppress marginalized groups—often refers to good, old-fashioned biblical justice. This may mean that those who have more should be given structural incentives to share with those who have less. Ruth was able to pick up the grain from behind Boaz’s reapers because he was following the biblical mandate for them not to go back and pick up what they’d dropped—that was reserved for the poor and the immigrants. He could have argued that it all belonged to him, since he planted it, but he was willing to share. Requiring him to give up every scrap of grain from his field to distribute it equally among the whole town would have been Marx’s solution, but requiring him to leave a little behind was God’s solution (Leviticus 23:22). Exactly how the principle of protecting the poor should be translated into legislation and cultural practices today is a separate question—one I’m not prepared to address here. Some incentives already exist (e.g., tax breaks for charitable donations). I’m merely pointing out that Christians who express concern about the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” should not be labeled Marxists by other Christians on that criterion alone. And if the term “social justice” is sometimes co-opted by Marxists, rejecting the concept outright robs Christians of the chance to become part of the conversation regarding its definition and application. It is a fluid concept right now, and using the term in a way that validates biblical principles of justice can help shape the way in which the cultural conversation develops. Backing out of the conversation, on the other hand, involves relinquishing the chance to have what could be an important, positive influence.
Argument #3: The Black Lives Matter movement is Marxist and supportive of the LGBTQ community’s attempts to criminalize traditional, biblical views of sexuality.
Response: The official Black Lives Matter movement, started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, is indeed built on a Marxist foundation and deeply involved with LGBTQ agendas. I took an entire doctoral-level cultural studies course on the Black Lives Matter movement, so I’m very aware of these connections. However, as the course in question also involved a study of Twitter campaigns and hashtags (yes, people study Twitter in academia these days), I became just as aware that most people who use the #blacklivesmatter hashtag have no connection to the movement proper. The hashtag itself speaks a truth, and people who hold up a sign at a protest proclaiming that truth are not necessarily involved with or even aware of the tenets of the movement proper. Conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests should not assume that the slogan is owned by the movement (nor should the movement itself try to “own” all those who use the hashtag or the slogan). I also believe that if Christians fail to become involved in promoting the truth behind the slogan, we are lending credence to the Marxist claim that Christianity exists merely to perpetuate the injustices it (Marxism) seeks to correct. I think many of my fellow believers would be surprised how many people in my field are disgusted by our faith not because they believe we hold outdated ideas about God (though that’s a common belief as well) but because we’ve failed, so many times throughout history, to stand up for the oppressed. My response to that disgust is that they’re not wrong about Christians having done the wrong thing at many times throughout history but that, when Christians have done the wrong thing, we’ve been acting in a way inconsistent with the tenets of our own faith. Because I believe that even Christians struggle with sin, I’m not surprised when I study history and read about my brothers and sisters having massive blind spots and acting accordingly (it makes me wonder what my own massive blind spots are). But I do believe that those blind spots are just that—blind spots, areas in which they failed to see the truths of Scripture or understand how to apply them. When I see atrocities perpetrated by Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, however, I see the source of those atrocities built into their own philosophy and its assumption that creating a virtual paradise (a classless society) is possible and therefore worth achieving no matter what the cost.
Also, for the record, those in the LGBTQ community are highly sensitive that they not be left out of conversations involving justice for other marginalized groups. While I hold to a traditional, biblical view of sexuality that would offend many in the LGBTQ community, I do believe it is important that they be treated like the human beings they are, and I am willing to listen to them even if I will not agree with all of their claims. There is a real fear among members of the LGBTQ community that they will suffer violence and dehumanization from others (and instances of such violence are well-documented). As human beings, they deserve protection from those threats. Conversations over the distinction between disagreement and dehumanization are difficult because they involve questions regarding identity categories, but I hope and pray that such conversations can still happen.
Argument #4: The concept of “white privilege” is unjust because it blames white people today for atrocities, such as slavery or segregation, that were set up generations ago and that they had no hand in creating. It also suggests that white people today should feel guilty for racism even if they are not racists themselves.
Response: Some people probably do use the term “white privilege” in this way (the conversation is developing at such a rapid pace that such terminology is developing new shades of meaning at an accelerated rate). However, the term is helpful in describing a real phenomenon—one that I’ve personally witnessed taking place. Bear with me, and I’ll define it first, then share a personal story to illustrate what I mean.
“White privilege” refers to the phenomenon in which white people receive certain societal benefits that they did not earn—benefits they receive by default simply for being white.
To be clear, I do not feel guilty for being born white. I was created that way, and it’s no more a sin to be born white than it is to be born a member of any other race. However, I do recognize that some people—and some institutions—will respond to me differently because I am white. I do not, for example, get followed around department stores by loss-prevention officers because I look like “the kind of person who might steal something.” My Black friends do have that happen to them.
This is where the term “privilege” gets sticky, because it can be understood to mean I have a benefit that I shouldn’t have—i.e., that we should both be followed around the store. Actually, however, what I’m receiving is the benefit of the doubt—the default assumption that I’m going to be honest until I do or say something to undermine that assumption. What the concept of privilege actually suggests is that we should both get the benefit of the doubt. It is not a privilege because I shouldn’t have it; it is a privilege because I have it and other people just as honest as I am do not have it. The term, in this context, calls attention to an unjust and illogical disparity in expectations.
Now, how should I respond? Should I feel guilty for the racism informing the tendencies of loss-prevention officers to target customers other than me for surveillance?
I shouldn’t feel the guilt of being individually culpable for what other people do. After all, I didn’t ask the loss-prevention officers to follow other people around. However, I should feel guilty if I recognize the larger problem at work here—both individual and systemic racism—and do nothing about it. I can’t fix it single-handedly, but I can speak up. I can vote. I can teach texts in my classroom that confront these issues. I can say something when a white friend tells a racist joke. I can listen to my friends of color when they share their experiences and allow myself to be guided by their insight. If I don’t, I’m part of the problem and share the guilt of perpetuating it (even though I didn’t personally cause it).
I might also feel other emotions, such as anger, which is a proper response to injustice. This is, in fact, exactly what I felt when I visited the local social security office to get an updated card after my wedding thirteen years ago. My sister, a Korean-American adopted at three-months-old and naturalized as an American citizen in early childhood, had gotten married to her husband in the same ceremony. She, being more on top of things than I was, had already gone to the office to get her card. She had taken the required documents listed on the website—birth certificate, current social security card, a photo ID, etc. When she arrived at the office and showed her papers, however, they demanded more: they wanted to see other papers, records, etc. that were not officially required when she already had a valid social security card. I remember them demanding that she make several trips to their office—I even remember hearing that they wanted to make her take a test in American history (because all real Americans apparently know their history so well). Finally, she got the card.
Having heard about all the hoops they had made her jump through, I was nervous about going to get my card. I double-checked that I had everything—birth certificate, social security card, photo ID, etc. When I got to the window, I handed over my current card and said I was there to get an updated card with my new name. The woman behind the counter handed it to me without even asking to see my driver’s license.
When I got back to my car, I called my sister and ranted about what racist jerks ran the social security office and how outraged I was on her behalf. I probably felt a little self-righteous, if I’m honest, for my outrage, and I do believe I was right to feel the outrage. I shouldn’t have felt so righteous, though. A more righteous person would have walked back inside and asked to speak to the employee’s supervisor. Maybe I wasn’t a racist, but I didn’t do anything to challenge racism when it hit me in the face, and so, notwithstanding my righteous anger, I failed to do the right thing because I don’t like confrontations.
I hope and pray that, given the injustices on national news these days, I will do the right thing the next time I get a chance to. It’s why I’m writing this essay-length note, knowing full well that my Marxist friends (if they take the time to read it) will not appreciate my objections to their philosophy and that some of my Christian friends (if they take the time to read it) will see me as selling out. I want to do the right thing this time, though, and so I’m doing my best to add to a difficult conversation. I welcome any and all honest responses, whether they agree with me or not. There are important questions being raised about issues that directly and/or indirectly affect my brothers and sisters in Christ—and my friends of other faiths and no faith who share similar concerns about justice. So I’ll end my long reflections by saying, on or off social media, let’s talk.