The recent unjust and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are truly tragic and reprehensible. They represent a growing list of needless deaths in a culture of hate. As individuals, communities, and a nation, our hearts should be bowed down in empathetic grief and enflamed with righteous anger.
Beyond the legitimate emotions, many are also trying to assess the reasons for the profoundly problematic social realities leading to such deaths. Foremost are claims of oppressive and systemic racism as well as corporate greed among those in positions of power in America. This may well be true, but at the grave risk of sounding insensitive and uncaring, I believe such appraisals remain secondary to a much deeper question, namely, the best way to solve these kinds of socially systemic issues.
Contemporary Critical Theory claims to answer the problem through three very basic means: 1) A full reversal of power, demoting previous power-brokers and putting the previously oppressed into positions of influence and authority, 2) Widespread restructuring of oppressive social systems, and 3) Compulsory redistribution of goods and services (i.e., wealth). To be sure, all three—the redistribution of power, restructuring of systems, and reallocation of wealth—are important problems to address, but they are also very often hard to bring about in a fair and just manner. The first and third, however, can be achieved fairly quickly, so long as those currently in power can be pushed out of the way and the wealth of those with much can be seized and given to those with significantly less.
This is why Marx and other communist theorists (who form the ideological infrastructure for Critical Theory) had no problem with social coercion and, if necessary, violent armed revolution, to accomplish the so-called “greater good” of a “more equal” society through the forcible redistribution of wealth and power.
There are many ways to argue for or against such goals and means, but one of the most critical flaws in Critical Theory is simply this: At best, it provides an inadequate and (at worst) inaccurate understanding of human nature. Suggesting that whole classes and races of people in society are, for example, primarily victims or villains fails to admit the root problem—we are all simultaneously victims and villains, damaged and damaging, oppressed and oppressing. Why? Because we are all sinners: rich and poor, privileged and impoverished, strong and weak, young and old, male and female, black and white—and everyone in between. You cannot solve social problems by changing social structures alone. You have to change the social beings—each and every one of us—that constitute, create, perpetuate, mediate—and even deny or ignore—these unjust social systems.
In short, changing human nature is much more radical and difficult than changing social structures and inequalities. And changing the latter is extremely hard to do at all, let alone morally and patiently. Consequently, the proposed solutions of Critical Theory and closely related socialist ideologies consistently fail in practice primarily because the diagnosis of the problem excludes a vital aspect of human nature: No matter who we are, we are far too prone to selfishness, tribalism, and abuse of power than we care to admit.
If these internal problems of greed and hatred are not dealt with deeply at the heart-level, they will fester and grow in the lives of those with influence and resources, no matter where they started in society. This is why when reversals and redistributions occur, even with the best of intentions, those in positions of power almost always become just like the people they previously condemned for their selfishness, tribalism, and abuses of power.
As David Gooding and John Lennox point out, “A movement, while still a minority, will clamour for the right of free speech and protest against its removal; but when that same movement becomes the majority movement, it will in turn seek to suppress all other minority movements.”
Does government need to be involved in trying to assure a fair and just system of opportunities for power and wealth acquisition as well as their distribution? Of course. The solution is not a libertarian divestment of all governmental intervention with the assumption that people will do what is right when big government gets its nose out of everyone’s business. That falls into the same trap of misunderstanding sinful human nature and our need for constant external and internal regulation—something Christians call accountability. But since those who govern, just as much as those who are governed, are prone to selfishness, greed, and abuses of power, they also must have systems of accountability—real checks and balances—in place to keep them humble, honest, just, and selfless.
The framers of the US constitution believed in the propensity of every human being to turn great possibilities for good into terrible opportunities for godlessness. In short, they believed in the doctrine of total depravity. It was this conviction that led them to create a tri-fold system of checks and balances—legislative, judicial, and executive—so that no one person (or class of persons) would gain too much wealth and power and have the potential to become a tyrannical mass-oppressor.
Critical Theory fails and will continue to fail for many reasons, but the primary reason is that it does not understand who we really are—all of us—as human beings. We are, first and foremost, sinners in need of a loving Savior, not classes in need of a political revolution. And this is why John Adams, the second president of the United States, rightly noted, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This is why we need repentance and redemption, not merely reparation and revolution, for our lives and our world to truly change for the better.