On this episode of the podcast, I talk with Dr. Jeff Liou about his new book Christianity and Critical Race Theory. There are few topics more contentious than CRT, but in this conversation, we simply seek to demystify the discourse, to understand CRT, and to ask where there might be openings and oppositions for Christian discipleship as we seek to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Among the topics we discuss:
- – What is CRT, and why has it become such a lightning rod? How can we demystify it to engage it in a meaningful way?
- – How does the CRT concept of “community cultural wealth” connect with a Christian account of creative diversity?
- – How does the CRT claim that “racism is ordinary” connect with the Christian doctrine of pervasive sin?
- – What should we make of the criticisms of CRT that it redefines the terms of racism to see racism in everyone and everything, that it is nebulous and totalizing, and that it creates a new sort of fundamentalism that is light on grace?
- – What are the greatest points of tension between Christianity and CRT?
- – How might this conversation connect for Reformed Christians, specifically?
- – How do we learn to see power, without power becoming the only thing we see?
Transcript (click to expand)
Note: This transcript is autogenerated and may contain grammatical errors.
(00:08) Justin Ariel Bailey: Welcome to the newest episode of the In All Things podcast, where we host conversations with diverse voices about living creatively in God’s created world. I’m your host, Justin Ariel Bailey, and I teach at Dort University, which is home to the Andreas Center, the sponsor of this podcast. On this episode, the podcast. I talk with Dr. Jeff Liou about his new book, Christianity and Critical Race Theory. There are a few topics more contentious than CRT. Most of those discussions generate more heat than light, and we’re not interested in that. In this conversation, we simply seek to demystify the discourse, to understand CRT, and to ask where there might be openings and oppositions for Christian faith as we seek to do justice, love, mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Thank you, as always, for tuning in.
When it comes to the story of racial injustice in the United States, we can acknowledge two levels. First, there is the history of racial injustice, of slavery and of segregation. Second, there is the legacy of racial injustice the lingering effects, the continuing consequences. Perhaps the worst is in the past, but it would be naive to think that centuries of damage could be undone in a few decades. But just what is the extent of the damage, and to what extent does it continue? Is racism now primarily a matter of individual hearts? Where is racism also embedded in our social imagination, practices, and institutions? More than 40 years ago, a new field of study emerged arguing for the latter, at least in legal studies critical race theory. It was a niche field concerned with the question of why legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not seem to solve the problem of racial inequity. In recent years, however, CRT has made the leap from law school to the nightly news, representative of a suspicion that it is a dangerous ideology. In some places, there is a concerted attempt to root out CRT wherever it is taught, and the question is whether the CRT boogeyman resembles the original CRT discourse in any meaningful way, or whether it has simply been engineered to fuel outrage, or whether the truth is somewhere in between. To understand CRT, I wanted to have a conversation with a Christian scholar who was studying critical race theory long before it made the nightly news. I wanted to know whether there might be openings and oppositions for Christian discipleship as we testify to God’s kingdom of justice, peace, enjoy in the Holy Spirit. And so my guest for this is Dr. Jeff Liou, a scholar of theology and race, who, along with Dr. Robert Chao Romero, is the author of a new book on Christianity and critical race theory. Dr. Liou serves as the National Director of Theological Formation for Intravarsity Christian Fellowship and teaches Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also received his PhD. He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and has written extensively on Kuyperian theology and race. And for all of these reasons, he is an ideal candidate to help us wade into the contentious waters of critical race theory. To that task we now turn. I’m joined now by a guest, Dr. Jeff Liou, who, together with Dr. Robert Chao Romero, has authored a new book, Christianity and Critical Race Theory of Faithful and Constructive Conversation. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us on the In All Things podcast.
(03:52) Jeff Liou: Absolutely happy to be here. Thank you for having us. Having me.
(03:56) Justin Ariel Bailey: We wish that Dr. Chao Romero was here as well, but you’ll do your best to represent him. I’m sure you have written this book on critical race theory along with your co-author, and throughout the book, you both share personal testimonies about your experiences navigating life and ministry and the academy, especially amid racialization and racial injustice. And so I wonder if you could tell just a bit of your personal story and how it shaped the project that you’re pursuing in this book.
(04:24) Jeff Liou: Sure, yeah. I’ll speak personally for myself, and I was a college student at the University of Michigan, and I joined my local InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. And that was the first time that, coming from a Chinese church background, first time I was asked to think about what we had called at the time multi ethnicity and racial reconciliation. So I was reading books by people like Brenda Salter McNeil and thinking about how to build a fellowship that welcomed everyone and made use of the many gifts that people brought. And I had never really even thought about the gifts that I, as a Taiwanese American, bring to the table to the table of ministry. And I think the way that that plays into the project is that I eventually began to see what in racial ethnic studies we refer to as the black-white binary, where conversations about race are really about black folks and white folks, which meant that there wasn’t really a lot of space for Asian folks or Taiwanese American folks like myself. And I really grew tired very quickly of these discourses that excluded me and frankly, erased me from American memory. Like I don’t even exist. And I realized that to participate in these discourses, which were increasingly popular discourses about black and white, meant that I was actually erasing myself. So since then, I’ve seen how resistant people are to leave the black and white binary behind, how much damage it does and really how it’s become the lingua franca of race talk in the United States. But I would eventually come to have biracial children who are white and Asian. So what kind of discourse do I need to participate in for that? And that led me in part to thinking about racial and ethnic studies for my PhD, that I did it fuller, and that’s actually where I met Robert. So our wives were in MOPS together, and through our wives, we met each other, started hanging out talking. And in the early 20 teens, Robert suggested that I look into CRT and do some CRT reading. Now, this is before CRT became what it is now in the news, right? So I began studying that. I made that my dissertation, a big part of my dissertation area, and God knew what God is doing, because now we have this mess on our hands into which the book speaks.
(06:51) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah. Critical race theory, as you point out, is part of this larger scholarly conversation that’s been going on for quite some time. I mean, you were working on it in the 2010s. There are others who’ve been working on it for years and years and years. But as you said, up until a few years ago, no one had really, outside of these scholarly conversations had heard of it. And now you said, we have a mess on our hands. CRT has become something of a boogeyman. It’s become a litmus test of whether or not an institution has given into a, quote, woke agenda. Is your child being taught critical race theory? And again, this is not to say that there aren’t real concerns behind that sort of thing, but my guess is that just most Christians don’t really even understand what critical race theory is, other than to know that someone has told us we ought to be afraid of it. So how would you try to demystify critical race theory, which is a complex scholarly conversation, so that it can be engaged in a meaningful way?
(07:51) Jeff Liou: Wow. Complex scholarly conversation. Truly, truly it is that. So if your listeners are listening to my voice and thinking, okay, is it going to come out for or against? For or against? I want to remind you, complex scholarly conversation. And my first confession, well, I signed the three forms of unity, so if you’re reformed, you know what that is. I have all these confessions, and these define my spirituality, my belief, my credo, et cetera. And I want to make it clear that my co-author Robert and I, we have zero interest in making CRT a household name. We didn’t write this book to sell CRT to churches and households, but we do want to tell the truth about CRT. So thanks for the opportunity to demystify it, because the way that Christians are responding to it really calls for that demystification. So if your listeners of Goodwill can walk away with anything from this podcast, I hope it’s the encouragement to help our brothers and sisters respond to stuff like this in a godly way. So people of Goodwill who are listening just turn to your angry, concerned opponents whose anger betrays their fear and help them to respond in a godly way. Do that pastoral shepherding work. I say this because every time that Christians respond to perceived threats coming from the academy, we damage our witness to the world. I’m not so much worried about respectability as I am about witness. If people are going to find Christians peculiar and unworthy of respect, I want it to be because of the lengths we’re willing to go to proclaim the Gospel and to remain faithful to our covenant God. And I think that the wholesale rejection of the academy is not equal to faithfulness. In fact, it’s a bad look. The old conspiracy is about Cultural Marxism from the alt right. It’s a bad look for Christians to pick up the ways that moral rearmament denigrated the intellect. It’s a bad look. And these bad looks, these are bad looks because they don’t help us love our neighbor, much less our enemy. They don’t help us advance the Gospel. They’re fundamentally defensive postures, a circling of the wagons, and in that way they surrender the mission of God. So long, preface.
(09:54) Justin Ariel Bailey: That’s good.
(09:55) Jeff Liou: That’s great. Having said all that, let me demystify it a bit. CRT is a scholarly movement. And if it’s a scholarly movement, why is it on the nightly news? Because that’s a popular kind of outlet. So my colleague Nathan Cartagena, a philosophy professor at Wheaton, he distinguishes three ways of understanding CRT. The first one is the scholarly, original legal studies way. The second is the derivative academic senses. So CRT in education, CRT in film studies, CRT in math. Those are derivatives of CRT and legal studies. But the third one is what we see on the nightly news, the culture war stuff. And it thrives there, as you and I know, because there’s money in it. I mean, Fox News just paid out $787,000,000 in a settlement over deliberate misinformation, and still Fox Corp. Stock is up 16% over the past six months. I mean, there is money in the culture wars. So that’s my way of saying don’t listen to the culture wars version. If you want to know what CRT really is, how are the culture wars and scholarly senses related to each other? Well, my answer to that is very thinly. The culture wars sense of CRT. They’re deliberate attempts by influencers to load the term CRT with meanings that serve agendas. There are explicit admissions from political strategists like Christopher Rufo that this is what they’re trying to do. Let me load CRT with a bunch of stuff. Right. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay attention to what culture wars represent, but we’re not really dealing with CRT. So what’s CRT talking about? That’s your question, right? The simplest way I’ve found to put it is this critical race theorists observe that racial segregation in public school, for example, did not disappear after key Supreme Court decisions were won and civil rights legislation had been passed, and they wanted to know why. What is it about our laws that makes it possible for segregation to continue, even though it’s illegal to practice? And they theorized the root of the problem is somewhere upstream of the symptoms we observe. So that’s an example of what critical race theorists are trying to do. We still got problems even though we won these legal things. Why is that the case? What have we missed? And their answer, their tentative theoretical answer, is that race is still very much active in the founding documents and the jurisprudence that comprises the legal system. That barely scratches the surface, but I hope it demonstrates a little bit more clearly what we’re talking about.
(12:31) Justin Ariel Bailey: I wonder if the analogy of you talked about these three ways of talking about CRT, and it sounds to me like there is, first of all, a lens that originally was applied to legal discussions, and then this lens is also then taken into other domains and applied in other ways in education, et cetera. And then this third category is almost difficult to know how to describe. I guess there is the sense that this is not just a lens, but it’s this almost alternative religion. And you’re saying that that is mostly a paper tiger, that is something that has sort of been fabricated in order to almost fuel outrage, in some sense?
(13:16) Jeff Liou: Yes. I want your listeners to be very sober minded about this. Fueling outrage is lucrative, and I don’t want any of your listeners to fall victim to someone else’s money-making scheme. That would be tragic. The implications for the church are significant.
(13:32) Justin Ariel Bailey: We were speaking about I was just using the analogy of the lens, and it’s interesting. In this book, you’re putting Christianity and critical race theory in dialogue, and Christian faith has this lens of the biblical story that you use in this book. So you organize the four movements of the Christian story creation, fall, redemption, consummation. You have a chapter on each of these in dialogue with themes and theses from critical race theory. And if we could take this first chapter of creation, I found this discussion of ethnic diversity and cultural wealth to be really insightful in particular. And so I wonder if you could explain this concept of cultural wealth and how it connects to the doctrine of creation.
(14:11) Jeff Liou: Absolutely. Yeah. So this is Robert’s chapter. And back up a little bit before we get to cultural wealth, because before we get to the good news, we got to talk about the bad news. So when goodwilled people begin to confront societal problems, we often fall into this trap of misidentifying the problem. So we continue to look at people individuals and people groups, and we see what they lack instead of what they possess. And in the book, we refer to this as deficit thinking. I’ve finally gotten started watching this new show, Abbott elementary. I don’t know if you watch it.
(14:43) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah, I assign it in one of my classes.
(14:45) Jeff Liou: Okay. Yeah. They just won a Golden Globe for best television series. The main character of the show, this super energetic, well intended elementary school teacher, she impulsively leaps to engage any problem she sees, and in each episode in season one, that’s as far as I’ve made it. It’s only when she slows down and she takes in an inventory of what her students and coworkers can really do, like what they possess, what assets they have, that she’s able to undo the mess that she makes because she rushed to judgment. So the bad news is deficit thinking. Whether it’s in education or an evangelistic mission, it’s that rush to judgment. So what we’re advancing instead is this long-established reformed doctrine. We are made in the image of God, and therefore our cultures and our peoples bear evidence of the treasures that God’s grace makes common to humanity. Isaiah 60 again in Revelation 21, there’s this phrase the wealth of nations. And in both of these passages we get a prophetic vision of the nations bringing their very best treasures to God. Sailing ships from Tarshish, lumber, the cedars of Lebanon, livestock, gold, so on. If the authors of these texts only saw deficits in the cultures around them, we wouldn’t have these passages. But God is gracious. God granted to these authors to see wealth, cultural wealth among the nations that surrounded them. So this theological view isn’t new at all. Our mentor, Rich Mouw, wrote a reflection on Isaiah 60 in his book When the Kings Come Marching In. He writes about how forming the artifacts and instruments and institutions of culture, we are actually adding to the population of the original creation. And he says that this has an impact on how we understand John 3:16 what is the world that God loves so much? It is the world that encompasses more than just human beings, but also human cultures, human institutions, et cetera. So we should expect that God’s grace extends to human culture and that’s where our wealth can come from as well.
(16:50) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah, I just want to make a note for the listeners and those who might pick up the book that these six forms of capital that are listed: aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, and resistant. I found that it is so insightful and to think of our neighbors of various ethnic stories having these resources. I think a big part of the point that you’re trying to make in that chapter is that the problem is that oftentimes it’s been, they have deficits, they need to be more like us, and we are blinded to the riches and the glory that God has already invested in these people. And so I would just really commend that discussion to those who pick up the book.
(17:32) Jeff Liou: Yeah, I was going to say that one of the things I hear the most in terms of deficit thinking and really it’s aimed at our black brothers and sisters is like, I hear something as denigrating, as phrases like the culture of fatherlessness as deeply offensive, but it’s an example of deficit thinking. So, yeah, you look at the statistic about single parent households, et cetera, and the data is what it is, but you somehow are unable to see the assets that are built resilience, resistance, capital, et cetera, that are the kinds of things we should expect from a God of redemption. So we could look at Israel and say, what an unlucky bunch of losers. I mean, enslaved over and over again. But what do they develop? They develop the psalms of resistance. And that way of looking through the eyes of faith at people is what we’re prescribing.
(18:33) Justin Ariel Bailey: After I read that chapter the whole day, I was sort of going around thinking about this idea of cultural wealth, and I even began to lament a bit in my own story. Filipino American grew up in a white and Filipino household and just didn’t pick up the language, and for a big part of my life was really trying to assimilate and kind of lose the thing that made me distinctive until I got to college. And I just felt a lament at not having the linguistic capital, right? That I was the one who sort of has a deficit. And in our community, about 18% to 20% are Spanish speaking. And I think a lot of times the dominant culture here looks at our Spanish speaking neighbors as having all these deficits. But I’m not sure that we always see the wealth, especially that linguistic wealth, that places us at the deficit, at not having the ability to be bilingual.
(19:29) Jeff Liou: I resonate with that so much because my Taiwanese is terrible. But I learned in my adult life that Taiwanese was a language of resistance for the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church when the Chinese nationalists came over from China and tried to prohibit the use of the Taiwanese language. Taiwanese is the liturgical language of my spiritual forebears. And so I know what it’s like for well, I know what it’s like to be told not to speak my language here in the United States, right? And you see it on social media all the time, people being told, “Don’t speak that here. This is America.” I think the significance of having your language and culture erased is just far more devastating than people imagine.
(20:15) Justin Ariel Bailey: If we can move on to the next chapter, which I think was your chapter on the Fall, and one of the most significant ideas that threads through that chapter and really through the whole book, is this very simple phrase, three words racism is ordinary. And that’s a short phrase, but that you also say it’s one of the most threatening claims that can be made about life in the United States. So can you say more about what it means to say that racism is ordinary and how that relates to the Christian doctrine of the pervasiveness of sin?
(20:46) Jeff Liou: Yeah, let me try. In 2020, when anti-Asian racism was spiking again, people said to me one of two things. Number one, can’t believe this is happening in 2020. Right. Number two, people are so dumb that racism is, like, for dumb people. So what that tells me people are still caught off guard by racism. We tell ourselves that racism is extraordinary. We imagine that we live in a world that’s better than that. And so racism becomes limited to what a tiny percentage of unhinged people do. But what that means is that we’re not vigilant and we’re not ready when it happens. So I think now, in the popular imagination, we know parents and guardians of black children, they have to have conversations with their precious ones because their experience and knowledge of what’s ordinary is different from mine and yours and white families. So when pastors completely avoid or at best fumble their way through what to say on a Sunday morning after the nation is rocked again by another racially fraught tragedy says a lot about how we’ve been trained or how we’ve not been trained. So additionally, I make a claim in this chapter that the nature of racism challenges the way that we’ve learned to talk about sin. So we typically talk about sin as individual, what I call individual culpable moral failure. So folks want to talk about responsibility. You take responsibility for your mistakes. So we conceive of sin as individual culpable, moral failure. So I’ll let your listeners pick up the book to read more about it. But I want to suggest that this vocabulary is totally inadequate to meaningfully engage racism in all its forms, like the way racism works or the way we’re beginning to understand racism working. It’s not adequate to say, Whose fault was it? Whose fault was it? Like, even somebody like I reflect on this in the book Cornelius Plantinga. He writes an account of racism in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to: A Breviary of Sin. And he’s looking for individual responsibility in it. And it forces him, when it comes to racism, in the way that racist attitudes are passed from child, from parent to child, the way he does it. He traces it all the way back to Adam and Eve. And I think that that’s not wrong. In fact, I think that that’s right, but I don’t know that that changes anything. So racism has begun to challenge the way we understand the nature of sin, and we’re looking for new ways to talk about sin, which I think lots of theologians around the globe have been talking about it as something systemic, something corporate, and not something individual and culpable. Like, what if there’s no one to blame? Now, in this day and age, when there’s such violent, racist stuff, like physically violent stuff happening, there are people to blame and there are even people to prosecute. But the insidious forms of racism, the terrible inequalities that continue to propagate, like maternal deaths of black moms in the hospital, who do you blame for that? It’s not so simple as blaming nurses or doctors for negligence or hospital system. It defies individual culpable, moral failings, and we need more language for it.
(24:03) Justin Ariel Bailey: So it sounds like you’re saying something like racism as ordinary notes the fact that we live in something like a toxic cultural ecosystem, and it’s not enough just to say, well, who polluted this? Right? But we have to live here, right? And we have to make sure that the water that we are drinking and that others are drinking, that our neighbors are drinking, that we’re trying to clean it, we’re trying to do something to leave it at least better than we found it. I think that’s really helpful.
(24:36) Justin Ariel Bailey: Let me try to give voice to some of the critics of CRT and other movements of racial justice. As I try to listen to the critics, the sorts of complaints that I hear are things like this, that the terms of racism are being redefined so that it’s impossible to escape. So that you’re a damned racist if you notice race, you’re a damned racist if you don’t. Or others will say that when you talk about racism as this kind of toxic ecosystem that’s everywhere and in everything, what do I do? I can root out my personal prejudices, but if I’m just complicit in this culture of white supremacy, I’m not sure what to do other than to despair. And then there are those who allege that we have this sort of new fundamentalism with an underdeveloped account of grace. And so I wonder what you make of these sorts of criticisms.
(25:28) Jeff Liou: Yeah, helpful criticisms. So I want to say that at the outset, I do want to observe a few things here as I launch into it about criticisms like these. So first, let me just observe. We don’t feel these kinds of ways about being called sinners in a general sense. Like, if I called you a sinner, Justin, you’d be like, Yep, I know, right?
(25:47) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah.
(25:48) Jeff Liou: It’s part of our confession. But if I call you a racist, all of a sudden, gasp. Right? So this is part of the ordinariness thing. Like we confess as reformed people that sin is ordinary. We have better language for that in the confessions. But it’s when we push someone’s specific sinfulness that we are so deeply offended, and it shows me that we may not really believe the things that we confess. That sin really is that ordinary. So that’s my first observation. Second, there’s not a lot of critical race theorists who are pastors. Robert and I are among some of the few, the original writings of CRT. They don’t intentionally fixate on our good intentions. They focus on phenomena systems and structures. They don’t look at, well, what do I intend? I really am a good neighbor. I’m a good friend to my coworker. It doesn’t focus on that stuff. And I guess you could consider that a shortcoming of CRT, but that would be like judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree. It’s just not what it was intended to do. CRT is not looking at that deliberately not looking at that. I want to encourage folks to be good neighbors. And I don’t know that we get to pat ourselves on the back for that, because in my mind, this is the divine command to love one another. But God is our delight in that sense, and we are pleased when we please God.
(27:10) Justin Ariel Bailey: Can I interrupt you just for a second? Are you saying that CRT is primarily doing descriptive work, empirical work first, and not so much doing normative constructive work, or are they also trying to do normative constructive work? Can you just clarify?
(27:25) Jeff Liou: Yeah. So critical race theorists are doing normative constructive work on legal theory, right? So, on how we ought to conceive theories of justice, for example. So they are being prescriptive and they are being normative about it, but as it pertains to our life in neighborhoods or in workplaces, they’re not trying to be prescriptive about that so much. They may advocate for immigration reform, but they’re not going to tell us what we ought to do with our private attitudes and hearts because they don’t believe that that’s where racism primarily resides. So that’s a great clarification. Thanks, Justin.
(28:00) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah.
(28:01) Jeff Liou: Now, I do want to get to this criticism about grace. I think I understand the criticism when I hear it, but I’m not always sure who it is that really has the underdeveloped account of grace here, because we don’t continue in racism, that grace may abound.
(28:15) Justin Ariel Bailey: That’s right.
(28:16) Jeff Liou: So there needs to be a concreteness about what we should be doing. So I want to offer these challenging observations while also trying to understand the concern. People have no idea, people who have no idea what I write about, sometimes they’ve come and told me that they feel like they’re only bad, they have nothing to contribute to racial justice because they’re white. So discipling someone like that who’s paralyzed, that’s a real pastoral challenge. And left to their own devices, I’ve watched that paralysis become callousness, and then I’ve watched that callousness become resentment. So the temptation is real. And what pastors may tend to do is to back off. Like, I don’t want to unnerve my flock, my dear congregation members. And sometimes we even go as far as accepting that things will gradually get better as a matter of course, so that we don’t want to rush things or we don’t want to expect too much of our congregation. I’m reminded what Bonhoeffer says about cheap grace. It’s preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance. It’s baptism without discipline. It’s communion without confession. It’s absolution without personal confession. So the question for pastors is about discipleship. How do you want to shape your congregation? And so I want to at the same time acknowledge the deep anxiety that comes when it seems like a problem we can’t possibly face and the imperative that the church be an alternative civitas whose ethics is part of its witness.
(29:54) Justin Ariel Bailey: That’s really helpful. I wonder: in your chapter on consummation and throughout the book, you note what you call a gloomy eschatology of critical race theory. And it’s interesting to think about even engaging critical race theory in some sense, it’s sort of like, well, do you agree with psychology? Do you agree with sociology? Right? It’s this discipline, right? It’s this way of having a conversation. And there might be particular tenets within that discipline, within that conversation that we might agree with or disagree as Christians. But I wonder, where do you see the greatest points of tension as you studied critical race theory with Christian faith? Is it this what you call gloomy eschatology? Are there some points of tension that Christians who begin to read more in critical race theory or are trying to learn from critical race theory that you say they’ll probably start to feel the tension here because this is a real tension between the Christian story and the project that we see in critical race theory.
(30:55) Jeff Liou: Yeah, fantastic. This is where I’m extra conscious of the listening audience, so I can imagine some people really leaning in at this point. Does he have a meaningful criticism of CRT? I don’t want that to if that’s you if you’re leaning in now, I reject that as a litmus test. But at the same time, my question is, what I’m about to say about the points of tension. What are we going to do about it? So how are we going to engage it, as opposed to sitting back and saying, yeah, that’s true. Now we can reject it in wholesale. So two main points of tension that we cover in the book. Number one, for some critical race theorists, truth is a social construct. Truth capital t doesn’t exist. It’s wielded by the strong against the weak. It is a tool of domination.
(31:45) Justin Ariel Bailey: It’s power.
(31:45) Jeff Liou: It is power. Now, there are ways in which we can agree with that. All of us have had someone tell a lie about us. Now, we call it a lie, they call it their truth, and they use it to dominate us. Everybody knows and has an experience of something like that. So we know that that’s a phenomenon but want to sympathize with the concern embedded in this criticism. More than ever, lots of people feel like narratives are being spun to the advantage of the rich and powerful. But my co-author and I, we confess that the Bible is the word of God. So there is truth, capital T, right? So that’s a major point of tension. We believe not only that the Bible is true, but also that it’s true about what we should expect in the future. So that’s our second point of tension. I do think that CRT is a gloomy outlook on the future. So in the book, I cover some of the writings of Derek Bell, one of the forerunners of CRT. In one of his landmark articles, he prescribes the need for black Americans to accept the reality of what he called, quote, permanent subordinate status. Say that again. Permanent subordinate status. So he argues that if you believe in this myth that racial progress is coming, it’s going to lead you to a false hope, that society will grant you dignity and equality. And that false hope, believing in a lie, is going to do more harm to you than it will to help you. So he’s really looking out for his people. He’s really concerned about what it the experience of believing a lie. So he prescribes permanent. I mean, that’s gloomy. It’s really gloomy. But if the Bible is true and Jesus is really returning to set things right, permanent subordinate status cannot be the end of the last word. It just can’t. And the way you live, your ethics, your walk in the world will be completely different if you believe that Jesus is returning or if we are permanently subordinate, your posture will change, your blood pressure will probably change, your ability to sing a song of praise will change depending on your eschatology. So that is a huge point of tension.
(33:59) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah, that’s helpful. Thank you. One other thing that makes your book unique and particularly relevant to the audience of this podcast is that you concretely engage the racial damage that’s emerged in the Dutch Reformed tradition, apartheid in South Africa, recent deliberation, and eventual condemnation of kinism in the Christian Reformed Church. And you do this as an insider, as one who is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, who affirms the three forms of unity. You’re not hesitant to name the sins of the tradition, but you also point out resources for repair. And I wonder if you were to speak to others like yourself. So not just a general audience, but those who move within the Reformed tradition, what would you want to tell us specifically?
(34:43) Jeff Liou: Yeah, so first, full disclosure that overture to synod to declare Kinism heresy came from Classis Cal South and one other classes. I’m in Classis Cal South. So full disclosure there. So what would I want reformed, my fellow Reformed folks, to know? First, let’s do some self-critique that’s looking inward, our tradition is not super diverse. I mean, you and I are here, Justin, as non-Dutch folk.
(35:15) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah.
(35:15) Jeff Liou: Just a quick aside, I was wondering, because of the Dutch occupation of Taiwan, whether I might have some Dutch ancestry. And so I took those ancestry tests to see turns out I don’t have any. But because of my location in the Dutch Reformed tradition, I was kind of just hoping, like, yeah, maybe there’s some of that. There’s none. Anyway, the way I learned it, you have Abram Kuyper’s affirmation of human culture on the one hand, right? And you have Klaas Schilder’s concerns that we now call the Antithesis, on the other hand. So on the one, pluriformity God’s diversity, engagement in culture, trafficking in government power, et cetera. On the other, a real concern that getting too close is going to do something to our spirituality and to our witness. And then the way I experience in conversation with Reformed Christians and really others, is that racial justice work is more Kuyperian. It’s more affirming of human culture. And in fact, my work in the university, so working with college students and young adults, I frequently have heard this complaint from older adults, well, the university, university ministry looks so much like the university because you’re really too close, you’re being infected, or it’s contaminating, or it’s leeching into your theology, et cetera. So there’s an assumption about the liberal university and what it’s doing to us. So there’s this concern, antithetical concern. So I think along these lines, reformed theologians have two things to learn. First, I’ll say it again. I think our opposition to our historic opposition to things like psychology and our contemporary opposition to things like critical race theory belie our fear. We’re afraid of losing something. And whether that’s our confession or our country, I’m not sure. So I hope we can take an inventory of what we are afraid of losing. The second thing is we learn from someone like Alan Boesak. He teaches us to re narrate the tradition, to tell a different story about the tradition. So in South Africa, it was the Dutch Reformed tradition that many believed was the theological justification for injustice. And Alan Boesak, antiapartheid black South African, he turns the tables and he says, no, the tradition is really about caring for the poor. He says it over and over again. He writes it, he puts it down, he puts it in his addresses. The tradition is really about care for the poor. And until we retrieve that, we won’t really be a part of the Reformed tradition. So in CRT, we call that re-narration or counter storytelling. So Reformed theologians in North America, we have the opportunity to tell a different story. I think if you ask somebody outside the tradition, what is it that distinguishes Dutch Reformed Christianity from everything else, then you listen carefully to that story. Is that story what we want to characterize us? In the United States, we have all these longings in the CRC for diversity, et cetera. But what really characterizes what we’re doing, it’s not diversity. But if we really believe in our confessions and our creeds, that being a house of prayer for all nations is what the church is supposed to be, if that’s part of it, then we need to tell a different story, like Boesak did. That only until we do X, Y, and Z are we really living the Reformed tradition. And he bases that on Lord’s Day one. So that’s how you use tradition. That’s how you can use tradition. And I’d love for Reformed folks to take that out.
(38:53) Justin Ariel Bailey: Wonderful. So you’ve already noted our shared mentor, Dr. Richard Mouw. And reading this book made me think of a favorite quote from him, something that I once heard him say about Marx, but you could have said it about any number of thinkers or traditions that Christians sometimes feel threatened by. He said, Karl Marx is not our judge. Jesus Christ is our judge. Karl Marx is not our judge, but we should at least let him take the witness stand. And I can imagine him saying that, right. And so I wonder what it means to allow the testimony of critical race theorists to be heard in a way that really reckons with the reality of injustice, but also holds space for redemption and the possibility of beloved community, as you’ve mentioned. Or to ask us maybe in a more general way, what does it mean for us to really hear the testimony of CRT and learn to see and reckon with power and power’s abuses without power becoming the only thing that we can see?
(39:57) Jeff Liou: Let me try the second question first, the more general question. What immediately comes to mind is this scene in Fellowship of the Ring. I should quote the book and maybe not the movie, but to look more academic. But it just really stands out to me when Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring, basically, you can have it. And Galadriel the line that I remember, she says all this stuff like, you would offer it freely to me. I would become this kind of queen. And at this point, she’s towering over Frodo and she’s glowing with kind of terrifying light, and she says, all shall love me and despair. The temptation to power. Right. That’s really real. So I’m really glad for this question, because when we feel like we can identify power abuse, it makes us feel powerful.
(40:55) Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah.
(40:56) Jeff Liou: And what are you going to do with that power? What are you going to do with all that power? I’ve been on different sides of this issue. I’ve been on different sides of a bunch of political, theological issues. And the temptation to power is so strong, both for myself and the people around me. I have known so many different kinds of exclusion and so have many other people. In fact, one of my bosses, mentors had told me at some point, we all feel marginalized. Now, what are we doing with power to each other? I’m really worried about seeing only power. And I think that really it’s not just CRT folks that major in the power stuff. It’s even folks that don’t recognize that that’s what they’re doing. When we can’t love our enemies, it’s because we are holding power for ourselves. If you make that your litmus test for Christian ethics, loving your enemy, then it will tell you, I think it’ll tell you real quick how much power you are hoarding. The power to control your destiny, the power to keep you safe, keep yourself and your family safe, quote, unquote, safe, et cetera. we are hoarding that power. So how do we do this possibility for the beloved community? It’s really difficult. So, first of all we affirm this is the work of God, when God orchestrates circumstances in history to break in. In the book, we refer to this as the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God or part of inaugurated eschatology which I learned at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School which is another thing that Justin and I share. If the kingdom can break in we know that that’s because of the mighty right arm of God and God can do things like bring people together for the work of justice. And one orientation we can have to those inbreakings is to say well, if it didn’t happen in my community if it didn’t happen in my church or in my tradition or in my theological system if it didn’t happen the way I expected it to happen then that’s not really of God. That’s another way of retaining the power. Instead, the posture we could take is curiosity. What is God doing there? In missiology, one of the central questions is what is God doing in this place? And when things don’t go according to our tradition or to our creed and we ask our and we become so skeptical that it couldn’t possibly be God I’m worried that we might miss the activity of the Spirit in our midst. There are those who believe that wherever justice is being secured for those to whom it has been denied God is there present. At the very least, I want to ask the question what is God doing there where justice is secured for those to whom it has been denied? And I think we could take that posture.
(43:46) Justin Ariel Bailey: Amen. The book is Christianity and Critical Race Theory a Faithful and Constructive Conversation. The authors are Dr. Robert Chao Romero and Dr. Jeff Liou. And our guest is Dr. Jeff Liou. Jeff, thank you so much for a generative and generous conversation.
(44:03) Jeff Liou: Thank you, Justin. Thanks so much.
(44:10) Justin Ariel Bailey: I’m not in the habit of recording an afterword but I thought that given the topic it might be important in this case. Two things I want to say that I often share with my students about this difficult topic. First, the complexity of racial injustice can lead to defensiveness. Second, the severity of racial injustice can lead to despair. How do we move forward? First, the complexity yes, the work of racial justice is complicated. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to say and nothing to do. And in the face of the unambiguous evil suffered by our fellow image bearers we should practice putting our defensiveness to death. Second, the severity. How could we even begin to repair the devastation that has been wrought? Can we really disentangle ourselves from sinful systems enough to do any good? Aren’t there some things that can only be made right in the Kingdom of God? The answer to the last question, at least, is yes. But it strikes me that these questions invite us to remain in a posture of vulnerability and to move forward with humility and move forward. We must work to make just institutions, to build reciprocal friendships, to reject prejudices in anticipation of the kingdom that is coming. Our attempts will always be imperfect, but that does not exempt us from the work. Thank you for listening to In All Things.
(45:37) Production notes: Thanks for listening to the in all things podcast from the Andrea Center at Dordt University. Original music is provided by the Ruralists and thanks are in order to Ruth Clark, Channon Visscher, Vaughn Donahue and the production team at the Andreas Center. You can find us online at inallthings.org or follow us on Twitter under the name at in underscore all underscore things. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Spotify and wherever podcasts are found. And if you find our content beneficial, please help us out by leaving a review and sharing with others. Thanks for tuning in.