A Feature Review of
Christianity and Critical Race Theory: A Faithful and Constructive Conversation
Robert Chao Romero and Jeff Liou
Reviewed by Joshua E. Livingston
“…wherever justice and dignity are being secured
for those to whom it has been denied, that is where God is working.”
Recently, a Ukrainian researcher named Halyna Herasym has been doing important work on helping the wider world understand the diasporic imagination of the Ukrainian people under Russian attack. It’s an essential narrative that brings to bear the hope of a historically colonized people. Her idea is that activism and revolution is not enacted or performed primarily through organized political effort, but rather it is enacted through the everyday practices of the people on the ground. Herasym calls the embodying of these everyday practices social dreaming. Social dreams are the “desires and dreams and visions of Ukrainian society, which are lived, which Ukrainian society is trying to make true through social participation, through political participation, through their everyday experience.”
For Americans this might sound profoundly idealistic and inefficient. But if we can take a moment to reflect on how we have ended up in this deeply wounded, racialized atmosphere that we currently inhabit, we can begin to see how it is the very performance of internalized desires of historicized white supremacy through current everyday experience that has constituted and sustains our social dreaming. It’s the dream we all like to lampoon, but only as a symptom of repression in the deepest and widest of magnitudes. The American Dream is not a 1950’s idyllic scenery of a suburban household and white picket fence. It is the current reality of murdered black bodies in our streets and political maneuverings that ensure brown bodies remain second-class citizens, if present at all.
If you are a Christian in the Americas, you ought to know what critical race theory is. If you don’t know what critical race theory is, I implore you; do not draw any conclusions from what you might have heard in popular news media. Left or right, both are cultural detritus of the American dream. Authors Robert Chao Romero and Jeff Liou have been studying CRT in academia years before the language ever graduated to popular discourse. They are trustworthy sources on what CRT actually is, and Christianity and Critical Race Theory is a very helpful, and readable, primer.
More importantly, their new book is an immense gift to the church. That is, the church that has been called to be an embodied presence that bears prophetic witness to the powers and principalities, to the rulers and authorities of our age. Romero and Liou have done the work of detailing how CRT aligns with the narratives we might discern in Scripture, and also where it doesn’t. They’ve also used that discernment to illuminate for us what many dominant narratives of church are unable, or unwilling, to see: the communal cultural wealth of colonized peoples.
Referencing Yosso and Solorzano, they underscore how CRT harmonizes with an asset-based approach to cultural analysis: “…Communities of Color nurture cultural wealth through at least 6 forms of capital such as aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, and resistant capital.” In other words, the very effort required to navigate oppressive societal norms is what develops the wisdom and muscle needed to accurately name and describe how white supremacy functions in and through the church. Religious folk might feel more comfortable with the scriptural rendering, “the glory and honor of the nations” will be brought into the heavenly gates, of which “nothing impure will ever enter” (Rev. 21: 26-27). This is the theological aesthetics that Hans Urs von Balthasar writes of, by which we are drawn into the glory of the Lord through the beautiful dream of God’s people.
What is particularly refreshing about Christianity and CRT– in an age when many progressives have simply given up on any semblance of “church–” are the ways Romero and Liou actually have the audacity to lift up the church as the site of resistance. It may be said that they cast a vision of God’s church as a sort of “homeplace.” And a “homeplace”– as defined by bell hooks in YEARNINGS –“is a safe place where black people could affirm one another and by doing so heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination” (42). In a seminal essay, bell hooks writes about how homeplace was “most often created and kept by black women, that [they] had the opportunity to grow and develop, to nurture [their] spirits” (42). Whereas hooks writes about the particularities of the domestic sphere under systemic racism and patriarchy, perhaps we might be able to see how the household of God might serve the same purpose for those who suffer under American modes of religious colonialism. Indeed, Romero and Liou insist that the “very existence and persistence of communities of faith that have endured the ravages and innovations of racism bear witness to the love of God in Christ” (98).
Finally, it is worth mentioning the simplicity by which this book employs traditional orthodoxy of the church found in scripture to tell a new story. Even American Christian Nationalists, with their religious politics of exceptionalism, must make room for sin and the fallenness of creation. It is the escape hatch through which many of their politics can fester in the dark. As such, it is with a straight face of lament and outrage that Romero and Liou can echo their CRT forebears in proclaiming, “Racism is ordinary.” It’s time for us to stop being surprised by every new scandal that scrolls through our social media feeds. Our shock and awe is itself indicative of our captivity to the American Dream of exceptionalism.
In the end, “envisioning and embodying a different social order has been the implicit and explicit business of the church” (156). In doing so, well-to-do Americans have the unique calling and responsibility to attend to the whole body of Christ, even if it makes us uncomfortable and flies in the face of the imagination for Christ’s body that we’ve inherited and internalized. CRT’s voice of color thesis is immensely important for this age, where members of Christ’s body on both sides of the coin of oppression are tempted to give up on one another. Rejecting the voice of the other “is akin to the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you!” or the head telling the feet, “I don’t need you!” Besides, isolating ourselves from one another does nothing to wake us up from the social dreams of American exceptionalism and white supremacy, which reside within our very bodies and structure our everyday realities. Even when American Christianity reduces sin to a privatized, personal matter, Romero and Liou remind us through Native American scholar Clara Sue Kidwell that the “communal, interpersonal relatedness of even private thought life works itself out in public, social experience” (82).
If contemporary American missiology has truly concerned itself with discerning where God is at work and joining in that work, then the church ought not try and imagine what new trends to latch onto as a measure of faithfulness. If racism is indeed ordinary, then those very trends, the very channels through which they circulate, are all shot through and shaped by the dream of white supremacy. The narratives of people of color as deficient is ubiquitous: “Politicians are among the most persistent purveyors of culturally deficient portrayals of ethnic communities in the United States, and as Nancy Yuen has shown, Hollywood finishes a close second” (48). If you don’t have the time to read this book, then at least read the section entitled “Matthew 18 Revisited.” There you will encounter, in a nutshell, how the very lenses we employ to read scripture, the very desires we nurture through the structures of our ecclesial practice, are all informed by a social dream that unwittingly shapes the very lives we lead.
The question we must ask ourselves is not “Where do we go from here?” Rather, it’s “How in the hell did we ever get here?”
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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