Another week, another attack on critical race theory.
Like a cornfield overpopulated by scarecrows, the conservative imagination is, at this point, studded with strawmen. Yet amidst liberalism, “social justice warriors,” and socialism itself, one imagined monster currently stands out: critical race theory. During a joint report from SBC's Council of Seminary Presidents at the denomination's recent annual meeting, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Adam Greenway doubled down on the council's official opposition to critical race theory. While acknowledging the reality of systemic racism, Greenway alleged that CRT “rejects” the Baptist Faith and Message, which stipulates that the “means and methods used for the improvement of society" are "permanently helpful only when they are rooted in the regeneration of the individual through the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.” In other words, because critical race theorists aren’t proclaiming Jesus as their savior, Greenway argued that the theory as a whole must be unbiblical.
The SBC is not alone in construing CRT as hostile to the traditional Christian message of salvation. At the upcoming Presbyterian Church in America's (PCA) 2021 annual meeting, attendees can take part in such seminars as “Grace Abounds! A Biblical Response to CRT and the 1619 Project,” in which attendees will learn how the church, “inundated” by “voices for division, guilt, and blame,” must respond with the titular “grace” that CRT supposedly lacks. These condemnations echo those of prominent PCA pastor Timothy Keller’s own “Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,” which casts an ill-defined sense of “secular justice” in opposition to Keller's contention that “our salvation lies in what we do as individuals.”
I’ve grown weary of even engaging such attacks on CRT, so lacking are they in intellectual and moral integrity. Never mind that CRT is primarily a legal theory of how U.S. law has and should address racial discrimination, not a program of salvation; never mind that Greenway’s reading of the BFM would prohibit Southern Baptists from voting, speaking at municipal town halls, or engaging in any civic duty that does not literally and explicitly involve evangelism; never mind that critical race theorists, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Robin D.G. Kelley, propose means for overcoming the very “division, guilt and blame” that is supposedly celebrated by CRT proponents. Efforts to convince those so clearly immune to facts are rarely successful.
Still, as a Chinese American even wearier of the anti-Asian terror, or “Sinophobia,” that has coursed through the nation for over a century, I’m compelled to observe that CRT’s detractors beg the question: What is the salvation that these detractors contrast with “secular justice,” anyway? And what exactly is this “soul” they wish to “regenerate,” this part of me that shrivels a bit more with each new horrific video clip of racist violence?
Indeed, recent assaults — a woman punched on the street in Manhattan; another woman punched on the street in Queens — mirror other brutalities inflicted on Asians over the past year. Beyond the more egregious examples of violence, the far more common instances of verbal harassment and shunning also show no sign of abating. The data affirms my decision, late last year, to write and circulate an open letter challenging the anti-Asian racism of influential Christian nationalists. (One of those named in the letter, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), recently made disparaging comments regarding CRT on the Senate floor.) Even before the number of incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate nearly doubled in the month of March, it was apparent that such politicians’ incessant hatred was inciting, and would continue to incite, racist violence.
Never have I been more tired of vindication. And never has my soul felt more keenly the need for the “regeneration” Greenway lauds — not only in others, but also in myself.
By “regeneration,” I don’t just mean the narrowly defined “come to Jesus” experience, though conservative Christians’ continued antagonism towards critical race theory all but guarantees that such moments will continue to wane. As a March Gallup survey revealed, church membership no longer characterized a majority of the American populace. Even if born-again conversion were all that regeneration required, proclaiming Christ’s saving work has always depended on clearing obstacles to hearing it. But as sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry note, few obstacles loom larger than the fact that Christian nationalism, a fusion of “American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture,” now constitutes a mainstream ideology rather than a fringe movement.
Disgusted with notable Christian politicians who have peddled the “Chinese virus” conspiracy theory, “unchurched” people possessing a conscience are increasingly unlikely to heed traditionalists whose “gospel” slanders anti-racist activism. As for Asians like myself, Christian nationalism’s blasphemous sanctification of Sinophobia poses an additional impediment to “regeneration,” because it legitimates physical and psychological trauma — something that the Christian tradition has long recognized as an impediment to soul regeneration. After all, the Greek word for soul in the New Testament is psuché, the root of “psyche.” How does Christian salvation address the documented burden that hatred has taken on our souls?
In contrast to some Christians’ lack of concern for souls plagued by racism, W.E.B. Du Bois was profoundly interested in racism’s effect on the soul. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois depicts Black liberation not merely in terms of the body, but also in terms of the spirit. The first chapter makes it clear that Du Bois aims to “sketch . . . the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand Americans strive.” He describes that “spiritual world” in terms familiar not only to Black Americans, but also to Asian Americans suspended between self-knowledge and the dominant culture’s narrow perception of them as perpetual foreigners, model minorities, or designated scapegoats.
In his famous description of Black Americans’ “double consciousness,” Du Bois writes of “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” But Du Bois does not merely locate salvation in the “dogged strength” of Black bodies. In an essay on the Black minister and abolitionist Alexander Crummell, Du Bois nods towards his subject’s staunch faith with a poetic meditation to commemorate Crummell’s passing: “I wonder if in that dim world beyond, as he came gliding in, there rose on some wan throne a King,—a dark and pierced Jew, who knows the writhings of the earthly damned, saying, as he laid those heart-wrung talents down, ‘Well done!’”
In Du Bois’ account of Crummell’s destiny, spiritual rescue involves that “dark and pierced Jew” offering heavenly welcome in the future and “dogged strength” in the present. Christ dispenses grace through embodied solidarity with “the writhings of the earthly damned,” through attention to the material circumstances that mired his soul in double consciousness.
Certainly, both Crummell and subsequent generations of salvation-minded Christians insisted that a comprehensive view of spiritual regeneration required embodied solidarity, not a mere fixation with an ethereal beyond. It’s worth remembering that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s opposition to the Vietnam War stemmed from his fear not simply for America’s political future, but also for the fate of its psuché: “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam.”
Fifty-four years later, King’s concern for the impact of anti-Asian violence on America’s soul should unsettle anyone putatively concerned about soul-saving. It’s to confront a spiritual burden, as well as the physical suffering producing it, that my open letter’s 700 signatories insist on repentance and material transformation from the politicians and pastors who have endangered millions of image-bearers like me.
I invite you to join us as we labor not only for the embattled psyches of those image-bearers, but also for the soul who faithfully attended a Southern Baptist church for most of his life in Milton, Ga., one of the state’s wealthiest cities. The soul I’m talking about is Robert Aaron Long, the Bible-carrying Christian who murdered eight people at Korean spas across Atlanta this past March. One wonders how differently Long might have turned out had he received spiritual formation in a tradition less fearful of racial justice. There’s more than one way for a soul to be lost.