The story of oppression cannot be told with reference to one race, one sex, one class, one nation, or one civilization. The problem of injustice goes deeper, past the identity obsessions of our age, all the way to our identity as fallen human beings.
As Americans continue to debate critical race theory (CRT) and its place in our schools and our national self-understanding, the discussion in some Christian circles has turned to questions about possible similarities between a Reformed doctrine of sin and CRT’s emphasis on the pervasiveness of oppressive systems and structures.
For example, in a new book, Reformed Public Theology, one contributor argues that “Reformed theologians describe the pervasive effects of sin while using comprehensive terms strikingly similar to CRT.” The author then quotes from the famous Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper:
“The stronger, almost without exception, have always known how to bend every custom and magisterial ordinance so that the profit is theirs and the loss belongs to the weaker. Men did not literally eat each other like cannibals, but the more powerful exploited the weaker by means of a weapon which there was no defense.”
I have already seen these lines cited many times on social media, to the effect that, like CRT, a Reformed doctrine of sin leads us to believe in the near inevitability of systemic injustice. What should we make of this argument?
An initial response is to admit that powerful people often do bend customs and ordinances to favor their interests. The weak often are mistreated by those who have the connections and influence to get away with it. In American history, this has meant that whites too often protected their power by mistreating those who were not white. Even in a country deeply influenced by Christianity, oppression is more common than we would like to think.
So far, so Reformed.
But there are problems with connecting the ideology of CRT with the doctrine of the Reformed tradition.
For starters, it’s strange that Kuyperians—who talk so much about redeeming culture, transforming the city, and renewing the arts—can sound so defeatist when talking about the systems and customs of Europeans and their descendants. If the leading proponents of CRT are to be believed, centuries of profound Christian influence in the West have produced little more than a stream of atrocities and injustices. So much for Christ the transformer of culture.