Gender, Race, Oppression, and Critical Theory (Shenvi/Sawyer)

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Hearing about many recent cultural issues and happenings has left me somewhat confused. I am wondering why some people today think it’s ok for a person to condemn violence by engaging in violent acts himself. I’m wondering how someone can think an entire group of people is guilty if only some members of the group have done evil. I’m also wondering why one group will absolutely not listen to or dialogue with a group it opposes.

Here’s a short booklet that has answered a lot of my questions: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. (As a side, having studied postmodernity in seminary, it’s fascinating to me to see how critical theory’s epistemology seems to be a child of postmodernism.) Here’s an excerpt I marked up:

Because contemporary critical theory divides society into oppressed groups and oppressor groups, many critical theorists insist that our identity as individuals is inextricably bound to our group identity. From the perspective of contemporary critical theory, our experience of reality, our evaluation of evidence, our access to truth, our moral status, and our moral obligations are all largely determined by our membership in either a dominant oppressor group or a subordinate oppressed 􏰙􏰆􏰂􏰔􏰚 group. It’s important to note that the definition of “oppression” in critical theory differs markedly from the definition one finds in the dictionary, where “oppression” refers to “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.” According to critical theory, “oppression” should additionally or even primarily be understood in terms of “hegemonic power,” the ability of a particular group to impose its norms, values, and expectations on the rest of society: “In any relationship between groups that define one another (men/women, able-bodied/disabled, young/old), the dominant group is the group that is valued more highly. Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritiized group is judged.”

Given this definition, contemporary critical theorists view racism, sexism, classism, ableism, capitalism, heteronormativity, and cisgender privilege as forms of oppression: “People [in the U.S.] are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosex- ism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively.”  In saying that a particular man is an “oppressor” the critical theorist is not saying that the man has personally ever abused his power or, for instance, mistreated women in ways that are traditionally understood as unjust. Rather, the critical theorist is asserting that the group to which the man belongs (men) has imposed its views on society regarding what is normal, expected, and valuable, thus making the man an oppressor. By establishing hegemonic norms, dominant groups conversely characterize the “Other” as abnormal, unusual, deviant, or worthless. Of course, a particular individual can participate in both oppressed and oppressor groups simultaneously, but this overlap does not reverse or overturn the respective social position of the groups to which she belongs. For example, a white woman is oppressed in terms of her gender but is still privileged in terms of her race.

One of the most important implications of contemporary critical theory’s emphasis on group identity is the moral asymmetry it assumes between different groups. Because of its collectivist outlook, members of oppressor groups are not seen as morally neutral, even if their individual behavior has been unimpeachable….

I’ll come back to this book later, but for now if you’re interested you can find it online in several places as a PDF: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. I also appreciate how this book shows some positives of critical theory but then contrasts it with the Christian worldview and apologetics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Philip and the Ethiopian (Hays)

From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, Vol. 14 (New Studies in Biblical Theology) The story in Acts 8 where Philip meets an important Ethiopian man is a great story.  The Ethiopian was on his very long trip home after worshiping Yahweh in Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit led Philip to the point where he eventually shares the gospel with the Ethiopian starting in Isaiah 53.  There are many application points in this story.  One of them is brought out well by J. Daniel Hays in From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race.

The actual story of the Ethiopian’s conversion to Christianity is familiar.  Philip, led by an angel of the Lord, left Samaria and went to the Gaza road, where he encountered this Ethiopian official in his chariot.  After Philip explained ‘the good news about Jesus’ to him, they drove by some water and the Ethiopian asked, ‘What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ (8:36, NRSV).  Polhill notes the theological significance of the verb in this question (koluo, to hinder forbid, prohibit), and suggests that Luke records this question for his Gentile Church audience, thus clarifying that no one is to be denied full membership into the Church through baptism.  Remember that this official was a eunuch and was prohibited from full membership in Judaism.  He was also from a region that lay outside the limits of the Roman Empire.  Polhill summarizes by writing, ‘The verb indicates that barriers have been removed, hindrances to the spread of the gospel to all people.  In this case a double barrier of both physical and racial prejudice had fallen.’

Hays ends the section like this:

As in this entire unit of Acts, the Spirit plays a major role.  So we can conclude that it was clearly part of God’s plan for the gospel to reach this Black African in the most initial stages of the Christian evangelistic explosion.  A Greek-speaking Semitic Jew led a Black African eunuch to Christ in one of the first evangelistic encounters recorded in Christian history, thus setting the stage for the explosion of the gospel into the world that took place over the next thirty years, and giving a foretaste of the mixed composition of the new people of God that will fill the kingdom of Christ.

J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation, p. 174, 176. 

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015