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3 January 2022

Lately, social media has been abuzz in Singapore over a series of incidents of racism. Why is this significant?  For starters, Singapore sets great store by the harmony that obtains between citizens of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The state in Singapore has taken the management of ethnic relations very seriously. Nothing is left to chance.

Moreover, this debate is occurring at a time when, globally, identity differences are being amplified. In the U.S., the lid has been lifted yet again on its troubled history of race. Across Europe, far-right movements and political parties capitalise on growing anxieties over migration by articulating overtly racist and nativist narratives. Closer to home, neighbouring countries are beset by deep identity-based divisions that lead easily to politicisation.

While the discussion of race relations in multi-ethnic Singapore is certainly not a new development, recent commentary on the issue has been animated by intellectual ideas that are gaining currency and shaping similar debates elsewhere. Among these, Critical Race Theory is arguably one of the most resonant.

Understanding Critical Race Theory

In keeping with its Marxist heritage drawn from a broader philosophical tradition known as Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory posits that the fundamental fabric of society is determined by power, or more precisely, structural imbalances in power relationships.

In the main, it contends that those who are members of dominant groups—identified in this case as the majoritarian race or ethnic group—possess power and, by extension, derive privilege and benefit from it. Conversely, those who are not members of dominant groups—ethnic or racial minorities—do not have access to power and are thence systematically denied these same privileges and benefits. Anyone who stands to gain from the system is, by definition, an oppressor, while those who are outside of it are the oppressed.

Importantly, such hegemonic oppression manifests not just in the material but ideational realm as well, because power also defines the parameters of debate. By this token, it stands to reason that those in the dominant group are complicit in oppression even though they may not actually partake directly in any specific act. In other words, a member of the ethnic majority who does not see the oppressive nature of the prevailing system is in fact complicit in the very act of asserting power.

The point is that no matter how sympathetic or noble, the intentions of the dominant group are, at best, irrelevant, and, at worse, detrimental because, by definition, they can never really understand the plight of the oppressed. For that matter, members of the minority group are also complicit if they fail to see, or if they react passively to, the oppression.

This leads to another signal feature of Critical Race Theory: the imperative of narratives and lived experience. Because hegemonic power is so deeply entrenched in the material and ideational structures of society, any claim that there is objective, rational and ontological truth is fallacious. Truth is subjective and a means through which oppression is perpetuated.

For advocates of Critical Race Theory, it is the lived experience of individuals from the oppressed groups that matter, not least for the unique and authentic insights their disadvantaged status afford. As someone once put it to me: “The only ones with authority to define oppression are the oppressed themselves.”

Finally, because power, hegemony and oppression are so deeply entrenched in our society, freedom and emancipation can ultimately only be attained when prevailing systems are dismantled completely. This process begins with the liberation of the mind, as illustrated in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”.

Contemplating a Christian Response

Considering the growing appeal of Critical Race Theory in the context of the brewing controversy over race, what would a Christian response entail?

Even though Critical Race Theory emerged from a specific cultural and historical context, as an intellectual framework its claims are universal and should be treated as such. Moreover, controversial as they are, these claims should be taken seriously because they do provide one perspective on some very real problems confronting our society today.

We should begin by acknowledging that Critical Race Theory and Christianity both reject racism unequivocally. Not to put too fine a point on it, racism is, from a Christian perspective, an egregious sin. It is a sin because the Bible teaches that all humans are created equal. What is more, our identities are not our own but belong to God, in whose image we have been created and in whom we have infinite value (Gen 1:26, James 3:9).

Yet, although Critical Race Theory and Christianity may share common concern for how racism continues to bedevil society, they depart considerably from each other in the diagnosis and prognosis of the problem, not to mention the solution. While not exhaustive, the following points should guide contemplation of the matter at hand from a Christian perspective.

First, because God the Father is the creator of all things, there is objective and transcendent truth in and through Him, and this is contained in His Word. Correspondingly, true emancipation can only come about through transformation wrought by belief in God the Son and all He has accomplished by way of atoning sacrifice. Christ himself declared this: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).

Second, to the extent there is oppression and discrimination in our world—and there should be no doubt that there is—these are primarily not rooted in power but sin. The fact of the matter is that we are all sinners, and sin is certainly not limited to racial hatred and injustice. Indeed, therein lies another expression of the universal equality of man. Before God, we are all condemned if we stand on our own merit (Rom 3:9-18). To quote Miroslav Volf, we all share a “solidarity in sin”. We are all equally sinful, deserving of punishment, and in need of redemption.

Moreover, because ours is a sinful world, any effort to solve our problems sans Christ and his forgiveness is bound to falter. History is littered with the wreckage of such failed attempts. It is not for nothing that it has been proclaimed: “revolutions devour their own children”.

Third, even if oppression and discrimination is systematic, whether oppressor or oppressed, it in no way absolves us of individual responsibility. Scripture contains numerous examples of how man tries to shirk responsibility and shift blame. Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent; Job’s wife urged him to blame God. Yet personal responsibility is a virtue that Christians are exhorted to possess (Ezek 18:20).

Finally, while Critical Race Theory is predicated on an inherently adversarial relationship between oppressor and oppressed, Christians are taught exactly the opposite. We are to love our neighbours, turn the other cheek, and pray for those who persecute us. If anything, Scripture warns against the kind of suspicion promulgated by Critical Race Theory (1 Tim 6: 3-5).

Whether in Singapore, the U.S. or any other country in the world, the harsh reality is that we are not in a post-racial society, and it is not likely that we will ever get there in this vale of tears. Yet it is precisely for this reason that it behoves Christians to shine forth as salt and light of the world in how, as ambassadors for Christ, we treat our fellow man. And we do so in accordance with His teachings, which contain, in the words of Sinclair Ferguson, “deep-seated logic with a profound knowledge of the human heart”.

Dr Joseph Chinyong Liow is Tan Kah Kee Chair in Comparative and International Politics and Dean for College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences in Nanyang Technological University.