One does not have to do much digging to discover that opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement has moved onto a new subject: critical race theory (CRT). Perhaps what we have seen in recent days as various politicians have moved to investigate school textbooks should not be referred to simply as “opposition,” but rather “hysteria.” Reactionary public figures, be they media personalities or politicians, typically summarize CRT as “teaching White children to hate themselves,” and argue that this does more harm than good. In this worldview, our society does not need these critiques.
But when we learn what CRT really is, we might conclude that the reactionaries’ condemnations are rooted in a terribly distorted version of what they oppose. I previously wrote about how the Sermon on the Mount calls us to confront racism by doing more than the bare minimum. We must resist the temptation to define down racism such that what “counts as racist behavior and rhetoric is so narrow that only avowed white nationalists and Ku Klux Klan members qualify.” Distorting what racism is blinds us; distorting what CRT is can have the same effect.
Overreacting to a distorted misunderstanding is not unique to our political arguments. It happens in the Church all the time. The common thread? Formation–or the lack of it.
I was reflecting on this recently in a very different context. I have become a devoted listener to Conan O’Brien’s podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend”–I strongly recommend subscribing, by the way–which includes interviews with public figures and Average Joes alike. The conversation topics usually revolve around experiences and lessons the host and guests have learned. In one recent episode, Conan and Kristen Schaal, famous for voicing Mabel Pines on “Gravity Falls” and Louise Belcher on “Bob’s Burgers,” talked about their religious upbringings in Christian homes. Each of them now hesitates to believe in the Christian doctrine with which they were raised, Schaal as a Lutheran and Conan as a Catholic.
Both cite challenging teachings as their reasons for not practicing, but their difficulties seemed to me to be based on misunderstandings–fairly obvious ones at that. For example, they both brought up how they were turned off by the idea of existing forever, challenging any idea of the afterlife. Hell, too, did not appeal: the idea of God damning somebody seemed inconsistent with God being all-good and all-loving. Finally, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross made them feel guilty. They remembered wondering as children how and why their actions could require Jesus to suffer.
I was fuming to myself the entire time I listened to this episode in my car–which must have been quite a sight for other drivers–frustrated because these objections are very easily answered. Living forever is not a burden in my mind. In Heaven, we will be caught up in such a state of ecstasy and joy that we will want the experience never to end (CCC 1023-1029). Hell naturally causes any believer to experience apprehension (I heard someone summarize this by saying, “If you don’t have a problem with Hell, there’s a problem with you”), but Catholics believe Hell is reserved for those who have willfully and firmly cut themselves off from God who respects human freedom. Besides, an individual’s culpability for sin is always a complicated subject, as I’ve long understood as a Catholic, so we do not say that we know any particular person is in Hell. A former college chaplain remarked that while we canonize those who are in Heaven, we have never done the equivalent for the damned. And while we emphasize “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and “there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood” (Hebrews 9:22), we also know we should not dwell on the misery and suffering of Christ on the Cross, but recognize the love of his sacrifice. My formation has led me to see in all of these areas the gift that God has given us in forgiveness; by keeping our eyes on the Risen Christ, as we should especially be doing this Easter season, we can joyfully move towards the life to come without fear or anxiety. Because of this, the faith is a source of life for me, not a burden to be rejected.
Conan and Schaal clearly had poor faith formation–which is its own pandemic–but it brought to my mind how other people with Christian formation like my own still have concluded based on poorly-formed opinions that BLM and CRT are toxic and dangerous. They were exposed to terrible summaries and expressions, often asserted by others with political agendas. They were not formed to appreciate their own responsibility for racial justice. It’s even worse to know that there are influential decision-makers who know very well that what they are promoting is garbage. Just as opponents of building a fairer and more just world have used simplistic arguments to undermine a cause they don’t understand, prominent opponents of religion, such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher have used similar arguments to dismiss the beautiful complexity of our Christian faith.
All of this makes me wonder if the opposition both to racial justice and to Christianity is rooted in the desire to remain in ignorance and avoid uncomfortable subjects. It seems universal that we would rather remain unchallenged in our understanding than adapt, change, and grow. God only knows whether this is the case. But we can rest assured that this is not strictly limited to religion, it is part of the human condition and applies to many areas in life. Perhaps this is a consolation, or maybe it’s a reason to despair. In either event, I know even more deeply that my response should be continued growth and formation so that I can better instruct the ignorant, a spiritual work of mercy that not only applies in faith but in politics as well.
Raised in Connecticut, Kevin has spent the last five years living in the Boston area. During his education at Xavier High School in Middletown, CT by the Xaverian Brothers, Kevin took an interest to theology, ranging from simple apologetics to existential literature. He is a passionate cinephile and baseball fan, anxiously awaiting the return to movie theaters and baseball stadiums, above all: Fenway Park, which is his Heaven on Earth.