Critical Race Theory: A Solution to Racism or Something Else?

With current technology and the explosion of social media, not to mention the popularity of reality tv, we are being bombarded by all kinds of video coverage and relentless commentary on sin and the depravity of man. From politics, relationship drama to police interactions with the public, we have become a people fixated on our screens via “wanting to know” what is happening in the world around us at all times. We have become a people who struggle with interacting in real time with real people, but we have endless opinions about everything we read or see on our screens.

Teenagers are using social media to live-stream their suicides and crowd after crowd of onlookers are breaking out their cell phones to record kids beating up other kids, instead of intervening to stop the violence. Many others use these same broadcasting tactics to upload a person’s death on YouTube or other social media platforms, specifically if that death was caused at the hands of police. Society and culture has become a real time “Jerry Springer” episode that we cannot look away from and everyone is being “traumatized” by it all. To add to this vicious-circle, there is currently a generation of millennial’s who have never known life without screens, causing further confusion. The divide between perceived threat and real threat has become blurred.

Our mental state and nervous system does not have the capability to be an omnipresent witness to the inundation of humanity’s sin. God did not create us to comprehend sin at the rate that we are seeing today via our screens. God alone has the strength and capacity to witness global evil and not be traumatized by it.

When we hear individuals say that they are “hurting and scared” due to witnessing the death of someone by way of social media who share their same skin color at the hands of police, they are actually experiencing secondary trauma. According to the DSM-V, one does not necessarily have to experience trauma personally, meaning the cognitive ability and nervous system reactions are triggered by being a witness to a traumatic event 1. What is rarely addressed is the reality that if an individual has a nervous system that is already easily triggered, perhaps due to growing up in a home where physical abuse was the preferred method of discipline or they’ve been exposed to other forms violence in their community, or they have been sexually abused, or they have experienced sexual violence or they have experienced domestic violence personally or grew up in a domestic violent home, they have a higher chance of experiencing increased levels of trauma after witnessing a traumatic event.

In line and on par with Genesis 3, we want someone or something to blame, other than recognizing the depravity that resides in our own heart. We fail to consider how our rewired voracious appetites to be “in the know” is damaging our mental health. We gorge our minds on the rating hungry cable networks and news sources who feed us an endless supply of selective agenda-driven trauma-inducing stories, yet we call it “staying informed”. We give a pass to those cell phone wielding offenders who would rather grow social media followers, instead of displaying true empathy and mourning for the sin they are witnessing.

The result: we turn on one another and by proxy, blame an entire demographic for that trauma, on no other basis other than color of someone’s skin.

We also want solutions. Much has been written to reinforce our sin-induced intrinsic need to blame, but most importantly, many authors and scholars seem to have settled on one solution in particular, Critical Race Theory (CRT). This theory includes terms loaded with psychological meaning and mental health consequences, like “unconscious bias”, “white fragility”, “racial trauma”, “transgenerational or intergenerational trauma”, “internalized oppression”, “deconstructing hidden motives”, “embodied lived experiences”, “traumatized oppression”, “racial blindness”, “shriveled-heart syndrome”, “popular consciousness”, “implicit bias”, to name just a few.

The language that has attached itself to Critical Race Theory is psychological language. Armed with new terms and definitions, CRT advocates who come from various fields and disciplines are taking their place as expert psychoanalysts and applying CRT as a form of therapy to solve racism with the final goal of eradicating sin. Christians are not exempt from this trend and unfortunately, many continue to coerce other Christians to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” in the name of embracing some aspects of Critical Race Theory.

This series will attempt to give Christians another perspective to look at Critical Race Theory (CRT), with the goal of helping believers identify it and understand it, from not only a cultural, sociological, or historical racial lens, but also from a counseling and objective mental health lens. There has been an uptick in many Christians expressing their concerns about their own churches teaching characteristics of CRT since many are now adopting some tenets of CRT in reaction to current events. It is becoming more and more difficult for Christians to interact with other well meaning Christians who believe that common grace 2 can cover some aspects of CRT.

Christians who have written on the topic of Critical Race Theory typically address it from either a strictly sociological/cultural lens or a historical lens or a Christian apologist lens, or a mix of the three. This work will include those same components but it will also add a psychological lens. Many Christians have argued that CRT is a multidisciplinary approach to critiquing society on the issue of racism, which it is, but many Christians don’t really understand where the approach originated from philosophically, and most importantly how it has morphed psychologically. Christians must learn how to identify and critically refute the ideas, philosophies, language as well as the psychological implications that allowed CRT to develop, especially when faced with Christian CRT proponents who advocate for some, if not all, aspects of Critical Race Theory in the church.

Critical Race Theory – The Beginning

Critical Race Theory (CRT) started to form in the mid 1970’s by lawyers, activists, legal scholars and professors due to a dissatisfaction to what they believed to be a “slow pace of racial reform” after the Civil Rights law passed in 1964 3 4.

It is important to know that CRT was a subgroup of another movement –> Critical Legal Studies, whose founding members were a group of late 1960’s Yale Law School faculty members and student activists who were radically vocal about civil rights reform at universities and the Vietnam War. 5 6. These activists matured, entered their respective careers and by the late 1970’s they developed their “anti-establishment” theory, Critical Law Theory and directed it towards the legal system 7.

One of the key leaders of the CRT wrote “critical race theory builds on the insights of two previous movements, critical legal studies and radical feminism, to both of which it owes a large debt8

The Critical Legal Studies movement claimed that 1) the law was not neutral or impartial 2) it favored those who created the law, mainly those in power and 3) it failed to support the underprivileged. These characteristics assumed an oppressor/oppressed dynamic that they believed was reinforced by the law. To get rid of this hierarchical system of oppression they sought to use the law as a tool to solve these issues. The Critical Legal Studies movement heavily borrowed ideas, inspiration, language and motivation from two very “leftist” theories, Critical Social Theory (aka: Critical Theory), which will be covered at length and American Legal Realism, which will not be covered.

Though the Critical Legal movement was specifically directed at law, it also drew from disciplines not associated with law, like political philosophies, sociology, economics, and literary theories that were driven by Karl Marx and other European revolutionary philosophers, 9 (Weber, Horkheimer, Gramsci, Focuault) 10, some of whom will be covered later. These men were known for criticizing capitalism while proposing socialistic solutions and further expounding the oppressor/oppressed framework. At this point, much of the writing coming from the Critical Legal Studies movement were white elite educated males, which was a major factor in the development of Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory drew from some of those same philosophers11, but were now promoted by minority educated elites.

Before unpacking Critical Race Theory as a psychology, it is necessary to know where the ideas came from. Enter Critical Theory, which was also appropriately known as Marxist instrumentalism 12. Many Christians might not put much value in knowing the history of these philosophical movements, events, or theories, but due to the emphasis being placed on the history of racism, we must consider what else was going on in the world that allowed racism to take root in the hearts and minds of people.

This will not be an exhaustive explanation of Critical Theory, but unfortunately, since there are many pieces to this puzzle, it is important for the Christian to know the nuts and bolts of the cognitive influences that paved the way for the eventual development of Critical Race Theory. In order to do that effectively, it is also really important to know a little bit of the cultural scene, meaning what was happening in society at the time that allowed the founders to come together to formulate and discuss these ideas. Many Christians today have been given a brief overview of Critical Theory, which included spouting out the names of the founders, but then immediately diving into Critical Race Theory. This is understandable because of relevancy, meaning CRT is what churches are currently wrestling with right now, especially since many books being recommended in the church today have an underlying theme of CRT. However, we don’t want to miss the very important how’s and why’s the founders of Critical Theory developed their ideas to begin with.

Next up: Part 1 will cover some of the founders and their philosophies.

Sexual Abuse, Brain Changes and the Gospel

Years ago, when I worked at a crisis center for children, a five-year-old girl was brought in after being removed from her home due to allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of her caregivers, specifically, her mother’s boyfriend. Within days of her arrival, the counselors placed her on “watch” due to her habit of rubbing her genitals on table legs, chair legs and would attempt to rub her genitals on the legs of adult male care-workers after she demanded to sit on their laps. It became apparent that her abuser groomed her to the point of making her believe that love and affection were only evident through manipulation of her genitals through constant friction. Sexual abuse not only changed the way she interacted with the world around her, but also changed how she viewed herself in relation to her environment, the people close to her, and created sexual pathology that would take years of treatment to undo. Damage was done. It was not initially obvious, but like cancer, it was hidden, deep in the crevices of her brain, and emerged as she interacted with others.

Child maltreatment in any form is one of the leading causes of mental illness and behavioral dysfunction in children today. One study reveals that all forms of abuse account for higher rates of childhood onset psychiatric disorders (Teicher, 2016). It often goes undetected until the abuse becomes extreme to the point that someone notices changes to a child’s body or emotional state, which then authorities are called. Typically it is a third party that calls authorities and parents are then reported to Child Protective Services, in worse case scenarios, the children are then taken out of the home and placed in either a temporary shelter, group home or foster home.

Child abuse takes the shape of many forms, including but not limited to various manifestations of verbal, physical or sexual. Sadly, survivors of child abuse, in any form, have higher adult rates of overall body inflammation, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, heart disease, shortened telomeres (Teicher, 2016), which are caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect chromosomes and effects how one ages. They are the aging clocks for our cells and represent biological age, not chronological age. Studies have indicated a strong correlation between short telomeres and how our cells age, most often shown through the immune system. (What Is A Telomere? 2018). The immune system is most affected by shortened telomeres, which reduces life expectancy (Teicher, 2016).

With that said, in order to determine what mechanisms are involved in creating the biophysical changes that affect overall health, researchers have look at the connection between abuse, brain changes, and psychiatric illnesses. By looking at one of the stress susceptible parts of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, we can get a better picture of what goes on when sexual abuse occurs.

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) using various descriptions that cover wide universal criteria.

1) involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend

2) child is unable to give informed consent

3) child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent

4) sexual behavior towards the child that violates the laws or social taboos of society and includes children and adolescents. (Amado, 2015).

Current research shows that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before the child turns 18 years old. (Grossman-Scott, 2017). One study shows that child and adolescent sexual abuse is directly tied to higher incidence rates of major depressive disorder, dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder), generalized anxiety disorder and phobic disorders, (Amado, 2015), as well as conduct disorders (Maniglio, 2013).

One study revealed that sexual abuse stayed in the mind longer, even after victims received treatment or seemed to recover from childhood sexual trauma. For patients who sustained and recovered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), who previously experienced childhood sexual trauma, they began experiencing reemerging memories to the point of exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, even after years of nonoccurrence. These symptoms included “flashbacks of the abuse, behavioral and affective disturbances, nightmares, and hyper-vigilance”.

Due to the TBI, the cognitive, affective, behavioral and sensory-motor sequences are disrupted and residual effects of childhood sexual abuse alarmingly reemerge, hindering “post-injury rehabilitation and life functioning” (Reeves, et all, 2000). The effects of childhood sexual abuse type trauma seem to stay locked in the brain of the victim longer than what is assumed, making further research on this issue crucial to help with either proper rehabilitation or better coping mechanisms.

Hippocampus:

The hippocampus has a left side and a right side. It’s a small portion of the brain within the inner folds of the bottom middle part of the brain called the temporal lobe, making up a very small percentage of overall brain capacity. It is part of the limbic system that controls emotions, learning, and memory. It is responsible for the proper functioning of the endocrine system and is the main mechanism that controls fight or flight reactions to environmental stress.

It contains place cells that help with understanding place, geographical routes, and their associated experiences (Teicher, 2016). It is also responsible for interpreting auditory information and reaches 85% of its volume by the age of 4 (Blanco et all, 2015). The hippocampus is filled with glucocorticoid receptors that are easily damaged by too many glucocorticoids, specifically cortisol, which means if this area becomes overpopulated with its contents, it can lead to other areas to function improperly. Most importanlty, an atrophied hippocampus has less overall cortisol.

Studies have proven over time (Vythilingam et all 2002, and Tiecher, 2016) the same results, that individuals who have a history of PTSD brought on by severe or repeated childhood physical and/or sexual abuse have considerably smaller hippocampus volume, most noticeably on the left side (Tiecher 2016), when they are compared to others who have no history of childhood abuse of any kind.

Psychology Today published an article titled Cortisol and PTSD in 2016. It states:

One of the things that cortisol does in response to stress is that it helps contain the catecholamine system—it helps bring down the high levels of adrenaline that are released during fight or flight. Since we all know that adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for memory formation and arousal, not having enough cortisol to completely bring down the sympathetic nervous system, at the time when it is very important for a person to calm down, may partially explain the formation of traumatic memory or generalized triggers

It’s important to note that only the left side is shown to be smaller. The right side of the hippocampus does not show signs of atrophy and is responsible for learning and non-verbal memory (Blanco et all, 2015).

However, normal right side hippocampus measurements do not equate to fully functioning, nor does it show that the right side was not affected by the abuse. One researcher (Bremner 2003), was able to show that childhood sexual abuse survivors diagnosed with PTSD as adults, who listened to accounts of their sexual abuse, showed reduced blood flow in the right side of the hippocampus (Blanco et all, 2015). This reduced blood flow is not evidenced in individuals who were not abused, proving that despite the right side being normal in size, that alone does not equate to fully functioning and healthy, validating that childhood sexual abuse somehow alters and weakens brain functioning, even if there are no noticeable signs of atrophy or deformity in certain areas.

Some studies show that women are more susceptible to having a smaller hippocampus as a result of sexual abuse trauma but that is not always the case, showing that it affects both genders. Regardless of the gender and/or frequency of the effect on either gender, a smaller hippocampus precipitated by childhood abuse has been established, with many researchers throughout the last several years coming to the same conclusion.

Interestingly, not all who have smaller hippocampus volumes due to childhood abuse will go on to develop psychopathology, proving that there are some individuals that are more resilient, either during childhood or as they aged and matured.

The effects of childhood sexual abuse do not produce obvious signs of disease or an easily diagnosed syndrome using a list of potential criteria but it does alter brain structure as well as brain function. Not all trauma affects the brain in the same way and there are “specific types of abuse that seem to target sensory systems and pathways that convey and process aversive experiences” (Teicher, 2016), and childhood sexual abuse seems to show the most significant alterations in the brain (Blanco, 2014).

It is clear that childhood sexual abuse or trauma do not end once the trauma ends. Lasting consequences are negatively seen in an individual’s cognition, behavior, and lack of psychological health (Blanco, 2014). According to many research studies, researchers are coming to the same conclusion, that is, childhood sexual abuse victims do show signs of deficits in

1) attention

2) abstract reasoning

3) executive functioning.

These abuse victims also have a greater propensity to be impulsive in their behavior, have some degree of intellectual and/or verbal impairment, as well as show signs of lowered academic achievement or performance (Blanco, 2014).

Victims have also been known to engage in maladaptive coping strategies like

1) substance abuse

2) self-injury behavior

3) over and under sexualized behavior

and also show symptoms and behavior of pathology that include

1) dissociative behavior

2) aggressive behavior

3) low self-esteem or lowered self-worth (Blanco, 2014).

These pathological type behaviors and maladaptive coping strategies can be carried over into adulthood, potentially causing lifelong effects that are evidenced through “anxiety, depression, academic/occupational difficulties, unhealthy partner relationships and lastly, sexual dysfunction” (Blanco, 2014).

The Gospel:

Recently, a prominent theologian declared in a Tweet “We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God”.

Looking at the research in this article proves why the pastor who wrote this Tweet was wrong and why pastors must use discernment when attempting to diagnose outside of their theological scope of practice.

Personally experiencing chronic childhood trauma in the form of physical and emotional abuse, witnessing three drive-by shooting deaths before the age of 10, and being raped in my late teens, I exhibited much of the maladaptive coping skills outlined above that only exacerbated as I got older.

After my God-initiated conversion to a saving faith in Christ as an adult, the effects and consequences of my childhood trauma did not automatically erase. It was troubling for me to be “on fire for the Lord” yet not understand why I had certain negative thoughts, why I reacted in specific ways towards others, struggled with understanding basic concepts, became overwhelmed easily, and struggled with following through on certain tasks or goals in life. In other words…..why couldn’t I get my Christian act together?

Seeing and savoring the beauty of Christ was enough to give me peace about my overall life circumstances but having clear sight and valuing true beauty in Jesus, did not change the size of my hippocampus, nor did it change the other aspects of trauma that occurred in my brain as a result of my own childhood trauma, regardless of how much I stared at the beauty and strength of God.

Pastors or fellow Christians who fail to understand the effects of childhood trauma will do more harm than good when they attempt to counsel people to simply “have more faith” or do more outwardly spiritual behavior to prove they are indeed “Christian enough”.

Faith alone means just that. Faith. Alone.

It is our faith alone in Christ that sustains us while we live with and through the effects of the sin done to us as children or the trauma we witnessed or experienced. We do not need reminders to have more faith or stop staring in the mirror of our problems, because truth be told, even if our faith is the size of a mustard seed, Christ is there, moving mountains.

For professing Christians who have childhood trauma or sexual abuse in their histories, reading God’s Word is not just a good idea or a box to check off a Christian to do list, but rather it, becomes a lifeline necessary to survive, to inhale, to exhale, to let it seep into the marrow of our bones and souls, in order to not drown due to the waves that keep throwing us against the rocks.

Verses like Psalms 46:1-3 becomes a balm.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling

Charles Spurgeon said,

“I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me up against the Rock of Ages”

Understanding that the biopsychosocial consequences of childhood trauma could very well last a lifetime, victims must learn how to kiss the waves of suffering and trauma simply and only because it is through that suffering and trauma that individuals will be continually thrown against the Rock of Ages.

Psalms 71:3 says

Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress

Isaiah 26:3-4

You will keep the mind that is dependent on you in perfect peace,
for it is trusting in you. Trust in the Lord forever, because in the Lord, the Lord himself, is an everlasting rock

As hard as it is to hear about the evil that occurs towards children, we cannot turn a blind eye to its effects nor can we use Christian-ese platitudes when dealing with those affected by childhood sexual abuse. Loving our neighbors well means truly understanding what they are going through as well as loving them through harder seasons of life.

References
Blanco, L., Nydegger, L. A., Camarillo, G., Trinidad, D. R., Schramm, E., & Ames, S. L. (2015). Neurological changes in brain structure and functions among individuals with a history of childhood sexual abuse: A review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 57, 63-69. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.07.013

Reeves, R. H., Beltzman, D., & Killu, K. (2000). Implications of traumatic brain injury for survivors of sexual abuse: A preliminary report of findings. Rehabilitation Psychology, 45(2), 205-211. doi:10.1037//0090-5550.45.2.205

Teicher, M. H., & Samson, J. A. (2016). Annual Research Review: Enduring neurobiological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(3), 241-266. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12507

What is a Telomere? | Human Cellular Aging | TA-65 TA Sciences. (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2018, from https://www.tasciences.com/what-is-a-telomere/

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