Published June 8, 2021
One of the reasons woke ideology has been successful at making inroads among Christian communities is that it feeds off the Christian precept to offer compassion and aid to the marginalized and suffering. This leads to a lot of confusion about whether or not Christians can get woke, with many seeing it as the natural outgrowth of that Christian precept. But as I write in my book, Awake, Not Woke (TAN Books), on both a human and a spiritual level, wokeness is an ideology that harms far more than helps.
It is imperative that we identify how it operates, as it often mimics Christianity, compounding the confusion. Even as society grows more secular, the woke movement seems to sense that it can grow parasitically off the residue of religion until it has replaced it.
One example of how this happens is in connection with the Christian concept of repentance. Under threat of cancelation, people caught on the wrong side of wokeness will often repeat some version of the phrase doing the work in their apology: “Yes, I see where I was wrong, and I am committed now to doing the work.”
On its face, this phrase might strike us as a harmless and even helpful indication that the offender is reflecting on his errors or harmful biases and seeking to undo and repent of them. In this light, it can be compatible with Christian habits of examination, confession, and repentance. This is likely what your nice progressive Aunt Susan thinks is all the phrase means.
Doing the work of woke re-education, however, means coming to see all facets of society through a lens of power and oppression and becoming activists in their undoing. That Aunt Susan does not see the bait-and-switch involved is crucial to the success of the movement.
Here is an incomplete list of what is ultimately involved in doing the work:
- Reframing our perspectives to see every person, event, and interaction (no matter how insignificant) through the lens of identitarian group conflict. As celebrity author and woke race guru Robin DiAngelo famously said, the question in any given human interaction is not didracism take place, but rather how did racism take place.
- Seeing all Western thought, literature, institutions, ideas, philosophies as fraught systems of oppression and colonization that must be de-centered, destabilized, and disrupted.
- Dismantling our understanding of objective moral law and intelligible bodily meaning. Our bodies can mean anything (which assumes that they mean nothing). Sexual repression is an internalized form of political oppression. According to Critical Theory, the academic underpinning of wokeness, moral principles are obstacles to personal liberation.
- Committing to silencing (in ourselves and in others) any thoughts or concerns that question the ideology. Such resistance is either false consciousness, if we are in the oppressed group, or further evidence of our complicity and privilege, if we are in the oppressor group.
- Committing not to be silent (“silence is violence”), but to use our voices only in support of woke-approved views. (The logic of 4 and 5 combined show how we devolve into compelled speech.)
- Seeing that everything is political. Friendships, family, religion, knitting, cooking, even gardening.
While the phrase doing the work is far more loaded than what a good-willed person might suppose, in a deeper way, it is astonishingly reductive. Borrowing from Marxist conflict theory, the woke break apart the world into simplistic binaries of the oppressed and the oppressors. Within any given individual, various identity combinations might mitigate or intensify his victim status and corresponding right to be heard or need to repent. How have I participated, unwittingly or not, in the sins of my ancestors or systemic webs of injustice? Or how have I been harmed by them?
Moral stature is given not according to character, but according to victimization, which creates endless motivation to uncover culprits outside oneself.
This reduction of the moral life into collectivized culpability detached from moral law is irreconcilable with the Christian faith. Though the actions at first glance might bear similarities, Catholicism is directed at reconciling the penitent to God, whereas doing the work is directed at conforming the penitent to the ideology.
The Catholic call to self-examination is both more penetrating and more personal. It is also respectful of the reality of human nature. Four guidelines helpful for confession are that the penitent should be concise, clear, complete, and concrete. These simple guidelines serve to help us see ourselves with clarity and humility.
The human desire to see ourselves and have others see us in a good light can easily corrupt our vision. We are prone to hiding our faults—to deflect, to excuse, to generalize, to conceal. We want to avoid acknowledging our sins plainly and simply. When life goes poorly, we look for anything outside ourselves to blame.
Woke ideology exploits this. Stoking anger and resentment serves well the cause of revolution. But it also obscures our understanding of God’s mercy and love. We reduce him in our imaginations to a harsh taskmaster rather than a loving father.
While we can hide for some amount of time from ourselves, we cannot hide from God. He already knows what we are—which is good and bad news. The bad news is that he knows our sins. The good news? That means that his love for us is far more sincere and intimate than we might have supposed. In knowing our need, he comes to reveal to us the depth of his love.
Woke ideology is both reductive and totalizing. It is parody of the C.S. Lewis quote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” By doing the work, we begin to see everything as signs and shadows of the power and hatred of man. Through God’s grace and the sacraments, by contrast, we begin to see everything as signs and shadows of the mercy and love of a Father.
Noelle Mering is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center