Thursday, March 11, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

The other day on his show, Glenn Beck had some "advice" for his listeners and viewers...and subsequently revealed his complete ignorance of Christianity:
"I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

Later, Beck held up cards, one with a hammer and sickle and other with a swastika. "Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That's what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: 'social justice.' They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy."
So, to recap, churches that preach social justice are communists and/or Nazis.

One pastor has been very gracious in his response to Beck's comments. I'm afraid I won't be as kind. You see, if social justice is communist, I guess that means that large chunks of the Bible are communist. In the Levitical law, for instance, the Israelites are given these instructions:
"'When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.'" (Leviticus 23:22)
There are many other references to caring for the poor and the immigrant in the Torah; it is essential to how the Israelites are meant to live.

Many of the Old Testament prophets urge the people of Israel and Judah to care for the poor as well. Consider this well-known passage from Amos 5:21-24:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals, I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
In the prophets over and over and over again, the people are told to turn from selfish ways of living that ignore the plight of the poor, the orphan, and the widow. But I guess that's just communist-Nazi talk.

But surely Jesus never alluded to social justice, right?
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:34-40)
Oh. Crap. But there's nothing else, is there?
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:16-21)
This is to say nothing of Christian movements throughout history such as those of St. Francis, John Wesley, the New England Congregationalists, and Martin Luther King, all of which had a strong social justice component to their messages. Helping the poor was essential to each of these movements, and couldn't be separated out as something extra.

There are some who may differentiate between government sponsorship of justice issues and private or independent social justice movements. I've read the argument that that is the distinction under which Beck may be operating himself. But I've not seen or read any indication that this is the case. Plus, I'm not convinced that the two can really be separated, with the former demonized and the latter lifted up. Should a country not pursue justice for its own people?

If social justice is separated out from Christianity, then we aren't left with very much. If all we're meant to be about as Christians is the defense of right doctrine, going to church every week, and occasionally speaking out about the latest cultural war issue, then Christianity doesn't have much to offer the world at all. And I bet that 99 times out of 100, if one tries to argue back that "Of course, we have something to offer the world! We offer salvation through Jesus!," then the person to whom you're talking may ask, "But what difference does that make in my life today?"

In addition, if we truly believe that Christians shouldn't be about social justice, then Amos' words quoted above are directed at us.