I do not generally pay much attention to Glenn Beck. On the few occasions I have stumbled across his show, I have usually changed the channel within a minute or two, genuinely perplexed that anyone can take this man seriously. But a Glenn Beck expert I am not. Perhaps he occasionally voices a good idea; I have simply yet to hear one from him.
Beck recently told his listeners that they should leave their faith communities if their church website, or priest or pastor, mentions the word “social justice.” As I believe that churches should pay more, not less, attention to issues of justice, Beck’s statement caught my attention. Figuring there must be some mistake, I decided to see what he actually said. Here it is:
Social justice was the rallying cry – economic justice and social justice – the rallying cry on both the communist front and the fascist front. That is not an American idea. And if we don’t get off the social justice / economic justice bandwagon, if you are not aware of what this is, you are in grave danger. All of our faiths – my faith, your faith – whatever your church is, this is infecting all of them.Beck added that to “preach social justice” is a “perversion of the gospel” and that if you find the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on a church website, “run as fast as you can. . . . they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”
Not surprisingly, Beck’s statements offended the sensibilities of a very large number of people who consider themselves Christian – those aligned with the Catholic Church, the Mainline Protestant churches, the historically Black churches, and a growing number of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, including many congregations with Asian-American and Hispanic majorities. All of these churches, at the leadership and congregational levels, consider social and economic justice essential components of biblical faith. Within just a few days of Beck’s comments, more than 30,000 Christian pastors and church members had written to Beck declaring themselves Christians who believe in social justice and asking Beck to reconsider his statements.
That social and economic justice are essential to the heart of the Christian faith is not really a debatable topic, however deficient individual Christians and churches often are in applying the concept. For example, a social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) declared in 1991 in a document entitled, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” that: “In faithfulness to its calling, this church is committed to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth in the processes and structures of contemporary society.” Consistent with this premise, the ELCA actively advocates before the U.S. Congress and other governmental bodies for the needs of the poor and the powerless, for increased foreign aid, and for human rights. So does the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Quakers (through the American Friends Service Committee), the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the Church of the Brethren, the Episcopal Church U.S.A., and many other denominations as diverse in their theology as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals.
The Catholic Church, in particular, has been at the forefront in advancing the causes of economic and social justice. The 1986 pastoral letter on Economic Justice issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that:
Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights. In addition to the clear responsibility of private institutions, government has an essential responsibility in this area. This does not mean that government has the primary or exclusive role, but it does have a positive moral responsibility in safeguarding human rights and ensuring that the minimum conditions of human dignity are met for all. In a democracy, government is a means by which we can act together to protect what is important to us and to promote our common values.
Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to which Beck belongs, has declared that “caring for the poor” is one of its four primary missions, on an equal footing with preaching the gospel. As noted by Mormons for Equality and Social Justice, the Book of Mormon teaches that “there should be an equality among all” (Mosiah 27:3) and calls its followers to stand against racism, gender inequity, and injustice on the principle that “black and white, bond and free, male and female...all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). It speaks harshly against inequity, exploitation, oppression, and violence (2 Nephi 20:1-2; 3 Nephi 24:5; D&C 38:26; Moses 8:28), and teaches that human beings are stewards of the earth and its resources, which should be used “with judgment, not to excess” (D&C 59:20). I am no Mormon, but this sounds pretty “social justicey” to me, Glenn.
Christians, of course, differ greatly among themselves about what social and economic justice mean when translated into political terms. But as liberal evangelical preacher Jim Wallis said in response to Beck’s ranting, “the Bible is clear: from the Mosaic law of Jubilee, to the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus Christ, social justice is an integral part of God’s plan for humanity.”
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, For the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; Defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Although Beck apparently did not address his comments to the Jewish community, the primary branches of American Judaism also embrace – often more explicitly than many Christian denominations – the concept of social justice as essential to its tradition and faith. After all, most of the biblical mandates on justice stem from the words of the Hebrew prophets, found in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, among others; from the five books of the Torah; and from the books of Proverbs and Psalms. The concepts of tzedakah ("the religious obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts"), chesed ("deeds of kindness"), and tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), place Judaism at the vanguard of religious social justice movements.
The ethic of Christian love and justice found in the New Testament Gospels is merely an extension and application of the justice portrayed and mandated in the Hebrew Scriptures and espoused by the Hebrew prophets. In Matthew 25, for example, Jesus speaks of the hungry, the homeless, the outcast, and the stranger and challenges his followers that, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” All four gospels instruct and demonstrate the clear, and sometimes radical, call for social and economic justice, for peace, for non-violence, for loving one’s neighbor, and welcoming the stranger.
Last week, in a respectful and well-stated letter, the Rev. Jim Wallis invited Beck to engage in an “open and public discussion on what social justice really means and how Christians are called to engage in the struggle for justice.” Wallis requested that they have “a civil dialogue and not engage in personal attacks on each other – which are never helpful in trying to sort out what is true.” Instead, he thought it important to sit down together and to “talk about the heart of the matter.” Beck, of course, would have none of it. He responded with threats, informing Wallis that “the hammer is coming, because little do you know, for eight weeks, we’ve been compiling information on you, your cute little organization, and all the other cute little people that are with you. And when the hammer comes, it’s going to be hammering hard and all through the night, over and over….”
Wallis reiterated that he will not engage in personal attacks on Beck, and he renewed his call for an honest and civil dialogue bereft of personal attacks. Beck again was unmoved and promised to devote an entire week of his program to exposing Wallis and the Christian “social justice” community as nothing but radical Marxists hell-bent on perverting the Bible.
Beck simply knows nothing about which he is talking. Having grown up the son of a Lutheran minister, I have personally known many Christian clergy, theologians, and committed church members, all of whom would agree that social, economic, and racial justice are integral to the message of Jesus; and not one of them is a Marxist. How anyone can read the scriptures or examine the life and teachings of Jesus and not sense that justice, mercy, and compassion – particularly to the vulnerable, poor, and marginalized – are essential to the Christian and Jewish faiths, is either ignorant, illiterate, or both.
The only people who should leave their churches or synagogues are those who believe that justice is not an integral part of their faith traditions. Justice is the very foundation of God’s creation. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. Psalm 89:14. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:17. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8. To practice justice is to act with love for all of God’s creation. Any faith community that rejects this concept has no reason for being. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. . . . Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men [and women] and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind the Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people.”
What Glenn Beck seems incapable of understanding – unless he is a complete fraud – is that, for people of faith, an essential component of bearing witness to God’s love – whether inspired by the Hebrew prophets or the life and teachings of Jesus – is working to advance the causes of peace and justice. God’s mandate, as expressed throughout the Bible, is helping those in need. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Amos 5:24. Often this is carried out by individual acts of charity. But while charity involves individual acts of justice, it does not amount to societal justice, which often requires a change in the social order. When the Church in its institutional capacity reaches out to help a person in need without acting to change the conditions which caused that need, it implies an acceptance of things as they are. The status quo is not acceptable, however, if there is a shortage of decent housing and medical care, if children are dying of starvation and disease, if innocent people in foreign lands are maimed or killed by landmines, or if the world is beset with war and violence. Christianity and Judaism command its followers to reject complacency and to do whatever one can to change conditions for the better. Sometimes this requires demanding more from our government and our large private institutions; if charity alone were sufficient, there would be no need for wider action.
Beck’s ignorance may be, in part, a reflection of the religious illiteracy of American society. I am often astonished at the lack of knowledge – on the right and the left – of the history, distinctions, diversity and complexity of American religious life. To equate social justice with Nazism or fascism, or to state that it has nothing to do with biblical faith, suggests only that Beck knows not of what he speaks. So, Mr. Beck, believe what you like and worship wherever you feel most comfortable. But when it comes to telling others what to do or believe, you may first wish to consult with the leadership and teachings of your faith tradition. You may even want to try reading the Bible sometime. But please do not expect anyone with a sound mind or a semblance of faith to listen to you.