Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beck's Call: The Conversation About Social Justice Christianity

I am admittedly long overdue in writing about the controversy that Glenn Beck launched when he called on Christians to leave churches that preached social justice. It seems, however, that I am not as belated as I thought, because the conversation is still going on. More on that later.

A little context: In his show on March 3, 2010, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck made the following proclamation to his religiously inclined viewers:
"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!"
And it continued. Understandably, many churches were incensed and the progressive evangelical Christian magazine Sojourners launched a campaign telling their readers to "turn themselves in" to Beck, proclaiming, "I am a social justice Christian." They got several thousand signatures the first night...and the next day on his show, Beck went even further:
Where I go to church, there are members that preach social justice as members–my faith doesn’t–but the members preach social justice all the time. It is a perversion of the gospel. … You want to help out? You help out. It changes you. That’s what the gospel is all about: You.
"A perversion of the gospel." Right. That phrase, combined with Beck's equating social justice Christianity to communism, Marxism, Nazism, and totalitarian government sparked articles and conversations across the faith spectrum. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis invited Beck to a conversation about the relationship between social justice and Christian faith-- an invitation to which Beck has still not replied. After early April, the topic largely disappeared-- but now it is back with the FOX host's latest claim that the government was forcing churches to preach a "religion of environmental and social justice."

I don't pretend to understand Beck's motivation for launching on this particular tirade any more than I understand why people bother putting vegetables on pizza (I'm just saying, you lose a lot of health value when you load veggies up with grease. You want vegetables, eat a salad). For all I know, he could be sincere in this criticism or he could be just trying to stir things up. But as long as there are those who take people like Beck seriously, I take him seriously. Most of the time I can shrug it off when Beck goes off on a tirade, but this time he is criticizing something that forms the essence of what I believe.

Let me be very clear: I believe the passage in Ephesians that says salvation is by grace, through faith. However, I do not believe that this is an excuse to shrug off the problems of the world around us. My chaplain pointed out in a sermon a few weeks ago that God does not promise to raise us to a new creation in another dimension or something, but to "make all things new" in this world-- which means that we have to care about the world we live in now (side note: I highly recommend reading that sermon, not only for the spiritual and intellectual content but for the excellent references to Star Trek, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones). I believe in the profession made in the Epistle of James: "Faith without works is dead."

Perhaps this is where my own more liberal inclinations come into play. I suspect even someone like Beck might agree with me on the need to pair faith with good works. However, I believe that Christians are responsible to work on a larger scale to make a difference in the problems of poverty, environmental degradation, and more. It's not enough to change your lightbulbs to be more energy efficient, or put a $5 bill in a homeless man's cup. I believe that the government has the responsibility to "ensure domestic tranquility" and "promote the general welfare," as the Preamble to the constitution says. Poverty reduction, environmental justice, health care-- these are all concepts that directly relate to "the general welfare."

Jim Wallis articulated the problem with Beck's claim about social justice Christianity very well in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post.
Private charity, which Beck and I are both for, wasn't enough to end the slave trade in Great Britain, end legal racial segregation in America, or end apartheid in South Africa. That took vital movements of faith which understood the connection between personal compassion and social justice. Those are the movements that have inspired me and shaped my life -- not BIG GOVERNMENT. And my allies in faith-based social justice movements have wonderfully different views on the role of government -- some bigger than mine and some smaller than mine -- but we all believe social justice requires changing both personal choices and unjust structures. Apparently Beck thinks social justice ends with private charity, but very few churches in the nation would agree with him.
Now, I personally admittedly go a bit farther than Wallis in my views (if you read through his whole article, you'll see), but I agree with his notion that it is important to work from the bottom up-- changing yourself first and moving to a smaller local level, and then beyond. Personal first, policies later. But the unjust structures of government have to be changed if a real difference is going to be made in this country and especially around the world. I worked for a small Catholic social justice lobby last spring, and part of the appeal of their organization for me is that they took both a top-down and bottom-up approach to helping the global poor. They had missionaries in the field helping with day to day needs of the people, and also people like myself in Washington, advocating for change in the structures that contributed to that level of poverty. It was a remarkable experience because of the power of that context (I expect I will write more on my experiences with that organization soon).

For now, though, let me just say this: by what he said about social justice Christianity, Glenn Beck challenged me to defend why I believe that this kind of activism is an integral part of my faith, and for that I am of course grateful. But he is wrong in encouraging Christians to leave churches that preach social justice-- and if people listened, he would be forcing a mass exodus from a majority of mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic churches around the United States. Social justice Christians have made a real difference in creating a better world. Don't believe me? Take a look at William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade in England, or Martin Luther King in America's civil rights movement.

Read More:
-Glenn Beck Declares War on United Methodists
-Jim Wallis: What Glenn Beck Doesn't Understand About Biblical Social Justice
-Take Action: Tell Glenn Beck: I'm a Social Justice Christian
-Glenn Beck Responds: Social Justice is a 'Perversion of the Gospel'
-Glenn Beck Attacks Churches on Climate Change
-Mark Schaefer: Wiping Away Every Tear

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