For those of you who aren't aware, Glenn Beck said the following on his recent TV program, setting off quite a furor among Christians around the world:
"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!"
As soon as the issue came up, I watched the show in question in its entirety. As far as my personal opinion goes, I can't put it much better than Scot McKnight, with a couple of caviats. What Glenn Beck said was way over the top. Having said that, fairness requires that a couple of things be pointed out that haven't been thus far in the media or the Christian blogs I've read…in all likelihood because they didn't watch the entire program.
- Beck never said helping the poor is something Christians should avoid. That's what continues to be said all over the internet and even in the papers. In my view, it's not intellectually honest for people to say he did. He never said it literally or even implied it. When one watches the episode in its entirety, it's obvious his point is what he perceives to be some form of thought-control and invasion of political correctness into Christian churches passing as doctrine. His concern, misguided as it may be, is that churches will preach that unless you support left-wing political agendas, you are not acting or thinking Christianly.
- The reason Glenn Beck seemed to be saying Christians should leave churches who preach "social justice" is because he believes that "social justice" = liberal policy agenda, and once someone puts the Jesus label on political agendas, Christians aren't allowed to disagree with that agenda any more. He sees social/economic justice as "code words" for Jeremiah Wright (who he mentions by name) – like views of the world. He doesn't associate the term "social justice" with Jim Wallis, World Vision, etc. That's a crime of perspective and ignorance, not malice.
- The skewering of Beck by Christians as a person who has never read the Bible, an idiot (or much worse) and making fun of His Mormonism isn't a very good argument against his point that Christian social justice advocates won't allow people to think differently than they do about the economic justice policy issues…and it frankly isn't a sterling testimony to Christianity at all.
I know quite a few leaders in Churches of Christ who believe that very thing. They believe, for instance, if one isn't for the Obama Health Care Reform plan, one isn't for social justice and is missing the very heart of the Gospel. I don't think that, but a good number of my friends do. I don't believe they are idiots, unchristian, enablers, dunderheads, unspiritual, lunatics, missing the heart of the Christian faith, or worse. In fact, often, when I have the patience to do so, I can often let the dust settle and learn from them. This should happen both ways.
Among the questions we should ask ourselves when an issue like this comes up is,
- "Do we actually have a good grasp on what biblical social justice is?"
- "How much of our view of justice is in fact shaped more by politics or personal bias than by the Holy Spirit?"
- How do we understand and help our fellow Christians understand, embrace and act for real justice?
- Are my attitudes and actions toward the one I'm angry with (Glenn Beck in this case), consistent with the gospel?
While I personally disagree with nearly everything Glenn Beck said in his soliloquy, he was correct in one thing. "Justice" has become a word that is used far too cheaply and used too often to mean Jesus taught my personal social agenda…especially by preachers. We don't want "justice" to become code for something. We want it to stand on its own as the biblical mandate. The only way we're going to keep "justice" from falling on the same hard times that "love" has is by not using it cheaply or inaccurately.
I wrote about our frivolous use of "justice" in a blog post last August, in the shadow of the early-release of terrorist Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi. He was convicted in 2001 on all 270 counts of murder and given a life sentence. He served 8 years before being released for reasons of "justice"–according to the Scottish minister of Justice. Al-Megrahi was dying of terminal prostate cancer. Here is an excerpt:
Justice has fallen on hard times lately. "Justice" is thrown around almost as carelessly as "love" is. It's probably even harder to recognize. Justice today seems to be in the eye of the beholder. To the Scottish minister of justice, justice was to release a man convicted of murdering 270 people out of compassion. If your father was on that plane, you are likely to see it a bit differently–and be outraged by the jubilation Libyan crowds showed upon Megrahi's return.
It's become a slippery term. Justice for who? And, can justice be had for some if it creates injustice for others?
Justice is a bible word, and thus it's defined by God, not by humankind. That's what will ultimately save us from our self-interested definitions and applications of it. In the mean time, we need to take our anger and frustrations to the Lord, asking for His justice to reign–and offer our willingness to serve Him in that pursuit.
We Christians must tread carefully with our nomenclature, particularly as we quote biblical passages that support our view of "justice." Justice is a biblical principle that we are called to uphold and seek earnestly. But, we need to remain humble enough to understand that sometimes our view of justice is shaped by our own politics, our own interests, and our own sin–not God.
This doesn't mean that justice is strictly in the eye of the beholder–or that it can't be had. It means that because only God's judgment is pure, we seek justice with humility. We don't stamp the "J" word on every opinion we have–whether it be health-care reform, economic policy or verdicts in the courtroom. Sometimes "justice" to me turns out to simply be my politics or view of how I wish things were. Other times, I'm closer the mark. Sometimes, perhaps even dead on. To me, justice was destroyed in the case of Ali al-Megrahi. I'm pretty sure I'm right.
But, justice will not always be attainable on this earth. That won't keep me from pursuing it. God has called me to.
To Glenn Beck, I say, Christians cannot opt out of real social justice. It's something Christ calls us to work for. A Christian shouldn't leave a church that teaches social justice. They should leave a church that doesn't.
To the church I say, don't prove Glenn Beck right. Keep our use of "social justice" within the biblical riverbanks, and allow for some freedom of dialogue as to how justice is sought and done. Seek social justice with humility. In all things, love.
As always, I welcome your feedback.