I’d really like to see this matter be laid to rest.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that there’s been some recent controversy over some remarks made by Glenn Beck. The remarks in question originated on his March 2 radio program, where he made this statement:
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! If I’m going to Jeremiah’s Wright’s church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell them, “Excuse me are you down with this whole social justice thing?” I don’t care what the church is. If it’s my church, I’m alerting the church authorities: “Excuse me, what’s this social justice thing?” And if they say, “Yeah, we’re all in that social justice thing,” I’m in the wrong place. (Glenn Beck, radio show, March 2)
“Code words?” The point was driven home on his television program, where he held up Nazi and Communist flags to punctuate the connection between “social justice” and totalitarianism.
The response from evangelical Christianity has been both diverse and fierce, and I wanted to give you a taste of the many, many voices that have been raised on this issue. Mind you, I am not critiquing Beck for his politics; that’s a job for a different writer. I simply wish to address the issues raised with clarity and honesty.
ACROSS THE SPECTRUM
On one end of the spectrum is a reaction recorded in a recent CNN article:
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a Christian college in Virginia, says Jesus wasn’t interested in politics. He says that those pastors who preach economic and social justice “are trying to twist the gospel to say the gospel supported socialism.”
“Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor’s hand and give it to the poor,” Falwell says.
Falwell says that Jesus believed that individuals, not governments, should help the poor.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the voice of Jim Wallis who, according the same CNN article, is calling for Christians to boycott Beck’s program. His response to Beck’s statements were as follows (emphasis added):
“What he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show,”
An article in Christianity Today reported on Wallis’ desire to appear on Beck’s program to discuss the issue. Beck’s only response thus far was to call Wallis “a leftist,” “an operative for the Democratic Party,” “an apologist communist for atrocities in Cambodia and Vietnam,” and “a dedicated foe of capitalism.”
Meanwhile countless other voices have spoken out declaring the importance of social justice throughout scripture and church history. The National Association of Evangelicals has even gone as far as to suggest that the Bible does seem to suggest the rights of governments – not churches, contrary to Falwell’s statement – to care for the poor, citing such Biblical texts as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.
On his blog, Scot McKnight offers some excellent insight into this very issue, with numerous texts supporting the importance of social justice. He raises an important question:
“Are you seeing an increasing connection of libertarianism with the Bible? Do you think the Bible is anti-government mandated care for the poor? Do you see a radical voluntarism as the biblical model for caring for the poor?”
McKnight argues that some texts speak quite strongly of the role of the government in social action.
Darrell Bock of Dallas Seminary posts on the distinction between “social justice” and the “social gospel,” his point being that even if social work is not synonymous with the gospel, scripture still emphasizes the need to pursue justice. Bock concludes (and let’s forgive him his typos – he’s graded my papers so graciously I might as well give something back):
“…let’s not let Christian virtue get captured in ideological political rhetoric of cultural wars that take peopel away from the call of the gospel to be socially sensitive. Let’s be sure we read and listen to the prophets John the Baptist and Jesus. May political commentators giving advice to members of the church be sure and read their Bible first and not oversimplify what God asks of people who serve him. Yes, the gospel is about salvation of the soul, but service to the world and caring for justice and the poor grows out of responding properly to God. Once again what some want to make either-or is actually a both-and when bibically defined. Let’s not villify with political associations of communism or socialism a concern and compassion Jesus asks of people who love their neighbor, part of what Jesus called the greatest commandment.”
NAVIGATING THE VOICES
It’s a sticky issue. On the one hand, the responses I’ve mentioned have all been in agreement that social justice is a Biblical mandate, the disagreement seems to be what form or priority this mandate should take. Falwell seems to relegate it to individuals and churches, while Wallis calls social justice “the very heart of our Christian faith.”
The statements of Beck and Wallis are quite equally wrong though for opposite reasons. A full understanding of the issue requires both Biblical fidelity and historical responsibility.
First, we must be clear that the Bible teaches social justice. The prophets hit this subject especially hard, repeatedly emphasizing the justice of God.
“…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17)
“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Jesus Himself read from the prophets at the beginning of his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
I don’t know how to “spiritualize” that. Nor can I read Jesus’ prescription for us to imitate the behavior of the Good Samaritan without an understanding of the Christian duty to reach out to the broken.
Later in the Greek testament, Jesus’ half-brother James acknowledged that “true religion” is helping the “widows and orphans” (James 1:27).
The “greatest commandment” in Luke 10 is to love God and our neighbor. John asks, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)
These are words that should make hypocrites of us all.
To be fair, how social justice is brought about is a matter of debate – historically as well as presently. But these are questions of application, not the interpretation of passages that make the point so clearly.
But we must be good students of history. As Bock points out, social justice is not the same thing as the gospel, a point we must be very clear on.
The reason such clarity is necessary is that in the past century there have been those who have taken verses such as I’ve mentioned above and reduced the gospel into something that is only social. This was the error that affected much of mainline protestantism (Lutherans, Methodists, etc.) and some strands of liturgical traditions (so much so that today mainline protestant denominations are often called “social justice Christians”).
While the effects of this error have been felt in some locales more than others, the results are the same: a movement away from the cross as personal redemption, and a movement toward the cross as a victory over the systemic sins that cause injustice as well as a symbol of Christ’s solidarity with the poor.
Both of the above statements are true (though deserve more clarification that I presently have time…) but both miss the most important elements of the gospel, forgiveness and relationship. This is why Wallis is wrong to call it the “heart of the Christian faith.” It is a vital component of it, but certainly does not supercede the need for personal redemption.
SHOULD YOU LEAVE YOUR CHURCH?
If your church is preaching a message of forgiveness of sins but makes no effort to reach beyond its walls, then this is a church that needs to change.
If your church is reaching out but fails to communicate the forgiveness offered through Jesus, then this is also a church that needs to change.
The former is wrong for minimizing the call to social action, and the latter is wrong for ignoring the call for personal salvation.
Should you leave? Maybe. But certainly not without a good, long talk with your church leadership. If your church is gospel centered, it may be that your pastor would love to see someone take the initiative behind an outreach project. If your church has lost this focus, it may be time to look elsewhere; I actually have known several families who have abandoned mainline protestantism for the very reasons I’ve listed, and as much as I want to be respectful of various traditions, I couldn’t be happier to see them in environments that embrace a holistic gospel that offers forgiveness for the individual while maintaining sensitivity to the needs of the world.
Let’s remember something else: Glenn Beck is not a Christian, meaning he needs our prayers far more than he needs our criticisms.
Which means that while it is very tempting to respond by finger-pointing and name-calling, such reactionary tendencies are hardly emblematic of the Biblical call to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:22). A friend posted on her Facebook page a relevant quote: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle”.
Responding to this mentality requires both love and integrity.
Love is necessary because we are called to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). Conduct reveals character, and as Christians our character is a reflection of Christ. Don’t ruin His reputation through hostile, reactionary behavior.
Integrity is necessary because the issue is so volatile. Proverbs tells us not to “speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words.” (23:9) and not to “reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (9:8)
When disagreements turn disagreeable, it might be time to just let them have the last word and be done with it, because being “right” isn’t as important as being redemptive.
FURTHERING THE CONVERSATION
I hope I’ve said something helpful. And hopefully this helps you understand the issues in play.
It’s well worth mentioning that there is an excellent video series on this very issue, one that churches may find helpful.
It is a six part series called “Seek Social Justice” and is available through their website: Seek Social Justice.
The video series features such leaders as Chuck Colson, Al Mohler, Sean Litton of the International Justice Mission, and others, making it an excellent, timely resource.