Why Social ‘Justice’ Isn’t Enough; or In Reluctant Pseudodefense of Glenn Beck

March 13th, 2010

I watched Glenn Beck’s foolish statement about “social justice” and the ensuing outcry with mixed reaction.   I agree with what motivates the outcry, mostly.  And I agree that Beck said something foolish. On the other hand, he didn’t say the foolish thing that most people seem to think he did.  (Some people came back with “He doesn’t understand the gospel,” “He doesn’t think we need to care for the poor,” etc.)

That puts me in the reluctant position of sort-of defending someone whose wild, dramatic antics & outrageous rhetoric generally bug me.

Three basic points:

  1. The Christian call. If your Christianity doesn’t move you to action–caring for people and working to fix injustices around you, then you’re not following Christ well.
  2. The term “Social Justice”. It’s strange to use “social justice” as the overarching term for social action. Sometimes, we mean ”compassion” or “love”–not “justice”.  If you only seek justice, you’re not all that you should.
  3. What Beck said. That strangeness of terminology was partly behind Beck’s statement.  He still said a couple foolish things, but he didn’t say anything like “Social action isn’t for Christians.”

The Christian call

Of course the Bible calls us to act, both Old and New Testament.

The prophets called us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Jesus fleshed out the Golden Rule in multiple ways–the Good Samaritan, “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me“, etc.  James pointed out the hypocrisy & vileness of religion that doesn’t care for the poor.  In Proverbs, the king is told:

Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

The term “Social Justice”

On the other hand, it’s strange to call it “justice” when you feed & clothe someone in need.

“Compassion” and “love” and “mercy”, yes.  But “justice” seems to assume that I’m acting to correct a wrong done against them.  When the Old Testament prophets cried out against injustice for the poor, in all the passages I’ve seen, the poor were being cheated.  (The prophets weren’t, as this pastor reads Amos, talking about our responsibility to care for the poor–not when they called for justice.)

Yes, sometimes, people are in need because they were abused & cheated of their rights.  Then it’s a justice issue.  But that’s hardly the case all the time.  And if we see a starving man or freezing homeless person who got there by their own choices, we should hardly turn them away with, “Sorry, you’re just getting what you deserve–and my mission is justice.  I’m going to go help that other guy who was cheated.”

Justice prevents people from being cheated, and it rights wrongs.  Compassion gives wherever there’s need.

And maybe you think I’m wrong. Maybe you want to argue that compassion for the needy is always a matter of justice, in biblical terms. (Like Scott McKnight did here–not persuasively, in my opinion.)  Just realize that we’re not disagreeing about the call to love & serve–but about how to describe it.

What Beck said.

I want to defend Beck this far:  He did not say to leave a church that teaches people to care for the poor and to work for justice in society.  On the contrary, he said the gospel does require us to care for people.  As I read it, Beck mostly said:

  1. The terms “social justice” and “economic justice” always mean socialist governmental policy, versus personal action.
  2. You should leave a church that advocates governmental redistribution of wealth.

I have some agreement and some objections on both ideas.

What about the past association of the phrase? In my past experience, most people who used the phrase were also advocating left-wing economic policy:  Government-based distribution of aid.  Conservatives who cared about the issue didn’t use the phrase, and pursued different solutions:  More focus on private & grass-roots charity & relief efforts.

So the term did tend to imply government-enforced redistribution of wealth.  A more “socialist” solution.

But I’ve seen it change.  The phrase is used more broadly these days.  You can’t make the automatic association.  (On the other hand, I’m not sure about the term “economic justice”. It’s not used as much.)

What about leaving a church?

It’s foolish to suggest leaving a church because they use a phrase.  What about leaving it because of political advocacy?

I don’t have a cohesive conclusion on this, but here are a few thoughts:

  • A church should be teaching biblical principles, including our responsibility to pursue justice & compassion.
  • That calls for personal action.  Sometimes it implies political action.
  • But advocating particular government policies?  That gets more dicey.  More questionable.
  • You shouldn’t assume “We need to care for people” implies that it’s good to do it through taxes.  Maybe it is, but maybe not.  Someone can oppose government programs without being a selfish nasty rich person who doesn’t want to help people.
  • Politics shouldn’t be the driving focus for a church, whether it’s left-wing or right-wing politics. (Members of the church might be focused on it, but politics isn’t what a church gathers for.)
  • There needs to be room for political disagreement in a church. As a friend of mine put it, “Christians should still respect one another and worship God together if they have a differing opinion on, say, universal health care.”

Wrap-up

Christ does call us to act.  Social action isn’t limited to “justice”, but also “compassion”.  I wish people wouldn’t say “social justice” when that means “care for those in need”.  Beck went too far and said something foolish, but he didn’t say everything that people are criticizing him for.

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10 Responses to “Why Social ‘Justice’ Isn’t Enough; or In Reluctant Pseudodefense of Glenn Beck”

  1. to do justice… Is that why Jesus said: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

    If justice means what you have defined it to be, Jesus was a sinner.

    “You should leave a church that advocates governmental redistribution of wealth.”

    And you disagree? So, you would rewrite the commandment as: “You shall help the government steal your neighbor’s goods? So then, it is not a matter of political disagreement but one of denial of the Scripture as the rule of practice and faith. Or are you confused about You shall not steal?

    “church should be teaching biblical principles, including our responsibility to pursue justice & compassion.”

    And what is that responsibility? If Jesus didn’t heal everyone, if he didn’t feed all who were hungry, if he thought his responsibility was first to the Gospel and calling people first to it before supporting them, then maybe the meaning of compassion and justice Scripturally, isn’t what it means secularly. Our responsibility is first to the Gospel, that is why Jesus came and that is what we are to follow. So if what you mean is true biblical principles, then yea, but if what you mean is the pomo-definition that doesn’t discriminate as to who receives the benefits of Christ’s body, then ick, that is as sick as Judas’ complaint of the waste of spikenard.

    Beck is an idiot. Not because he isn’t onto the leftists in and outside the chruch, but because he is only a hundred years behind the curve. He acts as if this is new revelation. But people like Nash, and Veith and many others have been sounding the alarm for a long time. Perhaps you are familiar with the social justice movement of the German Church. The idealism which swept Europe through Hegelian ethics produced the controlled economy of Germany founded precisely upon the unwise definition of compassion and justice. Remember that the basis of the German Health Ministry and social health which meant cleansing was founded upon those very ethics. Be careful then that you define biblically what is justice and what is compassion for Christ’s compassion told the people that unless they partook of his flesh and drank his blood, they would not be welcome to his benefits. Christ did not feed all the hungry, nor did he heal all the sick and told the Jews that they should remember that they could not claim justice as a right to compassion when he told the story of Naaman and the widow. They had no right, for mercy is according to grace and not justice. You might think it harsh, you might think it untrue, but Jesus by-passed many who had fallen among thieves, for aren’t the devil and his demons, thieves, and liars, and murderers? And just who sent the famine upon the people in the day of Elijah, is God then guilty of depriving the rights of even his covenant people? And if he does not discriminate, then why didn’t he heal those who were not believers when he was among them? And there is a clear separation in the very commandment that Jesus quotes as to who is our neighbor and who is a stranger. Treat the Jew who fell among the theives if you must, but be wise, for the limit of your charity is Christ and the wise use the Gospel to divide between spirit and flesh.

  2. Tim says:

    Thomas,

    I’m confused by some of what you’re saying. Like this:

    to do justice… Is that why Jesus said: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

    If justice means what you have defined it to be, Jesus was a sinner.

    I don’t understand what you’re trying to say here. How do you think I defined justice?

  3. You defined justice as: “Jesus fleshed out the Golden Rule in multiple ways–the Good Samaritan, “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me“, etc. James pointed out the hypocrisy & vileness of religion that doesn’t care for the poor.”

    First, Jesus didn’t feed all the least of these himself, though he could have so he is guilty of violating your interpretation of James, and you left out the key phrase, “my brothers.” He didn’t serve all those who fell among theives, if what is meant by that is compassioning those who have any kind of need, and the point there is not what we should do, but what we are not doing if we are teaching that we should. It is hypocrisy, but not of the kind you’re thinking it is. Hypocrisy is the subject, true, not justice, but mercy is the subtext, not the context. Remember this was about a man trying to justify himself just like the rich young ruler. If it is hypocrisy to walk by the poor, the lame, the prisoner and not lend assistance, Jesus was a hypocrite. So no James was speaking to those who were rich with good works looking down upon their poorer brothers and condemning them. Of course Jesus did reach out to the poor, and so are we to do, but he reached out to the rich also revealing to us that it isn’t about charity. James said: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Humility is the issue in James, not charity.

    “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Now, what is at issue? Boasting. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Note that last little phrase. These people who were “rich” in works, had become like the world. Remember, blowing their trumpets before the crowds and looking down their noses at those who don’t do what they do. But what is the response about Abraham all about. Isn’t the sacrifice provided by the Lord? There where in is their boasting. What is it that these high seaters doing? And what of Abraham. He was rich, yet, it was not what was his that he sacrificed. Now, even the poorest man, if he thinks himself rich, is the poorest of men. The rich young ruler found this out and the disciples were amazed that it was impossible for people to do good without selfish motive, so think again about that face in the mirror. Do justice, admit just how poor you are. That’s James.

    Don’t loose the context. He is speaking to those who are behaving with the “filthiness and rampant wickedness,” of their pride. He goes on that they were showing partiality. Again the context is charity among believers, verse 15, anyway. In the case of James, these men had good charitble deeds, but they were obviously elsewhere and not within the fellowship of believers. And their attitudes betrayed their hearts because they went to law, that is condemned their brothers while they were they themselves were guilty of violating it. “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”” And then James procedes to tell of Abraham. It was not generic good deeds that James spoke of but a peculiar kind, one that spoke to the prophetic vision. And the vision is not that we will be justified by our works, for Abraham is the father of faith. So this would fit with Jesus saying “they shall know you are my brothers by your love for one another.” Within the context of James it is not charity to the world but mutual upkeeping within the fellowship. The rich in James were discriminating within the fellowship, judging who was worthy when the fact is all the brothers are for whom Christ died. James then condemns those like Duren, Wallis, and the myriads of social justice idiots who hold the law over their poor brothers meager blessings and demand that the alibaster box be saved for the poor outside rather than being keep within the confines of the Gospel. The kind of works are peculiar in James and as Jesus didn’t just willy-nilly defend the poor and widow, so neither are we to do that. That is not the job of the Gospel, never was and never will be. Rahab did a specific work, and it too was prophetic and it was not to just anyone but was to the brethren fulfilling anything done to the least of these my brothers will not lose a prophets reward. So contrary to the social justice police, this would restrict charity to the church body first and foremost. And believe me, the church has in no way fulfilled its calling there. It practices exactly what James speaks of: it neglects the brothers while offering it gifts to the world. It typically sets aside the law as the hypocrites of the Good Samaritan all the while speaking about welfare as outreach to the poor in the world. Typically, they could care less if the Gospel is demanded which it must be to be a good work.

    So to do justice in this context would negate the social justice movement because the Gospel doesn’t view all men everywhere as equals. That is what the movement came to be known for, a world-wide redistribution of the churches/individuals wealth to unbelievers, because we are all Gods children, a direct denial of the Gospel. Beck is correct in his history. It is the perversion of Jesus’ teachings that puts charity outside. Charity on the occassion of emergency, the normal gut reaction of anyone who saw the Jew who went down from Jerusalem, would be to stop and render aid. That wasn’t the issue. He was a Jew and the law required the Jews to love their neighbors (brothers). The teachers of the law, didn’t do what they taught should be done. Beside that the Samaritan who didn’t have the law did what was natural, what anyone who was not evil would do. The story is about hypocrisy, a very evil hypocrisy, not mercy. To properly apply this parable one needs to read the law and what it says is is love the neighbor and to not neglect the sojourner and stranger. The curious thing about this is that it is just like Jesus’ saying when he feeds the crowd. There was to be one statute for sojourner and brother alike. In otherwords, the sojourner was responsible to the LAW or he was to be sent out. That was justice and wise for evil was not to be allowed to remain within the camp. One rule for all. So, Jesus sets his compassion in the the Law. Do right, you get fed, do wrong, you go hungry. Later the apostle Paul would say that any man unwilling to work should not be fed. Same thing.

    Justice is not defending the widow. Mercy is. But in that mercy we are to pursue that justice be done. The question then remains what rights have been violated? Is this widow a true widow? See, you can’t just neglect Paul’s teaching and glom on to James. Has she washed the feed of the saints? Again, charity is couched in the law and that law is the requirement of fellowship and submission to the Gospel of Christ.

    As far as doing justice. Do it, and if you do, most of those you come across in the public have no right to your help and in fact most when called to submit to the discipline of the church which you are required to do if it is a good work, will reject it. But that is justice as Christ spelled it out. So, Micah 6:8 says judge rightly. Does that sound familiar. It is what Jesus said. That means to pass judgement, not to blithely and without consideration dispense charity. The it requires not handouts but preaching the Gospel in the context of the benefits of Christ’s body. If the charity doesn’t call to account, it is not justice, it is not a good work.

    “By me princes rule, and nobles, All who judge rightly.”

    “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.”

    “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”

    Again, the context of James is hypocrisy of a particular kind that of religious showmanship. These workers of the law had all the good works you could muster. That is not the issue. Theirs was wrong motive. The right motive is found in James. It should be done out of the heart of Christ which was to preach the Gospel. His meat, you remember, was to do the will of the Father, preach the Gospel, not to feed the poor. Feeding the poor had a certain context, Isaiah 61. If the feeding and setting free and the binding up doesn’t proclaim the acceptable time, as in NOW IS THE DAY do not harden your heart, you have not judged righteous judgement. That is what James had in mind when he said: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.” Works that do not proclaim Christ is of this kind. And more: “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” The whole context of James is the Gospel, not generic good good works.

    Of course the Gospel is not if there are no good works, but they are of a specific kind, a kind that the world condemns, just as they have in not correctly judging Glenn Beck. And from what I have read, those who are, do not have a clue as to the developement of social justice theory and its roots in the christian idealism of the 19th century. What it is is works justification theology and moves toward liberationism everytime. It is the evil that brought us the death camps and wars of the later 19th and twentieth centuries. When the church wakes up to the fact that we live in a post Christian west it will realize that the ethic that once considered all citizens as members of the state church was an error. That was the Europe of the past, but that was also a time of ubiquitous oppression when no man could claim a violation of his boundaries and the commandment that establishe the right to property, was voided so that there was no justice.

    Do you want to be guilty of passing out charity without warning the people to flee the wrath that will be theirs if they take the charity without doing what Paul is instructing. That is not justice. You can, anytime you like, expend yourself for the poor, to defend their rights but everyman is to decide in his own heart. Neither the church nor the state can impose by ordinance or by guilt an obligation to do so. That is injustice. What passes for charity though is often of this kind, “do it or you’re condemned.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We have been called to liberty, James says. The point their again, is that we are all poor. If we look into that mirror and forget our wretchedness and consider ourselves rich, well, there is only the expectation of judgement. We are not justified by our works. That is the heart of social justice theory.

    Jesus said judge rightly. Beck, even though he is a Mormon and doesn’t have a true understanding of Christ, understands him better than most evangelicals.

    Go figure.

    So, if what you meant by do justice is to judge, to use judgement, to separate properly with wisdom who is and who is not your neighbor, who is and who is not a sojourner, who is submitted, then fine. But if what you meant was something else, you missed Jesus’ point. We are not here to participate in the justice system, “doing justice” through our charity. We are to judge righteous judgement, proclaiming the Gospel. And if we can’t require people to repent and believe to receive, we have no Gospel to preach.

  4. Sorry, my response was so long. But heh, this is a subject sorely in need of review. I am currently presenting on a blog for my church the PCA and biblical view of mercy ministry. Believe me when I say, I am just beginning to understand just what that means.

  5. Tim says:

    Thomas,

    You defined justice as: “Jesus fleshed out the Golden Rule in multiple ways–the Good Samaritan, “whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me“, etc. James pointed out the hypocrisy & vileness of religion that doesn’t care for the poor.”

    I figured there must be some misunderstanding like that, whether it’s because I wasn’t clear or because you skimmed. I didn’t call that my definition of justice.

    Read the next section of my post, The term “Social Justice”. My point was that charity and compassion are not part of justice. You came away thinking I said the opposite.

    You should really reread the post, more carefully. It’s a little ironic, because my post was prompted by people reacting to Glenn Beck’s comments without really hearing what he’d said.

  6. Oh, okay. I took “Jesus fleshed out” to mean that was how you were defining justice.

    You said: “Compassion” and “love” and “mercy”, yes. But “justice” seems to assume that I’m acting to correct a wrong done against them.

    Then you said: “Justice prevents people from being cheated, and it rights wrongs. Compassion gives wherever there’s need.”

    Well there seems to be confusion in this still. Justice doesn’t prevent. Right judgement might help, but it cannot prevent. Judgement might extend mercy to someone who needs their property defended or restored, but justice judges merit and has nothing to do with mercy. We are to judge righteous judgement. Which simply means that we are to use the wisdom afforded in the law to make right decisions. But law doesn’t exercise wisdom, it judges right or wrong. So, to defend justice is to make sure that boundaries are kept in tact. That the violaters of them are punished protects the rights of the owner. Justice is found not in the love of neighbor, but in the rights of the neighbor. The social justice paradigm rests in the rights of community and does not uphold the rights of the individual. In other words, there can be no blanket poor. Everyone is judged individuall as to their right. Jesus said what grants the right to his benefit is participation in his body and blood. In other words, the rights of the individual is determined by that boundary. We do mercy in the body of Christ precisely because we share all things in common as co-heirs with Christ. The boundary is set between the world and the church. If we do charity in the world, it is with the same requirements that are required of those within the household. Or they are shut out. Justice, then cannot be: “On the contrary, he said the gospel does require us to care for people.” It doesn’t. Not in the sense that care means charity. It affords rights. I can’t think of any parent who thinks that they are giving charity to their children. We care, but it isn’t the care that is detached caring as a generic requirement. Our care is natural, the right by relationship. It is the right of being heirs.

    I think that even though you drew a distinction, it ends up being less than you intended. I did miss some of what you said. Not because I didn’t read it. But I understood it in the context of all you said about justice. I just think that is not the right definition.

    “He still said a couple foolish things, but he didn’t say anything like “Social action isn’t for Christians.””

    But he should have. Not that it is not an individual vocation that one can engage in, but the fact that we are not called to it. Yet you listed it there. We are called to justice, and to love mercy. Right judgement is necessary. But there is no justice in mercy if it does not define why mercy is given. Mercy is given freely, no by the law. It is according to it, by not required by it. You said: “If your Christianity doesn’t move you to action–caring for people and working to fix injustices around you, then you’re not following Christ well.”

    We don’t fix injustices. Courts might. But they usually punish the evil doer and in that are the injustices against the rights of others defended against. Contrary to you assertion, justice requires that first we judge the person are rightly derserving. And we must be forthright about our motive in anything beyond that. If ours is to reach out to the unbeliever, it must be for the demonstration of the Gospel in Word as demonstrated by deed. We must not forget in that the good deed of passing by. Or as Jesus did with his disciples, going into the city and preaching and if the message is rejected to take our blessing and leave a curse.

    What I am point out is that even Glenn Beck has no clue as to what is proper Christian charity, mercy, and justice. That is why I sound like I disagree with you or don’t understand what you are saying. I don’t agree with your view of the responsibility of the church or even of the individual Christian. It is the wrong understanding that Beck has, that leads to what he is complaining about. But he is an idiolt and doesn’t see that. For all the rest he says he is crazed but right on. The only thing you have done is to change terms. Social justicers all believe that compassion is the heart of their movement. But the compassion that Christ had is a different animal altogether. Care-taking is what the church does for sheep. Proclaiming the Gospel of repentance is what the charity the church is called to offer to the world.

  7. Emily says:

    Hey Tim! I didn’t hear about this news piece until you wrote about it on your blog, so I’m not fully informed of all the details. But I read Jim Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, back in 2005 and I know that he doesn’t mean charity or church benevolence when he talks about “social justice.” He means changing the structure of society, increasing the role of government, to apply “social justice” and it does in fact look like socialism, no matter what he chooses to call it! It’s important to define our terms. No one wants to say they’re against justice (or compassion, as you stated) but the Bible does give specific tasks to specific institutions. Individuals and families should not usurp the role of the government, pursuing “justice” for themselves with vigilantism. Similarly, the government should not usurp the roles of churches and families in caring for the sick and poor. Compassion on the needy is the duty (and fruit!) of a Christian. But it is not compassion or charity if the government steals my money in order to redistribute it to the needy.

  8. “On the other hand, it’s strange to call it “justice” when you feed & clothe someone in need.”

    Yes, it seems strange, but in the OT sense, “justice” means to do things right in the first place, not just to right something that is wrong. To do justice (as in Micah 6:8) means to act justly, which may or may not include righting a wrong. Our contemporary meaning of the word “justice” is far narrower than what we see in the OT.

  9. Jugulum says:

    Benjer,

    It’s funny, I was just talking two nights ago with my roommate about this, and now I see your comment. You may well be right, but I’m not sure.

    However, I would write this entry a bit differently today, to include what I said to my roommate: I don’t doubt that righteousness in the Bible includes compassion and generosity. So if “justice” includes “acting righteously”, then justice includes caring for the poor, not just avoiding abusing them.

    I’m just not sure about the Hebrew usage of the word “justice”. You may be right, but you didn’t actually cite anything that tells me they used the word the way you’re saying. (It’s still true that, as far as I recall, all of the OT prophetic references to the poor involve castigating people for abusing & cheating the poor, not for failing in their duty to care for them.)

    Micah 6:8 could just as easily mean, “right wrongs, be kind/loving, and be humble before God”, as it could mean “do rightly, be kind/loving, and be humble before God”.

    It really depends on how the word was used in ancient Hebrew. It comes down to the lexical sources, or a clear passage that actually defines justice to include “doing the right thing”, not just “righting wrongs”.

    And whatever the label “justice” does or doesn’t include, it doesn’t change the substance of our call to love people well. (People who use the phrase “social justice” need to remember that disliking the phrase doesn’t imply disliking what people are advocating under that phrase.)

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