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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- The terms “social justice” and “economic justice” always mean socialist governmental policy, versus personal action.
- 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.”
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.