Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

I recently posted an article on facebook about a response by Serene Jones to Glenn Beck after he made comments about Liberation Theology and Social Justice.
The initial Glenn Beck video/commentary can be seen here:

An interview with Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, followed and can be seen here:

Serene’s open letter to Glenn Beck , published in the Huffington Post can be seen here.

Serene is a fellow Kappa, (University of OK), an ordained minister in the DOC and UCC and the first woman president of Union Theological Seminary. I’m proud to call her a sister on many accounts, and was recently inspired by her response to Glenn Beck.

I posted Jones’ open letter to Glenn Beck on facebook, with some commentary, and some discussion ensued. Eventually a question came up about “What is the basis of social justice?” Serene Jones stated in her response to Beck that she would be mailing him Bibles with passages about social justice underlined in them, so another question was raised asking “what Bible verses would be underlined?”

I don’t mean to call out the friend that asked these questions – but I did need to preface this post by stating what inspired it. I didn’t feel like I could answer the question properly without devoting some time and thought to my response. I’ve typed this blog over and over again, listened to this one show of Glenn Beck several times in an attempt to take careful notes on what I hear him saying. I also took great care to respond because it’s the “shock jock” mentality that has contributed to many of our contemporary political disagreements; I didn’t want my response to be considered just some off-handed remark.

In preparing my response to that question, I’ve discovered is that I could spend a lot of time meticulously picking at several of the things Glenn Beck declares in this particular episode, or pointing out slights of his hand as he tries to appear reasoned and “fair,” amid his completely personal and individual interpretations of Christianity. But I also discovered that a man who is far more equipped than I to do so has done just that. I highly encourage you to look at his response to Beck concerning Black Liberation theology here.

However, I still have not answered the question of what is the basis of “social justice?”

In a day and age where we (I don’t’ pretend to be above this, I know am guilty of this too) more often than not, compartmentalize our lives, it becomes harder and harder to serve people, as church leaders, in our congregations. We all want to keep politics out of church, and don’t talk much about our faith outside of Sunday morning, as if we can separate those two things, faith and politics. So often we watch hours of television, or listen to hours of radio concerning money and the economy, but if a minister spends much more than 5 minutes talking about tithing, let alone talking about how few people actually tithe 10 percent, the minister is chastised and told that there is no place for talk about the national economy from the pulpit – often because it borders on political conversation. The words “politics” or “politically” coming from the pulpit are often career suicide for many local church ministers.

However, if we are to truly be called to be pastors, then we need to speak to the whole lives of church members. It’s a difficult thing to care for the spiritual, ethical and physical well-being of a congregation when most often we are pushed out of anything that does not directly relate to a sermon or the ways it can speak ONLY to our faith as we experience it once a week in worship.

I think this is the first problem we have when trying to identify where in the Bible we find social justice. If we ONLY wanted to speak about our personal faith and want to ignore any hints of Biblical social commentary because it borders on political discussion in church, then we can get rid of a huge portion of the Old/First Testament (most certainly the law and the prophets), a significant portion of the gospels, and almost all of The Epistles. The Bible is FULL of social commentary, and writings on the direction of society and humanity, how we are called to be in relationship with one another. If we pretend that the Bible only speaks to our personal and individual faith, our individual salvation, then we discount so much of the Bible that we end up proof-texting our way to eternal life.

We preach about the righteousness and justice of all of humanity in the same manner that we speak to ways of personal righteousness, because faith encompasses both individual and collective salvation. If religious leaders were not called to minister to the whole lives of church members, then why do we make such an effort at creating community in the congregation? If we are not called to minister to the whole being of our church members then why do we teach ways to help the community, go on mission trips, or show ways to give back to the community? If we are not called to minister to the whole lives of church members, then why do we spend hours of preparation on sermons that can speak to the intersection of faith and our daily lives?

We are called to minister to the whole lives, to the whole person of church members because Jesus ministered to the whole lives of those who followed him, and even to those who were not his disciples (see the Syrophoenician woman). Jesus called us to minister to the whole being of individuals in the same way that we are called to minister to the whole being of society (see Matthew 25:31 – 46).

The ways that Beck – and others – has recently defined “social justice” as the government dictating the ways in which we handle and “share” our money that we have earned is a gross misrepresentation of the definition of “social justice.” You are correct Mr. Beck, that nowhere in the Bible does it say that we should allow the government to take our money and redistribute it to the poor. But we’re also operating on completely different notions of government and governance than they were in the Old/First Testament and even in the New Testament. So there’s some gray area in understanding how we as society, as humanity, are supposed to give to the poor, to care for the least of these like we are called to do. When Jesus tells the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-26 to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor does Jesus mean we should only sell our possessions in a garage sale and give money to the salvation army – or can we sell our things on ebay and then give our money as a donation to the national deficit? Was Jesus’ teaching a commentary on exactly how we are supposed to get rid of our possessions, or is there an overarching theme here that teaches us about the treasure of eternal life?

Whether it be money or jobs, possessions or civil liberties, the notions of Biblical social justice are not defined only by the ways that contemporary governments create or “take away” these things, (money, jobs etc.). I’m not sure how “social justice” has come to mean some sort of evil communism or socialism that the government takes away all those things you worked for in order to give them to some undeserving schmuck that is going to smoke or drink away your hard earned assets. However, social justice is certainly not demanding that the only way we can enjoy fullness of life is by picking ourselves up “by the boot-straps” from whatever systematic oppressions has befallen us and demanding that we earn every single thing we receive. If we had to earn everything we’ve ever received, including our salvation, we could never earn it. It’s called grace – and it’s something we’re called on to share.

The frustrating part, is that the definition of “social justice” that Beck is arguing against is not what people like Jim Wallis and James Cone are arguing for. (At least in my understanding) Beck et al. are arguing against one thing and Wallis et al. are arguing for something quite different. If we’re all operating from different definitions of “social justice,” then we’re certainly never going to be able to have productive discussion on the matter, let alone much agreement.

As a starting point, I suggest separating “social” and “justice.” If we first understand justice to be rightfulness or righteousness, especially the righteousness of individual acts, then we can certainly understand social justice to be righteousness, or rightfulness on a collective scale. But we haven’t just haphazardly added the word “social” to justice because of some contemporary liberal political ploy at communism or socialism; rather we find the roots of the social nature of justice in the readings and writings of the prophets from the Old/First Testament, in the readings and writings of the prophets of which Jesus was a follower. The morality of the people of Israel is what brought about God’s judgment and to what prophets of the OT addressed. Individual morality certainly affected social morality, but the Word that prophets received from the Divine, and spoke to the people of Israel was a word about the “public morality on which their national life was founded.” (Rauschenbusch) Israel as one individual was not going to be a light to all nations, rather the nation of Israel, the collective, including how it operates as a community, is to be considered a light to all nations.

We struggle as Americans reading the Old/First and New Testaments in our contemporary understandings of Christianity and of government. The descendents of Abraham were a country, a nation, that operated under a theocracy, in which word and law was received from God and dictated to the people. However, the people of Israel eventually wanted leaders more like those of other neighboring nations, calling to God for judges and kings. While Israel was led for a number of years by judges and kings Israel still had God speaking to them through voices of the prophets. While we look to Israel, and to the early church as models for how we ought to exist in community, the United States is NOT a theocracy, and we are not governed by the word of God. We are governed by people, individuals, who many of us hope listen to their word of God, but who are not speaking for God, as God.

In the United States we claim to be a free nation, yet somehow also insist on being a Christian nation. We pride ourselves on the founders of our nation who left England in search of religious freedom, yet we still insist that God (the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims) must still be included in our laws and in our land. We want God in our laws and in our government until it makes us uncomfortable, then we demand that this God and this religion is blasphemous and must be wrong. We want morality in our laws, morality based on Biblical notions when we speak of abortion and of homosexuality, but when other parts of the Bible speak to the ways that we need to share a common purse, we must certainly be misreading the Bible?

A Biblical call to social justice does not mean that our contemporary governments should lawfully take away money from the rich and redistribute it to the poor. Rather, a Biblical call for social justice means that as faithful followers of God, of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ, we are called to care for the least of these (Matthew 25), we are required “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8). A Biblical call towards justice means that we are to be the one who takes care of a beaten traveler (Luke 10:25 – 37), and cares for the stranger who comes to our door (Genesis 18). As socially active Christians we are called to support institutions and programs that help us to fulfill these and other Biblical examples. But the question remains, are these institutions and programs part of the government, or are they separate from the government and driven solely by grass roots organizing?

I say “socially active,” because we cannot compartmentalize our lives the ways we try to. We cannot leave our Christian selves at church until we are ready to come back in two Sundays time because we have other more important compartments of our lives to attend to. We cannot leave Christianity out of our politics until we need the Bible as ammunition, and then put it back neatly into our compartment when we are challenged by words like “social justice.” We are socially active because we are social beings. Genesis teaches us that we were created to be in relationship with one another, and are therefore social beings, in relationship with one another, with all of God’s children, even the ones we don’t understand and argue with. Our Christian selves should dictate who we are in all aspects of our lives, politically, ethically, morally, and physically. Jesus came to minister to, and to save our whole selves, our whole beings. Consequently, our saved Christian selves are demanded of as our whole selves, in whole, from our whole being. “To the individual, Christianity offers victory over sin and death, and the consummation of all good in the life to come.” Christianity certainly is individual, because it is our individual selves that find salvation in Jesus. But because we are saved wholly, and because Christ came to save the whole of humanity, not just a few individuals, our salvation is social and collective. Therefore “to [hu]mankind Christianity offers a perfect social life, victory over all the evil that wounds and mars human intercourse and satisfaction for the for hunger and thirst after justice, equality, and love.” This is social justice. When our societies are just in ways that evil no longer wounds or mars human interaction. Social justice happens when we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Where in the Bible does is speak of social justice? Where doesn’t it? I don’t say that haphazardly as a way to get out of answering this question, but I don’t know any other answer; where doesn’t the Bible speak about social justice? I will try to list a number of scriptures that speak to social justice, but I know I cannot speak to them or list them all. Simultaneously, some of those authors that I list here may not speak to the exact question of “where in the Bible does it talk about social justice,” but they speak to the spirit and overarching notions of Biblical social justice. Listing where in the Bible we hear messages of social justice is like listing where in the Bible we hear about love. Our loving, just, and all-knowing God speaks to us in all places and in all times, and speaks to us justly and with love.

Just a few random verses I can think of...
Isaiah 25:1a, 4
Psalm 12:5
Isaiah 29:18a- 19
Deuteronomy 26:12
Leviticus 19:9-10
Amos 5:24
Isaiah 58:6-7a
Mark 1:14-15
Luke 1:46-47, 53
Luke 4:18-19
Luke 6:20b-21
Matthew 25:35a
Luke 16:19-21a
Acts 4:34-35
Hebrew 13:16
1 John 3:16-18

As far as readings go, I would suggest “A Theology for the Social Gospel” by Walter Rauschenbush or “Christianity and the Social Crisis” also by Rasuchenbusch. I would suggest Carl F. Henry who founded Christianity Today, which has become the website I would also suggest Rod Sider and the website of his organization Evangelicals for Social Action. Disciples Peace Fellowship,, is a small grassroots organization from within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), that partners with other peace and social justice organizations affiliated with mainline protestant denominations such the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ,, and the United Methodist Church, I would highly suggest “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” as well as “The Nature and Destiny of Man” in addition to writings by his brother, H.Richard Niehbur. Jim Wallis’ books are wonderful, although the website for Sojourners sometimes frustrates me, but it is at least worth looking at.

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