Friday, March 19, 2010

Thank God for Glenn Beck

[Note: I have several links in this essay to outside sources. I have used them only for sources of quotations, and I don't endorse any of the sites, and haven't vetted them for content]

Glenn Beck's ability to create emotional reactions - one way or the other - has drawn the attention of a lot of Christian leaders back towards social justice concerns. I am sure many people were simply waiting for the opportunity to jump on Glenn Beck over anything, and this opportunity gave them that chance. [If I'm completely honest, this applies to me as much as anyone else.] But, it is a great opening to discuss what social justice means, and what the role of Christians should be in politics, and the role of government in society.

On his radio program Last week, Glenn Beck urged his audience to run from their churches if they found "code words" on their respective websites.

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!

Mr. Beck never defines what "social justice" or "economic justice" is, so it was up to the rest of the world to argue about what exactly he meant. Many Catholics were upset because "social justice" is in the catechism. Because it takes a whole section of the Roman Catholic catechism, one of his listeners called into his program concerned because his daughter was learning about it in catechism class. Mr. Beck explained to him that some parishes are conservative and others are liberal. Catholic League President Bill Donohue came to Beck's defense under this same argument. "In the Catholic Church, there are priests who are stridently left-wing and stridently right-wing; many parishioners shop accordingly."

But Mr. Beck didn't stop there. He didn't just say there was a political disagreement, he went on to say that social justice is a "perversion of the gospel" saying, "You want to help out? You help out. It changes you. That’s what the gospel is all about: You." This is where I find he crossed the line from political gamesmanship into theological debate - and it is a debate he cannot win.

The debate

While I think John Wheaton uses some logical acrobatics to make sure free-market enterprise is the way it's done, he did write a good article in 2008 arguing, "modern Christians must lead the world in striving for social justice."

While it is important for every believer and church to practice private, voluntary acts of charity and social justice, it is also essential that every Christian develop sound convictions regarding social action by the state.

This is contrasted with what Mr. Beck had to say when he responded to a New York Times article about the ordeal.
But once that church starts to preach social and economic justice, especially through the structure of a giant government, well, now that's something totally different. Now, now you are talking about a church that is getting involved in government itself. We don't do that. We don't do that.

This quote suggests he's against "social and economic justice" in any form, but "especially through" so-called big government. On that same program he also claimed that preachers should not tell "who to vote for, how to vote, and what the government should look like." (I wonder if he's OK with Mr. Wheaton telling us what government should look like.) Mr. Beck seems to be suggesting that churches should not ever talk about political issues. He clarified on his radio program that the Bible does talk about caring for the poor, and he cares for the poor, but it's an individual mandate, and shouldn't ever be applied to government.

Mr. Beck is right, we have an individual mandate to care for the poor and oppressed. It would behoove any Christian congregation to teach their parishioners to do their individual duty; teach them about sweatshop labor, third-world farmers, migrant workers, intercity issues, homelessness, mental illness, et al. Maybe some parishioners will take action, and maybe some will try to change the system so they're not rescuing one person at a time.

It is well known that when people come together they can do greater things than what solitary action can handle. This is why nations were formed, this is why corporations are formed, and this is why even the Church was formed. I recently posted an article written by Benjamin Franklin who explained that what many together can achieve is greater than what one person can achieve.

But the Good particular Men may do separately, in relieving the Sick, is small, compared with what they may do collectively

One example of individual action versus government action was the emancipation of slaves in the United States: Yes, the Underground Railroad saved slaves from oppression, but it took much larger, sweeping change to free all of them. Using Glenn Beck's argument, the government should not have been involved in this social justice issue because Christians should have cared for the slaves themselves instead of forcing the government to recognize black slaves as human beings deserving of the same rights as their white masters.

The government

The US government was founded on "social justice" principles. Dignity for all humans, and protection for all. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reflects the previously mentioned catechism clearly. [Note that the US document predates the language in the catechism. I am merely pointing out similar features.]
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: Chapter Two - The Human Communion: Article 3 - Social Justice

1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

1929 Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him

While Mr. Beck and others might try to pigeonhole social justice in class warfare terms like "redistribution of wealth," civil liberties and equal access are also social justice issues. The main thrust of social justice activism today is not food stamps and welfare checks, it is fixing systems which lead to poverty and injustice. It isn't "stealing from the rich to give to the poor," it is providing vocational classes so poor people can learn skilled labor, protecting workers from harsh work environments, and ensuring fair pay for their labor, preventing predatory lending which leads to a cycle of debt, and providing credit to entrepreneurs in underprivileged communities to develop local economies.

Social justice is also working to make sure courts are fair to all, and that everyone has access to file suit against grievances, a provided proper defense against charges. Too often those who are poor suffer heavily under the bail system, unable to afford bail they might sit in jail until their case is settled for longer than their conviction demands. This causes a cycle because you can't work while in jail, and it's hard to find work when you've been in jail.

Social justice is providing homes for battered women who have nowhere else to stay. It is providing prenatal care for women so their children are healthy (and to prevent abortion). Social justice is providing orphan and foster care.

Mr. Beck argued that the separation of church and state should keep these social justice espousing churches from encroaching on government (which is ironic because he frequently argues America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles). I guess his argument is really that a Church who urges more government intervention is actually part of the government (because government is its own entity with desires to grow, and it controls the churches somehow). This means government and law should be created in moral void. Except since he's for government intervention in moral causes, perhaps he's simply for some moral causes championed by government, but not others. It appears like that's the case because he also said, "That doesn't mean that you don't fight and protest, and you know, your church when it comes to a moral issue like abortion, that you don't stand up and fight for it."

So which causes should the government be involved in? Perhaps we can have this discussion instead of picking random ideas from the "enemy" and discarding them because, well, it's from the "enemy." I have read many articles and listened to many lectures on this topic from the likes of R.C Sproul, John Piper, N.T. Wright, Jim Wallis, John MacArthur, Rob Bell, Greg Boyd, and others. I have even been in classes from a Focus on the Family Institute affiliated group, and even a John Birch Society affiliated group. The opinion varies greatly. Two things is common: 1) Nobody calls anyone else a Nazi, and, 2) everyone agrees the government should reflect the morals of the people, and Christian values most of all.

The conclusion

It's one thing to argue the Bible doesn't make it a mandate for governments to care for the poor, and another thing to suggest God doesn't want governments to care for the poor. On the former point, we can discuss what a government's proper place is in defending the oppressed, but on the latter point you would be quite wrong because the Bible never makes a case against a government caring for the marginalized. Maybe one person feels their duty is to care for the homeless woman in their neighborhood, and maybe someone else feels they should help the system to prevent further homelessness.

The fact is the Bible neither supports capitalism nor socialism as an economic model. These models were formed in modern times. An individual is neither Christian nor non-Christian because they hold to any given economic system. Having said that, the Bible is clearly against greed, usury, oppression, not paying fair wages, and is it for supporting the immigrant, poor, and needy. Those in both economic systems feel their way is best to take care of each of these biblical touchstones. We can have that discussion, and it's a fair one to have. But this discussion can do without the absolute statements made by Glenn Beck that church communities that support social justice have "perverted the gospel," and personal attacks on people like Rev. Jim Wallis accusing him of not recognizing "the good news according to Jesus."

It seems like Mr. Beck has painted social justice with broad brush. He has equated all of these programs to Nazi and Communist programs. He's clearly using the guilt by association tactic. He has been using this tactic for a long time; that is to associate anything from one philosophy to the soviets, fascists, or Nazis simply because both philosophies share something in common. Without explaining why it's wrong, he's just giving it a nefarious label because some infamous historic character also talked about the subject. (See also: How to make an argument.)

I do feel there is a danger in making blanket statements, as Mr. Beck does, that "social justice" is code for genocide and tyranny. It might send people away from helping non-government organizations (NGO) with their social justice projects. Examples include Blood:Water Mission who is working to provide clean water to villages in Africa to help fight HIV infection, and other waterborne illnesses which kill so many people every day. Or International Justice Mission which is (amongst other things) seeking economic justice in countries where prostitution is rampant. It's just wrong to lump all of these things together.

Thank God for Glenn Beck. He has opened the dialog for us all to discuss these issues - even if he doesn't want to be a part of that dialog.

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