by Bruce Epperly
This week, at least two, and no doubt many other, important events occurred in Washington DC – the birth of my first grandchild and Glenn Beck’s “Recovering Honor” Rally. Saturday morning, as I gazed outside from George Washington University Hospital’s maternity ward, I saw hundreds of people emerging from the Metro station on their way to Beck’s rally. I even spoke with a few at the hospital’s Starbucks. Mostly in their fifties and virtually all Caucasian, they were good and decent folk who loved their country, yet afraid of the way things are going –issues such as massive government spending, decline in America’s global position, terrorist threats, immigration, homosexuality and marriage equality, excessive taxation, and pluralism. They sought a return to a better day, perhaps inspired by memories of “Leave It To Beaver” or “The Andy Griffith Show,” simpler times, when America seemed, at least on the surface, to be homogenous religiously, culturally, and ethnically.
Entertainer/talk show host turned grassroots-evangelist Glenn Beck proclaimed that Saturday’s rally was all about God. Indeed, he noted that “divine providence” was behind the scenes in the synchronous choice to have the rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Beck affirmed that this would be a nation-changing day, “Something beyond the imagination of man is happening — America begins today to turn back to God.” Beck was talking about metanoia, about repentance, about returning to the values of an earlier time.
I appreciate the sincerity of Beck’s congregants and hope that Beck is equally sincere. But, I must question whether God really wants us to go backward, and whether the future of America or the planet involves turning back the clock or moving forward into the white waters of the future. While I don’t fully claim to know God’s vision, nor do I suggest that Beck knows it either, nevertheless, we are both entitled to cast a humble vision for the future. So let me suggest an alternative vision, with alternative values.
There is clarity to Beck’s vision – it involves individual rights and individual responsibility. It involves people returning to a moral compass characterized by individual initiative, economic freedom, face to face ethics, and the belief that God has uniquely chosen America to be a light among the nations. America’s destiny is to be the new Jerusalem; God’s instrument to bring peace and order to the planet. It involves greater individual liberty, provided you are heterosexual and American-born. It involves less government involvement in individuals’ lifestyles, except if you are gay or lesbian.
Here is where Beck and I part company, not on the basis of sincerity but on the basis of theology and scripture. Let me, first, bring scripture into play. Most of the Christians in Beck’s audience would, I suspect, describe themselves as Bible-believing people. The problem is that Beck’s vision reflects Western economic individualism and political theory more than biblical ethics. The biblical tradition is through and through communal. The prophetic books are about politics and governmental responsibility and, dare we say, social justice: they challenge the wealthy and powerful on behalf of the vulnerable and the poor. Shalom, which is at the heart of the prophetic message, describes a world of justice, well-being, and wholeness. While individuals constantly make ethical decisions as leaders in the corporate sphere, corporate entities are judged on issues of social justice – Are the hungry fed? Do the vulnerable have social safety nets? Do children have enough to eat? Are the sick cared for regardless of ability to pay for treatment?
A nation – that is, a government and business elite – that fails to do justice will experience a famine of hearing the word of God. (Amos 8:11) The prophetic books speak to social issues and social justice and to the distribution of wealth. They call business and political leaders to be socially responsible. Financial integrity, regulation of business practices, and fairness to workers are pivotal in Old Testament/Hebraic Bible ethics.
While the early Christians were marginalized and had no political power, it is clear that for Jesus’ first followers community trumps individualism. Individual decisions and initiative are important, but are judged in light of the well-being of the body of Christ. With the New Testament, Martin Luther King speaks of an intricate web of relationships in which the well-being of the community is dependent upon the well-being of the each participant, and vice versa. Acts of the Apostles describes a cooperative economic vision that far exceeds anything found in medicare, social security, and national health insurance. The early Christian communities are an economic nightmare for Beck and the tea party movement: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:43-47) In a curious passage, a married couple who fail to sell their assets and contribute to the church is struck down. (Acts 5:1-11) Nothing the current Obama administration advocates can rival such punitive measures for those who do not place the community’s well-being as central to their economic lives.
Private property is never private in the early church or in the bible as a whole, but is always subject to the well-being of the community. In fact, biblical theology always subordinates private property to divine prerogatives. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1) This is bad news for anyone who believes that unrestrained free enterprise is consistent with biblical economics and spirituality. The gospel is good news for individuals and calls us to be responsible citizens, good parents, and active in seeking the well-being of our communities. But, for the gospel to be “good news,” it must also be “social,” that is, calling nations and corporations to place persons over profits and the health of communities over the bottom line. That’s simple prophetic and gospel ethics, no more and no less!
Finally, I would suggest that God calls us forward rather than backward. I am a big fan of “Andy Griffith,” “Leave It To Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best.” But, we simply can’t go back to that world – for beneath the veneer of respectability lay violence against African Americans and homosexuals, male domination, and fallout shelters. Do we really want to go back to an era before employee provided health care insurance, disability insurance, social security and medicare, and unemployment insurance? All these initiatives were championed by persons of faith, who saw fidelity to God involving widening, rather than narrowing, the circle of care. The least biblical thing we can say, it would seem, is “every man or woman for him or herself.” Indeed, the primary movement of scripture is the expansion of divine revelation, the scope of God’s love, and human ethical responsibility beyond our kin to include the diverse people of the earth, including immigrants and their children.
I believe that God calls us forward precisely in the changing world in which we live. We must be faithful for just such a time as this, not an earlier era. Divine providence is not found in the selection of date for an event, but in our openness to God’s forward moving vision in the midst of pluralism, economic inequality, social injustice, and the reality that the USA Empire is over, and that we must claim creatively our new role as a great nation among other great nations.
Faithfulness to God today involves world loyalty and the willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of vulnerable persons and an equally vulnerable planet. Individual initiative, creativity, and freedom are important and essential to the good life, but they always exist in the context of caring for God by supporting the least of these and seeking to be God’s partners in healing the earth, economically, politically, and spiritually. The only gospel worth following is social, despite Beck’s revisionism: “let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a progressive spiritual response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly, selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.