Glenn Beck, the celebrated conservative commentator had some things to say over the past week or so about “social justice” and “economic justice”. It’s easier to find commentaries on what he said, than it is to find what he actually said, but here’s part of the exact words he spoke:
“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! If I’m going to Jeremiah’s Wright’s church? Yes! Leave your church. Social justice and economic justice. They are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish”
Later we learn from Beck that these are code words for totalitarianism and communism, and that Christ only called people to change their own individual lives and responses, not to empower the government to intrude into the life of the free markets. “Jesus spoke only for individual compassion, not for governmental justice” according to Beck.
He’s not alone in his critiques. Another commentator has critiqued that bastion of liberalism, “Wheaton College” (sarcasm intended) for promoting “anti-American” and “pro-Marxist” theories under the guise of social justice”. The response of the Wheaton provost cuts to the heart of this problem. He said,
We equip our students to think carefully and biblically about issues of justice, and encourage them to commit to act justly throughout their lives as defined by a biblical worldview … There is an enormous difference between recognizing the tragic state of so many rural school systems and inner-city school systems that serve disproportionately minority constituencies as a justice issue of concern to God, on the one hand, and a radical, naturalistically-driven call for Marxist redistribution of wealth on the other
But this, it seems, is a distinction Beck and millions of his followers who know Jesus seem unable to make. Beck’s vision is that the free markets will take care of everything, and that anyone who doesn’t believe that favors totalitarianism, Naziism, and dictatorships. It is difficult to know how to respond, but I will try.
I’ll begin by offending my friends on the left. I’m not convinced that the Bible has a much to say about the Christian call to motivate governments to act in certain ways to further justice. You don’t find Jesus talking about mobilizing people, getting out the vote, pushing to make cross executions illegal, or petitioning for fairer taxation.
On the other hand, Jesus and Paul didn’t live in a democratic society whose vision was government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In other words, the option of affecting government policy wasn’t real in Paul and Jesus’ day. We’re not in such times anymore, having been granted the incredible privilege of helping shape our policies by electing people.
In fact, Beck and many of his followers would be quick to remind us that our country is founded on the theistic values of individual freedom and dignity. One challenge, of course, comes from the realization that nobody is advocating for ultimate freedom. Conservatives want unrestricted markets in business but want to regulate morality, from life in the womb to how a family is defined. Liberals want to define the limits of corporate powers, but be left alone in the bedroom.
The debate about the size of government and it’s level of involvement in our lives good and important. This segues into the subject of “social justice”. If we claim to be a country founded on God’s principles, perhaps we’d better recognize that God’s reign was far, far, from the libertarianism espoused these days. Provisions were made for the poor, the widow, and the immigrant, when God was king back in the day. Taxation paid for caring for the poor, and God was more than a little involved in making sure that wealth was redistributed about every 50 years (you’ve heard of the year of Jubilee?) so that the rich had limited powers to oppress the poor.
If you tell me that our nation is founded on principles handed down by God, I’ll tell you that God had a lot to say about public health, sanitation, care for the poor, and economics. He also had a lot to say about protecting the least of these, including the little ones not yet born. He apparently didn’t stop caring about these things when Israel asked for a king, because in the prophets, the calls for justice are everywhere, including here and here.
This post isn’t about whether Democrats or Republicans are getting it right. Instead, I’m offering the observation that how people apply their faith to their politics is nuanced, and a challenging issue, determined by a blend of Jesus passive relationship with Rome and the ethics of God’s theocracy. Can we please be patient with each other and drop the communist, and Nazi labels, recognizing that this territory isn’t as clearly defined as our friends on either the left or the right would have us believe.