Bend it Like Beck – Glenn gets the conversation going…

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.

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  • Thanks for writing this, Richard. I find the lack of distinction between social justice and socialism/communism/Naziism very troubling, and I don’t think either party, or any system of government will ever get it right. That’s why I think Jesus didn’t bother much with engaging the Roman empire. But it makes me sad to see God’s heart for the poverty-stricken tossed out as being unAmerican.

    I understand the concerns on both sides, even if I don’t always share them, but it’s difficult to see the love when my conservative friends e-mail me about Jim Wallis’ veiled communism and scary associations with Obama or when my liberal friends talk about how evil Bush was and how Sarah Palin is going to ruin the country. Wallis, Palin, Obama, Bush, and many of my friends are all Christians- or at least, I take them at their word because I’m not God- and as such, I believe that they are all fallen people who believe Christ died for their sins, same as me. But it’s hard to see Christians loving their brothers and sisters in Christ when they start tossing around words like communist, fascist, Nazi, evil, socialist, conservative, liberal, etc., as if they are curses. It breaks my heart.

    “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”

  • Well to be completely fair, when God (aka Jesus) was still perfectly loving and just like He is today, He instituted a government for His own personal people which had very clearly defined boundaries for justice, and social justice was very much not supported.

    In fact, He specifically said to not favor the poor, which is what social justice really seeks to do: it seeks retribution for groups of people rather than for an individual’s behavior. Here’s my article about this very topic, FULL of Bible references. And don’t worry: my article title says that Christian liberalism is a heresy, but so is Christian libertarianism and certain forms of American conservatism (perhaps I should have been more clear about that, too).

    And last, can I let both you and your readers know that LIBERTARIANS are the ones who want absolutely no restraints on businesses? I know that the people up here who call themselves conservatives are actually libertarians, so it can get confusing. Conservatives don’t like government attempts to *manage* the economy (monetary policy, stimulus packages, bailouts, etc), not a total lack of restraint on anyone running a business.

    Anyway, God bless ya brother!

  • Er, sorry. That last sentence was garbled. It should have read “Conservatives don’t like government attempts to *manage* the economy (monetary policy, stimulus packages, bailouts, etc), and generally do not encourage a total lack of restraint on anyone running a business.”

  • CapernwrayAlum

    first off, i find glen beck to be a bit repulsive, so this is in no way a defense of him.

    when you start peaking behind the curtain of “social justice” and “economic justice” you start finding some weird things, like going from ensuring that everyone has equal access to liberties and rights, to ensuring that everyone gets a share of others income and wealth. That is where you start to scare people (for more scary reading on social/economic justice, just deep read the green parties platform!), and you start hearing the murmurs of communism.

  • raincitypastor

    and I’m certainly not writing to endore the green party, or the democrats, or Obama and his health plan, or Bush’s doctrines. I’m writing to point out that God’s form of government in the Old Testament, when he ran the show, made provision for widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor. He also forgave debts every 50 years and did a land swap. His form of government didn’t look like anything we see today in America, from either the left or the right. I’m certainly not advocating we try to emulate it either. Instead, I’m suggesting that we look for principles, both from Jesus, Paul, and God’s OT reign, so that we can make progress wisely, all the while putting our hope in our citizenship in God’s kingdom above and beyond all national hopes and loyalties.

  • CapernwrayAlum

    make sense, and actually, i would go one step further and say that within the body, these are principals to live buy. I mean really, when it comes down to it, it is the golden rule.

    Where i draw the line is a imperfect, secular government trying to do these things through legislation not through love and caring, because if you do this with out those two, it is just greed (and yes, you can be greedy by giving away money!)

  • Graham C.

    How do you throw out the entire idea of caring for the poor because God’s does want partiality (to either rich or poor) in the judicial system? ( your quotes from Exodus 23:3, Leviticus 19:15 in your articel). I don’t follow that line of reasoning. That to me doen’t negate Jesus’ call to care for the poor or James definition of religion that God finds pure as that which cares for the orphan and widow.

    What is social justice other than caring for those in a lower socioeconomic place than yours? And yes that will mean some sacrafices from those of higher socioeconomic standing. I see social justice as the counterbalance to free market capitalism in which the gap between the rich and poor is widening. While the poor will always be with us, and while I don’t believe it more “holy” to be poor, Christ’s heart was for the poor.

    Mt. 19:21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

    Lk. 11:39-41 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

    Lk. 12:32-33 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

    Lk. 14:12-14 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

    Pr. 21:13 If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.

    De. 15:7-8 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother. Rather be open-handed and freely lend him whatever he needs.

    Nothing in these verses or elsewhere in the Bible do I see Jesus or God’s people needing to see a the equivilent of a background check and drug screen prior to giving help to the poor. The question being posed here by Richard is how much of the “responsibility” of caring for the poor belongs to the government and how much belongs to the Church.

  • Sorry Graham, it looks as though I was unclear, because you just repeated something to me which I agree with entirely. What I meant by “not favor the poor” was “does not favor the poor in JUSTICE,” as in always giving the poor person the upper-hand while not extending the same justice to the rich.

    What I mean by “social justice” is an attempt to rectify inequalities between social groups/races of people, like affirmative action. What that does is takes accountability away from the character, and rewards class and color instead of behavior.

    Of course Jesus wants us to take care of the poor… but He only mandated a few provisions governmentally because He knew human nature and didn’t want Israel to disappear like the Soviet Union. Also, He is fair. Don’t you agree that His government was fair?

  • David (Canadian Capernwray Alum)

    Only when basic human needs are met (shelter, health, nutrition, education) can society as a whole be as productive and innovative as possible. True freedom and true wealth will come from rules and regulations to restrict greed because once individuals (or groups of individuals) get their hands on some money (legitimately earned or not) they inevitably want more money. This is the reason for the financial crisis of 2008.

    Jesus told us (somewhere in the new testament) that we are to give to caesar what is caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. I think that means our hearts/lives go to God – our money gets put back in society to be recycled. Also I believe it was mentioned that it is much better to store up treasures in heaven than in earth. Nobody’s income or wealth can be brought to heaven with them when they pass!



  • With all the non sense of G.B. and S. H. what can a pastor do to keep their silliness out of the church? At a recent men’s breakfast, Beck and Hannity came up again, like an ill prepared breakfast, totally destroying the reason we were assembled.

    What can a pastor do? Any thoughts?

  • Richard! I forgot to get this article to ya, since I felt it needed to be addressed. Conservatives are very, very different from libertarians, but libertarians tend to think they’re conservatives, and conservatives end up looking like heartless unBiblical suits because of it. This article made a lot of my libertarian friends unhappy, so here you go!

  • Today our church is in the process of being split in two by those who follow Glenn Beck. During our adult S. S. class the topic of justice came up. Our pastoral staff was accused of taking Becks comments out of context regarding “leaving the church” if the church promotes social justice.

    What can a pastor do? I’m considering a resignation.

  • raincitypastor

    I try to put the conversation in a larger context… have your congregation watch “As We Forgive” about the reconciliation project in Rwanda, or “Sophie Scholl” about the White Rose Resistance movement in Germany and the young people who paid with their blood. I find that these conversations make the Beck conversation fade into absurd pettiness.