OK, yep. I admit it. I’m not a huge fan of Glenn Beck. I think his theology is way off in many areas, and that he’s a bit of a heretic as a result. So I’m offering the following commentary as food for thought.
The following article is taken from the blog: Academy for the Common Good
Published March 10, 2010
Author: Douglas R. Sharp
Glenn Beck and the Common Good
I suppose that if Glenn Beck had his way, any religious organization that cared about the quality of human life in our society, and did something to improve it, should be castigated as un-American and politically seditious. Last week the Fox News commentator exhorted all Christians to flee from their faith community as fast as possible if there was anything about it that smacked of “social justice” or “economic justice.” And what does Mr. Beck have in mind with the notions of social and economic justice? Apparently, he views them as code words for “Communism” and “Nazism.” Let’s step back from this for a moment and think through the idea of Christians and social justice.
As Christians, we live in two worlds, two spheres, each with its own values and mores, beliefs and attitudes, rules and roles, publics and practices, heroes and villains. On the one hand, we inhabit a religious world, the world of the church where we do the things that are characteristic of ecclesial life: worship, pray, listen, speak, study, sing, serve, occasionally fight, etc. Here we are challenged, nurtured and formed into disciples who seek to live out the gospel and the One whose mission it proclaims. Here we are formed into a community, an ongoing nexus of interactions and relationships and purposes.
On the other hand, we also inhabit a secular world, a public sphere that increasingly shows disinterest and even hostility to the expressions of religious faith. In this world we live and work and play in places where we try to affirm the values and practices of our faith, but often we find that we need to be incognito Christians—present, but hidden! What we have discovered is that our religious world is largely privatized, a matter of our own individual subjectivity of belief and conduct, largely unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. At the same time, we discern our secular or social world is increasingly fragmented and stratified, characterized by parochial interests, extremism, polarization, social distance and isolation. Bridging and being in both worlds is difficult.
Justice, in practically any form, touches both of these spheres. It is important to Americans to believe that our system of justice does not see racial, gender or class differences between people, but that all are treated the same. Achieving justice is making sure that everyone gets what is due according to the law. Most believe that it is just an anomaly when it turns out otherwise. For the most part, justice is rendered whenever its dispensers succeed in mediating the competing claims between individuals or groups. The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights establish our rights as citizens and provide equal protection under the law. From a popular point of view, the principles of justice, liberty and equality are provided for and upheld by these founding documents.
But while these documents guarantee legal equality by establishing rights and protections, they do not guarantee social equality or economic equality (equal opportunity, yes; equal results, no). In fact, the law is an arbitrary social contract establishing and guaranteeing certain rights in rather limited socioeconomic and political spheres. From this perspective, justice is a legal principle that seeks and assures fairness; it seeks and assures what people deserve based on merit.
But from God’s perspective, as recounted in Scripture, justice is a moral principle that seeks and assures what people need. God is not impartial. God does see the differences between people. The God in whose image we are created notes the difference between the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, the privileged and deprived, the included and excluded, the exploiters and exploited. God’s justice gives people not what they deserve, but what they need. God’s justice gives rights to those who have no rights, whose rights are ignored or denied. God’s justice does not guarantee the right to own and accumulate and hoard wealth or property. Rather it guarantees the right to eat. As the Psalmist says, God is the one “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (Psa 146:7).
In the biblical perspective, God’s justice is an intervention for those on the social and economic edge, those who are oppressed by those whose concern is maintaining order and power (Psa 146). When our religion is privatized and the shared socioeconomic world is fragmented and stratified, it turns out that our religion is actually perverted. Practitioners of a religion that does not see or care about the oppressed, the “orphans and widows,” those who occupy the margins of the socioeconomic world, are, according to Isaiah, really practitioners in consort with evil in that they neither seek nor live in justice (Isa 1:11-17; Mic 6:6-8).
The pursuit of God’s justice is the link between the two spheres, religious and secular. The machinations of demagogues notwithstanding, the place for Christians to be is in public, and the goal for Christians to pursue is justice, social justice, economic justice, for these are the forms of justice that are denied “widows and orphans,” the “least of these” among us. The place to flee for support, encouragement, compassion and advocacy is the church where those in the tradition of Progressive Christianity have committed themselves to advancing the realization of the Beloved Community.
So the Christian community would do well to think through the ways its presence is manifest in the second, public sphere. Christians would do well to see poverty, inequality, and discrimination, not only as social and economic evils that diminish and dehumanize, but also as a form of what Carter Heyward calls “systemic political violence” (Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right [Fortress Press, 1999] p. 8). Indeed, the Christian community would strengthen its own mission and witness if it embraced its cause more fully as a matter of justice from God’s point of view.
Some of us Christians, however, may be reluctant to embrace God’s justice. We may be ready to show a little compassion toward those less fortunate, but our compassion is more likely to be limited by our detachment from them. Truth to tell, the comfortable are made uncomfortable by the suffering of others, and to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed with their suffering, we distance ourselves from them, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and socially. We are moved by what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “impersonal benevolence.” We may very well have a sense of interest in or even benevolence toward humanity in general, but as Taylor notes, we express it “within the limits of the reasonable and possible” because we are “capable of facing the facts of unavoidable suffering and evil, and writing them off inwardly” (A Secular Age [Belnap Press, 2007] p. 682).
What, then, moves and motivates us to seek social and economic justice and the well-being of others? For some, it is simply the “in thing” to do! There’s a bit of self-affirmation that comes from knowing that one is doing something for others. Even within the limits of the “reasonable and possible,” one gains a sense of satisfaction and perhaps even a sense of superiority and immunity by aiding others.
But this motivation is rather fragile because, as Taylor points out, “it makes our philanthropy vulnerable to the shifting fashion of media attention,… We throw ourselves into the cause of the month, raise funds for this famine, petition the government to intervene in this grisly civil war; and then forget all about it next month, when it drops off the CNN screen” (p. 696).
For others, the motivation to seek the well-being of others comes from a sense of dissonance that some among us are being denied something that is inherently theirs while others enjoy it in large measure: freedom, opportunity, health, shelter, family, community, leisure, dignity, worth, respect, honor. The dissonance comes not just from the fact that these are “the least of these” as Jesus referred to them in Matthew 25, but that they are confined to their quarters by the beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices of those whom our society regards as the “greatest of these,” those with social and economic power and privilege.
What can the community of faith do to advance the cause of social justice in our civil democracy? To begin with, we can continue to do what the church has always done, and done reasonably well: provide food for the hungry and shelter for the poor, minister to the sick and dying and visit the imprisoned and their families. We can collaborate with other faith communities and groups to meet these needs, and we can train and deploy volunteers. Certainly we can allocate financial resources and distribute them to agencies whose work reflects integrity and compassion. And having done all this, we will have aided in some small ways the movement toward a more just and equitable socioeconomic order. We will have realized something of the reign of God in this place.
But we must do more. We must also engage those “violent political systems” that create conditions that make it impossible to achieve the well-being and flourishing of all. We must live, and act, and advocate in the public sphere precisely as people of faith. We must not only ask, but press beyond the superficial answers to deeper questions such as why are people hungry and homeless? How does it happen that young people cannot read or write? What are the social and moral forces at work in substance abuse and addiction? What is the explanation for the fact that certain illnesses and health conditions are vastly more evident in certain social and racial groups? What are all the reasons why there are disproportionately more African Americans in our prisons? Communities of faith need to recognize that the answer to these questions is not just personal choice and individual behavior.
Christians who affirm their faith in the God of all-embracing love and who follow after Jesus Christ as one who loved his neighbor more fully than we can ever hope have a duty to seek social and economic justice in our public worlds. Sociologist Robert Jones has underscored the duality of the world we live in and reminds us that we have a choice: “Authentic Religious consciousness,” he declares, “must involve an awareness both of our presence in a web of interdependence with others and of our participation in structures that exploit other human beings. This awareness is the seed of responsibility that forces the question: Do I really want to live that way?” (Progressive and Religious, [Rowman & Littlefield, 2008] p. 163). This task, this advocacy that Christ places in our hands, is in fact the possibility of our own transformation into Christ-likeness, but this transformation requires our initiative, our resolve, and our endurance. “Being ‘ready, willing, and able’ to change oneself,” Jones notes, “is often more difficult, more necessary, and more effective than making a commitment to change the world in the absence of a transformed self” (p. 166)
From the perspective of the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is biblical warrant to regard justice as the integration and interpenetration of the worlds in which we live, both private and public, religious and secular. So, we would do well to seek the Beloved Community by seeing to it that others are not impoverished or excluded. In this way, we would be doing justice, God’s justice.