Jesus is a Nazi commie. Okay, Glenn Beck didn’t exactly say that, but that is how he described the Jesus whom I call Lord and Savior. What Beck did say is that “social justice” and “economic justice” are code words for Nazism and Communism. Real Americans, who see their churches use these terms on their Web sites or hear their ministers use these words in their homilies, should leave those houses of worship.
Normally, I would not waste my breath on such nonsense. But the sad truth is that most Christian churches today, even while dismissing Beck’s analysis, are still in agreement with his conclusion. For many congregations, social and economic justice are contradictory to their understanding of the church’s purpose, which is to save souls. Yet, for me and my house, the core of the Gospel, the foundation of all of Jesus’ teaching, is social and economic justice.
Religion is the construct of a particular type of culture. Those born to or raised within the Euro-American culture are a product of a society where white supremacy and class privilege have historically been interwoven with how Americans have been conditioned to normalize and legitimize how they see and organize the world around them.
This racist and classist underpinning contributes to the meta-narrative of how those within the dominant culture developed their religious views. A worldview has been constructed in which complicity with the prevailing U.S. social structures is deemed normal and where those who benefit usually accept the present order of things, failing to consider the radicalization of their faith. The underlying problem with this form of religiosity is that moral reasoning is done from the realm of abstractions where faith is less concerned with “what you do” than “how you think.”
What Glenn Beck and the Christian churches that shy away from dealing with the poor have in common is that they successfully created a religion that fails to make the link between their power and privilege with the plight of the disenfranchised.
In other words, they do not see how their riches are connected to others’ marginalization. They created a religion that is indistinguishable from middle-class respectability and conformity as well as complicit with a U.S. culture that since its foundation contained an inherent opposition to marginalized communities. For them to then insist that their way of doing church must become foundational for the dispossessed is ludicrous.
Why? Because the driving force responsible for maintaining their status quo that privileges one group at the expense of the poor, specifically communities of color, is an economically elite-driven culture – a culture where the poor are the object, or problem, and never the subject, or solution.
In order for that culture to reconcile the prevailing U.S. structures that benefit them with their commitment to Christianity requires an abstract understanding of the Gospel. As such, the religion of Beck and others becomes a construct for the economically elite, which is part of a larger meta-narrative that privileges their vision and virtues.
Rather than focusing, as did Jesus, on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the immigrant, the sick and the incarcerated, their sermons and teachings are focused on personal piety. How to pray more. How to trust Jesus. How to give more tithes. And while there is nothing wrong with personal piety, to construct a religion solely on this – as did the Pharisees during Jesus’ time – becomes a repudiation of the Gospel.
What Beck will one day sadly discover is that no one enters heaven without a letter of recommendation from the “least of these!”
The ultimate failure of Beck, as well as those churches that uncritically subscribe to the worldview of those who are politically and economically privileged, is to seriously do power analysis and to locate themselves within the prevailing power structures. Their complicity with the prevailing social structures that privileges their race and class relieves them of any responsibility of actually establishing a justice that can be liberating for the poor and disenfranchised.
The religion of Beck is a product of power – power held by those who benefit by making their beliefs normative. As such, their faith is not an exercise of establishing justice, but rather it becomes a justification for activating power. Their religious discourse becomes a strategy of reconciling some type of moral reasoning with the existing structures that remain detrimental to the dispossessed, without sacrificing the privilege amassed by the prevailing religion of the dominant culture.
No doubt, Beck and many churches that solely concentrate on personal piety are well-meaning, even shedding crocodile tears. I’m sure they believe in equality and are vocal in their desire to encourage and have diversity, yet they unconsciously (or consciously) allow the social structures undergirding their lives to discriminate for them. By reducing racism to the bigot, they ignore how they remain complicit with racist and classist structures that exclude the poor who disproportionately reside in communities of color.
Generally speaking, the values of the disenfranchised, by contrast, are based on a culture that is dominantly justice oriented, relational, liberationist and radically communal. The rich seek a pseudo-Christianity that maintains the structures that protect, if not increase, their riches. Believers and disciples of Jesus Christ seek a faith that not only feeds the hungry, but more importantly, asks why they are hungry.
But to ask such questions is to invite hostility from those privileged by the status quo.
Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara said it best, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, have no food, they call me a communist.”
Or, as Glenn Beck would say, a Nazi commie.
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.