I recently posted a link on my Facebook page and commented on it. The link concerned Glenn Beck and his continuing attempt to scare his viewers and listeners into challenging their churches and clergy on issues related to “social justice,” which he explicitly condemns as anti-Christian, socialist and several other worse things.
Many have spoken out, across every conceivable outlet, in the weeks and months since Beck’s attack on the idea of social justice. But the question someone posed to me in my Facebook post was, “What do you mean by social justice?”
This is a fair question.
For Beck, it would seem he merges the idea of “social justice” with the Christian “social gospel” movement of the early 20th century. In his rantings, Beck doesn’t really seem to distinguish between the two. However, while I certainly have some sympathy for those such as Walter Rauschenbush, the social gospel movement became more social movement than gospel.
I have tended to find myself connecting much more with those such has Reinhold Niebuhr, his brother H. Richard Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom critiqued the social policies of both the right and left very aggressively.
However, Beck is perhaps correct about one thing: the term “social justice” has come to mean many different things to different groups of people.
As a minister, my interpretation of Scripture is my foundation for understanding social justice. In the Old Testament, we find a variety of expressions of justice. In Torah, we find admonitions never to deny justice to “the stranger” or the “orphan” fairly pervasive, especially in Deuteronomy. While these instructions were always given communally, one could, perhaps, make a persuasive argument for their intended application as lived individually while in community.
Once we arrive at the Psalms and the prophets, the call for social justice becomes even clearer. Throughout the prophets and words of the Psalter, justice refers to social relationships. This is particularly clear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah. These prophets provide stinging critiques of the interactions between different social strata, those marginalized or oppressed, and those doing the marginalizing and oppressing.
Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of the oppression of the widow, stranger and orphan as one of the primary sins of the people – collectively, not individually. These groups (widows, strangers, orphans) are representative of all those marginalized by society.
These prophets describe sin and its repercussions in communal terms, not individualist terms. Thus, in the Old Testament, one finds strong reinforcement for ideals of both personal responsibility regarding holiness and communal responsibility for social justice.
These themes continue in the New Testament, in both the words of Jesus in the gospel accounts, and books such as the Epistle of James.
When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, he was challenging socioeconomic norms that abused the people, causing poverty and suffering. Christ’s teaching harshly criticizes the social norms of his day, showing how entitlement claims to honor status and wealth, and that neglecting others is how the kingdoms of the world operate, not the kingdom of God.
When the apostle Paul writes to early Christian communities, such as those in Corinth, he is speaking to communities and giving instructions for both individuals and communities. Proof-texting from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome regarding personal responsibility is a favorite of those sharing ideological perspectives with Beck, and I have some disdain for proof-texting as a way of reading and studying Scripture.
However, if we want to read Romans as emphasizing personal righteousness as essential to faith, at the very least we shouldn’t ignore texts such as the second chapter of James. And I haven’t even mentioned Matthew 25, the Sermon on the Mount or Jesus’ teaching on kingdom ethics in Luke.
My point is this: Social justice, to me, is recognizing that our responsibility to seek justice does not end with the individual. We bear communal responsibility as well, and such a notion is very biblical.
Conservatives often want to shout about “personal responsibility” from the roof tops. I would never deny, as a Christian, personal responsibility as a vital component of a faithful life. But this is not the entirety of our faith.
When Jesus said all the law and the prophets can be summed up in love of God and love of neighbor, he was not endorsing a human political, economic, ideological or social construction or perspective.
I believe our faith should cause a healthy skepticism of the “kingdoms” of the world. Communism, taken to the logical end, becomes firmly anti-Christian. Liberal theologians of the early 20th century often failed to realize this. However, capitalism, taken to its logical extreme, unrestrained by prophetic voices, becomes just as anti-Christian. Human injustice, including seeking power and wealth at the expense of others, is evil regardless of the cloak it wears.
This means we can and should have vigorous debate on the role of government in accomplishing social justice. Personally, I’ve always believed we need a balance of personal and communal responsibility. Sometimes we need government to protect the minority from the oppression of the majority (on occasion, we need to protect the majority from a powerful minority as well). Other times, government can be the very agent of oppression we fear. That’s why I continue to consider myself a political moderate.
To deny the need to pursue social justice, and worse – to claim it is somehow anti-Christian to make authentic justice for all people our pursuit – would force us to ignore the prophets and the largest portion of Christ’s teaching.
Ignorant extremists on either end of the political spectrum (yes, Glenn Beck is a great example, entertainer or not) are dangerous. Those with authentic faith should continue to speak prophetically against these extremes.