Along with most Americans who own either a TV or a computer with internet capability, or both, I'm sure you've heard by now that Glenn Beck of Fox News fame made some rather serious claims on his show last week regarding the association of Christian "social justice" with socialism and Nazism. Here's a full quote of the most offending portion of his comments (available to read for yourself here):
"I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them... are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. 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!"
There is so much ignorance and error present in Beck's remarks that its difficult for me to know where to begin. I will focus my efforts here on the two issues most relevant to my area of interest: theology and ethics.
The first major error is ethical in nature and, in my opinion, glaringly obvious. Social justice is a fundamental Christian commitment, arising directly from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, the theological reality of the present reign of God, and the ethical pattern set before us by the early church. Although not without some controversy in how exactly Christians believe social justice is best sought (this is where debates about government involvement come in), there is almost uniform agreement from the "far left" to the "far right" that justice and mercy are essential manifestations of the Gospel's power in our world.
All this is to say: Glenn Beck is wrong. "Social justice" is not a code word for "socialism" or "Nazism." "Social justice" is a traditional Christian word for "faithfulness to the Gospel." And, in this case, I'm not the only one who says so. He's got a 2,000 year-old, trans-denominational and trans-cultural tradition to argue with.
Beck's second major error is ecclesiological in nature. And, while I think Beck's error on the above point is egregious enough, for some reason it doesn't bother me nearly as much as this one. Perhaps it is because I think that this TV personality has unwittingly voiced a perspective on the Church that is shared by many in American Christianity, even those who should know better.
What is Beck's ecclesiological mistake? Beck presumes a character to the church that is fundamentally flawed. Even if we were to grant him the point that "social justice" could be code for a liberal political agenda, in his plea for people to leave their churches because of differences of opinion on this matter, he wrongly assumes that church is simply a matter of voluntary association--a club to be joined and abandoned depending upon one's personal whims. And, sadly, this is how many American Christians view their own church "membership."
Church is not a club, a volunteer organization, a study group, or a business. Church is not something that Christians are meant to treat as a merely personal choice, capable of being chosen and un-chosen based upon political differences or other such disagreements. Church is the body of Christ, the community of saints, the temple of God. Church is the gathering of God's people for worship, for formation in Christian character, for service to each other, and for sacrifice for the world. Church is the initiation into God's Kingdom through baptism, the Eucharist, the reading of Scripture, the confession of sins, mutual edification, and healing. Church is a supernatural sign of the rule of Jesus Christ, put on display for the whole world to see that this is what God's Kingdom is like.
Beck completely misses the mark by suggesting that the people of God should demand uniformity of belief in the church on complex matters like social justice. There is plenty of room in the body of Christ for brothers and sisters to disagree about how best to enact faithful discipleship in reference to the healing of social ills. In fact, some theologians have suggested that one of the primary characteristics of the church is that it is a "community of argument."* Certainly, we are united in conformity around basic practices of the faith and basic beliefs about God, Jesus, etc, but we are united, as well, in our diversity about matters of praxis like social justice.
It is a deep ecclesiological error to suggest that people just pick up and leave the body of Christ, to which they have pledged their lives, because they find they have a difference of opinion with the pastor, elders, or even the majority of their brothers and sisters. This is American buffet-style, consumer Christianity at its worst and I, for one, am not willing to abide it. Once again, Glenn Beck is wrong.
*Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).