Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Glenn Beck's Errors

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).


Fred Smith said...

Beck is certainly guilty of gross oversimplification. You are quite rignt to point out that "social justice" is not necessarily a code word for a leftist political agenda. Beck does have 2000 years of Christian ethics to argue with on that one!

However, the term is often used in ways that imply a leftist political agenda. As such, if it turns up on my church's website, I am responsible to find out what the leadership means, and whether I want to support it. (BTW, if the term is on my church's website, and I am active at all in my church, I probably know what it means in our church's context). Beck is guilty here of assuming that most Christians are clueless about what their church teaches and does--well, um, is he guilty or is he right? It is "scary" how little some people know about their church.

If the term is on my church's website, it is probably a big part of the preaching and vision of the church as well. I should know what it means in that context, and if it is being mis-used to support a political agenda, then certainly I need to leave that church and find another one.

BTW, do churches that support a right-wing politcial agenda also have "code words"--perhaps so. Such churches are not nearly as common as they were 25 or 30 years ago but they are still out there. Their code words may also be terms that have ethical/ecclesiastical meanings beyond the political meaning of the terms.

Glenn Beck would have done better to say: Does your church have the term "social justice" on its website? If so, then you need to find out what the leadership means by that term--how they are using it, and what kinds of concerns it covers. Then you need to compare that with Scripture (and with the "spirit of the age") and see whether the Bible sustains that meaning--if not, then perhaps it is time to find another church, if it is not possible to work for change within your own congregation.

Anyhoo, social justice--properly and biblically understood--is a good thing. Some people mis-use the term and that is what we must watch out for! In the same way some people mis-use "holiness" or "purity" to mean "harsh legalism" and some use "doctrinal soundness" to mean a set of very specific teachings, a certain reading of the Bible that many Christians would not endorse. This leads others to eschew doctrinal soundness all together as if it were not important at all. Beck has pointed out--ham handedly--that some people mis-use "social justice" in ways Christians should not endorse, and we in our churches must be careful.

Debbie Kaufman said...

I think it's more than gross oversimplification. I think it's just plain wrong. The Bible tells us plainly that if we do for others we do for Christ. Plus I firmly believe we can't help but help those who can't help themselves.

Why would I look for any political agenda in a church whether left wing or right? Isn't the church to be outside of politics? I'm sorry Fred but I respectfully disagree with you here.

If I'm busy looking for the bogey man in the closet, I will be looking for that and spending less time doing social justice and less time in prayer, meditation, and reading the Bible. I just don't have time for all you suggest, nor a desire to do it. I say this with respect for you.

Fred Smith said...

Right you are Debbi--in an ideal world we need not worry about such matters. I come to church seeking communion with Christ and with His people, a communion I find nowhere else, not even "alone with the Lord." The church certainly should be "outside of politics" and most of them, I believe, are. Those few, however that push such an agenda (of the left or of the right) are not "according to Christ."
It is unfortunate that, in a fallen world, we must be discerning---how much better would it be if, upon moving to a new town, we could simply go and join the nearest church to our home, on our first Sunday there.

We live in a world, where no church is perfect, but some seek Christ more purely, more diligently than others--and are blessed by his presence in a more real way. Some churches are dead and lifeless, some have substituted politics for the hard work of faith, some have departed from the Way altogether to follow the "Spirit of the age" or whatever.

Once we find a church where "the aroma of Christ" is present, where the Word is preached in truth, with integrity and depth, and where the body seeks to glorfy Christ together--we have certainly found a rare gem, and should join body and soul to that congregation.

Steve said...

Emily and Debbie have the term "social justice" correct in the classical sense, and Fred Smith has it correct in the modern-day political action sense as well as the classical sense which we all grew up with.

No one is denying that we are always challenged by Jesus to feed and clothe the poor and sick. The trend among certain politically-minded persons the past generation or so has been to subvert every institution to a methodology and mindset in agreement with the creation of larger and larger governments and fewer and fewer basic human rights.

This conversion has wildly succeeded in journalism and sociology, and continues apace in education, thanks to a similar mindset being established in college departments with the same studies decades ago. Even when I was campaigning for George McGovern's Presidential campaign in 1972, I saw this over and over again.

Beck is alert to the changes already coming to fruition in churches in this direction. Just as no one could argue with "inerrancy" among SBCers in the 1980's, no Christian dare argue with "social justice" today. Yet, the term has been appropriated by dedicated leftists who are probably believers in Jesus as well, who desire nothing as much as a shove far to the political Left of all church congregations, one by one.

The acceptance of homosexual church leadership in some places has only encouraged these politically-minded activists, and I see no reason to think such a shift will slow down any time soon.

Do we want modern churches to become part and parcel of a domineering socialist state whose moral voice and authority is weakened from inside?

Strider said...

People who watch Fox news live in a strange scary world.

Steve said...

In this era of news either being provided from one political perspective or the other, those who choose to only follow news sources in agreement with this federal government cheat themselves and those whose lives they touch. Perhaps that is much scarier.

Actually, Fox News Channel is closer to what was being shown in the early 1960's on TV news than its competitors. Perhaps that is why the CNNs of the world only play to 20 to 30 thousand viewers per show a night.

Strider said...

I hear you Steve. If you close your eyes you can't even tell the difference between Beck, Hannity, and Walter Cronchite. Thanks for proving my point.

Steve said...

I'm not saying the NYT's Laurie Goodstein isn't a decent writer; I might suggest the next time she writes about a conservative radio guy she not start her man-on-the-street interviews with Obama's campaign advisers like Mr. Wallis.

We all want to confort those in need like Jesus did. But as soon as we start saying that government should get involved in this we get into trouble, and are paving a "road with good intentions."

Billions of tax dollars later, what really do we have to show for involving government in caring for the poor?