I want to thank Glenn Beck. His recent tirade against liberation theology has granted that particular conversation more press time than it's been given in years. It's hard to make a theology that bangs the drum of the preferential option for the poor sexy in our land of excess and wealth. Sensationalized stories of sex slavery make the airwaves from time to time, but a theology that makes us take a hard look at economic injustice of our culture, not so much. So, thank you Glenn Beck for introducing a new generation of Americans to liberation theology.
But, obviously, Beck's portrayal of liberation theology wasn't exactly positive. Besides calling it socialist (seriously dude, stop being such a one trick pony), he said it wasn't Christian because it focused on social sin and "collective salvation" instead of the strictly personal salvation message that is at the heart of Beck's interpretation of Christianity. Granted, Beck knows his audience. His average viewer most likely believes that the message of Christianity can be reduced to this concept of one's personal relationship with God. The message one hears in many conservative evangelical American churches can be boiled down to "Jesus died for ME. God demands MY worship. I must attend church to strengthen MY faith."
To question this self-focused religion (even by proposing an outward purpose for our faith) is tantamount to heresy. For instance, I've been reading critiques of the evangelical feminist movement and many of them mock the movement because it prompts people to focus on the needs of women and men instead of solely focusing on God. These books suggest that if we were true Christians, we would only care about our relationship with God and not the petty needs of other people. To serve others or to care for people apparently have nothing to do with our personal relationship with God and so therefore must be cast as a deterrent to faith.
I've heard the same reasoning applied to Christians engaging in environmental action. I got in trouble when I was in junior high for wearing a "save the dolphins" necklace. I was told that in caring for the dolphins I was worshiping the creation and not the creator. My time and energy should be devoted only to developing my personal relationship with God -- which at the time was defined as reading my Bible, praying, doing devotions, singing, and attending church. And as I've written about before, I received a similar response at a moms group when I mentioned how important ethical consumption was in my life. I was informed that as a wife and a mother, God does not expect me to care for the poor, but to only make sure I am fulfilling my role in tending to my family (since that is how a woman best serves God).
This "it's-all-about-me" religion generally masquerades as being "all about God." In fact in such circles, books, buttons, and bumper stickers that say "it's not about me" are quite popular. And while I think there are serious issues with some of the self-deprecating, soul-silencing, and passion-erasing messages that such a stance often promotes (like telling women they are selfish for pursuing a career or that to cure depression one just needs to get over oneself and pray more), on the whole this sort of religion is very self-focused.
But the disturbing consequence of making Christianity all about my personal relationship with Jesus is that we eliminate our neighbor. Oh, we are taught to pray for our neighbor in order to strengthen our own faith. We are taught to fear the corrupting influence of our neighbor. And, above all, we are taught to condemn our neighbor. But we have inoculated ourselves from having a neighbor to love. If we are not to care about the plight of women, or the destruction of the environment, or the oppressed Third World farmer because it would take away from our complete devotion to God, then the idea of loving our neighbor becomes a meaningless concept. That command then becomes so confusing that we have to start focusing on the "as yourselves" part of the verse instead -- making sure that each of us loves ourselves enough to devote ourselves only to God.
Having no neighbors to love does make our faith easier. As long as we aren't going on murder sprees, cheating on our spouse (or looking at porn), and only gossiping in the form of "prayer requests" we don't have to do the hard work of repentance very often. But add social sin into the mix and say that part of worshiping God involves caring for the poor and oppressed, and faith becomes exponentially more difficult. None of us could claim a good relationship with God by those standards. And most of us would have to drastically alter our consumeristic lifestyles in order to avoid daily sin. So therefore it is easier to ignore the parts of the Bible that tell us God hates our worship and closes his ears to our prayers unless we are caring for the poor and the oppressed than to actually figure out how to do it. It is easier to label (and mock) such things as socialism or to say that loving our neighbor distracts us from loving God than it is to repent of social sin. It is easier to say, "MY faith is all about ME and MY relationship with God" than it is to making living sacrifices of ourselves.
So Glenn Beck gets it right -- at least when it comes to understanding the felt needs of his target audience. Who cares if you are ignoring scripture and rewriting Christianity, the best way to keep ratings high is to define right living and true religion as looking out for number one. Because, seriously, who needs a neighbor to love when we have ourselves?
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.