Glenn Beck picked a fight with the nation’s churches when he said that “social justice” is a “code word” for “communism” and “Nazism,” and that Christians should leave their churches if they preach, practice, or even have the phrase “social justice” on their Web sites. Contrary to Beck’s claim that “social justice is a perversion of the gospel,” he has now learned that Christians across the theological and political spectrum believe that social justice is central to the teachings of Jesus, and at the heart of biblical faith. Because Christians couldn’t “turn in” their pastors to “church authorities” as Beck suggested (the pope would have to turn himself in to ... himself), many have started turning themselves in to Glenn Beck as “social justice Christians”—50,000 at last count.
The news networks, the cable and radio talk shows, and even Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have reported or spoofed Beck’s attempt to discredit the whole concept of social justice, but all that seems to just make him angrier. What he doesn’t realize is that a commitment to social justice unites churches of different doctrinal and political beliefs; if Christians were to leave those churches, they would have to leave their Catholic churches, black churches, Latino churches, evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and mainline Protestant churches. Beck’s own Mormon Church’s theologians and leaders have made it clear that they too believe social justice is integral to their faith, and that they disagree with the famous talk show host and want it known that he doesn’t speak for them.
Most would agree that the term has sometimes been used to support ideologies of the Left and the Right, but a range of people from liberal ministers to Southern Baptist theologians have defended the integrity of social justice as core to Christian faith and have disagreed with Beck’s attack. In fact denominational leaders are reporting that their pastors are actually preaching more on social justice than before, just because Beck told them not to. Social justice as a personal commitment both to serve the poor and to attack the conditions that lead to poverty is one of the most passionate beliefs of a younger generation of Christians, and one of their most compelling attractions to Jesus Christ.
But I’ve learned that to merely challenge Beck’s attack is to be called “Marxist” on his show, to hear warnings that “the hammer will fall” on you, and to have him threaten to devote a whole week of his shows to bringing about your demise. The first episodes of the Beck “hammer” began in late March with more distortions—some quite humorous. My personal invitation to a respectful, civil conversation was only met with more threats and name-calling.
Jesus does in fact call us to social justice, but he also said that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. So whatever Glenn Beck does, we will not attack him personally. And we have urged our supporters not to attack him personally either, but rather to pray for him, for us, and for our country, which is being harmed by an increasingly poisonous public discourse.
Martin Luther King Jr., an apostle of social justice, regularly reminded his followers that nonviolence must be both of the “fist” and of the “tongue.” Even those of us who easily reject the violence of the fist sometimes fall into the violence of the tongue, as the downwardly spiraling discourse of the U.S. Congress and the public debate over contentious issues show us almost each day. Adherence to that spiritual discipline of nonviolence is most tested at times of conflict and criticism, especially when one’s views and statements are being distorted and even fabricated by the kind of “research” for which Fox News is famous.
Beck now suggests his concern was really the association of the phrase “social justice” with “big government.” And he adds that when social justice just means individual charity it is “permissible” to him. It’s a good thing that Beck is scaling down that rhetoric, if not his attacks on those who have challenged him. If he had, from the beginning, just made an argument for small government and private charity, none of us would have responded to him.
The debate over the role of government is a good and healthy one, as is discussion about the relationship between personal and social responsibility. People of faith who believe in social justice come from across the political spectrum, so they would, of course, apply the term in different ways to different political issues. They vote Republican, Democrat, or Independent; and they have varying views of government—both smaller and larger than my own. We make progress together when we agree to public policies that are smart and effective government. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation now has a series of videos on “social justice.” The key for people of faith is to stand up for the poor, even against wealth and power when necessary.
So let’s stand up to Glenn Beck—it may be the moment to launch a new movement of Christians for Social Justice.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.