Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

You may not have time to watch this whole video, but at least watch the first couple minutes. It's within those that Beck states his thesis, and then the rest is simply his defense of his thesis.

Several things (and I'm trying very hard to be fair here):

The first thing that comes to mind when I heard about this is, "Who cares what Glenn Beck thinks about social justice?" And immediately following that thought was, "A great number of people, many of them Christians, care what Glenn Beck thinks about social justice." This man has quite the following among conservative evangelicals, for reasons mysterious to me. What he says has more sway than he has a right to, so when he tells people to not just consider leaving their churches, but to actually leave their churches if the leadership espouses any bent towards promoting social justice, that's a serious thing for him to say.

Beck's basic argument is that "social justice" is a code word for an agenda aimed at government control and forced socialism/communism. And while some who wield the phrase might use it in that way, it's by no means a universally defined term. To encourage people to abandon it, to run from it, as if it were a swastika or some form of heresy, is both ludicrous and dangerously uninformed. And given his pull within the Christian community, the idea that he would use this to get people to leave the bodies to which they belong strikes me as a complete abuse of power.

For one, Beck is no theologian -he's a political commentator whose only credentials are that he has a good radio voice and can formulate his opinions in an entertaining way. For him to speak so very authoritatively on a matter of faith ought to set off so many red flags in a Christian's head that they can't see anything but red. And not only is he speaking authoritatively on an issue that he shouldn't be, but he's just plain wrong.

This video is even more disturbing to me - his use of his cutesy signs is chilling:

Social justice is nowhere NEAR to being a code word for Nazism or Communism. The fact that such groups might use the phrase is as incidental as the Chinese communsit regime coopting the use of the word "republic" in the name "The People's Republic of China." Just because those groups use the words doesn't mean they mean the same thing, or have any understanding of the true meaning behind it. The Nazis' take on "social justice" is quite different from what the Presbyterian Church X means by social justice: one is informed by a Biblical understanding of what justice is, and the other is informed by a nationalistic desire for the advancement of their race. (I'll let you guess which one is which.) To reduce it to a simplistic argument - "These groups use this phrase, therefore everyone who uses this phrase must share an agenda with these groups" - allows Beck to dismiss the idea of social justice without really dealing with the issue itself.

Beck says that he wants people to talk to the church leadership about the use of the phrase before leaving, in order to explore whether the term is used out of "ignorance," or out of an agenda that truly pursues "social justice." This is good: I'm glad he isn't telling people to run in blind panic, and pursue some answers and ask questions. All that is good. But he does this not in order to explore whether the church's vision for social justice is valid, but rather so that the church member can discover whether the leadership is willing to move away from the idea of social justice. And, Beck says, if the leadership refuses to budge on the issue, he tells them to run. So the assumption is, from beginning to end, that social justice is bad, and any church that uses the phrase is also bad.

I have to confess, it's very difficult for me to think about right-wing ideas and ideals without becoming angry. In all honesty, it wasn't that long ago that I counted myself among their faithful - really about five or six years ago I was still calling myself a "moderate Republican." Before that, I used to faithfully listen to Rush and Sean Hannity and even occasionally Glenn Beck himself. But gradually over the years I was unable to even identify with conservatives at all. I didn't get their adherence to immigration issues, their stance on the death penalty, their hyper-militaristic ideals, their constant demonization of their opponents and their reduction to simplicity of issues that seemed far more complex and nuanced than they cared to make them. I found myself only siding with them on abortion and on their belief in small government, and that didn't seem like enough common ground to really call myself one of their number anymore. So when I address Beck's opinions, I do it as someone who used to share his values and now finds them repugnant. And as any convert to a new worldview, I have a hard time thinking objectively about views I used to hold, and may tend to be harsher on them than I would be on other viewpoints to which I've never subscribed.

So when it comes to the importance of social justice and Beck's demonization of those who use the term, I'm tempted to just "go off." But here, in my most restrained language, is what I think:

Beck probably genuinely believes what he's saying. That's the worst part of all this. He probably truly thinks that churches who say they support and promote issues of social justice are in danger of falling prey to a communist/fascist agenda. But at the root of that fear of the term is a fear of the changing of the order of things. It's a fear of admitting that maybe things aren't as great as they should be, and that conservatives share a responsibility for that just as much as liberals do. So it's far easier for Beck to say that social justice is just a code word for a liberal agenda than to look at the issues raised by those who promote it. What would happen if he looked at immigration policy through the lens of social justice, and saw not just criminals crossing a border illegally, but individuals - real people - who see vast opportunities on one side of a fence, and starvation on the other, and choose to thrive illegally than struggle to survive legally? What would happen if he examined the reasons why these people can't make it in their home country and discovered it wasn't a lack of industriousness on their part (since to cross the border and find a job as an illegal immigrant takes vast amounts of ambition and drive), but because the policies that his country and corporations have adopted (namely, free trade) have made liveable wages hardly possible for other countries and have taken resources from those countries at hugely disproportionate rates? Well, Beck doesn't have to look at those issues, because those issues are raised by people who believe in social justice, and social justice is code for communist. And Beck doesn't want you to look at social justice, either, because if we began to admit that something is wrong with the issues that conservatives and Republicans hold near and dear, then we would of course flee to the other side and become liberal and Democrat.

I understand the temptation to draw the lines the way he does. It's far easier to believe in the rightness of something than to exaimine it carefully and work to change it, especially when that something is your benefactor. I understand wanting to keep things simple and be able to say, "right is right and wrong is wrong." Right IS right, and wrong IS wrong, but the two still interact quite a bit, since we humans are both made in God's image yet corrupt at our core as descendants of Adam. It's only logical that the interplay between good and evil would be constantly present in the actions of humans, and that it would be difficult sometimes to find where one ends and the other begins. Especially when one considers the possibility to do right things for the wrong reasons, or wrong things for the right reasons, the concept of complex moral issues becomes far easier to buy.

Social justice, therefore, is not only a term that ought be explored, but really ought to be embraced by Christians. The pursuit of a just society ought to be our goal. And I beg of you, if you're a fan of Glenn Beck's, please tell him you're not cool with him demonizing your church's pursuit of justice for all.

(Oh, and Jim Wallis? I'm sick of you being the go-to guy for every counterpoint to the evangelical right. Isn't there anyone else who can be a little more reliable spokesman for non-conservative evangelicals? You're a sellout to the Dems.)