By now, almost everybody has heard Glenn Beck’s comments last week, on radio and television, concerning the term “social justice” and its use in Christian churches. If you haven’t, you can hear the audio here, and read a pretty good summary blog about it here.
Despite what everybody who knows me might believe, I want to publicly thank Glenn Beck for shining a bright light on the subject of “social justice.”
As Beck correctly asserts, many churches *do* make the goal of achieving social justice a core part of their ministry and mission in the world.
But Beck has done a far greater public service than simply raising the issue. He’s taken in a step further with the really marvelous suggestion that members ought to talk to to their church leaders about whether or not their churches are supportive of “social justice.”
Beck seems to believe there is a foregone conclusion to such a discussion. As those who know both me and the church I serve as pastor might surmise, I have a very different view of the conclusion of such a discussion.
But I’m more than willing –thrilled, really– to have anybody in my church who would like to come in and hear my views on social justice make an appointment. Just let me know. And I thank Glenn Beck in advance for the suggestion that our members might want to come and hear *my* views on social justice. (I *love* the idea of having them come and listen to me!)
Because I happen to believe that social justice stands at the heart of the Gospel of the Christian faith, and the core of what Jesus believed about the world.
We see it in the Hebrew scriptures:
“…And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Justice, according to this passage, is one of a very few things that God really wants us to work for in the world.
Jesus was always telling parables about the need for justice for the weak, the poor, the outcast. In fact, the Bible is so chock full of passages about justice that some argue there’s almost nothing left if you take those passages out.
Jim Wallis famously tells a story about this. I was going to cite a lot of scriptural “proofs” for social justice, but think Jim’s story does an even better job of making the point:
“I was a seminary student in Chicago many years ago. We decided to try an experiment. We made a study of every single reference in the whole Bible to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to God being the deliverer of the oppressed. We found thousands of verses on the subject. The Bible is full of the poor.
In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, it is the second most prominent theme. The first is idolatry and the two are most often connected. In the New Testament, we find that one of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels, one of every ten; in Luke, one of every seven. We find the poor everywhere in the Bible.
One member of our group was a very zealous young seminary student and he thought he would try something just to see what might happen. He took an old Bible and a pair of scissors. He cut every single reference to the poor out of the Bible. It took him a very long time.
When he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?” he just cut it right out. All those Psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared.
In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, “The mighty will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent empty away.” Of course, you can guess what happened to that. In Matthew 25, the section about the least of these, that was gone. Luke 4, Jesus’ very first sermon, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, where he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to poor people” — that was gone, too. “Blessed are the poor,” that was gone.
So much of the Bible was cut out; so much so that when he was through, that old Bible literally was in shreds. It wouldn’t hold together. I held it in my hand and it was falling apart. It was a Bible full of holes. I would often take that Bible out with me to preach. I would hold it high in the air above American congregations and say, “Brothers and sister, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out.” We might as well have taken that pair of scissors and just cut out all that we have ignored for such a long time. In America the Bible that we read is full of holes.”
Jim is absolutely right. Without social justice, the Bible, the foundation of our faith, is full of holes. Social justice is essential to the fabric of Christian faith.
Glenn Beck suggests that if you find out the “horrible” truth that your church supports social justice, that you should immediately find another church.
And I suppose you could try. But if you do, you’ll likely be shocked to find out just how many churches speak about social justice. Take my own United Methodist Church, for example. On our UMC website, on the very first page of the section on our social principles, you’ll find this statement:
“The United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice.”
Oops. So, I guess any and all United Methodist Churches are out. But then, so would be pretty much every other mainline denomination, all of whom prominently speak of a commitment to social justice being part and parcel of a truly faithful witness. Catholics are also big into social justice too. So, you’d have to leave their churches.
You might try evangelical churches, or independent megachurches; but you’ll find that many of them are warming to the idea of social justice and social action. In fact, many of them are “repenting” of decades of ignoring the poor and marginalized and actively creating ministries of social justice. Megachurch pastors like Rick Warren have been forceful in their insistence that social justice is a part of Christian faith.
For example, in a recent an online biography of Warren, you’ll find the following sentence:
“In recent years, Warren has become a prominent steward of social justice, speaking out on poverty relief and encouraging spiritual leaders to play a role in guiding the planet toward sustainability.”
So, if you’re trying to avoid churches that preach social justice, you’ll need to avoid most mainline, most Catholic, and even many evangelical churches. I’m sure you might find a church somewhere. But I’d have no idea where to tell you to start.
But, as I said at the start, I’m thankful to Glenn Beck for raising the issue. Because we DO need for our churches to talk about social justice.
But! We need for churches to not just talk about it, or to feature it on their websites, but to ACT on it too….to become communities of faith where Jesus’ love for the marginalized and the poor, the least and the lost, become real and incarnate in our world each day.
My friend and mentor, Rev. Bill McElvaney, has a new book called “Becoming a Justice-Seeking Congregation.” I’m proud of the book because some of the stories and anecdotes come from the more than 50-year history of our very congregation, Northaven UMC in Dallas.
If you’re interested in learning more about how your church might become more justice-seeking –if you need some material to discuss being justice-seeking with your pastor or layleaders– it would be a great place to start.
And if, as Glenn Beck suggests, you are a member of Northaven and would like to hear more of my views on social justice, please feel free to call me and make an appointment.
I’d be more than happy to share them with you, and I thank Glenn Beck for making the suggestion.