Sunday, March 14, 2010
Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and Big Government
Last week Glenn Beck created quite a stir among Christians committed to social justice. He denounced churches concerned for social and economic justice and recommended they be “turned in” by their parishioners. The Sojourners folks immediately responded, recommending that “social justice” Christians “turn themselves in” to Beck. In a subsequent broadcast Beck backed off a bit. But he still insisted that “social justice” or “economic justice” is a smoke screen for “big government.” I wonder about this. Certainly some social justice advocates are also advocates of “big government.” Others do look to government for solutions to injustices and corruptions—but this does not necessarily indicate a universal love of big government. Still others are as wary of big government as Beck and his allies, though perhaps for different reasons.
Social justice Christians draw their inspiration from the prophets of Israel. For the prophets the governments of Israel and Judah are “part of the problem”. Isaiah rants, “Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieve; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23). Judah’s most powerful and wealthy citizens are denounced in no uncertain terms for their dissolute living and indifference to justice and mercy (See Isaiah 5). Amos similarly denounces the rulers of Israel: “You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.” He continues, “There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times for the times are evil” (Amos 5:11-13).
Passages like this could be multiplied over many pages. The solution to the oppression of the poor in the law courts and the burdensome tax levies was not for the prophets more government or less government—it was good government and just government. God’s law set the parameters for human flourishing. Following the will of God meant caring for the entire community of Israel. If the poor were over taxed and their cries for justice were ignored, this was a violation of God’s communal order. Not even their sacrifices would atone for such perversions: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though your bring me burnt offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 521 ,22). Rather, God declares, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24).
The prophets’ critique is a critique of the powerful from the margins. In contemporary terms it is “populist.” It is a critique of powerful and wealthy elites. According to the prophets they are more concerned with savoring the good life than carrying out the will of God. They prophets also attacks leaders who forget their obligations to the entire nation of Israel. The rulers appear to live in an individualistic, every-man-for-himself bubble. But the prophets insist they pay attention to the suffering and injustice at their very doorsteps.
The charges made by Israel’s prophets can easily be laid at the feet of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Both parties contribute to injustice and the grinding of the poor. So how should Israel, should we, respond? The prophets did not call for revolution. They called for a moral and spiritual renewal of their leaders. “Seek good, not evil that you may live. . . .Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:14, 15). In the end, pursing justice has never been about pursuing power. In John’s great vision in Revelation the opposition to the power of the Roman empire is a slaughtered lamb. He wins through love, sacrifice, and witness. And so will those of us who follow him.