Monday, July 12, 2010

Social Justice and the Temptation of a Personal Faith

A few months ago, Glenn Beck took on Jim Wallis at Sojourners.  He lambasted the concept of social justice, and Jim Wallis has gotten a bunch of mileage out of the controversy.  First, I must offer my props.  Glenn Beck has loudly turned the attention of his audiences to history and the American founding.  If people watching his show actually read Federalist Paper #10, the republic would be in a much better position.  Likewise, Jim Wallis has always couched his political agenda in the language of faith.  As a result, he has forced me again and again to go to the Scriptures to examine my own positions.  Both Beck and Wallis play an important role within our media culture.  I tip my hat to both.

That being said, I have my concerns.  Both men offer simplistic soundbites and surface understandings.  I have written before about Jim Wallis.  Those familiar with my blog know my criticisms.  Glenn Beck however is a newcomer to my comments.  My wife got me to listen to him years ago, and he can be entertaining and thoughtful.  However, I frankly don't trust Glenn Beck on matters of religion.  Hurried show-prep read through the lens of Mormonism is a bit suspect.

Beck has equated "social justice" with Communism and Nazism.  He claims that "social justice" and "economic justice" are codewords for "the redistribution of wealth."  However, Beck ignores a long tradition of Christian teachings on social issues.  The term "social justice" has been adopted by the overwhelming majority of Christians including the Roman Catholic Church.  To be fair and to give Beck some credit, there are folks who lurk in the shadows of "social justice" who believe with all sincerity in "the redistribution of wealth."  In fact, there are some within the church who seem more influenced by the Communist Manifesto than the Sermon on the Mount.  Rather than telling parishioners to run, as Beck reportedly has, church members need to get facts and ask questions.  Particular political positions need to be examined in the light of Scripture, church tradition, and common sense.
Recently, Beck brought on a gathering of religious folk on his show.  In that conversation, I think he revealed a very basic and culturally, a very American attitude toward faith. He states,
...The reason why I want to talk to some preachers is George Whitfield.

We learned about George Whitfield on the show about a month ago. This guy came before the American Revolution. He had to bring people and open their eyes and say, wait a minute. God is personal. He works through me, and it's an individual thing. And it's not collective salvation. It's up to me to do these things.

There needs to be another Whitfield. And so we're talking tonight about the role of faith...
Lay aside whether or not this is an accurate understanding of George Whitfield.  Beck understands faith as a personal issue, an individual thing.  My religion is between God and me.  As a result, there is no "social justice".  There is no sense of God redeeming the community or the political order.

Again, my tradition is very different from Glenn Beck, but I also am thankful that salvation is not collective.  Jesus Christ redeems me--not my race, my tribe or the blood coursing through my veins.  I celebrate the fact that God loves this particular and individual person.  Like John the Baptist said, "..and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham" (Luke 3:8).  God touches us individually, and we respond as individuals.

However, the temptation contained in this theology is a rampant individualism.  If my faith is all about me and Jesus having warm fuzzies, then nothing else matters.  My religion may make me a better person, but my God has little to say about politics, work or family life.  Church is no long about a community embodying Christ in this world.  Instead, we are a group of individuals gathered for our own individual needs.  Individual Christians are no longer a people with a message that "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ."  We become either chaplains, endorsing the existing order, or we hide from the existing order in our own cultural ghetto.  

Beck's argument against Jim Wallis and those who carry the flag of "social justice" seems to be:  "Faith is personal.  Talking about the collective concern of justice in society is thus out of bounds."  However, Beck every night complains about the injustices in society.  By Beck's own argument, the modern prophet who speaks for the just and against the unjust cannot stand on his or her faith. 

Rather than a ad hominem condemnation of social justice, Beck would do better by arguing that his policies would benefit society including the poor, the orphan and the widow.  He should make the argument that Wallis, however well-intentioned, would make society more unjust.  If he can't make that argument, then perhaps he should rethink his position or at least be quiet. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pacifism, the Bible and the American Founding

Kurt Willems, a Mennonite pastor and seminary student from Fresno Pacific University has caused an uproar concerning an article he wrote for the Sojourners' blog.  His claim is that Christianity and July 4th are Incompatible.  Mark Tooley over at the Institute on Religion and Democracy has responded.  (Unfortunately, I noted at least one error in his article.  Stanley Hauerwas is not an Anabaptist.  He is United Methodist.  He is highly influenced by Mennonite writers, like John Yoder, but he's a Methodist.)

Clearly a pacifist would have a problem with any political system founded upon an act of violence.  Tooley has a point in suggesting that the one who condemns American Independence on the grounds of pacifism should rightfully be condemning Bastille Day or the Bolshevik Revolution.  For that matter, that same person should also condemn the blood spilled to liberate slaves in America or concentration camps in Europe.  Even further, one might even question the use of deadly force by a police officer in the line of duty.  I personally am not a pacifist, and I do not believe that rulers bear the sword in vain.  Nonetheless, I am respectful of the pacifist tradition in Christianity.  Hauerwas and Yoder are respected dialogue partners of mine.

The critique that I find more interesting comes from Mark Noll, a leading evangelical among academics.  Willems' own comments spring from an article that Noll wrote for Christianity Today.  I disagree with Noll when he suggests that America probably would have received independence freely as Canada and Australia later did.  Such conjecture is not possible because independence for other colonies only occurred after the Americans took their freedom by force.  Nonetheless, Noll's critique of the rhetoric at the time of the founding is helpful.  Many used and misused the Bible to further political ends.  He writes,
"An evil precedent was also established in America for later times of national crisis by employing the Bible eccentrically (instead of theologically) and by worrying about classical Christian justifications for warfare hardly at all."
Just because someone finds a slew of Biblical references and allusions does not make a country Christian.  For example, I find Newt Gingrich's "Walking Tour of God in Washington D.C." of only limited use.  Sure, you can find biblical quotes or references to Moses on public buildings, but does that baptize our system of government?  I personally find John Murray's book, We Hold These Truths, to be a more sober reflection on Christian tradition and the American founding than what we usually find on the left or right.

The United States of America is a nation is under God, which does not mean that everything we do is compatible with faith.  Instead, it means that we are always subject to God's judgment.  This country is not perfect, and I pray that God would mend her every flaw.  Our first allegiance must only be to God and only secondarily is our allegiance to nation.  That being said, our political freedoms and our understanding of limited government are wonderful gifts to the world.  Unlike Willems, I do think that celebrating America's founding is compatible with the Christian faith. 

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Happy Anniversary

Fourteen years of wedded bliss. Happy Anniversary, Sara.