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Christian Social Justice?

Reflections on Glenn Beck’s Kerfuffle

If you’re in the loop, you already know that conservative Radio-TV commentator Glenn Beck is being savaged by liberal Christians across the country for having said,

“I beg you: look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

In a more temperate moment, in full context, I heard Mr. Beck say something different:

Now, I wasn’t aware that God had politics. I would like to again join all of the liberals in suggesting we have a separation of church and state, that maybe there’s a problem when your preacher stands up and starts telling you who to vote for, how to vote, and what the government should look like.

Now, I know there are churches that do that. I don’t attend them. I don’t like them. You can do that if you want, but if you want to make sure that God’s politics aren’t America’s politics, you know, that would probably be a good thing to check into those words of those churches. Because I don’t think God has politics. I think he has the truth.

As an unavoidable side effect of the info-blizzard, that modern hyper-acceleration of information inflow and our diminished time for reflection and consolidation, we are experiencing the corruption of language — word pollution. This has facilitated the political and ideological corruption of religious terms and the religious appropriation of politics and public policy. In earlier eras, when church and state were inseparable, this wouldn’t have seemed remarkable. In the American context, it can only appear as backsliding.

The proper use of the term social justice as a specifically Christian agenda (or a Jewish agenda, or a Judeo-Christian agenda) depends on shifting patterns of language and semantics. The various meanings that the term “social justice” is intended to convey remain subject to the political agendas of competing ideologies. Social justice, as it is used in contemporary religious circles, has become a very slippery notion. In a different era it would refer to the release of slaves, the restoration of kidnapped children or the return of stolen tools of one’s trade. In the current era, it is all too often a stand-in phrase for a large scale, long term political agenda with deep taproots in Marxism.

From my point of view, Marxism falls into one of those sub-categories of “cool ideas” that have a superficial facial appeal but a truly dreadful – and innate – tendency to spawn authoritarian abuses. The core assumption of Marxist thinking is that all economic inequalities are also inequities, that is, that they are inherently unjust without any inquiry into individual circumstances or recognition of the primacy of transactional justice (think of the restoration of stolen property after a trial vs. the razing of a village that harbors a few thieves).

Marxist theory does not recognize earning as conferring any right to retain the fruits of one’s own efforts. The driving force of Marxism in all its forms is envy, often masquerading as love. The goal of Marxism is the elimination of “economic injustice” by which is meant the elimination, by force if necessary, of all economic inequalities, through collective power acts based on Marxist economic theory, rather than by individual justice acts of restoration, based on applied moral transaction theory (the latter essentially is the operating model of the ‘just tribunal’).

[Permit me, relevant aside: Political correctness, the notion that all our social, ethnic and racial differences need either to be pretended out of existence or somehow leveled amounts to social Marxism. But that is a topic for another day.]

There is a distinct boundary between well crafted government social programs that operate as a temporary safety net (think of time-limited unemployment assistance here) and those that are blatantly or covertly aimed at “closing the income gap” between rich and poor via the Robin Hood solution, taking from one group of targeted citizens in order to give it to benefited constituencies. That side of the boundary has taproots in Marxism. The gradualist, covert form of the Grand Economic Leveling Programme is Marxism Lite.

Once nakedly exposed, Marxism becomes a repellant caricature of Christian ethics – representing the brutal substitution of an engineered, faux-equality (materialist / economic) for equality before God, and substitution of the bureaucratic administration of collective political justice for fairly individuated moral justice.

For Christians – and many outside observers – Jesus was the living spiritual and ethical force who was called to reform the human condition. As an iterant rabbi in first century Palestine, Jesus healed and admonished, taught and inspired. But not once did he advocate a forcible taking of someone’s property – whether by an individual, the Roman Imperium or the local authorities. All the acts of kindness, generosity and forbearance that Jesus modeled, praised or taught were individual ones – as individual as are our all-too-human sins. Early in the First Century the resulting religion was a variation of Judaism; it was called “the Way”, a personal path of grace, redemption and renewal, following the universal messianic example.

I think of the social engineers of Marxism as having staged a Frankenstein’s monster ballet, a parodic morality play where crude, unfeeling mechanical movements, devoid of all grace, beauty, kindness and spirit are offered for the real thing. And I think of the ultimate end-state of Marxism, a fully leveled social and economic order, as the ultimate triumph of entropy, the final extinguishment of all creative variation. In this deeper sense, I see Marxism as containing a full-on evil poison pill.

But that’s just one opinion.

When examining questions of secular public policy, no practicing Christian or Jew I have ever met would even attempt a principled religious argument against making various public resources widely available both to those able and those unable to pay taxes. It is difficult to locate any biblical injunction against a policy of providing roads, police protection, basic education, for example, equally to poor and rich.

But a policy to eliminate all differences between rich and poor through the forcible redistribution of resources, whether earned or unearned, is another matter entirely. If that is what is meant by social justice then a significant number of practicing Christians and Jews can reasonably dissent whether teaching that brand of social justice is appropriate in their churches or synagogues.

Another slippery term that has become subject to rampant political and ideological appropriation is progressive. Humanitarians of every stripe can hope and actively work for a world wherein more and more individuals act towards their fellow human beings with greater kindness, honesty and forbearance. That we can readily agree that would represent social progress.

[Please allow me another aside: Is it really progressive to achieve moral indifference, say, to the involuntary euthanasia of the elderly and disabled or the termination of a beating heart in utero? Reasonable minds can differ on this, no?]

Marxists aim for a world without economic (and even social) differences, irrespective of kindness, honesty and forbearance, one that must be called into being by the power of the state. For them, progress means adopting public policies that accomplish this reorientation over time. Marxism Lite is progressive social justice in this very sense. And it is all too often what is meant by the pursuit of social justice in a religious setting.

Of course, I am not unaware of the Gospel passages often cited by those social progressives who seek to enlist government in the service of making a “better world”, by which – in their heart of hearts – they mean some version of the Great Marxian Utopia.

On one reported occasion when a wealthy outsider asked to join Jesus’ group of apostles, the man was admonished to sell everything first and give it away.[1] Like the later monks, Jesus’ immediate entourage of apostles had agreed to a communal arrangement of shared belongings during his ministry, unburdened by retained wealth. But Jesus bestowed blessings, grace and forgiveness on an entire range of ordinary people, tax collectors, farmers, artisans, widows and prostitutes without that injunction. A fair reading of the Gospels reveals a sprit of profound generosity and reconciliation as part of one’s right relationship with God, an injunction to repair from within, not to engineer a forcible remaking of all society from without.

The temptation to use the levers of political power to accomplish that which we are called as individual moral agents to do in our personal relationships represents the ultimate Faustian bargain, as the hell-on-earth in Lenin’s Russia has appallingly demonstrated.

[Another aside: The National Socialists of Hitler’s Germany represented the dark mirror reflection of the bleak communist vision, a differently organized order, to be sure, but one characterized by universal sacrifice to the goal: both were equally militaristic, equally brutal and equally evil.]

Christians and Jews can reasonably differ among themselves and with their secular counterparts about a whole range of political, economic and social policies, but any claim that one’s religion obligates one to advocate “social justice” demands a careful examination and searching dialogue. Social justice in the Marxist-Lite sense is not the accepted doctrine of “official Christianity”, nor should it be taught as doctrine from pulpit or lectern any more than one political party, candidate or set of “approved” candidates should be endorsed.

Or so it appears to at least one reasonable mind.


[1] EG: Luke 18:22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

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