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What Glenn Beck Doesn't Understand About Biblical Social Justice

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When Glenn Beck promised to devote a whole week of his television show to come after me, I wasn't sure he really meant it. I guess he did. Last night he began to make good on the threat he made on his radio show that "the hammer will fall."

I confess to having never really watched Glenn Beck's show before being told that he equated the term "social justice, highly respected in the Christian world and embedded in all of our traditions," with Communism, Marxism, Nazism, and a completely totalitarian view of government. He said "social justice" is a "perversion of the gospel" and told Christians to leave their churches if they heard that term used by their pastors or even found it on the Web site! Whew.

I responded on my blog that instead of leaving all our churches, maybe we should just stop watching his show and the insults against a teaching at the core of the gospel and integral to biblical faith, and I suggested that instead of turning pastors and priests in to "church authorities," we turn ourselves in to Glenn Beck (since our church authorities also regard social justice as core to their faith). Well, he apparently got angry and promised that the hammer would "pound over and over through the night" on "your cute little organization and the cute little people who work for you." Some of them are indeed very cute, but they felt a little uneasy about the context of the compliment.

But tonight's first installment of the hammer proved that Beck isn't just angry or merely misguided; he really does completely misunderstand the Christian teaching of social justice and is indeed insulting us.

I was glad he gave us his definition of "social justice" and put it up right on his famous blackboard. "My definition of social justice," he wrote in chalk, is "the forced redistribution of wealth, with a hostility to individual property, under the guise of charity and/or justice." Well, somebody needs to tell Mr. Beck that virtually no church in America, or the world, would support anything close to that as a definition of social justice. Beck needs to hear some good church teaching -- including from his own Mormon church members who fundamentally disagree with him and have said so.

He did say that caring for the poor was good, and he does it himself, but only in individual ways, and that anything more than that is a slippery slope first to "socialism," then "forced re-distribution of wealth," then full-out "Marxism." It was all in cool diagrams and triangles on his blackboard, which he said just came to him before the show. I can believe that. Again, somebody should take Mr. Beck to a good Catholic Education Congress, like the one I spoke at last weekend in Los Angeles, where 25,000 Christians talked excitedly about the vital relationship between personal and social responsibility.

Then he nailed me. He accused me of saying that faith-based initiatives and their resources were inadequate to reduce poverty by themselves. Guilty as charged. The quote was likely in the context of calling Christians to take such actions and lead by example (something I have preached and tried to practice for almost four decades) but that we will be most effective when we also work in partnership with other sectors: the private market, the rest of civil society, and even the GOVERNMENT! Would somebody please tell Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army that they are really supporting Marxism if they partner with the public sector?

Then Beck played a tape which exposed me saying that "redistribution" (the word in the English language that most seems to scare him) was part of the gospel message. He could have mentioned the gospel stories of the Rich Young Ruler, of Lazarus and the Rich Man, or the stern warnings of Jesus in Matthew 25 that we will be judged by "our treatment of the least of these." But he didn't. He did make a brief reference to Christ's teaching that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle; but he didn't seem to get it.

Instead Beck said that what I meant was...you guessed it: "forced redistribution, socialism, and Marxism." Hmm, don't ever remember saying that (it will be hard for Fox to find the videos of that), or even remember any of my fellow traveler social justice Christians ever saying or supporting that.

But we do say that while social justice begins with our own lives, choices, and sacrifices, it doesn't end there. Those of us who have actually done this work for years all understand that you can't just pull the bodies out of the river, and not send somebody upstream to see what or who is throwing them in. Serving the poor is a fundamental spiritual requirement of faith, but challenging the conditions that create poverty in the first place is also part of biblical social justice. In countering Beck's misunderstanding of social justice on The Colbert Report, James Martin, an editor of the Jesuit America magazine, quoted a Catholic Archbishop as saying, "When I feed the poor they call me a saint; but when I ask why people are poor they call me a communist." He suggested Beck has that problem.

Private charity, which Beck and I are both for, wasn't enough to end the slave trade in Great Britain, end legal racial segregation in America, or end apartheid in South Africa. That took vital movements of faith which understood the connection between personal compassion and social justice. Those are the movements that have inspired me and shaped my life -- not BIG GOVERNMENT. And my allies in faith-based social justice movements have wonderfully different views on the role of government -- some bigger than mine and some smaller than mine -- but we all believe social justice requires changing both personal choices and unjust structures. Apparently Beck thinks social justice ends with private charity, but very few churches in the nation would agree with him.

He even recounted my favorite story about the 2,500 verses in the Bible about the poor that we cut out of an old Bible when we were in seminary -- leaving a Bible full of holes -- again, proving my "Marxist" motivations but missing the whole point of the story: that we have made our American Bible full of holes when we have ignored the biblical call to social justice. We might now call that old holey (not holy) Bible, The Glenn Beck Bible. Since the great attraction of so many young people of faith today is the call of Jesus to justice, Glenn may continue to lose the youthful audience who would rather go to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert -- both of whose shows did very funny spoofs on Beck's views last week.

But what really made me mad was when Glenn Beck called Dorothy Day a "Marxist" and went after us both with guilt by association. Guilty again. I couldn't be more proud of that association. It was clear that Beck had never heard of her, so somebody really needs to tell him that Dorothy Day is regarded as a modern saint in the Catholic Church and is already in the process of canonization--before he puts her up on his blackboard. Beck recounted a conversation I had with Dorothy as a new young convert to Christianity. She was in her eighties and asked me if I had been a radical student in my early years as she had been. "Yeah," Beck recorded me saying. And if I had been attracted to Marxism, as she had. "Yeah" I said again. Gotcha! Beck said. They're both Marxists! What he left out was the next lines of our conversation that I still remember and, of course, were on the same tape he abruptly cut off. "And now, you're a Catholic?" Dorothy Day asked me. "Well, now I'm a Christian," I said. "You're not a Catholic?" she chided. I lamely responded that "some of my best friends" were Catholic, and Dorothy smiled. We were sharing our conversion stories from secular radicalism and Marxism to Jesus Christ and his gospel of love and justice. Glenn Beck just left that part out, as he often leaves stuff out or just makes up stuff and puts it in. Here's the full audio of that interview:

Then he most offensively implied that people like us (all up on his infamous blackboard now) at least know people who believe in violence to make our social revolutions succeed -- like former Weatherman Bill Ayers (never met him or heard of him, until Fox tried to make him famous and link him to Barack Obama). By the way, that is really the point of bringing "the hammer" down on me -- to get at President Obama, for whom Beck said repeatedly that I am an "influential spiritual advisor" on a whole range of policy matters. Trouble is, I have never been a "spiritual advisor" to Obama, but am happy to be regarded as one of his many "friends" over the last decade and only gave him "policy advice" in the official report of the Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on which I served for a year with a distinguished group of interfaith leaders -- who will all likely be up soon on Glenn's blackboard. You can read the full report and check all our recommendations for "Socialism and Marxism."

But I do want to expose his audience to some of the people who are the kind of social revolutionaries Glenn Beck most fears. Listen to this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

Or this:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Or this:

Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.

The first quote was the words of Jesus (Luke 4:18-19), and the second from Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53), which prophesied the meaning of the coming of Jesus to include what we Christians call "social justice." The third quote is from Pope Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate), one of the most conservative of recent popes and a fierce opponent of Communism. Glenn, he thinks social justice has something to do with "redistribution," just like you quoted me as saying. But neither of us have ever called for the "forced re-distribution" that you keep adding on to our words or say we "really mean."

Both Jesus and Mary could soon be up on the Beck blackboard, along with the Holy Father.

C'mon Glenn. Have me on the show! Give me my own blackboard. And let's have a real debate about "social justice!" You've got to be able to do better than this. Just because a fascist and anti-Semitic demagogue in the 1930s like Father Coughlin twisted the term social justice to justify his tirades, please don't say "Jim Wallis is Coughlin." Now you're going to make my rabbi friends mad too, not just the Christians. And please stop accusing Christians who teach social justice with support for totalitarian governments on the Right or the Left. Christian social justice does not equal totalitarian government, but on the contrary, has always tried to hold government accountable to the needs of "the least of these."

Listen to what we teach: you start by practicing social justice in your own life, then you act for social justice in your family, your congregation, your community, in the most local way possible. The Catholics call that "subsidiarity" -- look it up. And you only work to change government when you can't accomplish things on a smaller scale. Churches were the very best in responding to Katrina, for example, but churches can't build levees. And Glenn, voluntary church action can't provide health care for millions who don't have it, or fix broken urban school systems, or provide jobs at fair wages, or protect our kids from toxic air, water, and toys, or fix a broken immigration system that is grinding up our vulnerable families, or keep banks from cheating our people. All that requires commitments to holding governments accountable to social justice, and advocating for better public policies. Christians have done that for many years, especially in democratic governments where they have the opportunity. Take a breath Glenn, your phobia about any government makes you see "Marxists" under every rock -- and in every Christian heart and congregation. Give it a rest!

We start with God, not government (remember your diagram Glenn); we start with changing lives, not policies; we always start on the home front in our families, congregations, and communities; and only address public policies when we can't do it ourselves. That's Christian social justice, Glenn, a passion for the gospel and the poor-- not for totalitarian government.

Both Glenn Beck and I have been flooded with more than fifty thousand messages from church leaders, members, and pastors saying that they are "social justice Christians." But Jesus also said that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I invited Beck to a civil and respectful conversation about the issues at stake here, but he has chosen a different path. But whatever Glenn Beck does to me, to Sojourners, or to others, I will continue to refuse to personally attack him. And I urge our supporters not to personally attack him either. Rather, pray for him, for me, for Sojourners, and for our country.

+ Support Sojourners as we respond to Glenn Beck's attacks

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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