Friday, March 12, 2010

“To Know God is to Do Justice”

The always controversial Glenn Beck has stirred up quite a fuss by the outrageous remarks he made on his March 2 TV program. Fox News has removed access to the YouTube video of that show, but you can read about it here if you are not familiar with what he said.
Basically, Beck urged his listeners to leave churches that preach social justice, saying that the latter term is a code word for communism and Nazism. There has been an outpouring of outrage by many Christians because of Beck’s shocking statements. (You can read about Jim Wallis’ response here.)
Before I knew about the stir Beck created, I had already planned to write a blog piece with this title. Based largely on Jeremiah 22:15-16, the liberation theologians of South America have long emphasized that “to know God is to do justice.” Those words are in the title of a subsection in Gustavo Gutiérrez’ s book A Theology of Liberation (1988, pp. 110-2). It is also in the title of the fourth chapter of Robert McAfee Brown’s Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984).
The justice emphasized in the above works is clearly social justice, which includes such things as helping the “poor and oppressed” of society to have greater access to the necessities of life, free of exploitation by the wealthy and powerful.
In 1 John 4:7-8, we read, Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” But some might ask, What has that got to do with social justice?
I think the “third proposition” in Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics (1966) is true: “Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed, nothing else.” Thus, paraphrasing the above Bible verses, we can say that everyone who does justice knows God, and whoever does not do justice does not know God.
So, thinking about what I wrote in the two previous postings about experiencing God, let me now suggest that not only have many or most people of other religious traditions not experienced God, many or most people of the Christian tradition have not experienced God either.
If loving / doing justice are the sure indicators of knowing God, as the Bible seems to suggest, then perhaps we can say there are some people in most religious traditions and some who are not “religious” who know God and there are many in all religious (and non-religious) traditions who do not know God.
And, if this be the case, we each must ask ourselves, Where does that put me? Have I truly experienced God? Do I know God? How is that shown by my love for others and by my actions for social justice?


  1. I don't know much about these things, but maybe Glen Beck has good reason to be concerned about the biblical practice of justice. While I think the word love is overused (to the point it really fails to give us clear categories), I think what is meant is mercy. The biblical notion of "tsedakah" is justice with mercy. That's because it does not exist in a world like ours (contemporary United States of America) that derives justice in terms of, among other things, private property, sovereign individuality, and modern-day capitalism.(See Daniel C. McGuire's, "A Moral Creed For All Christians").

    I think I would be worried about Christianity, too, if I, bought into the above ideas the way Beck and his followers do. Let's face it, the biblical story is challenging to contemporary society's way of life--the lives we, too, live. That is so in that, as McGuire suggests, it seems to have a bias in favor of the poor and against the rich, defines property ownership emphasizing community not the individual,understands rights in terms of social solidarity and need rather than individuality. It's an uphill struggle to practice justice with mercy the way the biblical story implies it should be practiced. Far too many of us have already been mislead into believing that there is something inherently biblical about the American way of life. Far from it.

  2. I put a post on my Facebook about this yesterday and was surprised at how much response it got - the Glenn Beck supporters were miffed at me as they love what he says and think his positivistic support of America is appealing - I guess they couldn't see past their loyalty to him and considered any negative comments about his point of view about the church (even about their churches) to be un-American and liberal
    My goodness! Why can't we talk about the church's rich agenda of justice without converting it to politics and therefore not a faith issue first and foremost?

  3. We should not let Beck's simplistic black-and-white vision blur our own. Experiencing God is not a once-and-for-all fact. Even Jesus famously called out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Happy are those who remember the mountaintop experiences. Only cartoon gurus live there on a permanent basis.

    Nor can we be satisfied with the shades of gray in modern relativism. That may be a step up from mindless black-and-white, but not enough. The Lord of Creation gave us a universe in full, living color, and minds to see it so as well. And like John Muir, riding out a storm in the top of a redwood tree, so we need to experience God in full, living color. And like John Muir, when he returned to civilization, and like Elijah returning from that cave, we need to do justice in the affairs of men.

    I believe most men and women have experienced God in their lives, at least a little. The good news we have to share is that they can experience God even more. And it begins, as the prophet Micah tells us, by seeking to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God."

  4. Glenn Beck goes for the sensational and hence is into the modern movement of celebrity over substance which draws ratings.

    The challenge with the phrase social justice is not where it has been born and raised, but the company which is borrowing and in the process of coopting it for other purposes. In religious traditions social justice can be summed up as doing the right thing.

    However, when it is married in politics to the progressive movement, then it is being preverted by those who want to use it as a cudgel and an instrument of fear, intimidation, and control. Since the current progressive (political) movement is wedded to the concept of the ends justifying any and all means (see Saul Alinsky's 'Handbook for Radicals'), the instrument of social justice is being wrenched from the religious realm into the political realm where a form of it is being used to intimidate anyone into submission who has any opposition to progressive policy positions. Since anything goes in order to win the day (win at any and all costs), the phrase social justice is being used for purposes and as a means for policies that have little to do with justice and much to do with social engineering and control.

    It is disheartening to see that people of good will and intention (where the concept of social justice was formulated and developed) are being used as pawns by people that will say and do and use anything in order to gain power and control over the lives of people. When the governed lose trust in those governing them, then the moral pretext of governing is lost and the sword (figurative and/or literal) becomes the means of maintaining order. When social justice is tied to those who say anything in order to wrench consent from the governed, then social justice is tarnished and carries emotionally-laden burdens with it.

    In 'The Brothers Karamazov' by Dostoyevsky, the character Ivan writes a poem about the Grand Inquisitor set in Seville during the Inquisition. The inquisitor sets up human freedom and human security as polar opposites and that humans will gladly give up the burden of freedom for the promise of security. Politics and politicians try to sell security at the expense of freedom. When social justice gets coopted with security (e.g. equal outcomes and other utopian ideas), then it is a tool being used to diminish human dignity and worth.

  5. DHJ makes a useful distinction between the religious and the political use of the word "justice." We live in a political environment where both political wings will vehemently describe each other exactly with DHJ's terms, "(political) movement . . . wedded to the concept of the ends justifying any and all means." We live in such a polarized society that both sides assume that the most logical explanation for the other side is that the other side is lying.

    So how do we get out of this? Especially in a religious context? First, we all need to take a swig of postmodernism. Not the most tasty stuff, but the central insight that we really do have different worldviews is very valuable.

    Next, we need to realize that the more important a term, the more likely it is to have a very fuzzy definition, with powerful connotations swirling around any denotation. Even in the poem of the Grand Inquisitor, the Grand Inquisitor was not alone. Jesus waltzes right through the poem, subverting everything. Very fuzzy.

    This morning in Sunday School we briefly discussed the commandments in Exodus 23. i think that chapter illustrates the way to speak simply and directly on justice, ever realizing that even a religious discussion of justice will tend to have political implications. Let me close with the opening nine verses:

    You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing, when you hear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit. When you come upon your enemy's ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting free, you must help to set it free. You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for i will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subvert the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

  6. One Thinking Friend, who responds often by e-mail, wrote:

    "It occurs to me that it is the church's responsibility to promote financial justice in the private sector; to call the individual to be just and offer mercy, but preaches and religious are afraid of that challenge because its hard work and threatens their existence. Just because the call of the individual isn't easy doesn't mean we should involve governments, such should never be tolerated because it threatens freedom. You want to outlaw greed and greed is bad but to outlaw it threatens freedom."

    My response: "I didn't say anything about outlawing greed. I wrote about the Christians working for social justice, which entails, among many other things, working to protect people from exploitation. I am a big supporter of freedom (liberty)--but freedom within limits. The limits are when one person's (group's, nation's) freedom deprives other people of their freedom."

  7. Dr. Glenn Hinson, who also responds often by e-mail, wrote this brief, and much appreciated, comment:

    "I think those are the right questions, Leroy. That is a good summary of what scriptures teach."

  8. Dr. Michael Willett Newheart, the only Quaker "Thinking Friend" on my mailing list, sent me the following poem, which I gladly post.

    "Here's a poem I wrote this morning at Quaker meeting that is relevant to this discussion. I tried to post it on your blog but failed. Could you put it there for me?"

    Poem thx glen bek

    I agree w/ that FOXy commentator

    if u heer
    ur church (I would say Christian congregation)
    Emphasizing social justice (=communism=fascism)
    U need 2 run
    From it.

    Rite on bro beck
    Rite on
    Run from that church
    Run from it
    & go

    Feed the poor
    Clothe the naked
    Visit the imprisoned
    Advocate 4 the silenced

    RUN (or U can walk)
    2 that church
    2 pray
    2 worship
    2 center urself

    2 buttonhole peepl (esp the pastor)
    2 run/walk(/jump)
    w/ U
    to feed, advocate, etc

    but don’t call it
    social justice
    just call it


  9. I am also happy to post the following comments from Rev. Lydia Barrow-Hankins, chaplain of Seinan Gakuin in Japan. She was one of my closest colleagues during my last years in Japan, and I am happy to post her comments here for the first time.

    "This blog arrived into my mailbox just as I am preparing a sermon on Micah 6:8. For the 7th year running, I have just returned from taking a group of Japanese students to the Philippines for volunteer work. Oddly enough, I take students who have had little or no contact with the Bible, and they see in the Philippines first hand what the gospel means by 'loving your neighbor.' They feel it, experience it, and come home to Japan with a new, and heretofore completely different, idea of what 'religion' is all about. For these students, the love of Jesus will never be separate from the needs that they saw first hand.

    "In the Philippines, as our group of about 20 walk along the streets of slum areas, we are surrounded by children. The children follow us as we go to the work site, go to visit government offices, everywhere. Surrounded by children's laughter, with a child hanging from every adult arm, a Filipino pastor accompanying us along the street this year commented, 'this must have been what it was like to walk with Jesus.'

    "Justice is not a vague term. In Paliparan, Damarinas, Philippines, it means that these children will have food today, school this week, and a future, with the freedom to make real choices in their lives."