A Response to Glenn Beck on Social Justice

I responded to a friend on the recent comments by commentator Glenn Beck on Social Justice.  Below is my text:

Glenn Beck has a narrow definition of Social Justice.  For him, it is political and liberal.  All of his examples make this clear.  Thus, his argument, from a philosophical perspective, goes like this:

1.  Social Justice is an abuse of power, borders on entitlement and is tainted with socialist ideology

2.  Instead of all that, Christ commanded us to love

3.  Therefore, Social Justice is not good and possibly quite bad and different from what Christ commanded

In contrast, the argument from many strong Christian leaders for Social Justice goes like this:

1.  Christ commanded us absolutely to love – indiscriminately, globally and holistically

2.  Social Justice basically means indiscriminate and holistic love in working clothes

3.  Therefore, Social Justice is near and dear to the heart of God

Put another way:

Glenn Beck: Social Justice >> political, liberal and a-theological >> bad and dangerous

Many others (and me): Social Justice >> love >> good and true

What I believe many of the younger Christian leaders understand better than many conservatives with a tight narrow definition of social justice is that in debates like this, that center around terminology, History and Etymology count way less than we are inclined to think.  Rather, how a word or phrase is “trending” at the current moment in culture is a much better gauge for what it actually “means.”

If we were debating the meaning of the word “gay” and someone took the meaning of the word from when he was a kid talking with his grandparents and then defended it with all the logic in the world – he’d still be wrong.  The cultural meaning of the word has changed.  Groovy was a cool word in the 70’s, but not now.  Social Justice was a negative concept to many from the 50’s to the 80’s, but to this generation it is a good word.  It’s not that we’ve changed our worldview completely on certain issues… it’s that the term has morphed culturally.  What it points to as well as whether it is a positive or negative term.

The bigger issue that is missed on the conservative side of this argument (one that you should recognize from your time growing up in the conservative circles) is that all the energy against Social Justice and related ideas does not add up to energy for love and peacemaking.  I can argue against a cult without ever arguing for Christianity… I can argue against Coca Cola without ever arguing for water.

The other side, however, is arguing for love.  The energy of many of my friends promoting Social Justice adds more to the “love” tank than the time and energy their antagonists add to the “love” tank.  You can see this by the two conclusions from the philosophical arguments above: one ends with a negation while the other ends with an affirmation.  This is more than semantic — it actually points energy in a direction.

It’s subtle, but it is why the conservative church went 50 years arguing against the Social Gospel before it realized that it hadn’t really argued for the many justice or love aspects on the periphery that Christ certainly would have had things to say about.

I’m an Independent.  I try to avoid falling wholly in either the conservative or liberal camp.  What I do know, however, is that many hate the term Social Justice because of what it might have meant decades ago or what it does mean today in political arenas.  I think this is where Glenn Beck is coming from. He means something by Social Justice that is highly political, liberal and debatable.

Most of the Christian leaders I know, however, use the phrase to talk about seemingly incontestable things like caring for orphans and widows, helping children in the third world who have AIDS, promoting economic and educational initiatives in developing countries, dealing with refugees, world hunger and the horror of modern-day human trafficking.

In this discussion, terminology, definitions and meaning are everything – in many instances, we’re all saying the same thing and promoting the broader categories of justice and love.

In the end, this is a classic debate where more heat can be added than light.  Starting with a talk show host at the center is probably not a good idea –

Categories: journal,justice,social justice

Theology and Culture