Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Social Justice and the Better Choice

On his radio and television shows a couple of weeks ago, Glenn Beck set out to convince his audience that "social justice," the term many churches use to describe their efforts to address poverty and human rights, is a "code word" for communism and Nazism. Beck urged Christians to leave their churches if leaders would not reconsider their emphasis on social justice.

"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! … Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That's what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: 'social justice.' They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy."

I want to set aside Beck’s tortured view of history and political philosophy and ask this question, from the point of view of the church: Why the attack on social justice? After all, the Bible seems very clear on these issues:
• Jesus chastises the Pharisees, saying, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside [the dish] to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”
• Later in the same gospel, Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
• Many of the Proverbs address the issue. For example, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them.”
• It should go without saying that the Torah is clear on the issue: “There should be no poor among you…. If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs.”
• Jesus’ first public declaration of His ministry was in the context of social justice: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
• In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
• The sheep and goats passage contains Jesus’ famous line that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
• The Apostle James, the half-brother of Christ, teaches: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?”

It is simply axiomatic that the Bible teaches, repeatedly and emphatically, that what most of us call “social justice” – giving to the poor, striving for justice, helping the less fortunate, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves – is expected of believers.

So, why question churches involved in social justice? I think there are two answers. (OK, there are more answers than that. These questions could well be cover for all sorts of agenda that fill the blogosphere and the airwaves. If so, the substance of the question is not worth discussing - it is just a tool for opening a pet can of worms. But I think there are two legitimate bases for at least raising the question, and those are what I want to address. The others are not worth a response.)

The first is political. The fact that social justice is a requirement for Christians is not the same thing as accepting that government should be in the social justice business. The calls in scripture are for believers, the church, and the people of God. The calls in scripture are for voluntary service, not compulsory action. Is it really an offering to pay taxes? Does government action answer the demands of scripture?

I understand these political arguments. To take them to the extent of demanding that I leave my church, however, is ridiculous. For Glenn Beck, who as I understand it is a relatively newly-minted Mormon, to deign to tell any of us that we should leave our churches based on his political agenda is insulting. If I disagree with my church on individual issues (and I often do), the answer is to work within the church, not to leave it.

There is a second answer to the question, and it is decidedly not political. It also has nothing to do with Glenn Beck’s rant. It is an issue of competition, of the “good” getting in the way of the “best.”

When Jesus comes to Bethany with his entourage, Martha sets about to prepare food and lodging for the several dozen drop-ins to her home. Her sister Mary, we are told, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him teach. Martha is no dummy – we see in her discussion with Jesus in John 11 that she is theologically deep, and she is the one whom Jesus chooses to hear the critical words “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me, though dead, shall yet live.” Now, she sees a need for service to those who need help, and she sets about to fulfill that need. Mary does not help, and Martha complains to Jesus.

Why? Is Mary a slacker who is once again shirking responsibility? I don’t think so. I think Mary normally is one who pitches right in with Martha on the service front. Today is different, and Martha notices. Today, Mary is leaving the work to Martha.

It is important that Jesus never once indicts Martha’s service. What catches Jesus’ attention is Martha’s distraction. She is “worried about a great many things” while Mary is focused on “one thing.” Jesus refuses to find fault with Mary, for her “one thing” is the most important.

In “City Slickers,” Curly tells Billy Crystal’s character that the secret to life is “one thing.” Crystal spends the better part of two movies trying to figure out what it is.

In scripture, Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he lacks “one thing.” The healed blind man could not answer all of the synagogue leaders’ questions, but he knew “one thing.” Paul had not taken hold of everything that he could have, but “one thing” he knew.

And therein lies the lesson. I don’t think it is a lesson that Glenn Beck had in mind, but it is a lesson for all of us concerned about social justice. We cannot let the good get in the way of the best. When serving in the soup line replaces the inner yearning for relationship with Christ, we have become Martha. When marching for justice or running the yard sale becomes our worship, we are "worried about a great many things." We are distracted.

Jesus approves Mary because she has made the better choice. Sitting and listening – today we might well call it worship and prayer and Bible study – grow out of commitment to “one thing,” and Jesus approves that choice. Never blaming Martha for her honest desire to help those who need help … never hinting that service is wrong … never once suggesting that social justice is the wrong aim … Jesus treasures our attention. He always seeks relationship.

That is the one thing. That is the better choice.

We of course must seek social justice. If your church is using “social justice” as a code word for some political agenda as Beck suggests, then perhaps you need to address that. I don’t think most of our churches are guilty of that.

But in performing your service, don’t get distracted from the one thing. Always make the better choice.

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