Glenn Beck said last week on his eponymous radio and television shows that Christians should leave churches that preach “social justice.” Mr. Beck equated the desire for a just society with—wait for it—Nazism and Communism.
I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. 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.
Of course this means that you would have to leave the Catholic Church, which has long championed that particular aspect of the Gospel. The term “social justice” originated way back in the 1800s (and probably predates even that) and has been continually underlined by the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) and popes since Leo XIII, who began the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching with his encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum in 1891. Subsequent popes have built on Leo’s work, continuing the church’s meditation on a variety of social justice issues, in such landmark documents as Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on "the reconstruction of the social order," Quadregismo Anno (1931), Paul VI’s encyclical "on the development of peoples," Populorum Progressio (1967), and John Paul II’s encyclical "on the social concerns of the church" Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987). Social justice also undergirds much of Catholic social teaching on peace. “If you want peace,” said Pope Paul VI, “work for justice.”
Perhaps you think that this is just the work of a few popes. Not so. In 1971, the World Synod of Bishops in its document "Justice in the World," wrote that it was a constitutive dimension of the Gospel: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation." The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, published by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, says this:
The Church's social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions....
Justice is particularly important in the present-day context, where the individual value of the person, his dignity and his rights — despite proclaimed intentions — are seriously threatened by the widespread tendency to make exclusive use of criteria of utility and ownership.
Oh, and social justice is not just some silly foreign idea. American Catholics know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have an Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development. On that website the U.S. bishops say: “At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.” I.e., social justice.
Okay, you get it, right? Social justice is an essential part of Catholic teaching. It's part of being a Catholic. So Glenn Beck is, in essence, saying “Leave the Catholic church.” Or, if you like, the Catholic church is a Nazi church. (Which would have surprised Alfred Delp, Rupert Mayer and Maximilian Kolbe.) Or a Communist one. (Which would have suprised Jerzy Popieluszko and Karol Wojtyla).
But Glenn Beck is saying something else, which might get lost in the translation: Leave Christianity. Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus points to our responsibility to care for the poor, to work on their behalf, to stand with them. In fact, when asked how his followers would be judged, Jesus doesn’t say that it will be based on where you worship, or how you pray, or how often you go to church, or even what political party you believe in. He says something quite different: It depends on how you treat the poor.
In the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 25) he tells his surprised disciples, that when you are meeting the poor, you are meeting him. They protest: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
But our responsibility to care for “the least of these” does not end with simple charity. Giving someone some money, or clothes, or shelter, is an important part of the Christian message. But so is advocating for them. It is not enough simply to help the poor, one must address the structures that keep them poor. Standing up for the rights of the poor is not being a Nazi, it’s being a Christian. And a Communist? It’s hard not to think of the retort of the great apostle of social justice, Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."
The attack on social justice is the tack of those who wish to ignore the concerns of the poor and ignore the social structures that foster poverty. It's not hard to see why people are tempted to do so. How much easier life would be if we didn’t have to worry about the poor! How bothersome--or to use John Paul's felicitous word on this topic--"irksome," they are! How much more comfortable it woud be if we could focus only on our personal piety! How much easier life would be if we didn’t have to worry about unjust social structures!
But ignoring the poor, and ignoring what keeps them poor, is, quite simply, unchristian. Indeed, the poor are the church in many ways. When St. Lawrence, in the fourth century, was ordered by the prefect of Rome to turn over the wealth of the church, Lawrence presented to him the poor.
Glenn Beck's desire to detach social justice from the Gospel is a subtle move to detach care for the poor from the Gospel. But a church without the poor, and a church without a desire for a just social world for all, is not the church. At least not the church of Jesus Christ.
Who was, by the way, poor.