Unless you happen to be one of my children, it’s not that easy to make me angry. Generally speaking, I don’t have much of a temper (again, except where my children are concerned). I have to say, however, that this week, I heard something that made me pretty mad. Here it is:
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.
These words were uttered on the radio by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, who went on to equate the desire for a just society with both Nazi-ism and Communism. Really?
Perhaps the best answer to Mr. Beck is supplied by the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest:
But Glenn Beck is saying something else: “Leave Christianity.” Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus mentions 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 he 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 (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 a handout 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 that way. Standing up for the rights of the poor is not being a Nazi, it’s being Christian. And Communist, as Mr. Beck suggests? 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.”
In the Vision I have proposed for Trinity Church in Menlo Park, I included the words, “A Heart for Justice”. And I have been rightly reminded by some of my flock that the people of Trinity do not all agree on what this means. No one, however, has challenged the idea that working for a just society is anything but a deeply, centrally Christian value. The differences truly lie in what exactly a just society would look like, and how we might actually get there.
For someone to suggest that people should run away from a church that is not afraid to talk about social justice reflects a significant lack of understanding about what Jesus spent a lot of time doing and talking about. After all, who were the people at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1960s? Christians – whose churches took their responsibility to work for a just society seriously. At the time, many people – including many Christians – disagreed with them, and perhaps even thought they were Nazis or Communists. Today, however, you would find few Christians who would suggest that they were doing anything other than pursuing the reign of God.
For those of us in the Episcopal Church, we promise as baptized Christians to “respect the dignity of every human being” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people”. Those aren’t just pious words: they are solemn vows, taken with passages like the one from Matthew quoted above in mind. They are meant to be acted upon. It doesn’t mean you’re a Nazi or a Communist. It simply means you take Jesus seriously.