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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Brief Primer on Social Justice (In response to Glenn Beck)


First - A confession. For quite a few years I ran a social justice ministry at a United Methodist Church. O.K. So you say, "What's the big deal with that?" Well, according to recent statements by Glenn Beck, that makes me either a Nazi or a communist. Since I'm (technically) a Jew, that rules out the Nazi thing (I hope). I'll go for one out of two. I can deal with being a communist if that means I'm hanging out at the intersection of justice and mercy.

According to Beck, al those years I was promoting social justice I was covertly promoting Nazism and communism. At least now I know why a few right wing, arch-conservative people in that church were constantly attacking my work. At any rate, all this made me think that some folks (and obviously a large percentage of Christians based on my own experience) need a primer on social justice. So here goes Leonard's One Minute Social Justice Lesson:

Just a little over 2000 years ago there was this guy named Jesus. He was born in a manger to poor parents; we're talking dirt poor. Things back then were not much different than they are now. There were some people at the very top living high, some in the middle doing reasonably well and doing the bidding of those on top, and finally there were a whole lot way down at the bottom slaving for crumbs and making those at the top filty rich (and keeping them in power). The trick was (and is) keeping enough people doing well enough to protect the people at the top. Sound familiar???

Jesus grows up, sees what's going on and says, "Whoa! This is not right. So he associates with anyone and everyone who is on the fringes (the least of these) as well as the occasional tax collector (hey, they were in a tough spot). He was the original social (and economic) justice radical. That really, really scared those rich, powerful guys (and they were men) running the show. And the rest is history. The End.

So - Was Jesus a Nazi??? Or a communist??? I think not. He was just trying to show us that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and therefore should be treated that way by each other. Yes really - We should see God in each other. Pretty radical stuff! When you get right down to it, labels do not do justice to anyone. In fact, labeling people merely demeans them; reduces them to something less than human. It's a slippery slope that (I would argue) leads to bigotry and racism and all sorts of other ugly things. It is a form of violence, and is in itself an injustice.

My experience in the church demonstrated that nearly everyone is happy to show mercy (charity) towards those who are less fortunate. It makes them feel good to put money in an envelope to help someone in need. But as soon as many of those same people are asked to take the next step and advocate to help change the conditions that create the need for charity in the first place they get fidgety. They become uncomfortable. After all; charity is easy, justice is hard. It was the Roman Catholic Archbishop Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara who once said:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.

In defense of the church, there are many wonderful religious people who understand and walk the path that balances mercy and justice. And if I'm not mistaken, you could go through your Bible and find countless passages that refer to doing justice (in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament). My favorite is Micah 6:8:

...and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you God?
Perhaps Glenn missed that one.



P.S. - Check out this great Colbert Report video that gives a Jesuit perspective on the matter.

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Glenn Beck Attacks Social Justice - James Martin
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