It's shocking, at this point, that the world is still able to be shocked by Glenn Beck. He clearly has a talent for arousing ire. This time, he's after churches which espouse "social" or "economic justice," encouraging his followers to leave churches which mention such issues. (If you're interested.) It's hard to make sense of what exactly he's talking about. Presumably, we're dealing with a code for socialism...and Nazism. And it's an issue of religious freedom... from our religious leaders.
Feel free, if you're interested, to sign Bread for the World's petition. They'll deliver Glenn a Social Justice Bible in person when they reach 35,000 signatures. It's fairly easy (and probably right) to dismiss Beck. I suspect this is an outlandish statement that will lose him a handful of followers, offer a few preachers fodder for conversation, and the world will keep turning.
More troubling for me, however, was Ross Douthat's recent NYTimes column, in which he laments the decline in "true religion." Conservative churches, he claims, are too caught up in "culture wars" and liberal churches too caught up in "social justice" and they both thus squeeze out the central focus of religion - the "quest for the numinous."
What both Beck and Douthat miss, and what "social justice" minded churches (and congregations of all kinds) struggle mightily to articulate, is that the "search for the numinous" and striving for "social justice" are not meant to be different things. So often we talk, in our religious communities, of prayer and worship and spiritual practice as one thing, and of seeking and working for justice as something different. But it seems to me this is precisely not the point.
"Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me," says Jesus (Matt. 25). This is a powerful exhortation to help those who are in need. But it's also a clear message that this is where and how we will encounter Christ - "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat."
Like prayer and worship, social justice is part of our spiritual discipline and practice. It's not code for socialism (though it certainly disrupts the economic powers that be.) And it's not a church sub-committee, (God love 'em.) It's certainly not the flipside of the culture war coin. It's what it means to seek God and follow Christ - and it's not optional (in my humble opinion).
During most of the year, as worship closes we say, in my church, "Go in peace, serve the Lord." But during the Lenten season we say, "Go in peace, remember the poor." This is a not-so-subtle reminder of our duty, but hopefully also reminds us that these two statements are mirrors. Serve the Lord - Remember the poor. Work for Justice - Seek God.
We need, I believe, prayer and community and song and worship. And we need also to seek justice. It's who we are and what we do. It's our spiritual discipline and our seeking after the divine.
So go in peace, remember the poor...