April 5, 2010
Glenn Beck is Not the Enemy
The church has a significant image problem and denouncing Beck won't solve it.
The email provided a helpful link and instructed me to “Tell Glenn Beck: I’m a social justice Christian.” The blunt Fox News pundit had recently outed “social justice” as code language for socialism. According to Beck, should you uncover this sinister conspiracy at your church, the best course of action is to run “as fast as you can.” As Skye pointed out on this blog, the interesting thing about Beck’s claim is not its validity or his sanity but how “the church engages this issue of social justice and its role in the life and mission of God’s people.”
In the days following Beck’s rant, links were posted via Twitter and Facebook to articles and videos lampooning Beck’s character and claims. I was invited to join virtual groups to demonstrate my opposition to any version of Christianity that doesn’t claim social justice as a central tenant.
Why the stampede to distance ourselves from this talking head’s pontifications about social justice? I’d like to suggest two motivating factors—the tarnished public image of the American church and personal insecurities about our Christian identity—that, unfortunately, cannot sustain the actual pursuit of social justice.
Over the past few years, the American church has been told in no uncertain terms of its image problem. They Like Jesus But Not The Church (Zondervan, 2007) was the self-explanatory title of Dan Kimball’s book about younger non-Christians. Around the same time Kimball’s book came out, we were shown by the research in UnChristian (Baker, 2007) exactly what about the church is so repellent to these outsiders. Need more convincing? Visit a satirical blog like Jesus Needs New PR for a look at the most cringe-worthy moments from our subculture. The message has been heard loud and clear: We Christians are a ridiculous bunch of folks, consumed with cultural pet peeves at the expense of our witness to Jesus in the world.
With a public image this bad, would you be surprised to find “Glenn Beck groupies” on the next survey of things people don’t like about Christians? No wonder many of us want everyone—especially our non-Christian friends—to know that Glenn Beck doesn’t speak for us when he belittles social justice.
While we despair of this lousy public image, personal anxiety about our Christian identity also has us grasping for easy ways to label ourselves. Many of us exist in an uneasy tension between a comfortable American existence and our costly discipleship to Jesus. Our churches admire those who have made significant sacrifices in pursuit of God’s justice and mercy—missionaries who serve the newly displaced in Haiti or youth workers in our nation’s inner cities—yet many of us struggle to take even small steps toward such sacrifices ourselves. In reality there is little evidence of our alleged commitment to social justice to be found within our comfortably safe way of life. Many of us feel guilty about this identity crisis and are glad for any chance to prove the sincerity of our faith, even if it means using Glenn Beck as our foil.
Our anxieties about image and identity are heightened because, regardless of where we live, it is nearly impossible to ignore the pressing needs for justice. A church doesn’t have to be surrounded by urban blight or rapid gentrification to grapple with these needs. To take but one example, the fear and poverty faced by undocumented immigrants is becoming increasingly evident to suburban and rural congregations. As we benefit from the hard work and taxed income of these immigrants, it’s hard not to wonder about the inherit injustices of our immigration policies. Yet the majority of us remain motionless.
In his excellent book The Beloved Community (Perseus, 2006), about the critical role of faith in movements of social justice, Charles Marsh notes that many white Christians supported the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s…from a distance. Willing to chide their backward Southern brethren, these more urbane Christians ultimately disappointed the movement’s leaders with their lack of action. About this ongoing tendency for privileged American Christianity to only talk about social justice (and never get around to doing it) Marsh asks,
“Do Christians in North America really believe that the world is God’s creation, and that reconciliation and redemption are his work to accomplish? Then let us have the courage and the humility to recognize that God is most certainly tired of all our vanity and our talk… Ours is a nation that could use a lesson in stillness.”
I wonder—is our cheap outrage toward the Glenn Becks of the world any different from those outspoken but dormant Christians 50 years ago? Is claiming social justice as part of our Christian identity any more impressive than supporting civil rights with lip service alone?
I think Marsh is right. If we believe that social justice is central to God’s character and mission, then it is time for most of us to ignore Glenn Beck. Instead of simply talking about social justice perhaps we can begin taking our identity in Christ very, very seriously. Who knows? Maybe rediscovering this genuine identity—crucified with Christ and resurrected to a new life of mission under his easy yoke—will also solve our image problem. We will be known not by feigned outrage or easy labels but by sustained and loving action rooted in our new life in Christ.