Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Gospel of Social Justice

Fox News commentator Glenn Beck provided the occasion recently (Spring 2010) for an all-too-rare display of ecumenical agreement.  In response to his broadcast denying that social justice is part of the gospel of Jesus, Christians from Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical churches joined in countering his argument with numerous affirmations of the centrality of social justice to the gospel message.
Some entertainment figures thrive on making controversial statements, and commenting on religion is always good for generating headlines.  Those of us of a certain age can recall when the Beatles garnered pages of free publicity after John Lennon offered his opinion that their group was “more popular than Jesus now.”  Before writing off Beck’s harangue as merely a publicity stunt, however, it can’t hurt to do a bit of Bible study to clarify in our own minds why his statement is so wrong.
Luke tells us that soon after the angel Gabriel spoke with Mary, she traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant under rather extraordinary circumstances.  Mary’s song of praise in response to Elizabeth’s greeting proclaims the new order of society that God intends with Jesus’ birth.  “[The Mighty One] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.”  (Luke 1:52-53)  It should be noted that Mary adopts the practice of the ancient psalmists; she indicates her complete trust in God’s promises by speaking in the past tense, as if the new reality were already accomplished.
And what is promised is a reversal of the unjust and inequitable structures under which Mary and her people were then living.  Wealth would be redistributed so that those who were poor, hungry, homeless would enjoy abundance of life.  The powerful – the occupying forces of the Roman occupation and their collaborators within the Jewish hierarchy – would be brought low so that the lowly could thrive.  Even before he was born, Mary understood that Jesus was to be God’s instrument to bring social justice to God’s children.
As he began his public ministry some thirty years later, Jesus used the words of the prophet Isaiah to indicate that social justice would be at the heart of his message.  “’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”  (Luke 4:18-19, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2)  The “year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the Jubilee year as mandated in Leviticus 25.  This is the time, every fiftieth year, when property is to be returned and debts forgiven, so that right relationship is restored throughout the community.
In what is surely his harshest recorded sermon, preached, according to Matthew chapter 23, just a few days before his crucifixion, Jesus denounces corrupt and hypocritical authorities.  In describing them he charges that, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (vs. 4)  His vision of the restoration of right relationship is unchanged from the earliest days of his career.  “The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (vss. 10-11)  The call to a life marked by social justice remained a keynote of his message from beginning to end.
Probably most troubling about this whole episode is Beck’s claim that “social justice” are code words for communism and Nazism.  Leveling this charge against faithful Christians who live out Christ’s concern for the poor is, of course, not new.  Dom Helder Camara, the late Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, Brazil, famously observed, “When I feed the poor, I’m called a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, I’m called a communist.”  The label “communist” was also used by the Salvadoran military death squads to justify the slaughter of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the six Jesuits at the UCA, and more than 300 other religious workers who took seriously the church’s “preferential option for the poor” during the course of the civil war in El Salvador. 
Those who benefit from gross inequities in society are always eager to confine the church to works of charity rather than justice making.  Distributing material aid is acceptable; questioning why material aid is needed is not.  Advocates for changes in societal structures so that recipients of aid can gain the capacity to sustain themselves risk vehement opposition from those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo.  Today that opposition may take the form of denunciations from national figures such as Glenn Beck.  It is not unreasonable to fear that tomorrow someone may choose to escalate opposition into violence.
Being an advocate for and practitioner of social justice is not always comfortable or even safe.  But it is what we are called to be by Christ’s teaching and the testimony of the prophets whom he quoted in his sermons.  As members of the beloved community, let us strengthen and encourage each other in the task.

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