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“…Of moral obligation and social justice.”

Part I

In political discourse, we often make the mistake of assuming that both sides seek the same ends, through different means, with the real conflict being centered on purely pragmatic grounds of doing whatever works. Unfortunately, this naiveté often obscures deeper philosophical differences and divergent visions of constitutes a good society.

Glen Beck recently provided further evidence of his rapid descent into catatonia when he attempted to smear the concept of social justice: “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!” Continuing with the new right-wing meme of conflating Nazism and Communism and more importantly trying to tie modern liberalism to both, Beck added ”But on each banner, read the words, here in America: ’social justice.’ They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy.” Right-wing economics served with a haystack of religious hysteria.

One response would be to inquire whether those holding this position are in fact supporters of social injustice! Of course the counter would be, and has been, that they actually do believe in justice, only of another kind. But we’ll dip ours toes into that water later. With his statements Beck expose a schism within American religious culture. First let’s examine the historical record of the religious communities and espousing social justice.

The Social Gospel movement arose during, and was a product of, the Progressive Era in the late 1800s. This movement originated in the mainline Protestant churches and was both liberal politically and theologically. Its central idea was the application of Christian Ethics as a critique of contemporary society. In practice, this lead the church as an institution engaging the societal issues of the day, most notably the plight of the impoverished, particularly the new urban poor who moved to the city during industrialization. The Social Gospel also sought the expansion of rights to both women and blacks. Historically, the Social Gospel movement was active in the early twentieth century, fading into the Forties before a revival, embodied in the Civil Rights movement two decades later. (This was rather appropriate as the Social Gospel movement was a descendant of the earlier Abolition movement.)

Much of the inspiration for the Social Gospel came from the Old Testament prophets. As Walter Kaufman wrote in The Faith of a Heretic: “When the organized religion of a later age came to stress the ritual at the expense of social justice, the prophets took as radical a stand as any great religious figures ever did: they found the essence of their ancestral religion in morality, denounced the fusion of careful attention to the rites with indifference to social justice as a rank abomination, and suggested that rites, unlike social justice, were dispensable.” Martin Luther King’s famous plea for justice in I Have a Dream, which served as the epigraph to this article, came from a line Amos 5:21-24.

One of the key figures of the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauchenbach, Richard Rorty’s maternal grandfather. Rauchenbach’s seminal work from 1907 Christianity and the Social Crisis was written as a critique of society during the Gilded Age, which was marched by rapid industrialization and urbanization, government corruption and gross inequality. Rauchenbach felt not only that the Church had a responsibility to get involved in these social issues but that it was in it’s self interest “The organized Church is a great social institution, deeply rooted in the common life of humanity, and if all human life suffers through some permanent evil, the Church is bound to suffer with it.” Martin Luther King read Christianity and the Social Crisis when he was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary and described it as having “left an indelible impression upon my mind.”

(Amazingly, Glenn Beck has spoken of King and Mahatma Gandhi in complimentary terms even though he is diametrically opposed to their vision and values. The only way they can even pass of this revisionism is to ignore/reject much of King’s career and writing and to construct a new character based off a single line, something close to what they’ve already done with Adam Smith. I’m hardly one for indulging in hagiography, even of King but one could say with a high degree of certainty that if he were alive, Glenn Beck would be one of those attacking the Reverend for being a “Marxist” and “Communist”, much like his ideological forerunners did a generation ago. To steal a line from the Minneapolis Genius, they “dig you better dead.”)

Another prominent exponent of social justice was German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer studied under Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary and embraced the Social Gospel as espoused by the African-American Church, particularly Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Indeed, Bonhoeffer fellowshipped at Powell’s Abbysinian Baptist Church in Harlem where he preached, taught Sunday School and according to James Deotis Roberts learned “the improvisation of jazz, the contingency pathos of the blues and the liberation of the black spirituals.” Back home in Germany, Bonhoeffer co-founded the Confessing Church, in explicit opposition to the Third Reich. He was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for “antiwar activities’, including being linked to a plot to assassinate Hitler. In her essay on him in The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson wrote that Bonhoeffer chastised those who “. . .use Christianity as an escape from the evil of the world and the duties that evil implies.”

But to believe Beck, you’d have to believe the Pastor and the Fuhrer were adherents of the same philosophy. To believe Glenn Beck, you’d have to believe that institutions like the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Jane Addams’ Hull House, the Methodist Federation for Social Service and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were part of a vast left wing conspiracy; that The Boston Personalists like Edgar Brightman, one of King’s professors and mentors, were merely forerunners to the dangerous academics who constitute a virtual Fifth Column; that Episcopalian priest Jonathan Daniels and Universalist/Unitarian minister James Reeb were merely martyrs for a dubious cause, ditto for the Quaker Norman Morrison. As for Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu? Little more than Third World rabble-rousers. William Sloan Coffin, who served as Senior Minister for the famous Riverside Church? An arrogant member of the East Coast elite who hated ‘real’ Americans. The less said about the gay Quaker Bayard Rustin or his secular mentor, Asa Randolph, the better. Indeed, according to Glenn Beck’s formulation, Leo Tolstoy was almost as much of an enemy of the righteous as Karl Marx himself.

At the same time, there were parallel strains of social justice thought apart from the Social Gospel Movement. The development of Catholic social teaching began with Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, subtitled “On Capital and Labor” in 1891. Arguably, the most prominent exponent of Catholic social teaching in the United States was the activist and self described anarchist, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement. Liberation theology is an extension of this same body of thought and originated in Latin America during the fifties.

Judaism features its own conception of social justice, tikkun olam, itself a much abused term. One of the most prominent advocates for social justice in the Jewish tradition was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who remarked after participating in the March from Selma to Montgomery “I felt my legs were praying.” He later protested the Vietnam War, ironically along with a young Lutheran priest named Richard John Neuhaus. Heschel’s protégé, Michael Lerner was also active in the student movement of the sixties and publishes the magazine Tikkun.

It would be negligent to ignore the figure of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the bête noire of Beck and those opposed to social justice. While I have significant disagreements with Wright, many of his positions have been caricatured and dismissed, in some part due to his incendiary style. Take those explosives lines from his “God Damn America!” sermon: “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans…” Perhaps one can quibble that state terrorism is an oxymoron but even granting that, almost everything else is factually correct. (I must dutifully note that King’s last undelivered sermon was titled “Why America May Go to Hell.”) Also, the Trinity Unity Church of Christ is involved in what Beck considers an appropriate form of social justice: helping house the homeless, feeding the poor in its Southside community. However, they were also prominent for reaching out to those with HIV/AIDS, despite Wright’s own heterodox views on the origins of that disease, in addition to also welcoming of homosexuals into fellowship; I suppose we can’t all be Pat Robertson.

Part II coming tomorrow.

A writer, Matthew Hunte lives in St. Lucia. He graduated from the University of the Southern Caribbean in 2005. This is crossposted from The Busy Signal.

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