Two entertaining controversialists, Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis, blasted each other in mid-March over the meaning of "social justice."
Their antagonism has a backstory. Wallis, a religious adviser to Barack Obama, took on Beck last September after the FOX News and radio commentator criticized Democratic healthcare proposals. Wallis asked his followers to "tell Glenn Beck that healthcare reform is pro-life," but The New York Times and CNN did not publicize Wallis' call, and Beck did not give Wallis more attention by firing back.
This past month Beck advised listeners to "look for the word 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website. If you can find it, run as fast as you can." Beck said those two terms are "code words" for giving government more power. Wallis again struck back: "Beck says Christians should leave their social justice churches, so I say Christians should leave Glenn Beck. Christians should no longer watch his show."
This time the Times and CNN megaphoned Wallis' attack. This time Beck responded with criticism of Wallis that gave Wallis an opportunity to shoot back on the show of Keith Olbermann (the anti-Beck). Beck said 19th-century Roman Catholics and 20th-century Communists and Nazis had talked about "social justice." Meanwhile, Wallis said Beck's show was "in the same category" as that of sex yakker Howard Stern.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave! Let's review the history: Was "social justice" born as a Catholic term? Yes, Jesuit theologian Luigi Taparelli tried to stem a socialist surge in the 1840s by arguing that religious and civic groups could justly improve living conditions without relying on governmental force.
Did Communists and Nazis flip "social justice" into a promotion of government power? Yes. Communist Party USA leaders instructed me in 1972 and 1973 to use those words. I haven't personally researched Nazi usage, but a leading Nazi sympathizer during the 1930s, radio priest Charles Coughlin, established a National Union for Social Justice and published a million-subscriber magazine, Social Justice. His radio audience of 16 million heard him attacking an "international conspiracy of Jewish bankers."
Do those historical wrinkles mean that the term should not be used? No, but it should certainly be defined. We can study the 150 or so times that mishpat in Hebrew and kreesis in Greek—words commonly translated as "justice"—appear in the Bible. Biblically, justice—tied to righteousness—is what promotes faith in God, not faith in government. Prophets criticized not entrepreneurs but those who combined economic and political power to lord it over others, as today's bureaucrats and corporate/government partnerships tend to do.
I can understand Glenn Beck's frustration. As the Beck-Wallis tempest swirled on March 11, I spent 3½ hours in a long-arranged debate with Wallis at Cedarville University. He kept trying to position himself as a centrist rather than a big government proponent. Furthermore, modern usage by liberal preachers and journalists is thoroughly unbiblical: Many equate social justice with fighting a free enterprise system that purportedly keeps people poor but in reality is their best economic hope.
How to respond? I'd suggest four possible ways, one of which is a variant of Beck's: Challenge those who speak of "social justice" in a conventionally leftist way. If your local church is committed to what won't help the poor but will empower would-be dictators, pray and work for gospel-centered teaching. If necessary, find another church.
A second: Try to recapture the term by giving it a 19th- (and 21st?) century small-government twist. The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are trying to do this. I wish them success.
A third way: Accept the left's focus on systemic problems but not its faulty analysis. Learn about the biggest institutional hindrance to economic advance for the poor: the government's monopoly control of taxpayer funds committed to education and welfare. Work for school vouchers and tax credits that will help many poor children to grow both their talents and their knowledge of God.
Fourth and best: Tutor a child. Visit a prisoner. Help the sick. Follow Christ.
Note: To go deeper, please see my Aug. 29, 2009, WORLD column, "Is social justice just ice?" and a full seminary lecture I gave on the subject last October ("Prodigal Doctrines: Going beyond 'Social Justice' to 'Righteous Justice'"). You can hear my lecture at Cedarville University, which was held just prior to my debate with Jim Wallis, by clicking the following links: (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Audio from my debate with Jim Wallis will be posted beginning Thursday, April 1, here.