April 1, 2010
Talk show host Glenn Beck stirred up a hornet's nest with his now famous equation of "social justice" with socialism or communism and his plea for Christians to flee churches that promote it under the banner of a "social gospel."
Left-leaning evangelicals are upset with Beck, suggesting, wrongly, that his rejection of the "social justice" implies he doesn't support efforts to help the poor.
The whole discussion is confused, because people don't recognize the difference between law and gospel.
Law is what God requires of us. Gospel is what God has done for us because we didn't obey. Law is commandment; gospel is news—good news.
The Apostle Paul said the gospel was "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). He explained the implications of these three things elsewhere at length, but in the final analysis, that's the gospel.
There's no command there, only news. Though because of our sins we deserved to die, Christ died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sins. His resurrection showed that God accepted His death on our behalf so that all who trust Him might be forgiven and reconciled to Him.
There are more kinds of good news than just that. It's good news that the plumber can replace my leaking water heater today. It's good news that the police caught and confined a serial killer. But when we talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have this specifically in mind: Christ died for our sins, He was buried, He rose again from the dead.
Now, the Bible does require us to do justice. About that, the proponents of the "social gospel" and "social justice" are correct. But they still make two mistakes.
First, by equating the gospel with the command to do justice they confuse law with gospel—a deadly mistake.
Second, drawing more from Karl Marx than from the Bible, they define social justice as equality, or some approximation of it, in distribution of wealth. That's why they automatically decry the gap between rich and poor as "injustice."
They think they get support for this view of justice mainly from four parts of the Bible: the sabbatical year debt-relief law (Deuteronomy 15), the jubilee year property-restoration law (Leviticus 25), the sharing of goods in the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 2 and 4), and Paul's explanation that his effort to raise money from Gentile churches for the famine-struck Christians in Jerusalem was "that there may be equality" (2 Corinthians 8).
But none of these really supports the egalitarian notion. The first required suspension of payments on debts during the sabbatical year because the law forbade the Israelites to work during that year; payments would resume the following year. The second is part of a law that treated land or indentured labor as productive collateral to secure a loan; when the loan was repaid by the production, the collateral returned to the owner.
The third was absolutely voluntary, as the Apostle Peter pointed out at the start of Acts 5. And the fourth—the equality at which Paul aimed in his collection—wasn't economic but of mutual service. The spiritually needy had received spiritually from the spiritually wealthy; now the materially needy were to receive from the materially wealthy.
Where Beck gets it right is in saying that, historically, "social justice" has been equated almost universally with the Marxist, egalitarian notion of justice. Indeed, in his own commentary on the controversy over Beck's warnings, World magazine editor Marvin Olasky, who before his conversion to Christ in the 1970s was a Communist Party organizer, reports that in those days his superiors instructed him to use "social justice" as a euphemism for wealth redistribution. According to this thinking, the "gospel" requires redistribution of wealth, narrowing or erasing the gap between rich and poor.
But the Bible doesn't support that notion. Instead, as Paul put it in Romans 2, doing justice means rendering to everyone according to his deeds. Since people's deeds differ, what they receive by justice must differ, too. One group of Christians led by Chuck Colson and Al Mohler has launched a study program to do so. Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives in Need adopts a truly Biblical understanding of justice and doesn't confuse it with the gospel.
One policy area in which the Left seeks to impose wealth redistribution is global warming. It wants a massive transfer of wealth from the developed world to the developing world, and within the developed world from the wealthy to the poor.
Whatever the science of global warming is, that's not justice, it's injustice. Ironically, it also won't lift the poor out of poverty. If history is any indication, transfers of wealth from the West to the developing world will line the pockets of tyrants and thugs, never reaching the intended recipients, as Dambisa Moyo has argued in her outstanding book Dead Aid. And in a cruel twist of unintended consequences, the very policies being proposed to help the poor fight global warming will actually impoverish everyone, especially the very poor, by artificially driving up the cost of energy.
What God requires of us, according to the Prophet Micah, is doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God. Whatever else they are, public policies that oppress the poor by depriving them of the economic growth they desperately need—whatever the intentions—are neither just nor merciful. But admitting that we were wrong, and that we need to reevaluate, would require great humility.
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is national spokesman of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and author of Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry Into the Environmental Debate and Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity.