"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." — Matthew 5:6
Ultimately, I suppose, what we're talking about is a clash between the sweet by and by and the fierce urgency of now.
The former is the refrain from a venerable gospel song that meditates on the bliss of life after life. The latter is a phrase from Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream," a passionate demand for justice, equality, and freedom, now.
Into the tension between these two disparate views of Christian mission stumbles one Glenn Beck. The Fox News showman recently ignited an uproar in the world of Christian ministry by attacking churches that preach a gospel of social and economic justice, i.e., a gospel that doesn't just promise relief in the sweet by and by, but seeks to effect change in the hard here and now. If your church preaches that, Beck told his radio audience, "run as fast as you can." Social and economic justice, he said, are "code words" for communism and Nazism.
In response, the Rev. Jim Wallis, a preacher of the social gospel and president and CEO of the liberal religious activist group Sojourners, suggested on his blog that what Christians should run from is Beck himself. Beck, he wrote, attacks the very heart of their faith.
"When I was in seminary," he says, "we made a study of the Bible and we found 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God's concern for the left out, left behind, the vulnerable and God's call for justice. If I were ever to talk to Glenn Beck, I would hand him that old Bible from seminary where we cut out of the Bible every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice, and when we were done, the Bible was just in shreds. And I would hand it to him and put a sticker on front and say, 'This is the Glenn Beck Bible.'"
I ran Beck's comments by two other preachers of my acquaintance, and they seconded Wallis. But Beck, says the Rev. R. Joaquin Willis of Miami's Church of the Open Door, is not alone. Many others, he said, "would like to see many of us as pastors just come to church and deal with the spiritual needs of the people and not address those difficult day-to-day issues that make life so hard."
Beck, adds Willis, "speaks from the perspective of the entitled and the relatively well off and they don't see a need for social improvement. Anybody that's trying to improve the society is a communist to him."
"It's hard," says Rev. Tony Lee of Community of Hope in Temple Hills, Md., "for a church to sit and talk to somebody about how to change their lives and how to turn things around when the institutions around that person are broken. It's hard for me to talk to young people about how God can make a way and how they can move forward and be all they can be through God -- but their educational system is in pieces. What Glenn Beck is saying is, 'Don't have a role in the shaping of the educational system.'"
For the record, Martin Luther King preached a social gospel. Even the preachers in the anti-abortion movement preach a social gospel.
And the idea that such people are enemies of the state is as visceral a reminder as you're likely to get of the paranoia and intellectual discontinuity that afflicts extremist conservatism. Fifty years ago, they saw communists behind every movie marquee and schoolhouse door. Now, Beck sees them in pulpits, too.
And I suppose the way not to be a communist in his eyes is to embrace a gospel that promises uplift in the sweet by and by -- and only then. But that's a lazy, complacent gospel, a gospel of self-satisfaction and I got mine, of egocentricity and look out for number one -- and it doesn't square with the gospel of feed my sheep and love your neighbor as yourself.
He thinks we should flee the church that preaches social and economic justice? I think you should flee the one that does not.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.