A gospel for the here and now

March 21, 2010


“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 the 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.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


Brent Garner 8 years, 2 months ago

But, Mr. Pitts, all these advocates of the "social gospel" want the government to take money from one group--force--and give it to another group. This is just a sham covering for a foul disease called socialism. Socialism's primary effect is to dampen the enthusiasm of the producer and increase the demands of those who receive. Socialism is the soft way into Lenin's and Marx's communism. While indeed The Bible does speak extensively about the poor and God's concern over them no where within it does it discuss nor advocate the forcible taking of another's property to give it to someone else. What The Bible does urge is that we all open our hearts and participate voluntarily, not forcibly. On this point, the fine "representatives" of Christ that you site would be non-supportive I fear. Why? Because they do not trust the people to be generous enough--generous enough by their own definition. No, all these people are all socialists masquerading as "Christ's ministers".

denak 8 years, 2 months ago


What a bunch of poppycock. The belief in social justice is not advocating taking one person's property and giving it to another person in any way.. The concept of social justice predates both Lenin and Marx so even though you and Beck try to relate communism and socialism with social justice.

And even though the Bible does not say that one should be compelled to give in a coercive manner, the Bible is quite clear that one is very much mandated to help those less fortunate. "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required." -- Luke 12:48

Moreover, Jesus taught that on the Day of Judgment, God would ask one thing, "What did you do to help the least of your brothers?" (Matthew 25:40)

It is not these ministers who are distorting the Bible but Glenn Beck.


Cait McKnelly 8 years, 2 months ago

On the other hand we have those pastors and ministers who preach the exact opposite of social justice; the so called "prosperity gospel" for those who don't want to listen to anything but how to get rich or richer. One needs to remind them about the verse concerning the camel and the eye of the needle. However the most frightening thought to these people is the realization that on a very basic level Christ was a "communist". He lived communally with His disciples, everything was held in common among them and even what little they had was frequently distributed to the poor; so much so that when Mary Magdalene wiped His feet with expensive scented lotion and her hair there was an outcry that the lotion could have been sold and the money distributed to the poor. All of this reminds me of an amusing, yet stinging, cartoon I saw as a young woman. A little boy is standing up in a pew and looking over the back of it at the general congregation. The caption reads, "Where are all the Pharisees and hypocrites, Mommy?"

Stuart Evans 8 years, 2 months ago

dear god, please suck out my common sense and rational thought so that I too can believe in you. I'm obviously missing out on the joy of blissful ignorance.

I'm slightly perturbed by everyday joes who still believe in gods, but I'm downright disgusted when anyone who's accomplished some level of success does.

tomatogrower 8 years, 2 months ago

Well, Tom, if you're posting now, aren't you missing services? You sure talk a lot about being a Christian, but I'll bet you don't even leave your bunker long enough to attend church.

Stuart Evans 8 years, 2 months ago

tange, and what is my mischaracterization of God? Did I just get YOUR god wrong? How can you be certain that yours is the same as anyone else? Considering they are all figments of the imagination...gonna be hard to determine.

Brent Garner 8 years, 2 months ago

Denak: I did not reference social justice. I referenced social gospel. Perhaps you need to have your eyes checked if you cannot read and tell the two apart. Further, the current movement of the "social gospel" does not seek voluntary effort but universally seems to advocate that the government use its power to tax and take to bring about the "change" that these advocates believe in. That, dear misguided individual that you are, is not Biblical in anyway, shape, or form. It may be political, but it is not Biblical.

Paul R Getto 8 years, 2 months ago

The great ESSENE teacher would have been a difficult taskmaster and did not appear to suffer mercenary fools easily. I suspect, should he ever 'come back' he'd trash the Faux News offices first, then move on to our beloved 'christian' congress. Good points, Mr. Pitts.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.