In Which I Talk Bible To Glenn Beck

You know, you’d think a simple (and quite minor) member of the blogosphere could take a few days out, hit the hot spots of digital payment think tank prognostication in London (had a nice chat with the innovation/new tech group at Visa Europe at lunch today, talking seventeenth century digital money and the what-was-old-is-new-again reality of globalization whilst looking down at the Paddington Station train yard (no bears, alas)) and just chill.

It’s not really that much to expect, is it?

But then, courtesy of Steve Benen (h/t Mr. GOS himself), I learn that noted theologian Glenn Beck is advising his viewers that the idea of social justice is antithetical to true religion.  As Mr. Beck avers:

…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.

I’ve tended to avoid the religion-science kerfluffle, though I have Views, as one may say.  But whatever you may make of the crumbs I’ve dropped about my various allegiances and intellectual commitments, I have enough memory of a pretty serious Hebrew School education to crush this softball.

For example: consider this passage in Isiah, , a Jewish text beloved of many Christians (and Muslims too, of course, Abrahamic as that community of belief is as well) that Jews read each year at the center of the most significant observation of the liturgical calendar, the morning service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

(Chapter 58)

…3 “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

8 Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you,
The Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then, when you call, the Lord will answer;
When you cry, He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
The menacing hand and evil speech,
10 And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature —
The shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.
12 Men from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
you shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”

Let me not confine this commentary to my own heritage.  To look for another example living in the Boston area I call home, how about that construct of belief that animates our local prince of the Catholic Church, Cardinal and Boston Archbishop Sèan O’Malley.  He is a Capuchin* Friar, a member of that order which, from its founding in the early sixteenth century, sought to take its place within a long series of efforts to restore the identification with poverty, the poor, and unquestionably, justice for the lesser, confronted by the greater that derive in Catholic and early Christian history from identification with Francis and ultimately with Jesus.  The Capuchins declare this commitment today:

Let us show respect for all people and [manifest] a spirit ready for dialogue with them.
Although we prefer the evangelization of the poor according to the example of Christ and SaintFrancis, we should not hesitate to proclaim the message of the conversion to justice and the responsibility of preserving peace to those in positions of power and those ruling others.

There is an encylopedia of disagreements I could find with the constellation of beliefs and requirements Cardinal O’Malley upholds; most are irrelevant, given that I, not a Catholic, do not defer to claims of dogma put forward within the Catholic confession.  Those that are relevant are the ones that the American Catholic Church has advanced as precepts to be enshrined as law of the nation we share…but all that’s an argument for a different venue.

The point here is that outside the Beck alternate reality, there is no way to construct the Jewish tradition and its Christian heirs as indifferent to social and economic justice…unless you are willing to sacrifice the essential core of the revelations to which both Jews and Christians lay claim.  There is no way to imitate God (or the God-Man embodied in the person of the Christian conception of Jesus) unless you do justice to the beings created in the image of divinity.  Do injustice to the least of us, and as is expressed again and again in the Elijah tradition of Jewish story telling, you do damage to the whole of any God-made world.  Alternatively, save a life, and save that world.

That is:  if you take the words of the Bible seriously from any starting point, there is only one conclusion possible here.  Beck is no believer.  He is a deceiver — and if you come from a background that capitalizes such words, then within that tradition, you’ll get no argument from me.**

*Maybe it’s just me, but I find it delightful that the name “Capuchin,” derived from the distinctive hood that Capuchin friars wear, has through a kind of visual rhyming, been  adopted to provide the name for that saving drink of many mornings, my daily cappuchino, and, for Capuchin monkeys as well.

**Please note — I’ve confined this to the specifically religious context of Beck’s demand.  A different post would point out how thoroughly unAmerican Beck’s statement is, if you take the ideas of the founders seriously.  For just one example, here’s John Adams, in his argument in the Amistad case:

In the Declaration of Independence the Laws of Nature are announced and appealed to as identical with the laws of nature’s God, and as the foundation of all obligatory human laws…

…I said, when I began this plea, that my final reliance for success in this case was on this Court as a court of JUSTICE; and in the confidence this fact inspired that, in the administration of justice, in a case of no less importance than the liberty and the life of a large number of persons, this Court would not decide but on a due consideration of all the rights, both natural and social, of every one of these individuals. I have endeavored to show that they are entitled to their liberty from this Court….

….In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence—” Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

Image:  Giotto, “Legend of St. Francis — The Renunciation of Wordly Goods.”  before 1332.

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15 Comments on “In Which I Talk Bible To Glenn Beck”

  1. Jim Bales Says:

    In his zeal to “… read all of the passages of the Bible as [he]want[s] to read them and as [his] church wants to preach them …” Mr. Beck must have missed Matthew 25:34-46

    “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

    “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    No doubt Mr. Beck is outraged that the almighty would use the threat of eternal punishment to blackmail us into working for social justice—in fact, this must be positive proof that God is a Godless Commie!

  2. Ted K Says:

    I used to hold out the possibility that Beck actually believed his own lies, but after his holding up of this gay congressman as a paragon after he forcefully groped multiple men, I feel certain he is a complete phony and fraud now.

    I like this post very much. I am quite fascinated by your personal history Tom. It seems similar to Andrew Sullivan that you are a frank writer revealing your deepest thoughts to readers (I love this style, running narration from your mind like Joyce, Conrad, and Burroughs), but also like Sullivan certain parts of your past you prefer to keep personal. I imagine (although it maybe very very very far from truth or reality) your father and upbringing being quite strict and you slightly rebelling against it (or parts of it) for this reason (strictness).

    I like the Bible verses and almost as much as the Bible verses the compassion you show for your fellow man in this post. I’m gentile (silly Goyim) and Christian but lately I’ve been listening to a guy named Tovia Singer and although I can’t accept some things he says, I enjoy the Old Testament (Torah) and find some of his arguments quite compelling. He discusses Isaiah 53 a great deal and how that is not referencing the Messiah. One part of me finds it very very bothersome (to think Christ is not the Son of God), but another part of me listens to his arguments on the original Hebrew, and it’s hard to cast his argument aside. Anyway, I think the main thing is “golden rule” and we should all care for each other. Probably Beck would not give us a piece of bread if we were on the street, but wouldn’t it be cool (not cool that he is poor but a cool moment) if we could give him a piece of bread if it caused him to change his outlook???

  3. Ian Preston Says:

    The Bible is strong on the virtue of individual charity to the down-trodden but the idea of the state as agent of distributive justice seems to me distinctly modern – too modern, I would say, to sensibly look for convincing biblical endorsement or rejection. Even the Capuchin passage that you quote seems to me to be calling for encouragement to the powerful to act charitably rather than going so far as to explicitly endorse the sort of ideas of social justice that I think Beck is against. His description of “social/economic justice” as “code words” suggest to me that he sees them as phrases which hint at (undeniable) Christian ideals of personal concern for the poor as cover for (to him) offensive secular liberal ideas such as state-enforced redistributive taxation and social spending. I would have biblical infidelity quite a long way down my list of reasons to object to his opinions.

  4. Jim Bales Says:

    Ian writes “the idea of the state as agent of distributive justice seems to me distinctly modern – too modern, I would say, to sensibly look for convincing biblical endorsement or rejection.” This is a fair point, but beyond “Render unto Ceaser …”, what agency of the state does the Bible endorse?

    For example, why should we consider the Bible’s exhortations for social justice to be simply “encouragement for the powerful to act charitably”, but consider passages against homosexual acts to empower the state as an agent to prohibit gay marriage?

    Yet Beck does not say I beg you, look for the words ‘against gay marriage’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. If Beck was truly concerned about our government becoming an agent imposing Biblical morals onto the entire populace, he would say this.

    I agree with Ian in that I, too, “would have biblical infidelity quite a long way down my list of reasons to object to [Beck’s] opinions.” However, Beck is engaged in hypocrisy, pure and simple, and it is fitting and proper to call him out for doing so.

  5. Downpuppy Says:

    Ian needs to spend 5 minutes with Teh Google.

    The idea of the state as agent of distributive justice goes back to the tribal origins of humanity. Greece & Rome, the big powers in biblical days, both had strong & effective systems of taking care of the poor.

    Separating religion from government meant taking away both the lavish funding of religion and its unifying role. To pretend that the State, having taken away religion’s resources, did not acquire its obligation to maintain a just society, is, under just about any human* code of morality, evil.

    *Did Ayn Rand ever have a DNA test?

  6. Ian Preston Says:

    I can see that relief of poverty has been a function of the state since the ancient world but what I had in mind was that modern ideas of social justice go beyond that to a conception of economic inequality as a social bad which it is an appropriate function of the state to regulate. I don’t think that was an idea current in biblical times – though I am happy to be corrected if that’s wrong – and to that extent Beck may be right to characterise appeals to “economic justice” as “code” for ideas which go beyond the bible and which he doesn’t like (for partly ridiculous reasons). Perhaps Tom is right and his antipathy goes beyond that to the point of incompatibility with minimal Christian ideals – I don’t know. But I do think there are ideas of social justice that he is attacking which have no obvious biblical support but are still worth defending in their own right as conceptions of what constitutes a good society.

    • sguy Says:


      • Ian Preston Says:

        I am in danger of pretending here to historic knowledge that I don’t have, but I imagine tithing to have been motivated by notions of fitting contributions to ability to pay and not to attempts to modify income distribution to promote equity. Even graduated ancient taxes were, so far as I know, justified in that way. If tithes were increasing fractions of income justified somehow by the desirability of narrowing income gaps then I’d see the case but, again as far as I know, that sort of idea has not been dated further back than sources in late-Renaissance Italy.

  7. The take-home message for me is don’t mess with a well-read Jew who also knows about Boston Catholicism. You’ll lose every time.

    Makes me wonder, Professor Levenson, if any of these pundits and other oppressors who invoke religion have actually read the Bible. Or, as with any source, do they just simply ignore the passages that challenge their positions? Or does the Bible just present a photogenic book cover for thumping?

    I hate to tell this to the compassionate conservatives (or hypocompassionate hypocrites, if you will) but the Jesus that Sister Agnes Mary beat into my knuckles would be the dude who’d be ministering to poor single mothers, HIV patients and, dare I say, those suffering the physical, emotional, and economic burdens of no (or inadequate) health insurance.

    By the way, Jim Bales (above): Matthew 25:34-46 is the same passage that U2’s Bono used to convince Jesse Helms to reverse his career of hate and discrimination and vote for HIV aid to Africa.

    • Jim Bales Says:

      Abel Pharmboy, thank you for the note about Bono and Helms. In my near decade living in NC (’76-’84) I would have doubted that Mr. Helms was capabile of even that much human decency–Bono did well indeed.

      Because of Paul Krugman, I came across Mr. Beck’s latest display of imbecility. Mr. Back, by actually reading the lyrics of songs he has sung all these many years, has discovered that Springteen’s “Born in the USA” is anti-american, and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” is unpatriotic.

      My head hurts.

  8. Stuart Says:

    Ian Preston,

    The whole prophetic tradition is about social justice, and the teachings of Jesus are part of that tradition.

    If you read the Hebrew Bible you will find out about the remission of debt and repatriation of land in the Jubilee year. You will also find that those who used the Bible to support slavery were on shaky ground. Slavery (indentured servitude) in the Bible was not a hereditary condition but ended at the Jubilee.

    • Ian Preston Says:

      It was not my point that there is nothing in the Bible concerned with or enlightened or wise about questions of social justice. What I am suggesting is that notions of social justice have developed in the centuries since, that Beck’s overblown objections to what he sees as “code” for expropriative impulses are largely directed at later perspectives that are neither compelled by nor incompatible with what is in the Bible, and that there are better grounds to engage him on than Biblical errancy.

      • sfguy Says:

        What are the later perspectives on social justice that you find neither compelled nor incompatible with the Bible? Several people on this list have pointed out direct analogs of modern conceptions of social justice, e.g., state remedies for inequity, to Biblical roots and practices.

      • Stuart Says:

        Mr. Beck chose to attack the authority of churches to teach about social justice. Those churches claim to draw their moral authority from the Bible, therefore it is legitimate to point out that what they are teaching is, indeed, found in the Bible. That indeed, the degree of expropriation taught in the Bible far exceeds what would make Mr. Beck’s head explode.

        No claim is being made of Biblical inerrancy, only that the Bible does have much to say about what we now call social justice.

      • Ian Preston Says:

        To sfguy:

        The idea that it is appropriate for the state to relieve economic distress is undoubtedly old. The notion that funds raised for this or any other public purpose should come through contributions adapted to ability to pay also dates back a long way. This is partly pragmatic but also justifiable on grounds of equity but the redistributive content of these ideas is, I would say, weak.

        If you recognise that it hurts the rich less to give up resources than it does the poor then equalising sacrifices suggests the rich should pay more. But you can take this a long way further; if it is true then why not take from the rich to give the poor so as to reduce income gaps all the way along the income distribution independently of the need to raise revenue for other purposes? This is a more radically redistributive idea that envisions the state as regulator of the income distribution for the production of social welfare. Tempered by considerations of minimising disincentives to generate wealth, this sort of idea underpins the way, for example, that most economists treat questions of social justice in public finance. If anyone can date this sort of reasoning beyond the last 500 years I’d be delighted. I certainly don’t see it myself in biblical sources.

        There are plenty of other reasons to see a role for the state in reducing inequality. Much empirical evidence shows that inequality, not just poverty, is a major correlate of poor performance against many social indicators. It is arguably wasteful and socially unproductive in terms of use of intellectual resources for freedom from economic worry to be concentrated in the hands of few. Inequality diminishes social solidarity, aggravates stress, harms self-esteem.

        From a different angle, there are contractarian perspectives which judge as unjust and appropriate for public redress any inequalities unsupported by social arrangements which would be agreed to in ignorance of endowments of the bases for economic success. This again is a modern idea.

        Going further, the privileges of the rich can be regarded as needing limitation because of the incentive and the means given to them to protect their position by poisonous strategies of social control. Going even further, economic inequalities can be regarded as arising organically from a class structure that is a temporary and unjust stage in evolution of social institutions.

        These are all relatively modern ideas which may have roots in older ideas of social justice but which you can disagree with without abandoning Isaiahan ideas of the virtuousness of charity to the poor or any of the other ideas that people have brought up.

        Sorry for the long comment but perhaps that makes clearer what I am trying to say.

        To Stuart:

        Arguments framed in terms of who has or has not “authority … to teach” leave me cold. If Beck was denying the right of churches to speak on issues of social justice then his position is evidently indefensible. I took him just to be disagreeing with positions that some churches have taken and pointing to a particular phrase as one he thought to be commonly used to give cover for ideas he found repellent. I am not defending him or even remotely sympathetic to him. Maybe you’re right and so was Tom’s original posting to suggest that his objections take him to a position difficult to identify as recognisably Christian. As I have already said, I don’t deny the existence in the Bible of ideas related to social justice. I just think things have moved on in two millennia.

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