Monday, August 30, 2010

Jim Martin on Glenn Beck's Bête Noire: Christianity in All Its Disturbing Fullness

Following his Saturday revival meeting for America, Mr. Beck continues his full-throated attack on the social justice teachings of Christianity--which is to say, on the Christian gospels themselves.  Beck is now adding to his broadside this spring against the strong social justice strands of Christian teaching and his attempt to co-opt and subvert the social gospel Christianity of Martin Luther King the charge that President Obama espouses liberation theology.

Which, in Glenn Beck's reductionistic misunderstanding, signals that the president is, ipso facto, a Marxist.

James Martin has a stellar response to and reflection on Beck's distortion of liberation theology at Huffington Post right now.  If anyone understands the real import and message of liberation theology, Jim Martin does since, as his posting notes, he has lived and worked as a priest among the poorest of the poor in Africa, where followers of Jesus struggle to appropriate the gospel message of liberation from privation amidst lives of hardship unimaginable to many of us ensconced in the comfort of the developed nations.

Martin's religious community, the Jesuits, saw six of its members murdered in El Salvador in 1989, along with their housekeeper and her 16-year old daughter, by U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops.  Their crime?  They had witnessed to the gospel and its values of social justice by working among the poorest of the poor and encouraging them to believe that the gospel message blesses their struggle for liberation from poverty, ignorance, and abuse by those who have power and wealth.

Jim Martin knows whereof he speaks, when he talks about liberation theology.  Mr. Beck doesn't.

As Fr. Martin notes, rip the social teachings of Jesus, which demand that we stand in solidarity with the hungry, the homeless, the unwelcome stranger, the prisoner and the outcast, from the gospels, and you rip Jesus himself out of the gospels.  And that is the fundamental message of the social gospel and liberation theology:

It's not hard to see what Beck has against "liberation theology." It's the same reason people are often against "social justice." Both ideas ask us to consider the plight of the poor. And that's disturbing. Some liberation theologians even consider the poor to be privileged carriers of God's grace. In his book The True Church and the Poor, Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit theologian wrote, "The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the Good News and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else." That's pretty threatening for any comfortable Christian. For not only do we have to help the poor, not only do we have to advocate on their behalf, we also have to see them as perhaps understanding God better than we do.

But that's not a new idea: It goes back to Jesus. The poor, the sick and the outcast "got" him better than the wealthy did. Perhaps because there was less standing between the poor and God. Less stuff. Maybe that's why Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, "If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me." Like I said, pretty disturbing, then and now. It's hardly "the opposite of the Gospel," as Beck said. The opposite of the Gospel would be to acquire wealth and fail to work on behalf of the poor.

Mr. Beck and his tea-party perversion of the core teachings of the world's faith traditions are, in the final analysis, all about the struggle between the core ideals of religious traditions that make justice, mercy, and compassion fundamental, and the desire of the wealthy funders of the tea party movement to unravel the scant social safety network our society now affords to the poorest among us.

Those funding Mr. Beck, and for whom he is a mouthpiece, want taxes for the obscenely rich obliterated.  They want to remove ecological and other restraints from corporations.  They hope to roll back health care reform.  Their ultimate goal is to end social security.

Given their agenda, it's understandable that Mr. Beck's wealthy funders, including Rupert Murdoch and Charles and David Koch, seek to attack the social teachings of the Christian gospels, to claim a distorted understanding of the gospels as authentic religion, and to impose this gospel of wealth on a whole nation.  What these folks cannot credibly accomplish, however, is putting the Jesus proclaimed by the Christian gospels on their side.

Because, as Jim Martin reminds us, that's not where Jesus stands:

It's hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man. Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see? Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion. It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.

Glenn Beck's opposition to "social justice" and "liberation theology" is all the more difficult to understand because of his cloaking of himself in the mantle of devout believer. "Look to God and make your choice," he said during his rally on Sunday.

If he looked at Jesus more carefully he would see someone who already made a choice: for the poor.

Christianity in all its disturbing fullness: that's what Glenn Beck and those using him as a mouthpiece find problematic.  And what they want, at all cost, to undercut, block, buy and destroy.  Because it (and the core teachings of the rest of the world's religion) stand in their way as they pursue their self-serving goals for the United States and the rest of the globe.

The graphic is Fritz Eichenberg's engraving "Christ of the Breadline."

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