Marvin Olasky on Working for Justice

Posted: April 16, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, Debates, Politics, Social Issues
Tags: , ,

You may have heard about the Glenn Beck-Jim Wallis debate recently.  Beck told people to leave their churches if their clergy supported “social justice”; Wallis said that Beck had attacked a fundamental part of Christian teaching and should be shunned like Howard Stern.  To be frank, nothing that I read about the debate suggested that the important issues were being deeply engaged with.  It seemed much more about scoring points.

Marvin Olasky, on the other hand, had some good comments about it.  He has spent quite a bit of time approaching issues of poverty and justice from a conservative theological and political perspective.  He debated Wallis in March, and afterward wrote this about Christian engagement with the famously malleable term “social justice.”  The third point, which I’ve highlighted in bold, is really important, I think.

How to respond? I’d suggest four possible ways, one of which is a variant of Beck’s: Challenge those who speak of “social justice” in a conventionally leftist way. If your local church is committed to what won’t help the poor but will empower would-be dictators, pray and work for gospel-centered teaching. If necessary, find another church.

A second: Try to recapture the term by giving it a 19th- (and 21st?) century small-government twist. The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are trying to do this. I wish them success.

A third way: Accept the left’s focus on systemic problems but not its faulty analysis. Learn about the biggest institutional hindrance to economic advance for the poor: the government’s monopoly control of taxpayer funds committed to education and welfare. Work for school vouchers and tax credits that will help many poor children to grow both their talents and their knowledge of God.

Fourth and best: Tutor a child. Visit a prisoner. Help the sick. Follow Christ.

Systemic analysis is not something that is by and large a strength in a more individualistic mainstream American culture (here is my summary of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s argument about why this is the case for American evangelicals).  I like that Olasky looks at systems that form the context for individual choices.  I think that political conservatives are often too optimistic about the benefits of the free market, given the problems that attend the benefits of capitalism, but this is something that I’m trying to learn more about.

Hat tip: Justin Taylor

  1. Mimi says:

    I happen to catch the show where Beck countered this allegation from Wallis. (I’m sure parts of it’s on youtube somewhere) And what Beck explained in further detail about what he meant about ‘leaving your church if they support social justice’ is different than the image that Wallis and the like are painting it to be. I couldn’t rephrase Beck’s analysis word for word off the top of my head but I didn’t understand Beck’s explanation to all ‘wrong’. To my understanding, Beck’s overall distinction is “government” vs. “individual” responsibility to lend to ‘charity’, helping the needy and poor, etc. And he does believe it’s the church’s responsibility to help the widows, poor, etc. just not big government.

    I don’t know Beck’s whole philosophy or theology so I cannot say that I concur with everything he believes and I know he can be confrontational and make a lot of strong statements but he’s not far off on everything. much of what he says makes a lot of sense, to me anyway.

    It’s another hard boundary line to draw. Did God literally mean give away everything to help the poor and needy? So, does this mean we neglect the needs of our family, church, etc. Who do we help, when, how much, and on it goes. It’s a tough struggle. We can’t do it all. I struggle with this very often, wanting to help everyone, but realize that I can’t. And I can only find comfort in that GOD has it all worked out according to His plan. And I do what I can to serve Him by serving others in what capacity He has granted to me. It can become an excessive burden if we think it’s all up to us. Thankfully, it’s not.

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