Thursday, March 11, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

If you haven't heard about Glenn Beck urging his listeners to leave their church if the church's website mentions "social justice" in a positive light, you can read about it here.

Much has been made about his statements, and in response, I found myself getting into an interesting discussion of the topic on everybody's favorite social network. I feel pretty good about one of my responses, and have deemed it blogworthy. So here is my response to a friend, and maybe you, if you share a bit of Beck's skepticism about "social justice."

Thanks for the thoughts!

I agree that the term "social justice" can embody a lot of different beliefs, many of which contradict the Bible, or at least a reasonable interpretation of it.

When the church talks about justice, I'd rather use a descriptor like "Biblical justice", but even in adjusting the language, the social implications of the pursuit of Biblical justice are numerous and unavoidable. So a balance must be maintained. Pursuit of social justice without Biblical reflection can spiral into mere humanistic liberalism.

BUT, there are many, many, great churches out there that consist of many, many Godly people, who do have a strong emphasis on Biblically rooted social justice pursuits, and are not bothered by using the term social justice to describe what they do. One of my heroes of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have been emboldened to pursue nonviolent resistance to a segregated America were it not for his strong vision of the Kingdom of God characterized primarily by love and justice with all their infinitely social implications. Catholic Social Teaching, one of the strongest components of the Catholic Church, is committed to a pursuit of social justice that is ardently on the side of the poor, radically pro-life, and attempts to embody the Gospel in all its many-sided compelling beauty.

So I hope we won't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is a personal choice whether or not to align oneself with a church that is comfortable with self-identifying with the term "social justice," some of which are committed to a Christ-shaped Gospel commitment, and some of which are teetering on the brink of the aforementioned humanistic liberalism.

But Mr. Beck's exhortation for his listeners to see the use of the term itself as not only a red flag and a place to raise questions, but a reason to leave your church is...well...overstated, to say the least. It demonizes a whole category of churches, and in the process attempts to eliminate the need for discernment by making up our minds for us.

And I do think that if we take his words at face value, they are undeniably a play on the fears of his listeners: fears of liberalism, socialism, and even communism and Nazism. These are genuine fears, but exploiting those fears with church people from a political bully pulpit is something that I don't appreciate as a pastor. And I pray that these words don't come across as from my very tall religious bully pulpit :)

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Hospice" by The Antlers | A Pastoral Reflection

Instantaneous information and access are cardinal virtues of our time, and reflections on albums released eight months ago are decidedly uncool. Reviews come out at or before the release of an album, and a revisit is only appropriate within the confines of "Best of" lists. Or 5, 10, 20, or 25 years later, when it has become a classic.

Well, Hospice, by The Antlers was released last summer to much critical acclaim, but I didn't hear about it until the year end lists started coming out in November and December. I didn't acquire the album until last week, and am grateful to receive its witness. Now this is not a blanket recommendation of the album. It's dark, haunting, brooding, at times nightmarish, and everything else you'd expect from an album entitled Hospice. But as someone who interacts with hospital patients, dying people, and grieving families on a semi-regular basis, I find the albums's stark honesty devastatingly beautiful.

I won't attempt to reconstruct the entire narrative of the album, nor review it, but only to share some ways in which its poetry has spoken truth into me as a pastoral caregiver. The opening lines are telling: "I wish that I had known in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you. Because you'd been abused by the bone that refused you, and you hired me to make up for that." As a pastor, I often enter situations completely oblivious to the stories of one or more of the people immersed in a difficult situation. History, upbringing, core convictions, and biases toward tall people influence the coming conversation and subsequent relationship long before I enter a room. Expectations are rarely clear, and after the fact, we pine, with The Antlers, for a little foreknowledge, background, anything that would have prepared us for what's about to transpire.

In Hospice, Sylvia is the patient who grew up with an abusive father, and has become an abusive patient to her caregiver. The caregiver isn't faultless, as a lack of boundaries has allowed this abuse to escalate. He wants to be more than a caregiver. He wants to be her savior. On the song "Atrophy," over sparse but slowly building instrumentation, he confesses: "I'm bound to your bedside, your eulogy singer. I'd happily take all those bullets inside you and put them inside of myself." After these lines, the music builds to a cacophonic roar before pulling back to the singular voice, nearly whispering "Someone, oh anyone, Tell me how to stop this. She's screaming, expiring, and I'm her only witness." Later, in the heartwrenching song "Two," the caregiver mourns that "There's no open doors, and there's no way to get through, there's no other witnesses, just us two."

In my ongoing dialogues with God, this line has entered my mind more than once. "There's no other witnesses, just us two." Yesterday, it struck me why this line refuses to leave me alone. Much like the tragic protagonist of Hospice, I have been guilty of overidentifying and overinvesting. There have been times where I have assumed this responsibility of sole witness to the sufferings of another. Even while confessing with my lips that God is with them in their pain and suffering, I have been guilty of making it about me. Pastoral care should never be something that I need in order to feel useful as a pastor. It should not be the place where I pick at the things I hate in myself that I happen to see in others.

I, more than anyone should be the one to point to and embrace the third witness. And when it feels like "just us two," the time is ripe to embrace the presence of that mysterious Other, the self-giving God who knows the deepest suffering that human life has to offer, both in the pain of a Son who suffered the worst sort of death imaginable, and of the Father, who had to witness the unbearable tragedy. On the other side of suffering with Christ is hope. Tragically, for the isolated and suffocating suffering of Hospice, there is no other side, even after Sylvia's death. From the Epilogue, "When I try to move my arms sometimes, they weigh too much to lift. I think you buried me awake (my one and only parting gift.) But you return to me at night, just when I think I may have fallen asleep. Your face is up against mine, and I'm too terrified to speak."

I'm sure Hospice will continue to provide me with rich reflections appropriate for such a time as this Lenten season, and will serve as an ongoing reminder that caring for the hurting is a sacred task, and should never be attempted alone. The Kingdom of God gives us a hopeful alternative to the nightmares of Hospice. Not a sparing from suffering, but the promise of hope, the joy of resurrection.

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