Friday, March 26, 2010

The threat of 'social justice' -- it's NOT about the money

Lost in the hullabaloo of the health-care insurance bill that passed Congress this week is a situation that hasn't raised a whole lot of controversy -- yet. But it will.

Last week, Fox News talk-show host Glenn Beck decided to turn his guns on the concept of "social justice," which he (as well as the conservatives who follow him) interprets as "economic redistribution." When Jim Wallis of the Washington, D.C.-based Sojourners ministry decided to challenge Beck on that, Beck decided to go after Wallis. (You can read about it on

The trouble is that Beck is wrong.

So what is "social justice"? Well, as I understand it, it's the willingness to change structures -- laws, customs etc. -- so that people have the opportunity to experience "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Justice allows people to work for a decent wage free of discrimination, legal or otherwise, so that they can support their families and contribute to their communities.

Here's the problem: Justice often means changing the status quo, which is threatening to a lot of people because political means often must be used to achieve it. (Yes, that can, and often does, mean government involvement.) It's the real reason why folks favor "small government" -- its only purpose from that perspective is to protect "my status and my stuff." For that reason, when people do stand up for justice they raise hackles and even may risk their lives.

The American civil-rights movement is the most obvious example. In the 1950s African-Americans in the South were not permitted to vote, shop where they pleased, use public facilities except those designated for them, attend decent schools etc. So black churches began to mobilize to fight for change -- and then the people who wanted things to stay the same decided to push back. Eventually people would pay with their lives for the cause, but the South was eventually transformed. (Poverty wasn't really the issue because many of the foot soldiers were actually fairly wealthy and prominent citizens.)

That theme -- the powerless rising up and demanding their rights and the powerful resisting them -- has repeated itself time and time again through history.

Anyway, as part of a move toward a more just society, in the 1960s President Lyndon Baines Johnson organized what we call the "Great Society" -- from which come such Federal programs as Head Start, educational grants and cut-rate loans and affirmative action -- to give the formerly locked-out a chance to succeed and to "catch up." Trouble was, all this was seemingly done at the expense of those who already had such advantages, who became resentful as a result (and that resentment is still in play as I write). This is where the complaints about "big government," the "welfare problem" and "economic redistribution" come in, with the insistence that such programs actually hurt people in the long run. (As if they know what's good for them.)

So what's wrong with private charities doing such work? Three things: One, there's simply not enough manpower or money available in the private sector to do all that's necessary. Two, the people who are donating their money or services are still very much "in control" -- which is part of the problem. Three, charity doesn't cause any substantive change in their basic state. (Remember the cliche that "you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don't have any boots.")

That said, with all the bellyaching about government help for the poor, I never hear critics actually talk about empowering them by encouraging them to vote, run for office, become community activists or even buy homes -- the things that cause people to "own" their lives. It's no accident, for example, that government agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were singled out for particular scrutiny after the housing market tanked in 2008. And do you think for a second that Beck went after ACORN last year for no reason? (Hint: Most of the people it was registering to vote in 2008 would have been Democrats.)

Bottom line, we need to rethink our concept of justice, which can be best summed up by our LORD: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." And part of that is understanding what they really need instead of simply deciding what we want them to have.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hope from a TV theme

Lately I feel I've been going through a meat grinder spiritually, with my lack of desire for such things. In need of a pick-me-up, I just listened to this week's sermon from church on-line -- and it proved to be timely. The message, titled "Looking for the Pony," focused upon looking to God when things were seemingly at their worst and developing confidence in Him.

I have a thing for major anniversaries, so I was brought back to where I was 25 years ago today -- when God was pulling me out of a pit.

About a year-and-a-half earlier the world that I knew was completely falling apart, a romantic failure, flunking out of school and my parents' breakup all weighing heavily on me. Now, I was a Christian at that time but didn't understand why all this was happening, especially at the same time, and didn't honestly know how to cope. However, He began to do some things and placed people in my life to get it not so much back on track but more in line with His purpose in my life.

At that time one of the radio stations was playing jazz-fusion from 10 p.m. every night to 2 a.m. the next morning, and as I worked from 2 to 6 I got a lot of good listening; one of the tunes that was played in regular rotation with the theme from the TV show "St. Elsewhere," composed and performed by keyboardist Dave Grusin, and I eventually bought "Night-Lines," the CD from which it comes. Anyway, back in 1999 I was on my way to pick up a girlfriend for a date and had the CD in my car stereo, and that tune came on.

I was immediately transported back to those tough days where I was emotionally spent -- and realized just what God had done in and for me then. Suffice it to say that He used that time for me to get to know Him in a way I never had before -- and I've attended church and/or Sunday School since the age of 7 and grew up learning good theology. At that I looked up (remember that I was driving, and on a major thoroughfare at that) and said, "Thank you."

That was the message -- recalling what He had done in the past. And if He could pull that off way back when, imagine what He will do today -- and beyond.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Some thoughts about racism and mental illness: The Wilkinsburg shooting

Today marks the 10th anniversary of a major tragedy in Wilkinsburg, Pa., the town just outside Pittsburgh that I call home. A black man named Ronald Taylor who was suffering from mental illness shot five white men, all but one of them in fast-food joints and three of which died, and he now sits on death row because of his crimes. But my connection to the incident goes beyond my having formerly lived there -- it took place within feet of an apartment I had moved out of 5 1/2 years previously.

What gives it pathos was that one of the victims was the stepfather of three girls with whom I attended high school -- one in the band, another in the interracial youth ministry through which I eventually became a Christian.

Back in the late 1980s I got to know their biological father, who himself had suffered from mental illness (his marriage to their mother had fallen apart because of it). However, he was dealing with his issues and at the time of his death about 20 years ago was eulogized as an advocate for fellow sufferers.

That's not all. When he learned that I knew several of his daughters (there were seven siblings), he proceeded to tell me that he had actually taught his kids to reject racism on not just a personal level but a systemic one as well. He said that he even took them to poorer neighborhoods to point out "how some people are forced to live." He was so extremely passionate about racial justice that he even asked me how they had conducted themselves when it came to such matters. (Their late mother had also supported racial justice; indeed, they had moved to Wilkinsburg precisely because of the diversity.)

I never recalled it being an issue, so that's what I told him.

You see the contrast here. See, all Taylor saw was the color of a man's skin; he allowed that anger over legitimate historic injustices to get to him, never taking the responsibility for his attitudes and actions -- and yet the stepchildren of one of his victims had learned better. Nor did Taylor to my knowledge humble himself and seek help for his condition, unlike their dad.

You can thus understand my revulsion when one of my black militant then-co-workers began displaying a picture of Taylor on her desk at work, as if he were the primary victim, and to this day I wish I had given her a piece of my mind. Because she didn't have, or apparently care to know, the whole story.