Glenn Beck’s Cheap Grace

In his latest attack on the Social Justice, Glenn Beck slams the work of James H. Cone and Black Liberation Theology. On the surface, what Beck says may be appealing; Cone does make people uncomfortable. With a black man in the White House and talk of a “post-racial” America, who wants to hear about lynching, of all things? Yes, it was horrible, but haven’t we put that behind us? Aren’t people who still want to bring “that” up just trying to stir up trouble? If Beck can somehow prove that Cone is wrong about the gospel—and probably a communist as well—we can dismiss him and feel a whole lot better about ourselves, our country, and our faith. The problem is, the Bible itself sounds more like Cone than Beck.

Take Beck’s claim, for example, that social justice and the redistribution of wealth are not in the gospel. It’s simply not true. Luke 1:52-53 describes Jesus’ mother, Mary,  anticipating his birth with these words: “He [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

This same Jesus tells us in Matthew 19:24 that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Similarly, the early Christian community is described in Acts 4:34-35 like this: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” When rich and powerful people asked how they could be part of this coming Kingdom of God, they were told “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

This is not an easy message for any of us who own anything to hear. Indeed, over the years preachers and theologians have tried to soften those passages, arguing that it is not money per se, but the love of money that stands between wealth and heaven. Still, the fact of the text remains; and it sounds a whole lot more like James Cone than Glenn Beck.

Beck then goes on to ridicule Cone’s identification of Jesus on the cross with lynching victims, claiming that Jesus “wasn’t a victim, he was a conqueror.” There is some truth to that. If the message of the cross spoke only to victimhood, who would listen? However, here again, Beck has misread Cone. Black theology continually talks about the way in which God not only identifies with oppressed people, but also empowers them for liberation. In black theology Jesus conquers, not from a position of power and privilege, but from the cross, among the last and the least. This is good news that speaks hope to people hanging on lynching trees, strapped to torture tables, or beaten and abused in their own homes. Beginning from the bottom, it includes everyone.

A “gospel” that speaks only to “conquerors”—like, say, Beck’s version—leaves out most of humanity. Some may object that black theology, by its very name, leaves out white people, but that too is a misconception. Cone has been talking to white people about black theology for over forty years now. Its call to repentance is for us. Of course, it would feel better if he skipped that part and went straight to grace and salvation, as Beck tries to do but, again, that would not be biblical. Both John the Baptist and Jesus made the call to repentance from both personal and social sin, a central part of their preaching. Without this repentance, there is no grace and no salvation.

Beck then goes on to equate Cone’s black theology with Marxism. Here he is wildly off base and his unfortunate tendency to take everything he doesn’t like, slap it on to his chalkboard, draw lines, and call it a connection, gets the better of him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always do his homework. Unlike many Latin American Liberationists, black theologians, including Cone, actually tend to reject Marxism as a philosophical source. It is too white, too Western and, tends to include only economic class, not race, in its power analysis. Cone’s theological sources are the bible and black experience. If one is going to argue against his theology, one must argue against these sources not Marx. So far, Beck has said nothing about black experience and nearly everything he has claimed about the bible has been untrue. His objection to the idea of collective salvation is no exception.

Collective salvation is illustrated in, among other places, Matthew 5:23-24: “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, to be reconciled to God, we must also be reconciled to one another. Salvation may be personal, but it is not private. Love for God and love for one another are connected.

1 John 4:20 puts it this way “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Black theology challenges white Christians to love our black brothers and sisters not in a cloying or condescending way, but with real justice. In a nation marked by centuries of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, and systemic racism, that is not easy to do. We are bound to feel defensive sometimes. If we listen, we are going to hear things we would rather not hear.

Some of us are going to be tempted to buy into the vision of Glenn Beck and others who make it easy to turn away from the hard work of repentance, who tickle our ears with promises of cheap grace, and offer a vision of the cross of Jesus that has nothing to say to the crosses, and lynching trees, of history. But, if we do, we will be settling for the gospel of Caesar, not the good news of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps it is time to put down the chalk, stop drawing pyrotechnical conspiracy theories that play into our worst fears and listen, instead, for the difficult, yet enduring, hope of the Gospel.