The Common Good

Glenn Beck and the Foolishness of the Cross

Should Christians reject the cross of Jesus Christ? Listen to Glenn Beck and it would be reasonable to think that the answer is yes. In his latest tirade against Christians who devote their lives to justice, Mr. Beck distorted the symbol that stands at the very heart of Christianity by arguing that it is a perversion for victims of oppression to look for liberation from the crucified Christ. This alone is enough to merit a rebuttal -- and people such as Jim Wallis have already done an excellent job in responding to Beck's attacks on the gospel. But given Glenn Beck's affinity for invoking the Nazis (watch this clip for a comedic take on that particular tendency), his most recent words take on a layer of irony and deserve a specific critique.

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Not only are the sufferings of Christ and the message of liberation central to the gospel, but they are at the heart of the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian theologian who was executed for his opposition to Hitler's regime. If Beck is going to question the validity of Christians who stand alongside the oppressed in witness to the crucified Christ, then he must answer to the life and death of Bonhoeffer.

While it is not possible to go in to all of Glenn Beck's convoluted thoughts here, the crux of his arguments rely on reducing Christianity to its individual spiritual components while dismissing any communal or social implications as communist influences. This false dichotomy between the individual and social is exactly what Bonhoeffer reacted against.

Mr. Beck takes exception to the idea that Christianity addresses external social forces of oppression and not just the internal oppression of the soul by sin. He fails to appreciate how the two are indelibly connected. We cannot examine sin in our own lives without seeing the sinful institutions that are built upon it. From his prison cell, Bonhoeffer wrote that Christianity teaches us to "see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled -- in short, from the perspective of those who suffer." Trying desperately to understand how so many Christians could remain silent in the face of Nazism, Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that they had forgotten that Christ came to stand alongside the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the powerless.

Bonhoeffer took very literally the idea that Christians are called to be the body of Christ in the world and to imitate the life of Christ. And when he looked to the gospels, the example he saw Jesus give was of a servant who challenged the oppressive social forces around him. It was this understanding that lead Bonhoeffer to state, "The church is the church only when it exists for others." Jesus frees us from sin in order that we may have a transformative impact on our social structures here and now, so that we may aid in ushering in the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. For freedom we are set free. And so, to Bonhoeffer, Christians of good conscience could not remain silent under Hitler's rule, because the calling of God on their lives was one that compelled them to speak on behalf of the oppressed, to share in the life of Jesus, even to the point of sharing in his suffering and dying. This last point is one with which Glenn Beck seems particularly uncomfortable.

Responding to the idea that the oppressed can look to Christ for liberation because he too was a victim, Beck said, "Jesus wasn't a victim, he was a conqueror." But it was Bonhoeffer who wrote, "Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering ... only the suffering God can help." Beck suggests that speaking of Christ's suffering -- and using it to uplift the suffering in our world -- somehow negates the empty tomb. But the cross has been called foolishness and a stumbling block before, and it does not alter the fact that "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." (1 Corinthians 1:27). Glenn Beck believes that if Jesus were a victim, he would have made "the Jews pay for what they did," because all who are oppressed only seek retribution. He fails to understand that the cross teaches that liberation from oppression is not about wresting power from one group in order to give it to another, but liberating all people from the sin that comes when anyone seeks to dominate another.

That is why Christ came as a suffering servant, and not a conquering king. When Bonhoeffer wrote, "only the suffering God can help," what he meant was that the cross of the crucified Christ serves as a critique of every system of domination. And as we stand in its shadow, we are convicted to see the places in our own world where the forces of subjugation are at work. As Christians, we are not ashamed of the cross because it points us to the places in our world where we can stand alongside Christ in the form of our oppressed brothers and sisters and aid in God's redemptive work. We do this because we know the empty tomb awaits. That is what it means to take up our cross and follow him, and that is what Bonhoeffer did.

Glenn Beck is fond of lifting up the Nazis as the preeminent exemplar of evil in our time, and he is right. But when Christians were called to stand in opposition to Hitler's regime, it was not the principles of the free market to which they appealed, or an individualistic faith divorced from communal bonds. The Christian martyrs, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave their lives in defiance of the Nazis looked to the cruciform Christ who came to proclaim release to the captives and let the oppressed go free.

Rachel Johnson holds an M.A.R. in Theology from Yale Divinity School. She is an Associate with Eleison Group and a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church.

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