on September 30, 2012
A basic biblical lesson is that Jesus came to offer forgiveness. Timothy Keller wrote Generous Justice to give light to another basic biblical lesson that people commonly ignore and overlook: When a person has a true encounter with forgiveness, she or he will "inevitably" long for justice. The better a person understands grace, the more acute this longing will be. Generous Justice hopes to make this clear. Christians can learn that justice for poor and marginalized is at the centre of scripture. People who are not Christians can see that the Bible, properly understood, directs people to be just rather than oppressive.
Generous Justice is an excellent book and makes a significant contribution as I consider social justice. It helped to clarify some issues for me, while also raising issues that I hadn't considered before.
Keller's clarity on the biblical definition of injustice is most helpful in how he defines his question. The Bible seemingly make it obvious that doing justice is expected of Christ-followers. While Keller does spend some time answering the question, "Should we do justice," he quickly assumes the affirmative. This allows him to ask more complicated questions, such as "How", "Why", and "Where". Despite answering these questions in a readable book, Keller provides thought provoking answers.
It is also useful to consider Keller's concerns about the definition of justice relative to how we should use the word. While he provides a definition using The Bible - to make long-term sacrificial decisions that address the needs, concerns, and causes of marginalized people - he concedes that not everyone will agree with this definition, nor will everyone agree with what he uses as his source material for determining the definition. It is difficult to talk about "justice" because there are so many different definitions. Defining the word becomes even more problematic because it is a conversational trump card. Whoever uses the word first is typically the person who gets to set its definition for the conversation. Disagreeing with the definition is taking the side against justice. Most people do not want to be seen as unjust. I'm glad that Keller's response to this problem is not saying, "My definition is best." Instead, he challenges readers to acknowledge that discussing morality is necessary to discussing justice. This provides a launching point for the conversation, because we can debate about what our morality is, where it comes from, and how it leads to our understanding of justice.
Generous Justice also gave me an entirely new thought to consider. When planning to do justice, the church needs to understand the difference between long-term, or "permanent" poverty, and a short period of poverty. While this sounds obvious, the implications are great. Doing justice in the face of long-term poverty and injustice will be different from doing justice in cases of temporary need. This helps readers to understand the complexity of poverty and to see that our response must be just as complex.
Keller also provides a warning that I rarely think about. When discussing justice - particularly poverty - it is very easy to see poor people as always-innocent victims of oppression. Indeed, scripture often concludes that oppressing the innocent is wrong. However, by no means does The Bible indicate that poverty and virtue are synonymous. Nor does it show that a wealthy person is always a villain. Such caricatures are unhelpful when we do justice.
There was a time in history when the world was not Christian, didn't really know what this Jewish sect was about, except that its teachings were about belief in a supreme God, grace in the face of brokenness and sin, and life transformation, accomplished at the cross in Jesus Christ. It was a silly set of beliefs and somehow, in a very unexpected way, these beliefs became the norm in important parts of eastern and western Europe, Northern Africa and parts of Asia, and eventually the Americas. These parts of the world, especially Europe and North America are now rejecting these beliefs in a meaningful way. After having adopted grace and forgiveness as important aspects of living in society, we have essentially rejected them as ways of being in communion with/in God. God? God who?
A generation ago, the BBC asked CS Lewis to give a series of talks on the radio that had to do with the general question: Given that we are becoming a post-christian society, please explain what is christianity so that we may know more of what we are rejecting.
Now, in Generous Justice, Tim Keller addresses the question of how, as Christians, we carry a heritage that may help us know how to live in and actively engage the culture which creates the contexts for Christian churches and christians in a context that actively rejects the beliefs of Christians, but not necessarily the values that are generated by Christian doctrine. In the west, we are in the post-christian society announced by so many over the last 100 years, including CS Lewis. How do we go about living in the West, when the foundations of our beliefs are marginalized?
The book traces the history of Christians as regenerated people, who by gratefulness and transformation are inclined to serve in a broken world, to serve in spite of cost and to be outspoken in the face of injustice. There is a nice balance here, between acknowledging the brokenness of the world, yet its beauty, the sinfulness of man, yet his creation as an image bearer, the corruption of people on a social and individual level, yet the search for redeeming justice. In a very strong sense, one comes away with the desire for a justice that is stronger than anything the world even imagined, a desire that can only come from an encounter with grace and redemption. The final sentence is a summary of what it is to be Christian, to believe what no one believes and to walk along a path that will be costly, but that comes from and leads to Truth.
Keller provides much breadth and balance in this discussion, and, in a very readable style, treads where many Christians dare not go, afraid of crossing obscure doctrinal boundaries. The freedom and the joy he evidently manifests in this work, in exploring Christian doctrine and non-christian ideas, are part of what makes this work important to read. A definite 5 star. With the hope for a sequel.
"Defend the poor and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and needy." -- Psalm 83:3 (NKJV)
If you would like to come to a better understanding of what Christians should be doing for our neighbors, it's hard for me to imagine a better resource than Generous Justice.
Generous Justice is one of those helpful Christian books that starts with the Bible in advocating a position about what the Lord's followers should do. Rather than trying to "construct" an argument in favor of a pre-existing position, Pastor Keller seeks what the Bible tells us and strives to make that wonderful Word more accessible to those who haven't done much to apply It to social justice issues. But this is a faith-based book, as well as a Bible-based one, that's well furnished with descriptions about how fully receiving and appreciating God's grace as redeemed repentant believers opens hearts to serving those who need help with loving hands and arms.
The book begins by explaining the Old Testament concept of Earthly justice ("mishpat"), combining both punishment and care . . . as called for in providing what was due to a person. Next, "being just" or "being righteous" is considered in terms of "right relationships" through the word "tzadeqah," which is viewed as conducting all day-to-day relationships with fairness, generosity, and equity. If tzadeqah were universal, mishpat would not be needed to remedy failings in human relations. Job is upheld as an Old Testament example of both concepts.
The book points out the many examples in the Old Testament of the rich needing to be restrained from oppressing the poor as well as the ways that misbehavior can lead to poverty. Needy peoples' circumstances are often complicated. They often need education, encouragement, a helping hand, and some money. The part of the book that most convicted me to rethink how to be of help was a story about the difficulties met in helping a church's poor neighbor. Given funds to pay her bills, the neighbor decided to spend the money on fun for the family. Both the "helpers" and the "helped" had a lot to learn before the neighbor was truly helped.
The book's most compelling passages come in simply describing what Jesus did and how the disciples were directed to act, both from Jesus and from their own spirits.
on December 21, 2010
Another great resource from Keller. This book fuses the doctrine of the atonement and the practice of justice. I don't know any other writer who can write in such a compact, yet meaningful way. If you are a pastor or ministry leader, whose church is treading in the shallow end of mercy and justice ministry, buy this book - it will help a lot.