To assure those who may have been made a tad queasy by the subtitle, it is lifted directly from the pages of Holy Writ, not the Catholic Catechism. The level of our Protestant unease is a sign of how badly we’ve needed a book like Generous Justice by Timothy Keller. I run the danger of being accused of hyperbole by claiming that this may be one of the most important books of the next decade, since I recently blogged about Unbroken, the most inspiring book I’ve read in the past ten years. But, there it is.
It may not necessarily be the best book on the subject, nor the best written, nonetheless I think it may very well be the most important. This is due to the person who wrote it, the manner in which it is written and the audience that will read it. Timothy Keller is a “hot” author who has accomplished the nearly impossible feat of crossing over from preaching to the choir to being read avidly by the unchurched. Secondly, he is respected by a broad swath of thinking Christians of various stripes. And thirdly, he pastors a 5,000-member church in Manhattan, in the heart of the Big Apple—which makes him (just being honest here) inordinately cool.
Keller is a teacher which means that his style is not confrontational. He is not plagued with the apologist’s penchant for mixing it up, even if just a teensy little bit—for the simple thrill of hearing the crisp clang of swords striking with certain intent. This means he can write about controversial subjects without ruffling unnecessary feathers or provoking needless, energy-consuming skirmishes. He has a soothing tone. What he says goes down easy even if you are on a different page entirely. He writes as he speaks—gentle, resonant, confident and assuring. Not a flaming prophet. He is St. Bartholomew with an eastern (as in East Coast) education.
Generous Justice is not directed at one narrow readership. It is aimed at a variety of audiences: youthful Christians compelled by the call to do justice, conservative Christians with a jaundiced view of “doing justice,” members of the emerging church who see justice and evangelism as synonyms, and those who conclude that Christianity is the primary instigator of injustice in the world. It is the breadth of the audience that makes this book of importance as well.
Perhaps it is also necessary to mention that the timing of the book affects its significance. It is hitting the stands as the competing belief systems illustrated by these four audiences have grown increasingly intense. President Obama’s platform has incensed the economic, social and religious conservatives. At the same time the compulsion to “do justice and love mercy” grows apace among the younger Christians across denominational divides, while aggressive atheism increases the decibels on its public repugnance of everything the Bible teaches—especially its ethics.
The genius of Generous Justice is the careful and thoughtful connection it makes between “doing justice/loving mercy” and the rights of the poor. In its simplest form the argument it makes is that caring for the widow, orphans, immigrants and the poor (“the quartet of the vulnerable”) is not an option, it is a duty—it is a necessary act of love. Thus, failing to care for them violates their right to justice and breaches our duty to love God and our neighbor as He has loved us. Starkly: neglecting their needs is a sign that we have not received or understood mercy. More starkly: choosing not to give generously to the poor is not stinginess but unrighteousness—“an offense against God”. And most starkly of all: refusing to “do justice” mean we have not been truly saved.
Because Keller is a theologically conservative Presbyterian and speaks with modulated, professorial tones many will be completely unaware that he is championing a key tenant of Liberation Theology (a revolutionary belief system made popular in the 70’s by Marxist theologians in South and Central America.) Keller alludes to in passing, one more proof that all truth is God’s truth, regardless of its economic/political underpinnings, or how it may be distorted out of all gospel shape.
What Liberation Theology understood, and Keller quotes from one of their more arresting slogans, is that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” While He does not play favorites, nor show bias, nonetheless He is expressly declared to be the “Father of the fatherless, the defender of the widows” (Ps. 68:4-5). Never are we told that God defends the rich—they can pretty well do that for themselves. And, as Keller notes, the Scriptures calling for justice for the poor outnumber those that speak of justice for the well off “by a hundred to one.” God’s “preferential option” means that “This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause.” This is the truth conservatives rejected when they discarded Liberation Theology.
Keller establishes incontestable links between the countless Old Testament social provisions to protect and provide for the weakest and the New Testament. Even though we have moved away from an agrarian economy he argues that this has not lessened our obligation to do justice to those on the bottom of the economic ladder. He introduces us to Job as a compelling model of a just man, devoted to generosity, for whom “right conduct is almost entirely social.” In fact, what Keller proves is that the best definition of two Hebrew words “justice and mercy” which are tied together almost 40 times, is the distasteful phrase (for many conservatives) “social justice.”
This interpretation puts a powerful new spin on the classic scripture in Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness and social justice on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 9:23-24). What I found most helpful was the contrast drawn between “charity” and Job’s commitment to move beyond “handouts” to “fulfilling their desire”—the much more costly choice to enter into their life with a view to turning “the poor man’s life into a delight.”
Conservative Christians argue that liberals love big government with their hand-outs to the undeserving, shiftless poor. The truth of it is we love it too. We have been all too happy to let the government take over social programs (updated versions of the provisions in the Torah) so we can focus on saving souls without distractions. This frees us to embrace the Evangelical “option for the poor,” which being interpreted means, Christians have an option to do good works if they want—or not. And this is where Dr. Keller begins wrestling the golden calf off its marble pedestal—but in a non-threatening kind of a way. (Yes, this is quite a feat, something only to be attempted by professionals.)
He begins where he usually does, which is why he is such a potent preacher–with Jesus. For him it is always about the Gospel which means it is always about Jesus. He demonstrates that if Jesus’ life modeled anything it was a preferential option for the poor. After all, he became one for our sakes. We, the comfortable, economic, upper two-percent of the world’s population tend to forget this. Jesus became poor that we might become rich—spiritually. He was born in the sticks, in the home of a laborer. He was homeless, dependent on the kindness of friends. Throughout his 42 months of ministry he mostly associated with the socially ostracized and the economically challenged.
When He talked about banquets He required His followers to make sure they invited “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Lk. 14:12-13). Jesus did not draw any line of demarcation between grace (unmerited favor) and justice (protecting rights). In His mind the one did not cancel out the other. He criticized the Pharisees who hid their insensitivity to the poor behind excessive religious observances. Being full of greed and wickedness is to “neglect justice and the love of God” (Lk. 11:38,42). For Pharisee as well as the wealthy Christian who covers up his greed with religious activity and rhetoric, cleansing comes not by right beliefs but by giving to the poor, then “everything will be clean to you” (Lk. 11:41). According to Keller, “The purification of the heart through grace and love for the poor are of a piece; they go together in the theology of Jesus.”
However, it is the pattern of the early church that provides the coup de grace. We are all too aware of their heroic generosity, a liberality we have grown used to dismissing as a historic anomaly. For us it has become an interesting but mostly irrelevant illustration of how our primitive brothers and sisters chose to live out their version of the Gospel–their “option for the poor,” shall we say. Now Keller does not go so far as to make it normative, but he does draw a very troubling parallel to the Old Testament which forces one to take a second look at our convenient, condescending disregard of their example.
Deuteronomy 15 is a critical Old Testament chapter outlining the economic justice God requires of His chosen people. Yahweh establishes the laws of release in which debts are forgiven on a 7-year cycle: to relieve “one of the key factors causing poverty—long-term, burdensome debt.” Yahweh warns against being stingy and commands His people instead to “be openhanded and freely lend [your poor brother] whatever he needs (Dt. 15:7-8), Although there would “always be poor people in the land” it is certain that if God’s people complied with these social justice laws, they were told, ‘There should be no poor among you” (Dt. 15:11, 4). ). In the Torah, Keller writes, “God gave Israel a host of laws that if practiced would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass.”
The significance of all this Old Testament material becomes apparent when we read about the church during the first decades after Pentecost. They were no longer living under a Jewish theocracy and, just as importantly, were in an urban context. But, their commitment to Jesus was manifested in a continued preferential option for the poor. They sold their possessions and “gave to anyone who had need” (Ac. 2:44-45). It became commonplace for those with excess realty to sell it and give the proceeds to the apostles who distributed it to the poor. As a result, “there were no needy persons among them” (Ac. 4:34). Luke is indicating that what the Old Testament pointed to as the pinnacle of social justice: “no poor among you” had actually transpired among the new community established by Jesus.
Keller pointedly quotes one of America’s most influential pastors and thinkers. In 1733 Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon entitled “The Duty of Charity to the Poor” in which he dismantles the most common arguments we use to avoid sacrificial generosity. Like Keller, Edwards points us always to Jesus. He is always the answer. We are to love as He loved us and be afflicted with Him in His afflictions. Edwards asked those who wish to avoid inconvenience or economic sacrifice: “If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?”
To the charge that the poor are unworthy, ungrateful and manipulative, he again reminds us of the Gospel. “Christ loves us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we are very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good. . . so we should be willing to be kind to those who are. . . very undeserving.”
The answer to the most frequent and logical of all defenses: “their poverty is due to their laziness and immoral behavior—it is their own fault” is again to look at the cross. “The rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them. .. [for] Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness. We foolishly and perversely threw away those riches with which we were provided, upon which we might have lived and been happy to all eternity.” In light of that a true Christian has no recourse but to be marked by sacrificial liberality.
The weakest part of the book is Keller’s treatment of justification and justice. Maybe it is because he was purposefully keeping the focus narrow and the book small. Whatever the reason, there is much more that needs to be said about what justification is and how it relates to sanctification and why the old slogan “Faith Alone” may need to be reconsidered and adjusted, and perhaps, replaced, even. Where a theological catchphrase reinforces error: “Good works are an opt in or opt out proposition since they have no direct connection to my salvation” it is high time that it be dismantled.
An honest reassessment of this doctrine will enable us to be more honest about what James meant when he wrote the words of the subtitle of this essay: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). This will open us up to the wisdom of our Catholic brothers who have consistently held to James, even if, at times, to the detriment of Paul. It might also teach us Protestants what they have known all along–that salvation is not primarily about getting me into heaven, but getting heaven into me. And that this has inescapable, obligatory effects upon how I respond to the poor who remind me of my own spiritual need, and of Christ’s indescribably generous compassion. The poor then become a mirror not only of Christ to me but of the reality of Christ in me. It might then help us make sense of one of Paul’s most troubling commands: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Php. 2:12).