On the Book Shelf: Generous Justice by Tim Keller

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just

Author: Tim Keller

Genre: Non-Fiction, Theology, Social Justice

Status: Finished Reading

 

Generous Justice is Tim Keller’s response to a growing concern among many people for social justice issues. In particular, in this book he addresses the hot-button issue of racial justice. His approach, he argues, to understanding the situation and dialogue is a Biblical approach. That is, he considers how Scripture illustrates the concept of justice; how it is that God defines and instructs justice for His people in the OT and NT.

Following the theological framework Keller lays out in the first half of the book, in which he makes the compelling argument that justice is an inherent aspect of God’s mission, he then offers a model for how individuals, but more importantly, churches can actively seek justice in the communities in which they live and minister.

The following are highlights that may not necessarily be major points of Keller’s, but are those which I found the most interesting.

 

Evangelism vs. Justice:

The biggest disagreement on this topic in the Church has to do with the priority of evangelism against acts of justice. One person will say that the sole focus of the Church is to evangelize (share the Gospel) with the lost, and that social justice concerns are secondary at best, and a distraction at worst. Others will say that concern for social justice is a form of Gospel proclamation through deeds not words, and that lack of concern for justice is contrary to the heart of the Gospel. Keller finds a happy medium in demonstrating that those who have a full understanding of the grace by which they have been saved are compelled to seek justice in and for the communities in which they minister. Additionally, that justice is an inherent aspect of God’s mission in redeeming this world. If the Church participates in God’s mission then they will inevitably be involved in acts of justice.

 

Focus on Injustice of Systems and Abuse of Power, Not Individual Piety: Reforming Systems

In chapter 2, Tim Keller has this to say, “The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity, and personal moral failure. Having surveyed the Bible on these texts numerous times, I have concluded that the emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors.” Elsewhere he emphasizes that the focus of just actions in Scripture are those directed toward the poor. This brings me to the point that much of what Keller has to say in regards to solutions for poverty has to do with reforming social systems and not individual choices or behavior.

As a conservative who studied the heavily-liberal influenced discipline of Sociology, I wanted to both nod my head in agreement and gasp at this idea. My skepticism renders me unable to fully agree or disagree. I think there is a reality in which structural/social forces do limit one’s opportunities, but I also firmly support the strongly individualistic notion that a person is largely responsible for their own well being. The conservative-and latter-view is my default mode of thinking, in which my surprise was not the argument for the effect of social forces but the notion that Scripture may emphasize the priority of social forces over individual responsibility.

While I still have some thinking to do on this, perhaps the most poignant take-away is that there is at least a precedent in Scripture for the influence of social forces and the need for reform.

 

Maximizing Profits vs Making a Profit

Keller makes an interesting point, drawing on the gleaning laws of the OT (Lev 19:9-10), that there is a difference in maximizing profits and making a profit. The former, Keller argues, is a manifestation of greed which negatively affects those in the surrounding community. This need to squeeze every last penny of profit from one’s business often drives owners to be inconsiderate and unsympathetic toward their workers. Though, this does not mean that making a profit is wrong or evil. Rather, profit can still be made from the resources and work one does, but a more relaxed approached is taken, which increases the welfare and quality of life for those connected to the business, workers and neighbors.

 

Giving the Power of Decision to the Individuals You’re Ministering to: Empowering People

Keller observes that often in cases of charitable donations, a church or board of chairpersons makes most decisions on how money should be spent by individuals or groups for whom donations are given. Keller argues that churches and charity-boards should give the power of decision over to the people for whom they are ministering, for a variety of reasons. I’ll offer two here.

One reason is that often the people of the community you are ministering to have a better understanding of the immediate need and impact that aid could make. Simply, they see where the real need is. Second, allowing people to make these decisions for themselves empowers them in a way that engenders a spirit of responsibility and confidence that were previously lacking.

 

Focus on Holistic Ministry to the Community: Spiritual, Educational, Economic Opportunity, Healthcare, Etc.

In the latter half of the book Keller describes a holistic model of ministry that focuses not only on the spiritual state of the surrounding community, but also the educational, economic, and healthcare aspects. Keller says this about churches who tend to focus solely on the spiritual but not the physical health of a community:

When a city perceives a church as existing strictly and only for itself and its own members, the preaching of that church will not resonate with outsiders. But if neighbors see church members loving their city through astonishing, sacrificial deeds of compassion, they will be much more open to the church’s message.”

While I think this is a great point that Keller makes about the loss of impact of Gospel preaching due to the indifference of a church to the needs of the surrounding community, I’m left wondering if much of this model of ministry is something that’s only feasible in large urban communities, such as his own (his church is in New York City)?

In smaller rural communities there are still issues of lack of educational and economic opportunity, but I’m unsure if one could argue that it is a fault there of structural forces when it’s not whole communities effected but more so individuals. All that to say, that doing justice on large-structural scales might be something better suited for large churches located in densely populated urban areas.

 

Summary

This is a great book for those interested in the issue of justice and where and how the church should be seeking that in the communities in which they minister. People from all degrees of experience and education can benefit from it. This book is not reserved for pastors and theologians or even leaders. Keller wrote this book for every person who either has questions about or already takes serious the issue of justice, and if that is you then I encourage you read it.

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