Can the Gospel Survive the “Social Justice” Fad?

Yesterday I read a really interesting article over at the Aquila Report about the current evangelical fascination with “social justice.” Michael Giere, who generally writes about politics and public policy, has an interesting take “social justice” in general and Dr. Keller’s Generous Justice in particular. Mr. Giere expresses concerns similar to mine expressed here in my review of Dr. Keller’s Generous Justice

Here is a brief excerpt of his article:

In addition to the Occupy protests and a number of books in recent years, the apparent ground swell of interest in “social justice” as the animating feature of “real” Christianity received a big boost within evangelical ranks with Dr. Tim Keller’s book, Generous Justice published last year. Dr. Keller is the hugely successful author and nationally known pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

It is a surprising book following the other writings of Dr. Keller. The enormously engaging preacher has a large following among evangelicals (even though he is personally dismissive of them and does not identify himself as one) for his defense of Biblical authority and his preaching that tailors Biblical truth to the rough and tumble of modern community life. But in Generous Justice, Dr. Keller bites into the apple of politics, transporting the vagary of “social justice” to an unsuspecting and perhaps ill prepared audience by page 14 of his book.

Generous Justice, some have noted, may be a reflection of the Reformed idea of a “cultural mandate” percolating to the forefront with Dr. Keller, who taught in a Reformed seminary. Indeed, he has said that, “the primary purpose of salvation is cultural renewal, to make the world a better place.” In Generous Justice, Rev. Keller goes further, comingling the concept of unmerited salvation by Grace, with the idea that “[i]f you are not just, you’ve not truly been justified by faith.” Identifying a single trait that confirms our faith is risky business, of course, as the Book of Galatians informs us.

Dr. Keller also asserts in Generous Justice that self-indulgent materialism must be replaced by a sacrificial lifestyle of giving to those in need; in “doing justice,” and in “permanent fasting,” which he explains is to “work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless.” This, he says flatly, is the real proof that you are a Christian. To others it might suggest that the assurance of our salvation is an open question.

But whatever the origins or motivations for Dr. Keller’s embrace of “social justice,” the term and its working out in society has a long, ignoble history that cannot be simply ignored, as it is in Generous Justice.

The amorphous concept dates to the early nineteenth century and the Catholic reform movement. However it was quickly picked up and welded to Marxist language and idioms (and has remained a fundamental precept in the radical left for over 100 years) by the Socialist International and other radical groups, because it fit the Marxist model perfectly; it was a nebulous concept by which every perceived ill of society could be corrected; and how could anyone be against something that sounds so noble and caring?

Dr. Keller follows others that have set out to “rescue” (their words) the term from the radical left, but do no better than others in the last 100 plus years to bring definition to the concept.

(Surprisingly, Dr. Keller accentuates this reality when he rewrites Psalm 33:5 in Generous Justice. The original text in the NIV reads; “The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Dr. Keller’s version reads; “The Lord loves Social Justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” He takes a perfectly understandable sentence and renders it senseless.)

The Catholic philosopher and writer Michael Novak captured the inherent ambiguity of “social justice” this way: “This vagueness [of the concept of “social justice”] seems indispensable. The minute one begins to define social justice, one runs into embarrassing intellectual difficulties. It becomes, most often, a term of art whose operational meaning is, ‘We need a law against that.’ In other words, it becomes an instrument of ideological intimidation, for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion.”

So it is for Dr. Keller. He seems to advocate both spiritual and official coercion, while employing little Biblical or real-world perspective.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Generous Justice?

In his book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Dr. Tim Keller writes about a topic that is clearly dear to his heart: how we as Christians are to treat the poor and vulnerable in the world around us. I appreciate Dr. Keller’s desire to remind us all of the importance of generosity in the life of a believer. Christians should always have tender hearts towards those around us and a willingness to help others. Considering all that God has done for us, especially through the death and resurrection of Christ, how can we not be moved by the needs of others?

While I agree with Dr. Keller that generosity towards the poor and vulnerable is something Christians should be quick to pursue, I have serious concerns about Generous Justice. From the basic premise to the various applications, there is much about this book that concerns me.

To begin with, the main thesis of Generous Justice is that God’s grace makes Christians just:

A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith (120).

Dr. Keller really works hard to drive this point home:

If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just (68).

I have three concerns with his premise. First, it seems to me that the basic premise, that grace makes us just, is based on a weak analogy. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. We do nothing to deserve it. Justice is, according to Keller’s definition, “giving people exactly what they do deserve” (43). Dr. Keller’s argument is that receiving what we do not deserve will make us give people what they do deserve. This is logically a very weak analogy. It can certainly be argued, and it has been by others, that because we have received God’s grace and mercy, we should treat others with grace and mercy. But to argue that we should give people what they deserve because we have not gotten what we deserve is an odd argument. The one does not flow from the other. Continue reading