Book Review – Generous Justice

Generous Justice.
Timothy Keller. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.


“Conservatism stresses the importance of personal morality, especially the importance of traditional sexual mores and hard work, and feels that liberal charges of racism and social injustice are overblown. On the other hand, liberalism stresses social justice, and considers conservative emphases on moral virtue to be prudish and psychologically harmful. Each side, of course, thinks the other side is smug and self-righteous”
(pp. 54–55).

“I urge my readers to discern the balance I am seeking to strike. If we confuse evangelism and social justice we lose what is the single most unique service that Christians can offer the world. Others, alongside believers, can feed the hungry. But Christians have the gospel of Jesus by which men and women can be born again into the certain hope of eternal life. No one else can make such an invitation. However, many Christians who care intensely about evangelism see the work of doing justice as a distraction for Christians that distracts from the mission of evangelism. That is also a grave error” (p. 141).

On the Old Testament instruction that landowners were not to pick their fields clean but allow the poor to glean what remained: “In other words, [landowners] were to voluntarily limit their profit-taking. Gleaning was not, however, what would ordinarily be called an act of charity. It enabled the poor to provide for themselves without relying on benevolence. On the other hand, Deuteronomy 23:24–25 protected the landowner from those who might try to overglean. The Bible is not a classist tract that sees the rich as always the villains and the poor as always virtuous” (p. 27).

The above three citations from Timothy Keller’s Generous Justice are provided here to suggest that, if in our day of politicized polarization you have despaired over having a genuine conversation about social justice and the church, then this volume might be a source of solid and common ground upon which to engage in just such a discussion.

While “social justice warrior” is likely not on the list of typical vocations considered by readers of Issues in Christian Education, neither would readers likely aspire to the category of cold-hearted Grinch. How can busy church workers help the flock entrusted to their care work their way through the theological and political minefield that is the topic of social justice in our day? Generous Justice is highly recommended for the following reasons.

First, Keller’s work finds its ultimate moorings in the grace of God expressed to a sinful and fallen world in Jesus Christ. Keller takes sin seriously as the true disabling malady afflicting humanity, a malady only the atoning work of Jesus can resolve.

Second, Keller’s work is biblical throughout. He engages in word studies of justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedaqah). Keller is hermeneutically aware that one cannot apply in wholesale fashion Old Testament laws to the modern context. Keller values how Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, but he also sees how Jesus sustained the concerns of the Old Covenant in the New for the care of the poor and the powerless.

Third, as the citations at the beginning of this review indicate, Keller has no interest in engaging his readers in a rant or a screed. He notes, “…there are valid reasons why many become concerned when they hear Christians talk about ‘doing justice.’ Often that term is just a slogan being used to recruit listeners to jump on some political bandwagon. Nevertheless, if you are trying to live a life in accordance with the Bible, the concept and call to justice are inescapable” (p. 18). The persistent application of balance and appropriate nuance to the subject of social justice were welcomed by this reviewer. At the same time, Keller will not let the reader off the hook in some variation of the “cheap grace” theme. God’s will is clear in his Word: Christians are to care for the poor and strive to correct what is unjust in the church and the world, even as they await that outcome’s perfection in the Parousia.

How might Generous Justice find use? It would be a sound introduction to the topic of social justice for boards of elders, for church councils, for stewardship committees, for boards of human care, etc. A pastor or DCE or deaconess or board chair would do well to obtain copies for an entire group to read and discuss.  Keller’s book is easily accessible. He writes engagingly and clearly. He is well-read. Keller looks at the complex causes of sustained poverty, including both individual responsibility and community dysfunction (too often systemically embedded in civil patterns). He offers practical wisdom for avoiding both utopianism and apathy.

Keller excels at taking up the typical objections toward engaging in doing justice at the local level. He counters those objections from a biblical basis, and always on the basis of God’s gracious work for sinners in Christ. It is not hard to imagine that after working through Generous Justice, elements of a congregation could be inspired to carry out significant work for the poor and powerless in the name and for the sake of Jesus.

The work isn’t perfect. Lutherans will likely chafe in places, especially at footnote 153 where Luther’s two kingdom construct is treated unfairly (although sometimes as Lutherans have lived out the construct, one can understand where the charge of “quietism” comes from). But as a work that will provoke fruitful conversations among sincere believers for how to handle the subject, Generous Justice has far more to be said for it than against it. Even in those areas that would stand some additional nuance or more insight from Scripture, still the outcome will be an engagement of one of the great themes of God’s Word: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Charles W. Blanco
Associate Professor of Theology
Concordia University, Nebraska

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