14 January 2011

Generous Justice


Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just is an overwhelming book by Pastor Timothy Keller. “Overwhelming in what way?” you might ask. Overwhelming in the sense that there is so much to take in that I’m not exactly sure where to begin. The book is also overwhelmingly Biblical, putting forth the case that social justice is not only the realm of liberal Christians, but a concept and duty that are at the very heart of the gospel itself.

Pastor Keller begins by showing that the words our English Bibles translate as “justice” in the Old Testament, chesedh and mishpat, reflect a merciful attitude toward the widow, orphan, and poor as well as an action that must be taken on behalf of these groups. Throughout the Old Testament, cultures and societies are called righteous or unrighteous based on how they treat the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor. This is because mercy toward the poor and helpless is a reflection of God’s character and person. Whereas the gods of other nations favored the rich who could offer better sacrifices, Yahweh favored the oppressed and destitute. This does not stop with the Old Testament, but continues into the New as well in the teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early Church. Keller shows that the Bible doesn’t fall into a simplistic diagnosis of poverty. It never assumes that poor people are automatically righteous. Nor does it assume that poor people are where they are by their own fault. However, it does assume that the righteous who have been blessed financially ought to help the poor no matter how they became poor and regardless of whether they are “deserving.”

He follows up with a discussion of why we should do justice for the poor. He says that almost all Christians know that they should be helping the poor, and yet they are not. I have to admit that I myself am guilty of this very thing. I have read about, thought about, and blogged about helping the poor, but haven’t honestly sought out opportunities to do so. So why is there this disconnect? Keller says that part of the problem is Christians are often guilted in to helping, and guilt is never a good motivator for charity. Rather, he explains how the atonement of Christ and the doctrine of justification by faith provide the best basis for kindness to the poor. We must truly believe that the Lord of Glory stooped to aid us destitute sinners, undeserving, ungrateful, and openly hostile to our benefactor. Only then can we look at the poor and see ourselves in their place.

Next, Pastor Keller lays out a plan for doing justice. I found this a most interesting part of the book. He outlines three levels of help that can be given to the poor: relief, development, and social reform. Relief simply means giving money and resources. It is the first level of help for the poor. Development means training a person in life skills and financial management so that they can break the cycle of dependency and assume control of their own welfare. Finally social reform means transforming entire communities by creating jobs, co-ops, health care centers, schools, and other programs that will keep money in a poor community from quickly migrating away to more wealthy areas of town. He says that the Church often has a large role in relief and development, but social reform can only occur when Christians willingly move into these poor areas and begin to make connections with the people there, forming organizations that will help them fulfill their goals.

The book is helped greatly by the fact that Pastor Keller is not coming at the issue with a political perspective. We don’t get a rah-rah-Republican, free-market book, but we also don’t get a moralistic, welfare-minded Democrat book either. Keller does a wonderful job being strictly Biblical in his advice and application and simply not caring whether he sounds like a liberal or conservative. This may trouble some readers, but I found it refreshing. A second thing that makes this book so powerful is the personal experience that lies behind it. Keller has been in the trenches practicing what he preaches for twenty years. He doesn’t suggest that all Christians should move to an inner city neighborhood like he did, but his experiences there can be applied everywhere. This book is going to take a lot more thought and some good discussion to organize racing thoughts and make practical application. And if the book does nothing more for someone than to make them think and see the poor around them differently, then the first step will have been taken. I believe that this is a book which all American Christians ought to read.

5/5 stars

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