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Michael Giere January 11, 2011
Like crocuses in the spring, “social justice” seems to be in vogue in the broader Christian community in recent years, popping up where you least expect it. Largely a conceptual assertion confined to “progressive” or politically leftist religious circles in post-war America, the renewed interest in the catch-all concept of “social justice” has jumped the tracks and landed in the wider evangelical movement.
This was recently evident in the Occupy protests where a surprising number of evangelicals joined leaders of the mainline churches to lend support, even if tacitly, to the Occupy movement. The language of “social justice” and “justice” peppered the discussions explaining the rationale for the protests, as though there was a specific Biblical warrant which called Christians to be sympathetic to the occupiers’ demands. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope gave oblique endorsement to the protests based on non-defined assessments of “justice.” (All of this in spite of the virulent anti-Semitism and organizational efforts provided by various Socialist and Marxist groups – all of which was extensively documented at the events.)
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.
It’s ironic that Generous Justice takes a subject about which there should be no argument, and turns it into an argument. How many of us - not being theologians or pastors - didn’t realize that there was no dichotomy between being a Christ-follower and having a deep concern for the poor, the oppressed and those who struggle with real injustice? It seems perfectly obvious in Scripture that we are to be the hands and feet of our Lord, and that clarity is why so many lay believers act on those Biblical truths. It is also the reason why the charity of the believing community is unparalleled on any level.
There is also inherent in the “social justice” movement a perspective which is somewhat juvenile in outlook. For example, Dr. Keller talks about “practical” things a congregation can do; such as pressuring police to “do justice” to the poor, as they do to the rich, and to demand regulations for high cost loans in poor communities. But what does this mean? There is no actual context to the recommendations. Policing in one community with one set of values and citizen cooperation can be very different from another community. A police officer’s life can be at great risk in one, and not in another. Likewise, is a lender taking the same risk of non-repayment with one economic group than another? And if further regulation drives lenders out of a poorer community, who suffers? The very people Dr. Keller wants us to help.
Also implicit in Dr. Keller’s book is the sense that America and the American experiment as a Constitutional Republic is no more worthy than any other culture or government. Perhaps this is unintentional, but it’s such a pervasive critique of the left, that it’s hard to think it isn’t his belief. The only problem with this thinking, of course, is that everything Dr. Keller writes about in Generous Justice is made possible in the modern world by the God-ordained concept of liberty and individual responsibility. The American economy has not only enriched the average citizen beyond any in the world, it has literally fed the world, saved the world at least three times from totalitarianism, and financed the spreading of the Gospel around the world. The world without American leadership would be a dark place; and immeasurably poorer both spiritually and financially.
Finally, and most importantly, does the new home for “social justice” in the evangelical church have room for the orthodox Gospel of Jesus Christ? While the case for good works and fundamental justice is simply a plain reading of Scripture, the call from Christ is for a personal, individual and life-changing perspective change – from us to Him; with charity of heart and a charity of acts. If the church takes its collective eye off the Risen One; if it does not hold the Cross of Christ high for all to see and proclaim the only Way, then does any amount of good works or justice matter?
If Christians are to take the throttle of political power, as seems intrinsic in what Dr. Keller and others of the “social justice” mindset propose, does that suggest a top-down, authoritarian state that defines what is best for the poor, or disadvantaged? Perhaps this explains why there is such an affinity for Socialism and Marxism in the church. What does that do to liberty, which in the end is the great gift of Grace from the Holy One?
Michael Giere lives in Northern Virginia and has been widely published on politics, public policy, and foreign affairs. He served in both the Reagan and Bush Administrations and is a member of The Falls Church (Anglican) in Falls Church, VA.
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