So having been motivated by the biblical appeal to action in Keller’s Generous Justice (see previous post), what’s the difference? It would hardly be right to leave us as armchair activists with an impetus to think but not act.
The political tightrope
Speaking as a transatlantic observer, it seems to me that one of the acute problems for American Christians when talking about matters political or social is that hearers are constantly trying to identify tell-tale signs of partisan politics. These quickly become a weapon to justify ignoring a case or to add it to your name-checks of supporters. And meanwhile the importance of the issues at stake gets lost.
Keller does not give hostages to fortune. There’s no way that either Republicans or Democrats can claim him as their own – which is entirely as it should be – he finds biblical grounds for challenges and affirmations to both.
Take, for example, the rather fundamental discussion of what justice is:
But underneath all the name calling are sharp differences of opinion about what justice actually is. Democrats think of it in more collective terms. They believe a low tax rate is unfair because it deprives the poor and minorities of the help they need to overcome years of discrimination. Republicans think of justice more individualistically. They believe that a high tax rate is unjust because it robs people of their due who have risked much and worked hard to keep what they earn.
… The fact is that the word ‘justice’ does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on. So we just use it as a bludgeon. We self-righteously imply that those on the other side know they are simply being unjust. But they don’t. (p150)
Conservatives may argue that this is the parents’ fault. It is due to a failure of moral character and the breakdown of the family. Liberals, however, see it as a failure of the government system to stem systemic racism and to change unjust social structures. But nobody says that it is the children’s fault they were born where they were. Those children are in poverty largely because they were not born into a family like mine. My three sons, just by being born where they were, have a far better chance to have a flourishing, happy life in society. There is an inequitable distribution of goods and opportunities in this world. Therefore, if you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice. (p92)
But as mentioned in the last post, it is gospel grace that transforms social attitudes, and thus it supersedes political creeds or loyalties. Here are 3 striking quotations which show how this happens…
In Christ we receive grace, unmerited favour. Nevertheless, in the mind of the Old Testament prophets as well as the teaching of Jesus, an encounter with grace inevitably leads to a life of justice. (p49)
My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating towards the materially poor. (p102)
I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up. (p107)
And he goes on to illustrate precisely how this works with an extended quotation from a sermon bynineteenth century pastor and Keller hero Murray M’Cheyne. (p107 ff)
There should be no poor among you…
As can then be appreciated, how to help bring about justice for the marginalised and trapped is going to be very complex. After all, the ideologies of left and right have evolved over decades of thought and experience – and complexity simply begets more complexity. But Keller’s point is that the Bible’s analysis of poverty and injustice is far from simplistic – it’s much more nuanced than many give it credit for. Drawing on commentators like Chris Wright, for example, (and especially his excellent commentary on Deuteronomy), Keller explains how the Bible understands both poverty’s causes and appropriate responses. A key passage is Deuteronomy 15 (one which i was challenged to revisit with further study) as well as a number of others, which together offer 4 provisions for those trapped in poverty (p26 ff):
- Release from debts
- Provision for gleaning (i.e. leaving some food by not harvesting the edge of fields): ‘gleaning was not … what would ordinarily be called an act of charity. It enabled the poor to provide for themselves without relying on benevolence’ (p26)
- Tithing for the poor every third year.
- The Year of Jubilee
If we combine the requirements of radical generosity with the regulations on profit-taking and property use, we are not surprised that God could say, ‘there should be no poor among you.’ This does not mean that people would not continue to fall into poverty. But if Israel as an entire society had kept God’s laws perfectly with all their hearts, there would have been no permanent, long-term poverty. (p28)
But the bible is not naïve about how poverty arises. And Keller’s analysis is all the more striking because he approaches it all from a theological background more commonly associated with the Christian right.
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. (p38)
So what to do…
This book gave me one of those lightbulb moments at the point where he ingeniously imagined a Good Samaritan follow-up.
Imagine a sequel to the Good Samaritan parable. The months go by and every time he makes his trip from Jerusalem to Jericho he finds another man in the road, beaten and robbed. Finally the Samaritan says, ‘How do we stop the violence?’
The answer to that question would be some kind of social reform – instituting a new social arrangement that stops the flow of victims because of a change of social conditions. (p126)
And thus, every problem is part of a wider context – what he calls a ‘matrix of causes’ (p33). Which is why it needs a matrix of responses. He articulates 3 levels of support – relief, development and reform. Here he draws on the famous theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper and his distinction between the institutional and organic church (the latter being the impact of individual Christians going about their business in the world).
I believe Kuyper is generally right. We have spoken of different ‘levels’ of ministry to the poor – relief, development and reform. Aswe have said, churches under their leaders shoulddefinitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighbourhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelising. But if we apply Kuyper’s view, then when we get to the more ambitious work of social reform and the addressing of social structure, believers should work through associations and organizations rather than through the local church. While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the ‘organic’ church should be doing development and social reform. (p145)
The book does give examples of transformational work happening through churches and individuals. And as an avid devotee of The Wire (having devoured all 5 seasons in with equal measures of horror and rapt amazement!), I was hugely encouraged to hear of the work of New Song Urban Ministries in Sandtown Baltimore (started up by his friend Mark Gornik). Here all these levels are being worked out.
But, that’s definitely quite enough for now! Read the book – he says it all much more fluently and coherently. His case is cogent and hard to dismiss.
Finally, for those who think our only responsibility is to help fellow believers, there’s this resounding battle cry. Ignore it your peril:
However, the Bible is clear that Christians’ practical love, their generous justice, is not to be confined to only those who believe as we do. Galatians 6:10 strikes the balance when Paul says: ‘Do good to all people, especially the family of faith.’ Helping ‘all people’ is not optional, it is a command. (p61)