Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 24, 2011

Why Jesus Would Be Frustrated With Cable News Networks

One of the books on my reading list right now is Timothy Keller’s Generous Justice. This book seeks to show how social justice is an important aspect of the Christian life. Keller specifically addresses conservative Christians who have historically been suspicious of bringing together Christianity and social justice. “In the mind of many orthodox Christians,” says Keller, ” ‘doing justice’ is inextricably linked with the loss of sound doctrine and spiritual dynamism” (xii). This suspicion of justice is rooted in the conservative reaction towards the liberal social gospel movement of the prior century.

Keller’s main goal is to show how a concern for social justice does not require the rejection of traditional Biblical doctrine. He suggests that the act of doing justice, and caring for the poor is a significant by-product of a redeemed life. The act of caring for the poor is not a means by which we earn salvation; rather, these acts of ‘doing justice’ are the result of having experienced God’s grace for ourselves. For example, Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25:31-46 that his true sheep are those who embrace and care for “the least of these my brethren.” Keller points out that this text says that our openness towards the poor reveals that we are open to Jesus, for Jesus says, “when you embraced the poor, you embraced me.”

One of the key points that Keller emphasizes in his book is that there is no division between private morality and social justice in the Bible. Commenting on the Sermon on the Mount Keller says, “along with the well-known prohibitions against sexual lust in the heart, adultery, and divorce there are calls to give to the poor and to refrain from overwork and materialism” (54). Jesus, then, seamlessly weaves together both a concern for personal moral issues and a concern for social justice.

However, the current religious-political landscape in America is often divided along these lines. When you watch MSNBC or FOX News you rarely hear a well reasoned discussion on the major issues of the day. Instead we have actors playing pre-defined partisan roles that reinforce stereotypes. Keller writes:

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 (54-55).

Keller thinks that it is vital for the contemporary church to move past this divisive partisan rhetoric. We must begin to reflect the “whole cloth” that Jesus weaves – one where personal morality and social justice are brought together. Keller says, “the churches of America are often controlled by the surrounding political culture than by the spirit of Jesus and the prophets” (55).

We cannot afford to be stuck in partisan bickering because we have a broader calling. We are called to preach a holistic gospel that gives us hope for both personal growth and social justice. Focusing on some problems while ignoring others limits the full extent of the gospel.

Harvie Conn, for example, tells the story of a laborer in Hong Kong who was invited to go and hear an evangelist. The laborer commented that while the preacher had lots to say about personal sins of addiction and laziness he was frustrated that there was nothing said about the oppressive practices of his boss. “Nothing was said about my boss,” the man said, “nothing about how he employs child laborers, how he doesn’t give us the legally required holidays, how he puts on false labels, how he forces us to do overtime . . .” Harvie Conn concludes by saying, “gospel preaching that targets some sins but not the sins of oppression cannot possible work among the overwhelming majority of people in the world, poor peasants and workers” (quoted in Keller, 56).

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Responses

  1. How do you define social justice?

  2. Hey Bruce,

    Keller defines justice by looking at scripture. The Hebrew term for justice is mishpat, which is often defined in the OT as “taking up the care and causes of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor.” Mishpat is also a broader term that involves punishing those who are guilty. But it also takes on this dimension of caring for the poor. The idea of social justice is especially conveyed when mishpat is used in tandem with the hebrew word tzadeqah, which has to do with right-relatedness. Some contemporary translations translate these two words together as social justice.

    The short answer then is that social justice has to do with giving protection and care to those in need.

  3. In my ministry position I find myself at this juxtaposition of conservative doctrine in Holy Spirit led ministry. I’m very interested in reading this book now, thanks for sharing!

  4. Hey Kristal,

    Welcome to the blog! How are things at New Beginnings? Blessings as you continue in your important work!

  5. Thanks for posting the mini-book review. I found it helpful, but was actually disappointed at the brevity of Keller’s book. It just wasn’t as long as it could have been, I felt. I would have liked to have read more about how the Mosaic Law reflected God’s intentions for societal behavior, especially caring for vulnerable groups. Keller mentioned that, but in a summary manner.

  6. Hey Tyson,
    Welcome to the blog. Yes, Keller certainly is ambitious in all he covers in this book. As such some concepts are not fully developed. It has been very helpful for me though. I am particularly grateful for the ways in which he challenges us to move past political partisanship so we can embrace the holistic vision for justice that is given to us by Jesus.


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