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Looking at God's World

Keller: Doing justice in the public square

“When Christians do evangelism, they can only count on the support and understanding of other believers. But when believers seek to do justice in the world, they often find it both necessary and desirable to work with others who do not share their faith.” (p.148)

Timothy Keller

Thus Timothy Keller begins an insightful and much-needed chapter on public discourse in his book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. He maintains that while most people see themselves as just, there is disagreement on what justice is.

“… [I]n our society naming something a ‘justice issue’ is a kind of trump card. … [T]here is no defense. …

“There’s a big problem with this move, however. …

“The reason it is not convincing to simply cry ‘injustice!’ is that our society is deeply divided over the very definition of justice. Nearly everyone thinks they are on justice’s side. … Democrats think of it more in collective terms. … Republicans think of justice more individualistically. …

“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.” (pp.149-150)

The author then talks about competing visions of justice and invokes a number of writers in making various points. Part of this comes from the perspective that in secular academia there is no place for religious discussion and thus basic underlying principles are ignored. Keller, of course, has a different perspective. “… [O]ur ideas of justice are rooted in views of life that are nonprovable faith assumptions.” (p.155)

Keller then quotes Steven D. Smith: “The secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained to operate today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments.” (p.155 in Keller, from Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, p.39)

Keller summarizes thus:

“The rules of secular discourse lead us to smuggle moral value judgments into our reasoning about justice without admitting it to others or even to ourselves. And so the deeper discussions over the true points of difference never happen.” (p.156)

He invokes Michael Sandel’s argument about abortion rights here to illustrate the point then follows with this:

“So if our society gives women the freedom to have abortions, it is because we also have made a moral determination. Sandel concludes: ‘It is not enough to say that the law should be neutral on moral and religious questions. The case for permitting abortion is no more neutral than the case for banning it. Both positions presuppose some answer to the underlying moral and religious controversy.’

“Sandel, who is not a religious believer and who is a supporter of abortion rights, concludes that justice is always ‘judgmental.’ Beneath all accounts of justice are sets of essentially religious assumptions that we are not allowed to admit or discuss, and so our society stays in a deadlock over these issues. We can’t agree on what justice is because we can’t talk about our underlying beliefs.” (pp.157-158)

Keller then begins to pull this chapter together by talking about cooperation and provocation. I love it.

“I propose that Christians’ work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.

“Christian believers have many temptations to be neither humble nor cooperative with others. Believers have many of the criteria for a righteous and just life laid out in the Bible. How easy it would be to disdain all non-Christian accounts of justice as being useless, just as many secular people dismiss religious belief.” (p.158)

“… [A]ccording to the Bible, virtue, rights, and the common good are all crucial aspects of justice.” (p.159)

“As a result of this general revelation, Christians believe that there is much ‘common grace’ in every culture. The implication of James 1:17 is that God scatters gifts of wisdom, goodness, justice, and beauty across all the human race, regardless of people’s beliefs. … This grace is called common because it is given to all, not just those who have found salvation in Jesus Christ. …” (p.160)

“When we speak publicly, we should do so with thoughtfulness and grace, in recognition that Christians are not the only ones who see what needs to be done in the world.” (p.161)

And he finishes with a point that it so needed. He doesn’t say it, but one of the myths of our contemporary American culture is that “you can’t legislate morality.” That’s ridiculous. All laws are expression of moral judgments.

Keller includes a quote here from President. “Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christi an tradition.” (p.169) Then Keller finishes the chapter.

“The pursuit of justice in society is never morally neutral, but is always based on understandings of reality that are essentially religious in nature. Christians should not be strident and condemning in their language or attitude, but neither should they be silent about the Biblical roots of their passion for justice.” (p.169)

(This is my eighth post on Keller’s book. I offer these posts in hopes to whet your appetite and to encourage you to read the entire book.)

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