Generally defined as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society,” it seems that social justice is now a controversial issue being debated everywhere. The concept actually has a long history – it arose in the early 19th century during the Industrial Revolution in defence against the extreme exploitation of human (including child) labour.
Even so, renowned pastor and bestselling author Timothy Keller takes it all the way back to creation, God’s character and the cross – because if we believe in evolution, “we are forced to face the implication that ultimately there is no good reason to treat human beings as having dignity.”
What makes Generous Justice such a penetrating read, however, is that it does not advocate for a naïve, one-dimensional approach. Keller acknowledges that vulnerable people need multiple layers of help.
He also points out that the reasons for poverty as put forth in the Bible are remarkably balanced – from the result of natural disasters to disabling injury, racist oppression to excessive interest on loans, unjustly low wages to a lack of wisdom or personal moral failure. The problem of poverty is so much more complex that one theory can accommodate.
Unfortunately, the rules of secular discourse insist that we omit any reference to moral or religious beliefs, and so “we cannot talk about why we think something is right and just.” From CEO pay to affirmative action, abortion rights to financial bailouts – our underlying value judgments lead to sharply different conclusions about what is just and fair in a particular case.
So how do we as believers engage in social justice in the public square? Drawing on multiple passages in the Bible, Keller shows how a profound experience of God’s generous grace towards us galvanises us to care for the poor and vulnerable in practical ways.
He then calls for a new attitude to social justice – one that is not motivated by guilt, or an emotional resonance with a ‘cause’. When we understand what it means to consider the poor (Psalm 41:1), in the Hebrew sense that means ‘to give sustained attention to, and then to act wisely and successfully towards it’, we will be able to reweave the social fabric of our communities.
Review by Lise-Marie Keyser