Welcome to the final chapters of our Book Journey of Generous Justice by Timothy Keller.
Have you read the book review and schedule for this book journey? If not, you can find it here.
Chapter Seven – Doing Justice in the Public Square
The opening lines of Chapter 7 are easy to brush past but they are vital, thought-provoking words on which the entire chapter circulates. Keller said:
“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.”
This concept presents an insurmountable obstacle for some, while for others an easy understanding. Can believers partner, in effect, with those who don’t profess Christianity for a common goal? For my husband and I, as founders of The Bridge, this chapter rings true on numerous levels and one that articulates much of what we have wrestled through and experienced.
“This Is a Justice Issue”
This section brings out the important conversation of what exactly is the definition of justice. As Keller points out, both sides of the same argument believe they are standing on the side of justice. In fact, he says that “justice does not have a definition in our culture that we can all agree on.”
Keller goes on to point out that “freedom” and “equality” are similarly nebulous terms that we are unable to pin down definitively as a society. He writes that, “When we appeal to the principle of freedom we usually mean that people should be free to live as they choose, as long as they don’t harm or diminish the freedom of others.” The breakdown of this concept though is that no one agrees on the definition of “harm,” says Keller, and he provides a variety of examples to shed light on the complexity of this discussion.
In response to the maelstrom surrounding society’s concept of justice, Keller poses the following question: “Why do we have such a gridlock in our society over justice?” And, in response, he says that “underneath all notions of justice is a set of faith assumptions that are essentially religious, and these are often not acknowledged.” He points to a book by law professor Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, which raises the issue about how it is not allowed to bring faith into the public discussion of government, politics, and academia, because talking about moral rights and moral evils leads to the debate of which religious faith is right. Thus, Smith says we end up talking about justice in only supposedly neutral terms (such as “freedom” and “equality”) that we can all agree on. The words and concepts we adhere to, that guide our living, are insufficient to convey our “full set of normative convictions and commitments” as Christians, says Smith.
This discussion can become difficult to follow, but I think it’s worth digging into. To clarify, Keller shares again from Smith and references an example, the issue of corporal punishment, saying the following:
“…it is often argued that corporal punishment violates the rights and human dignity of a child, and therefore should be illegal. Smith reminds us, however, that there is no secular, scientific basis for the idea of human dignity, or that human beings are valuable and inviolable.”
In fact, some would point to the exact opposite:
- Historian Carl L. Becker said that, from a strictly scientific viewpoint, human beings must be viewed as “little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn.”
- Stephen Hawking said that “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate size planet.”
- Stephen Pinker, Harvard psychologist wrote an essay entitled, “The Stupidity of Dignity.”
- John Gray, philosopher at the London School of Economics wrote on the “self-deception of those who embrace science and still hold to the tenets of liberal humanism, such as belief in human dignity and rights (Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals)
The point of this, then, is to show that society’s view of corporal punishment as violating dignity and rights is based in moral and religious beliefs, although unspoken. Keller sums this up, saying that “the rules of secular discourse lead us to smuggle moral value judgements 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.”
Thus, “we can’t agree on what justice is because we can’t talk about our underlying beliefs,” says Keller at the end of this section.
Cooperation and Provocation
In this section, Keller addresses the question of how Christians can do justice in partnership with others of varying backgrounds. “I propose that Christians’ work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation,” says Keller. As taught by apostle Paul, even without reading the Bible or hearing or it, “the requirements of [God’s] law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness” (Romans 2:15). While some may not adhere to the belief that God made humans in His own image, the sacredness and dignity of human life is still known intuitively. Further, on the basis of “common grace,” Keller says it is possible for Christians to cooperate with non-Christians. In fact, Keller quotes another theologian, “acts of kindness and self-sacrifice surface among every race and class of human beings, not because we are simple mixtures of good and evil, but because even in the midst of our deep rebellion, God restrains us and displays his glory and goodness.”
Below is a summary of points Keller makes throughout the rest of the chapter, as general encouragements for Christians as they seek justice in the public square.
- Speak with thoughtfulness and grace, realizing that Christians are not the only ones with visions to make a difference and seek justice.
- Seek common values.
- Christians should identify themselves as believers as they seek justice. They should let coworkers know of how the gospel is their motivation and basis, yet continue to appeal to common values.
- Treat those who work alongside as equals. Be respectfully provocative with them as well, pointing out where their models of justice may be incomplete and where their beliefs may stem from Biblical concepts.
- Recognize that Biblical understanding of justice is rooted in the character and being of God only. Liberals look to an expansive view of government. Conservatives believe poverty is only a matter of family breakdown. Neither of these views encompass the truth found in Scripture, thus Keller says “Christians should never identify too closely with any particular political party or philosophy.”
- “Christians can be an important part of changing this climate from one of yelling “injustice!” to one of talking and seeking justice together,” writes Keller.
In closing, Keller shares an excellent summarizing paragraph:
“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.”
Chapter Eight – Peace, Beauty, and Justice
The opening concept of this final chapter is one of reconciliation – of God reconciling humanity to himself through Jesus Christ and therefore reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:10). This chapter also introduces God as a craftsman, an artist, a Creator – “Creation was therefore the work of God without a rival, who made the word not as a warrior digs at trench but as an artist paints a picture or shapes a sculpture, ” says Keller.
A House and a Garment
This creating also takes on the image of God as a Weaver, in which “God turned chaos into a cosmos and also turned a tangle into tapestry.” Keller goes on to describe this metaphor, a key image for this chapter:
“Woven cloth consists of innumerable threads interlaced with one another. Even more than the architectural image, the fabric metaphor conveys the importance of relationships. If you throw thousands of pieces of thread onto a table, no fabric results. The threads must be rightly and intimately related to one another in literally a million ways…God created all things to be in beautiful, harmonious, interdependent, knitted, webbed relationship to one another. Just as rightly related physical elements form a cosmos or a tapestry, so rightly related human beings form a community.”
The final line of this section makes a beautiful point, one Keller refers to throughout the ending of this book, saying “This interwovenness is what the Bible calls shalom, or harmonious peace.”
Forms of Shalom
Shalom usually is translated as “peace” in English, however it’s meaning carries a deeper sense of complete reconciliation, “a state of fullest flourishing in every dimension – physical, emotional, social, and spiritual – because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy,” writes Keller.
- Physical shalom – healthy body, all parts are working in unity, opposite of sickness, injury, disease.
- Psychological shalom – mental well-being, the opposite of guilt, anxiety, struggle, feeling conflicted.
- Social shalom – sense of community, safety and beauty, flourishing businesses and relationships, the opposite of crime, poverty, and family breakdown. “When people with advantages invest them in those who have fewer, the community experiences civic prosperity or social shalom,” says Keller.
Justice and Shalom
This section shed greater light and a final summary on the concept of “justice.” Doing justice cannot be separated from seeking shalom. I love the following lines:
“In general, to ‘do justice’ means to live in a way that generates a strong community where human beings can flourish. Specifically, however, to ‘do justice’ means to go to places where the fabric of shalom has broken down, where the weaker members of societies are falling through the fabric, and to repair it.”
How does this happen? What does it really look like to “repair it” – the fabric of shalom? Keller says the only way to do this is by “weaving yourself into it.” He reiterates the importance of relationships, of human beings as threads sewn and woven together. If we attempt to live independently and “keep our money, time, and power to ourselves, for ourselves… then we may be literally on top of one another, but we are not interwoven socially, relationally, financially, emotionally.”
Thus, “reweaving shalom means to sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others,” says Keller.
God in the Face of the Poor
This final section of the book shares the divine source of sacrificial love from which the entire concept of justice springs – Jesus Christ. While the Old Testament shows a God who specifically and intentionally called His people to care for the marginalized, the poor, and the needy, the New Testament gives us an undeniably clear picture of what this looks like in flesh through the person of Christ. Through Jesus, Keller writes that God identified “with the poor and marginalized literally.”
Below are some of the many ways Keller supports this point:
- Jesus was born in a feed trough.
- The offering his parents gave for his circumcision was one that was done by those in the poorest class of society.
- He lived among the poor and marginalized.
- He said, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:58)
- He rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, spent his last night in a borrowed room, was buried in a borrowed tomb.
- Soldiers gambled for his only possession, his robe.
- He died naked and penniless.
Further, Keller states that Christ didn’t only identify with the poor but also experienced what it meant to be denied justice, to be oppressed:
- There was no public notification of his trial.
- It was held in the middle of the night.
- Jesus wasn’t allowed a defense.
- He was struck in the middle of the trial.
- Pontius Pilate caved to political pressure instead of justice.
- Jesus was tortured and killed.
- “In all these ways, Jesus identifies with the millions of nameless people who have been wrongfully imprisoned, robbed of their possessions, tortured, and slaughtered,” says Keller.
There are two final parts of this book that are most valuable said directly by Keller. In response to the statement, “I can’t believe in a God when I see all the injustice in the world,” Keller writes:
“But here is Jesus, the Son of God, who knows what it’s like to be the victim of injustice, to stand up to power, to face a corrupt system and be killed for it. He knows what it is like to be lynched. I’m not sure how you believe in a God remote from injustice and oppression, but Christianity doesn’t ask you to believe in that. That is why the Christian writer John Stott is able to say, ‘I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?'”
And in closing, Keller answers another question, a question from Matthew 25. In this chapter, Jesus describes Judgement Day, when he says to the righteous, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Those listening responded with the inevitable question: “When did we see you thirsty, naked, and captive?”
to which Keller responds:
“…the answer is the Cross! There we see how far God was willing to go to identify with the oppressed of the world…This was the ultimate instance of God’s identification with the poor. He not only became one of the actually poor and marginalized, he stood in the place of all those of us in spiritual poverty and bankruptcy (Matthew 5:3) and paid our debt.”
“Now that is a thing of beauty,” writes Keller. “To take that into the center of your life and heart will make you one of the just.”
May the truth of His life and sacrifice be our source, the spring from which we seek to do justice and weave shalom, to His glory.
Thank you for reading along!
What did you gain from this book? Drop me a line and share how God was moving in your life as you read. I’d love to hear from you.
Have a book recommendation for another Book Journey? Send me a message or leave a comment below. I’ll be choosing another title for the next Book Journey soon.