by Timothy Keller
Christians have some dirty words burned in their collective conscience that conjure up liberal danger: psychology, anthropomorphic, emergent, and of course, social justice. Dr. Timothy Keller unpacks the Christian duty to do justice in the world, including the reasons, motive, how-to, pitfalls, and results. It’s a daunting task that Dr. Keller tackles as easily as the alphabet. In both idealistic and realistic sweeps, the book paints a picture of restoration that the Gospel demands from every follower of Christ. It is a sensitive work without being preachy, an honest look that is not naive. Your safety zone will be challenged.
At some point in recent church history, it was deemed that social justice was a liberal cause void of eternal purpose. We can’t change the world, it was said, so let’s focus on ourselves. There was a prevalent fear that soup kitchens and thrift stores were replacing evangelism, that at the cost of the Gospel we were building temporary houses. It’s a valid fear, but Dr. Keller dispels the notion that both concerns must be exclusive. It is the outworking of our faith through justice that would call others to Jesus’ grace. It is also Jesus’ grace that compels us to do justice.
It sounds simple until we face the dizzying factors of our generation: every social disadvantage feeds into each other until entire groups are fundamentally crippled. Poverty affects literacy which affects job opportunities which leads to crime which ripples through city structures which keeps collapsing in on itself in a vicious cycle. It’s easy to throw our hands up and stick to preaching and teaching. But as Dr. Keller shows over and over, God cares a great deal for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, the disadvantaged. Biblically, not caring for them is the same as injustice. Dr. Keller paves a familiar yet convicting groundwork on why and how we should go about real justice. Asides from the moral discussion, he also provides practical steps that will get you to your feet rolling up your sleeves.
I admit I was very skeptical when I began reading. It’s easy to talk justice and give hopeful, optimistic platitudes about helping the “less fortunate.” I have some hard reservations about giving hand-outs to otherwise kindhearted people who make poor decisions. There have been enough cases where I invested hours, dollars, and energy to see less than no results. Often I’ve enabled people into continuing sin and I could only conclude: either I’m foolish or they will never change. Dr. Keller remarks on this with a much wider scope: that while temporary relief and even teaching self-sufficiency are major helps, we must also find ways to create social reform. Immediately many will read that and glaze over — but why? By the examples Dr. Keller has given, men and women of great courage whether Christian or not have mobilized to change entire social structures. Each story of success always began with setbacks and failures. We’re made aware that this is not easy and may permanently affect our comfort level. But to simply not try is cowardice. We have a biblical mandate to show grace regardless of who we believe deserves it, because that’s exactly how Jesus loves us.
Dr. Keller has a great pulse on huge social issues that is neither too shrewd or too shortsighted. Reading this, you’ll either be convicted into action or you’ll feel more frustrated at your lack of it. But it’s impossible not to respond. At the very least you’ll be pushed to look beyond yourself and empathize with the many needs of your everyday territory.
The book doesn’t take off until chapter four, and parts of it are less focused than Dr. Keller’s other work. It appears he hopscotches some topics and says things out of order, particularly when he delays the Gospel message into the latter half of the book. I felt more as if I was reading random insight instead of a well-organized process.
As the case with many similar books, Dr. Keller gives idealistic portraits of a Christ-centered effort. With other books of this kind, I usually want less of this, but with Dr. Keller I would have preferred more. His examples were always striking. His use of secular sources to make certain points, while maybe disingenuous in regular practice, was used tastefully here to show how the public square’s conversation must include some moral grounding. But it’s here that he gives little concrete examples which weakens his sound reasoning. In this case, less is not more.
Timothy Keller has a unique, straightforward voice that will compel you to action. As with his other books, he wastes no words or ideas, though this time he appears less organized. Yet his urgency will get you moving to get your hands dirty.
“Any large-scale improvement in a society’s level of poverty will come through a comprehensive array of public and private, spiritual, personal, and corporate measures.” (35)
“Regardless of their record or character, all human beings have an irreducible glory and significance to them, because God loves them, indeed, he ‘loves all that he has made.'” (84)
“The world makes social class into bottom-line identities. You are your social status and bank account — that is the basis for your self-regard. But in the gospel these things are demoted and made peripheral.” (104)
“Reweaving shalom [peace] means to sacrificially thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others.” (177)