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Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just Hardcover – November 2, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
The pastor of New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church offers a persuasive plea for evangelicals to embrace social justice efforts. Keller (The Reason for God), whose evangelical credentials are well respected, is among a new breed of conservative Christians eager to break out of the straitjacket that frowns on justice work as doctrinally unsound or the work of overzealous liberals. Without ever resorting to hyperbole, Keller carefully analyzes Old and New Testament passages to make the case that God's heart for justice on behalf of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor is indisputable, and that an encounter with grace will inevitably lead to a desire for justice. This short manifesto goes further: Keller argues that gospel preaching that aims only to change hearts while remaining oblivious to unjust social structures will never fully succeed. Keller recommends that evangelicals partner with non-Christians in pursuit of social reform while speaking distinctively in their own religious idiom. Emergent Christians as well as others serious about their faith and eager for a balanced and authoritative voice on the subject will appreciate this book. (Nov.)
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Praise for Generous Justice
"Keller shows us how a . . . spirit—one of generosity coupled with justice—can thoroughly alter not only a person but, ultimately, society as a whole. . . . Many gems are to be mined from Generous Justice." —The Washington Times
"Generous Justice is the best book I've ever read about putting Christian faith into action. . . . Were all Christians to respond to Keller's understanding of Biblically based justice, it wouldn't simply result in more social programs, food and shelter, and health care for the needy. It would result in a world defined by shalom, a comprehensive peace, a world in which human beings flourish." —Beliefnet.com
"This is the most biblically informed and intellectually careful (read the footnotes!) 'social justice' book I know of. Justice skeptics and justice proponents alike will learn from Generous Justice." —Kevin DeYoung, TheGospelCoalition.org
"A great book . . . Keller cuts through the highly charged rhetoric and presents a clear, biblical call for the church to 'do justice.'" —EFCAToday.org
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In Chapter One, citing Micah 6:8, Keller defines biblical justice as care for the vulnerable.
In premodern, agrarian societies, these four groups [widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor] had no social power. They lived at a subsistence level and were only a few days away from starvation if there were any famine, invasion, or even minor social unrest. Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and many single parents and elderly people. The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. (pp.4-5)
Realize, then, how significant it is that the Biblical writers introduce God as "a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows" (Psalm 68:4-5). This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless; he takes up their cause. (p.6)
Keller introduces another word for justice from the Old Testament, tzadeqah, which defines the righteous as those who are "right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life." (p10) The two words, mishpat and tzadeqah, are used together over three dozen times. "The English expression that best conveys the meaning is 'social justice.'" (p.14) Keller then turns to the New Testament to point out that Jesus calls gifts to the poor "acts of righteousness." (Matthew 6:1-2) He concludes that "not giving generously, then, is not stinginess, but unrighteousness, a violation of God's law." (p15)
Chapter Two delves more deeply into the the themes of justice in the Old Testament. God gave the Israelites numerous laws "that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass." (p.27) There were laws of release from debt every seven years. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 commands Israelites to "be openhanded and freely lend him [the poor] whatever he needs," to help them reach self-sufficiency. Gleaning laws commanded land owners to leave a certain portion of their crops in the fields so that the poor could work to provide food for themselves. Every third year the tithes were put in public storehouses for the poor and marginalized. (Deut. 14:29) Every fifty years on the year of Jubilee, all debts were forgiven, the land went back to its original owners, and slaves were freed.
Each person or family had at least a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start afresh, no matter how irresponsibly they had handled their finances or how far into debt they had fallen. (p.28)
Keller shows how Paul used Exodus 16:18 as a reference when he wrote 2 Corinthians Chapter Eight. He showed how the Israelites were commanded not to hoard manna, but to share it with those who may not have gathered enough. The idea being that "the money you earn is a gift from God. Therefore the money you make must be shared to build up community. So wealthier believers must share with poorer ones. (p31) Before you jump to any conclusions, Keller is not a socialist, but shows how the Bible cannot be confined to any one political or economic philosophy. He cites Craig Blomberg's survey of the Mosaic laws of gleaning, releasing, tithing, and the Jubilee, where he concludes: "the Biblical attitude toward wealth and possessions does not fit into any of the normal categories of democratic capitalism, or of traditional monarchial feudalism, or of state socialism." (p.32)
Keller writes: "One of the main reasons we cannot fit the Bible's approach into a liberal or conservative economic model is the Scripture's highly nuanced understanding of the causes of poverty." (p.33) Whereas liberals blame social forces beyond the control of the poor and conservatives blame the breakdown of the family, poor character, and bad personal practices, the Bible is more balanced. Oppression is certainly one main reason for poverty, and the rich are blamed when vast disparities exist between the rich and poor. I will not cite the references here to be as concise as possible. He writes: "the Mosaic legislation was designed to keep the ordinary disparities between the wealthy and the poor from becoming aggravated and extreme." (p.33) The Bible also lists natural disasters as a cause of poverty. Some people lack the ability to make wise decisions. Another cause is personal moral failure. "Poverty, therefore, is seen in the Bible as a very complex phenomenon." (p.34)
In the New Testament, Keller quotes Luke 14:12-13 to show us "that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor." (p.46) In contrast to the patronage system in existence in Jesus' day, what Jesus prescribed "would have looked like economic and social suicide." (p.47) Instead of doing favors for the rich and influential, our Lord advised serving those who can do nothing for us. "Like Isaiah, Jesus taught that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one's spiritual compass, the heart." (p.51) The parable of the sheep and goats teaches that our heart and service towards the poor and marginalized reflect our heart and service to Jesus.
Perhaps the best chapter in the book is the fifth, entitled "Why Should We Do Justice?" When we delve down into what really motivates our behavior and values, we discover hidden treasure. It is obvious that mere reason and guilt trips will not change people's hearts to be more involved with helping the helpless. Keller comes at the "why" from two angles. The first is what he calls "honoring the image," which is based on creation. "The image of God carries with it the right to not be mistreated or harmed." (p.84) Or to put it another way, "Because we treasure the owner [God], we honor his house [people]." (p.85) Using this line of reasoning, we must acknowledge that everything we have came from God and ultimately belongs to God. We are stewards or caretakers of another's property. Applying the Old Testament principles of mishpat and tzadeqah, we can say, "the righteous [tzaddiq]...are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves." (p.90) Does this not echo the words of Paul:
You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. 2 Corinthians 8:9 (NLT)
With reference to the gleaning laws, Keller writes:
In God's view, however, while the poor did not have a right to the ownership of the farmer's land, they had a right to some of its produce. If the owner did not limit his profits and provide the poor with an opportunity to work for their own benefit in the field, he did not simply deprive the poor of charity, but of justice, of their right. Why? A lack of generosity refuses to acknowledge that your assets are not really yours, but God's. (p.91)
The second part of the "why" we should do justice is found in our response to grace. The idea here is that none of us deserve God's grace. Any argument against serving the poor because they don't deserve our help falls apart in light of this truth. James wrote that to look at a brother or sister without resources and do nothing about it reveals a lifeless kind of faith. (James 2:15-16) The doctrine of justification is necessary because the demands of the law are so high that none of us can attain to it. God's commands regarding loving the poor and helpless are so high that we must rely on God's grace to enable us to fulfill them. "People who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitating toward the materially poor. To the degree that the gospel shapes your self-image, you will identify with those in need." (p.102) Keller concludes: "I believe, however, when justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and to the gospel, this 'pushes the button' down deep in believers' souls, and they begin to wake up." (p.107)
The last two chapters deal with practical aspects of doing justice individually, as a church, and in partnership with others in the community. Since I am growing weary and need to move on to some other things, I will leave those to you to read. The last chapter shows how Jesus identified with the poor and oppressed when he hung upon the cross, penniless and without justice. His trial and execution were illegal. God came to earth as a poor carpenter and died as a criminal. He is the advocate of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized people of the earth, and has called his church to join him in manifesting God's love to those who desperately need it.
I hope you will take the time to purchase and read this book. It will impact your life for good.
You can purchase the reviewer's book on Amazon:
Seeing God's Smile
But the bottom line is this, the poor we will have with us always and how do we deal with them? How do we help them with their issues of hunger, lack of resources, lack of advocates standing up for them with the judicial system and society at large. What also do we do with the "year of jubilee" where the debts of the poor are forgiven and they are given a fresh start. What should we do with that today.
Keller takes us through a discussion of the definition of Justice, why the Old Testament is still valid, what does Jesus say and how do we treat our neighbors. He reminds us that the Old Testament, specifically the nation of Israel, was a Theocracy style of government. So how do we in a democracy deal with the poor since it is a completely different style of government than a Theocracy. What is the point of justice? What should we do about standing in the gap for our neighbors who are poor, or do we ignore them and let the government deal with them through welfare?
There are deep theological issues here and deep moral issues as well. How do you respond to the poor? How do you handle your resources? What do you do regarding Charity? Why do you act charitably?
Keller also talks a good bit about how our young people are moving back into a culture of "volunteerism" and the benefits that has on society as well as on themselves. But the real issue comes down to the heart issue of why do they volunteer to help the poor.
Wrapped in all of this is a discussion also about "God's Grace". Because some people feel that justice might just mean that we let people suffer in their poverty because they bring it on themselves. But the Bible is clear. Our task is to help the poor, the widow, the orphan, etc. These people are precious to God and thus should be precious to us.
This is a quick read, but a very needed read for the "Western Church" today. You will be forced to look at the role of "Deacon" in the church and how that role was put together to serve the poor. You will be left with this question, how does my church stack up in regards to reaching the poor? How would God feel we have done in serving the poor and providing "justice" for them.
Generous Justice is by far his most academic work so far (with The Reason for God also being intellectually rigorous but in a different way). Keller does a kind of biblical theology on the concept of justice and mercy, in many ways borrowing and improving on Craig Blomberg's work, Neither Poverty nor Riches.
The latter half of the book - particularly the chapter on conceptions of justice in the public sphere - felt a little incongruous with the first half. It was a fascinating look at secular formulations of justice and how Christianity interfaces (quite similar to portions of The Reason for God), but the chapter felt too short to unpack and really interact with the material.
The last chapter on shalom and how we can only do justice by being captivated by the beauty of Christ was classic Keller. It is basically like the last 10 minutes of a typical sermon of his.
I guess my complaint with the book is that it did not feel like it was tightly argued throughout. The latter chapters felt like independent articles tacked on because it was topically related. I also object to book's binding/shape. It was a good format for The Prodigal God - which is a great book to give as a gift to someone. But for this more complicated topic (and material in which Keller decidedly ups the academic rigor with impressive endnotes - notice how many Harvard profs he cites), the book's childish format was unfitting. Keller should have acknowledged the material better and done an academic printing.
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Would recommend to anyone who is seeking a better understanding of God's grace.