Pastor Tim Keller recently posted ‘A Biblical Critique of Social Justice and Critical Theory.’ It’s a good read worthy of some serious reflection. I encourage everyone to read it here. Here are some of my reactions.
No One Justice
Tim Keller starts by asserting there is no one view of justice in the West. He outlines a history of justice following philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre to prove his point. And I couldn’t be more on board. When Christians say the word “justice,” it is by no means clear what we mean. I think the US church needs to hear and understand this.
There was a time when the US church assumed that the word “justice” meant the same thing to everybody who speaks English. And it meant what the church meant. Protestant Christians at large, especially the white mainline protestant churches after World War 2, saw the work of justice, and the “Christianizing of the social order” (Rauschenbusch) as a Christian task of the church in the American society. It was subtly assumed that ”justice” was a Christian universal value all Americans could agree on.
Martin Luther King Jr followed in this tradition when he used Biblical imagery to call America at large to racial justice basically assuming a cultural authority for Christianity. And so even to this day, Christians, and this includes evangelicals, seek justice at large in society on terms we deem to be Christian.
Conservative evangelicals explicitly appeal to Christian principles or the Bible for their pursuit of pro-life legislation and other socially conservative justice agendas. They assume this should apply to everybody in the U.S. even though the majority do not believe the Bible as an authority for their lives.
Likewise, progressive evangelicals, in reaction to a white fundamentalism, generally assume a Christianized motivation for why they pursue racial and economic justice, along with equal rights in society at large.
But in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic country, we can no longer assume Christian parochial understandings of justice to be universal for all. As Keller argues, “justice” requires a narrative, a history from which to make sense. I press even further and say “justice” requires a community in which there’s a language and a practice of justice that fleshes out the meaning of the word “justice” when used in everyday life. Otherwise the word “justice” becomes an ideological banner that can be applied for certain power tactics.
As Keller argues, “justice” requires a narrative, a history from which to make sense. I press even further and say “justice” requires a community in which there’s a language and a practice of justice that fleshes out the meaning of the word “justice” when used in everyday life. Otherwise the word “justice” becomes an ideological banner that can be applied for certain power tactics.
The US church has fallen into the bad speech habits when it comes to ”justice.” Even after the demise of the post WW2 white protestant hegemony in North America, U.S. Christians continue to assume that when we use words like “justice,” “self-actualization,” “pro-life,” “marriage” and even “love” that we as Christians are all talking about the same thing as those outside the church. But this is absurd.
The very fact that progressive evangelicals cannot agree with conservative evangelicals on what justice means is testimony to this fact. Keller appeals to MacIntyre to make this point and he couldn’t have chosen a better thinker to explain the problems of justice in our time.
And so, can we hear Tim Keller’s challenge to us Christians to be more careful with our language of justice? When our language/practice of justice becomes blurred with other versions of justice and detached from the person and work of Jesus Christ as Lord, we get one step closer to supporting justice as an ideology.
We’ll end up doing stupid things which we then have no pathway out of, like supporting (or starting) wars in the name of God (because he is the God of freedom), or supporting one issue in an election (pro-life or national healthcare), or stamping a candidate with God’s imprimatur based upon our one view of justice. “Justice” will get separated from any real work on the ground. We will lose our Christian witness and lose the wherewithal for the justice of God to take shape in our neighborhoods and towns.
Keller and “Foundations”
Anabaptist leaning thinkers argue that Christians cannot expect Christian moral behavior of non-Christians. We assume that Kingdom social behaviors - like forgiveness, reconciliation, love and care for those who have been broken, healing, the wherewithal to subordinate our security and dependence upon money to the Lordship of Christ so as to give sacrificially, etc. – are really only possible in a relationship of trust and dependence upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s working. Christian justice is not possible apart from Jesus. In fact it cannot even make sense to many non-Christians. And so we should not assume that what Christians’ believe about justice in and through Jesus Christ can be imposed on a world who does not know him as Lord. Imposing a Biblical justice therefore, as a universal foundation, on society at large is a complicated issue.
We assume that Kingdom social behaviors - like forgiveness, reconciliation, love and care for those who have been broken, healing, the wherewithal to subordinate our security and dependence upon money to the Lordship of Christ so as to give sacrificially, etc. – are really only possible in a relationship of trust and dependence upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s working. Christian justice is not possible apart from Jesus.
In his article, under a heading entitled ‘The Problem of Foundations,’ Keller cites a large section of a Christian Smith interview with an atheist. At the end of this citation we are left with the strong impression that justice is in need of a universal foundation to be legitimate. Keller then proceeds to provide an exposition of what he names as ‘Biblical Justice’ with 5 points. The impression here is that this outline can provide a foundation for justice for all Christians and beyond. But just how is his version of justice ‘Biblical’ and in what manner is it foundational?
This is where stuff gets tricky. Is Keller saying his take on ‘Biblical justice’ is THE (emphasis on “the”) Biblical version of “justice” or one of many Biblical versions of justice? I agree with many of his emphases in his version of Biblical justice but I notice he has not made reference to Jesus or the New Testament (except for one reference). This is a problem for those of us inclined to center the revelation of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel (and the OT) and is the one who most fully reveals who God is. All understanding of God’s justice therefore must go through Jesus. For us, it is even through Jesus that we understand ultimately the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. What is clear from all this therefore is that Keller’s ‘Biblical justice’ is one interpretation/one version of such justice. It is arguably not a foundation to which even all Christians can assent.
But is Keller advocating for a Biblical justice that all people should accept as foundational? He provides a spectrum of 4 theories of justice playing off Michael Sandel’s book on ‘Justice.’ He follows Sandel’s history of justice except that he replaces Sandel’s “virtue ethics” with a treatment of critical theory. (Please note that this is a bit odd because MacIntyre, upon which he begins his analysis, is really the one responsible for the rebirth of “virtue ethics”). At the end of each account of the four theories, he provides a rationale for how (his version of) Biblical justice incorporates the best of each theory while also compensating for the lack in each theory. The argument moves, in a very Niebuhrian way, to a summary that compares (his own version of) Biblical justice to the alternatives and you don’t have to guess how that ends. His own version wins. “There is nothing in the world like biblical justice! Christians must not sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. But they must take up their birthright and do justice, love mercy , and walk with their God (Micah 6:8).” Again, Keller seems to advocate for the superiority of Biblical justice over all other versions of justice in a way that provides a foundation for Christians and the world for engaging secular justice.
Keller’s compare-contrast competition between versions of justice is both MacIntyrian and non-MacIntyrian. MacIntyre of course argues that justice is worked out in a tradition. And there are necessarily competing traditions at work alongside one another in history (his argument in Whose Justice?). It is the interchange between traditions that advances one over the other. It is all within a process of God’s sovereignty. This is narrative theology (not to be confused with process theology) at its best. There is no one tradition that, extracted from history, can somehow be argued as a meta-foundation over all other traditions from a transcendental viewpoint. This is to worked out within history. I can’t quite figure out if Keller is putting forth Biblical justice as a meta-foundation ahistorically? or whether he is himself showing how his version of Biblical justice is manifesting its superiority in the history of the West?
And so the question is, how is Keller viewing his “Biblical justice” as a foundation in relation to the other versions of justice?
Is it (A) foundational, objective truth to be argued for over against the other versions as the one true justice ahistorically?
Or is it (B) a tradition of justice to be worked out in our lives as the church in the world, alongside other justices (including the secular one)?
Are we to argue about it as in (A) and convince others to live up to its standards? or live into it as in (B) and allow this justice to be the work of God in us to be put on display for the world to see and be invited to join in with? Sometimes I see Keller doing a (A) whereas I want (B) I am sure Keller would say both, but for me (B) must come before (A).
I am not sure how Keller would answer this question, but I worry about Keller confusing option (A) with option (B). I worry about the church today confusing (A) with (B). I think there is the ever present temptation in United States Christianity (liberal or conservative) to argue from the universal to the particular and enforce/argue for what we believe in on the world. I fear with option (A), we enter the world with a presumption we’ve got the foundations locked up. We know what justice is and we have God on our side. We have it figured out what and now we must go tell other people what to do. These are habits leftover from Christendom when we Christians assumed we were in charge. They tempt us to coerce and worldly power. They tempt us to align ourselves with worldly power. These habits are in large part why the church has fallen into its current corrupt relationship with American nationalism and the U.S. government.
On Why We Need The Church to Make Sense of God’s Justice
As I said on my facebook page recently, Christians have been used to being in (hegemonic) power in our culture (think 1950’s). We are therefore used to exercising moral judgement by proceeding from the general to the particular. We argue from “what is/what is supposed to be” to then imposing it on that which does not meet that standard. This posture is inherited from Christendom and it may have even “worked” (in scare quotes) in Christendom. People might have done what we wanted them to do at our direction back in 1954 when Eisenhower listened to Reinhold Niebuhr. But this posture is a problem now (and I argue always has been a problem).
When we live as a minority people, without worldly power (as opposed to the power at work in Jesus’s Lordship), we see that our moral judgements in Christ consider things like forgiveness, regeneration of the Spirit, the hope of what is possible in Christ’s transformative work among us. We realize we cannot impose such standards of justice on those who do not yet have faith and dependence upon the person and work of Christ. We therefore must engage one situation at a time. Seek middle axioms where our sense of justice overlap, discerning carefully what God is doing here to make Himself known. The power of our witness comes from the way we live our lives, not the way we argue foundations. This is a totally different posture of entering the world for God’s justice. It is no less Biblical and just as invasive but in a noncoercive way that depends on God working and God’s justice. It is the basis for option (B) described above. It is the way I believe God works to transform the world.
In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, an disciple of MacIntyre in his earlier days, “the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world.” We the church have to live out what justice means in this place and this time under the Lordship of Christ so that the world can see something different, a new possibility. But this justice is not a concept or a theory extracted from God or Scripture. It is a way of life made possible in Jesus Christ extended by God through a people into the world (and yes it depends upon Scripture).
I think Keller’s article leaves us asking how shall we live and work for this justice in the world? I fear he leaves us opting for option (A). I hope and pray he’s leading us (with more work to do) towards option (B). I believe now, more than ever, we need a church that lives justice in the world as opposed to enforcing a justice upon the world through coercive means (like both conservative and liberal protestants are doing now in their use of government). I think the strength of Keller’s article is that he poses the question. The weakness is that he lets it hang. The danger of the article is that many Christians might interpret him as pushing us (Biblically) towards option (A) instead of leading us towards option (B).
In a second post, I want to address Keller’s take on critical theory and how I see critical theory as relieving us of any illusions we Christians have of option (A) and leading us to option (B).