In any literary undertaking, the premise of the book must be set out fairly soon, perhaps within the first dozen or so pages. True to this format, Keller satisfies our curiosities. He does so in the introduction to the book, where he begins by answering the questions that his friends and associates have asked him, “Who are you writing this for?” and, “How did you come to be interested in the subject of justice?” (pg x) It is these questions that become the main subject of the book, and on which this review will consider.
As is the case with the church today, there has been much concern over the subject of social justice throughout her history. Keller does an admirable job in showing us, through the Bible, how God’s people were to render justice, most specifically to the disadvantaged of their own nation. However, he quickly takes those verses to bring us into the controversy that the church has reached in the debate over the concept of “Social Justice.”
And, indeed, there is a controversy over this subject between conservatives on the one side, and the more liberal wing of the church on the other side. Almost immediately, many will jump to Keller’s defense as a modern-day conservative, evangelical. Yet, in spite of Keller’s more conservative position on a host of subjects, Keller takes the side of the more liberal wing of the church, and defends THEIR view of social justice. So, while he may have a collage of conservative credentials in his portfolio, it is clear that he speaks for the liberal wing regarding this subject.
It is toward this end that Keller seeks to influence minds to move toward the more liberal view of social justice. It is incumbent upon conservatives to acknowledge and understand that this is Keller’s main purpose in writing this book – his intentions are to promote social justice. If you don’t know what that means, or understand the argument on both sides regarding how social justice impacts the gospel message, then you probably won’t appreciate this review. But, suffice it to say that this view which Keller promotes is antithetical to the historical, conservative, and evangelical position held today.
According to Keller, a key moment in the development of his social justice views came from his involvement in a discussion he had during the 1960’s. Though Keller is not forthcoming in details, we are led to believe that he was extremely sympathetic toward the plight of blacks, and that this was the time when he first came to realize “that most older white adults in my life were telling me things that were dead wrong.” (pg.xvi)
On pg. xvii he relates his experience that he had with a black person (Elward Ellis) whom he met during his years at seminary. Keller was flatly told by Ellis that he was a racist. Like most of us today, Keller was initially taken aback by such an accusation. Not one to offend, Keller allowed his guest to explain further:
“Oh, you don’t mean to be, and you don’t want to be, but you are. You can’t really help it….When black people do things in a certain way, you say, `Well, that’s your culture.’ But when white people do things in a certain way, you say, `That’s just the right way to do things.’ You don’t realize you really have a culture. You are blind to how many of your beliefs and practices are cultural.”
This is a very serious accusation and one that is often repeated even today, therefore we need to examine it most carefully, and because it is the main thesis which Keller bases his book upon. Is what Ellis told Keller a true statement? Is his comparison accurate, or is it an apples-to-oranges type of comparison?
To begin with, this accusation is centered on a key premise that cultures are nothing more than “a way of doing things.” You know: “You go this way, I’m gonna go that way, and we will meet at Peoria, Illinois. The path that you take will be different, but your path is not evil or wrong, and neither is my path righteous or correct. It is simply a path.” But is this an accurate analogy of what is happening between two cultures?
Inherent in that question is the assumption that cultures are nothing more than a way of “doing things”, and the accusation is that “doing things” is a result of culture. But the truth is that culture is not just an accumulation of “things that we do.” In addition to the accumulation of the “things that we do”, culture is developed by what is predominantly viewed as “the right thing to do”, with emphasis being placed on the word, “right.”
In other words, culture takes into account those things that are right, and also those things that are wrong. In a very real sense, then, culture is not only what we wear, and what forms of entertainment we engage in, but they also are the accumulation of what a society values, and how the members of that society have agreed to live between each other, by placing those things that are valued highly as “good”, and supported and practiced; and those things that are viewed as wrong and immoral, as “bad”, and being shunned and suppressed within that culture.
I’d like to take a moment here to characterize those who share similar views to Keller’s. I speak only in general terms, because we all recognize that while Conservatives tend toward Fundamentalism, not all Conservatives are Fundamentalists. The same can be said when viewing those on the more Liberal side of the spiritual spectrum.
Keller belongs to a rising group of Christians that are typically referred to as “Emergent.” Now, Keller would most likely reject that label, and with good cause. However, just as Autism is not defined as a specific disease, but is more accurately understood as a syndrome that slides the scale from Asperger’s on up to full-blown Autism, so too can Emergent be viewed on a scale from “Missional” to full-blown Emergent.
What this means is that in order to discuss and critique books written by those in the Emergent spectrum, it is important to understand that their world-views do not embrace the same ideals that those outside of that spectrum embrace. It’s difficult to understand someone coming from a differing world-view, and I’ve heard it argued that you only waste your time when you do so. However, there are always many that stand on the sides, trying to understand which way to lay anchor, and it is toward that end that people like me and Keller write what we do, in order to sway those individuals to our way of thinking.
Because Keller comes from a differing world-view, he will certainly understand and interpret the Bible differently than you or I might, and how you understand the Bible is a key aspect of what you will emphasize in your life and in your actions. And, of course, Keller’s book is about actions – more specifically, the actions of social justice.
People tend to skew events to reflect their own world-views, and this is something that all people must guard against, even me. What it ultimately comes down to is, how you view the subject of social justice will have a lot to do with how you view the Bible, and also what it is that you believe should be emphasized. Keller emphasizes those things in the Bible that speak about social issues, because he believes that Christ’s purpose for coming was to bring balance and relief to life’s difficulties and that is accomplished by His people valuing the same things that He did – the relief of the downtrodden.
And so, to get back to Keller’s experience with Ellis, you should notice that what Ellis told Keller is not correct. If we examine such cultural differences as how black men, in great numbers, abandon their families and children; or why it is that our jails are disproportionately filled with black men; or why does the Chinese government promote abortion of females, or suppress their citizens’ rights; then it becomes more apparent that there is a wide gulf between cultures on these specific issues, and that that gulf is not independent of our moral beliefs.
This is not to say that Black Americans, or Chinese people, are any more immoral than White Americans are (indeed, they are no worse, nor better), but that these are simply areas of morality that have been shown to exist within those cultures that are different than that in the White culture, and cannot be simply laid down to “Well, that’s your culture.” But it is to say that Ellis’ claim that cultural differences are simply differences in “how we do things” is just plain foolish.
So then, it must be remembered that there are differing components to culture – some that deal with matters of no moral concern, such as what you eat, or the spices you use, or the utensils that you employ in your eating, or the way that you dance, or the type of music you listen to. When Ellis told Keller that the main differences between two cultures have nothing to do with moral concerns, he was just plain wrong. This means that Keller blurred the issue of culture by confusing those components, or he was woefully ignorant of the various component parts of culture.
Why do I emphasize this distinction in the differing components of culture? Firstly, because Keller blurred that distinction; secondly, because Keller has attempted to build this scenario for white people (which, ironically, will be the majority of his readership) that portrays whites as living in a post-racial era where they are all still racist. Imagine that! You thought that White America had moved beyond racism, and had come into an era where Whites and Blacks were seeking reconciliation and coming to terms? Not in Keller and Ellis’ world. As a matter of fact, even if you THINK you aren’t racist, you are!
Equally, you’ll notice that Keller fails to acknowledge that Black people, or Chinese, or any other ethnic group can be racist. This is a common practice of those on the left spectrum, to portray White people as the singular source of all social inequalities. If minorities act evilly, it’s only in reaction to the evil that Whites have done to them.
We should really make no mistake about it, Keller’s thesis in this book is a promotion of social justice, but in order to do that, Keller must advance the notion on two fronts:
1. The Biblical front – God commands us to in His Word, and,
2. The Secular front – We are all still racist, and need to rectify this by making amends. We make amends by delivering social justice (redistribution of the wealth).
By removing this distinction regarding the notion of culture having a moral component, Keller seeks to sway people into action by accepting the idea that minorities are in an inferior social position solely, or primarily, because of a lack of equal justice.
Another clue to where Keller stands on this issue is to consider his reading list. All too often, we are finding a new suite of Christian authors who are promoting false concepts which they learned from the authors whom they personally read and quote from; and they in turn then recommend those same authors to their readership. As Keller mentions this author, or the next, most people will not feel compelled to examine the author, or the book, but simply to take his word for it that the author is a Christian who walks the mainstream. If all of those authors are mainstream Christians, then it ought to be evident that Keller’s argument carries much more authority and validity. At least that is the purpose of citing other’s works – to give your own work more validity.
As it stands, those whom he quotes typically agree with him philosophically on this issue (as we should expect), such as Walter Rauschenbusch’s book, “The Social Gospel and the Atonement.” Some of the works that he cites seem a shock, because they are not even written by Christian writers, and are written from a philosophy and world-view which is decidedly secular and antithetical to Christian thinking, such as Elaine Scarry’s little book, “On Beauty and Being Just”. Scarry, not being Christian, writes from a purely anti-God position.
Take for example, his citation of Craig Blomberg’s survey of the Mosaic laws of gleaning. How much stock should real conservatives place in a man who would allow the gospel to be co-opted by a Mormon, when he wrote the book, How Wide the Divide? An Evangelical and a Mormon in Conversation. Are conservatives getting an honest assessment by someone who would otherwise be considered a false teacher?
To be sure, the Bible is quoted often. In Keller’s case, either the word “justice” is used, or the concept of justice is displayed in the verse. However, as you examine the scripture texts that Keller utilizes for his argument, and when you consider the context of the admonitions upon which those Biblical texts are issued under, you begin to realize that the context which the Bible uses is much different than the context upon which Keller has based his argument.
The context which Keller presents in his argument is that Israel was commanded to perform “Social Justice” to the entire world. Yet that is NOT the context of the Bible. Any honest reading of the Bible shows that Israel is only commanded to perform justice toward her own people, within their own political borders. God is not commanding Israel to go outside of her borders to other people and nations, and establish social equity with them.
It should also be noted that Keller actually admits in a couple of places that those Biblical commands are only meant for Israel to conduct social justice toward those within the political borders of the nation (on pages 21, 22, 23, 29, and 57).
He fully acknowledges the differences in that context on page 23, where he says,
“Israel was a nation-state in which every citizen was bound to obey the whole law of God and also was required to give God wholehearted worship. This is not the situation in our society today.”
The context of the Bible in regards to this question cannot be denied. Yet Keller insists that the context can be expanded to include the whole world. But, the reader should clearly note that Keller gives no Biblical justification for this expansion. If anything, it becomes abundantly clear that this book is the result of Keller’s personal feelings regarding this issue, and has nothing to do with any Biblical mandate regarding social justice to the world.
In Keller’s mind, when the Bible says, “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every person” (Mark 16:15), what it REALLY means is, to “go into all the world, and provide for everyone’s immediate felt needs, and then you earn the right to preach the gospel to every person.” Oh, but if you preach the gospel, don’t offend anyone with controversial messages, like “homosexuality is a sin”, or “you’re going to hell if you don’t repent.”
Throughout this book, Keller repeatedly fails to recognize that all of the commands to God’s people to practice Justice and Mercy are always intended to be directed solely toward God’s people, and only within their immediate sphere of influence within those political borders. In other words, God instructs His people to practice Justice and Mercy solely toward God’s people – not to the whole world.
More specifically, the command is made in order to show God’s people that among the people of the world, there are none that are any more important to God than His own people. This was the manner in which God chose to promote His image to the world; as God presented Israel, and the values and morals she practiced, as a picture to the world of who He was. Israel was God’s mirror, intended to reflect God’s character to the world.
So then, Keller takes a commandment of God which forms a key aspect of Jewish life and instruction, and is intended to promote God’s character to the world, and he confounds the teaching of this commandment to today’s Christians by reinterpreting its application and scope. Let me give you an example of how this is accomplished. On pg. 13 of his book, he states that one way of practicing what he calls, “primary justice” is to be like Job, and to be a “father to the needy.”
Keller reinterprets this to mean that today’s church is commanded to care for the needs of all the poor that are in AND OUT of their sphere of influence. In other words, whereas the traditional application is that the Church should care for her own, in order to promote God and His gospel to the world, Keller takes it to mean that the church should reach OUTSIDE of the church to the community and care for their physical needs.
The traditional approach has always been to understand that those commands to care for the underprivileged were to be seen as “benefits of membership” to those outside of the nation. In other words, as other nations viewed Israel’s internal workings, they would become envious because of the care that God’s people had for their own people.
So, let’s notice that in the Biblical context, Job’s sphere of influence was those people who were part of the Israelite nation, and more specifically, his close neighbors. Nowhere in the Bible does it indicate that Job was reaching out to other nations and areas outside of the political borders of Israel. But also notice that Keller does not take that context and attempt to show Christians how to help other Christians in their own church community (as we see examples in the New Testament Church which cared for their own). Instead, he expands it to teach that we must help all others OUTSIDE of the Church community. This is THE central focus of his book.
What greatness could we achieve if we truly helped our Christian brothers and sisters, widows and orphans FIRST and foremost? Jesus said that this was how others would come to know who He was, because they (the world) would see the love we had toward one another (John 13:34-35); not toward the whole world. It was in the formative days of the Church that people sold their possessions in order that all Christians might share and not have any need; not so that the entire world might share and not have any need. This was a clear picture of “primary justice”, and it was an excellent example to the world of how Christians loved one another. This in turn caused the Church to grow mightily in those days. (Acts 4:4; 2:41; 2:47)
Another argument that Keller uses to justify his reinterpretation is where he uses Amos 1:3-2:3 as his example text. Keller states that in this text, it shows where other nations were judged for the manner in which they treated the disadvantaged. Yet a concise study of this passage will reveal that God’s judgment upon those nations was not because they ill-treated the down-trodden, but specifically for how they treated HIS PEOPLE who were down-trodden. Even if we take this as a commandment that the whole world was expected to follow the same system that Israel followed, it doesn’t show that Israel was commanded to show social justice to the rest of the world.
Keller’s conclusion that “It is clearly God’s will that all societies reflect his concern for justice of the weak and vulnerable,” is not held up by the context of any Biblical text that he presents. The context clearly shows that those nations were not being judged because they failed to have concern for the weak and vulnerable, but because they acted evilly against HIS PEOPLE.
Not to necessarily bash Keller for his views, but more to give an example of where he stands in the political/spiritual spectrum, we can see him on page 30 sharing with us his socialist vision for corporate America:
“How can business owners follow the same principles [Old Testament laws regarding redistribution of the wealth] today? They should not squeeze every penny of profit out of their businesses for themselves by charging the highest possible fees and prices to customers and paying the lowest possible wages to workers. Instead, they should be willing to pay higher wages and charge lower prices that in effect share the corporate profits with employees and customers, with the community around them.”
If I didn’t know any better, I might think this statement came straight out of Karl Marx’ manifesto. To be sure, Keller (along with Craig Blomberg) understands that democratic capitalism is not conducive to the format of what he is proposing for redistribution of the wealth. (cf, page 32, 2nd paragraph)
Another concern I have is how Keller exploits racial tensions to promote his concepts of social justice. For example, on pages 122 and following, he attempts to use the Bible to show racism. On page 123, he makes the bold claim that racism was the driving factor for Miriam and Aaron to speak against Moses regarding his marriage to an Ethiopian woman. Instead, the alternative interpretation is that Miriam and Aaron were speaking out against Moses based upon their historical practice of only marrying within their nation. Not because Moses’ wife was black, but that she was an Ethiopian.
Again, on page 124, Keller claims that Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles was based upon racism, and not upon religious justifications as the Bible states. Keller even goes so far as to suggest that there is a question about whether or not “white Americans today need to repent for the sins of ancestors and acknowledge the white privilege they have today.” (note 111, pg.211)
In the end, Keller’s book is an attempt to promote redistribution of social advantages to those who are less advantaged by instituting social programs, initially at the church level, and then by virtue of her (supposed) growing influence, at the community level and beyond. He gives such an example on page 126 where he tells of “an effort like the TenPoint Coalition.” Among other tactics, they “sought to stem the tide of gang killings in Boston….[by] bridging between institutions that previously had not worked together or that had even worked against one another.”
So what was the end result of this coalition of religious leaders? Are gang killings no more? Did the coalition produce any marked change in gang killings, or gang activity? Just what is it about Keller’s suggestion that is supposed to have been so miraculous that we need to jump on this bandwagon? Why did Keller not further develop this understanding that he so wishes to promote?
Some other pertinent questions to ask regarding TenPoint is: Why are all the staff of TenPoint black, if Keller’s point is to show how White America needs to give to their community through the church? Why the name of God (or Jesus) is not mentioned in TenPoints ten points? Out of all the things that could/should be emphasized, doesn’t God get a simple mention?
Another point of contention with Keller is his tendency to erroneously state the opposition’s case, as he does on page 138, where he claims that “Some have argued that Christians should only do justice as a means to the end of evangelism.” But this is only a half-truth. The chief end of any church is evangelism, which Keller refuses to acknowledge. Any church program which fails to include this aspect in their outreach has failed to keep that in mind.
To close out this review, I would sum up Keller’s chief error by pointing out what he states on page 135 with the querying assumption that “if it is true that justice and mercy to the poor are the inevitable signs of justifying faith…” But what of secular philanthropists who spend millions of their money aiding the poor, and attempting to restructure social forces in underdeveloped neighborhoods where resources are scarce? If it is true that practicing justice and mercy is an “inevitable sign of…faith”, does this mean that Bill Gates and Donald Trump are born again believers?