David Fitch Pushes Back on Tim Keller’s Recent Statement About Justice

Image: Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash
Image: Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

On the Idea of Social Justice and the Christian

My Response to Tim Keller

By David Fitch

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 hereHere 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.

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.

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Source: Christianity Today