Last week, I wrote on chapter 4, which was the best chapter so far in Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. What made the chapter good was that it wasn’t about justice. Unfortunately, this chapter, Why We Should Do Justice, is a mess through and through. There isn’t enough space here to deal with all the problems found in it, but there some ideas which must be corrected.
After reading this chapter, my opinion of Keller has shifted. With many of his earlier mistakes, like redefining justice and arguing for wealth redistribution, I gave him the benefit of the doubt by choosing to believe he didn’t understand the implications of what he was saying. I concluded his arguments were off base because he was passionate about helping the poor. Sadly, I no longer can give him this benefit of the doubt as it is evident Keller understands the implications of his thinking.
There are two issues addressed in this post. First, Keller’s answer for why people should do justice is examined. Second, I will interact with Keller’s implicit support of communist/socialist ideas. I do not write this lightly, and I do not think Keller is a card-carrying Marxist. Rather, his own thinking and arguments are plainly influenced by Marxist principles. There is ample evidence to support these claims, as I will demonstrate.
Why Should We Do Justice?
The main question Keller answers in this chapter is, “Why should anyone live justly?” He gives two broad answers which he later develops. The first reason for living justly is the “goodness of God’s creation” (90). I have no major disagreement with this point. God created man in his own image, and this means all men are equal. God as Creator is the foundation of Christian theology and ethics. Keller is correct, as the basis of justice starts with God’s creation of mankind.
His second reason is more problematic. Keller argues we should live justly because of our experience with “God’s grace in redemption” (90). Of course, God has been gracious to believers through the work of Christ, but is the driving force of justice? I don’t think so. Rather, the grace and mercy of God direct us to show grace and mercy to others. For example, those who have been forgiven are to forgive others (Matt. 18:21-35; Eph. 4:32), but forgiveness is not justice.
Moreover, if justice is dependent on our experience of God’s grace, then does that excuse unbelievers from justice? If Keller is right, then to an extent unbelievers are not accountable to live justly, but the demands of justice are not determined by personal experience. Again, Keller’s failed redefinition of justice causes confusion and contradictions, which ultimately neuters true justice.
To be sure, Christians who experience the grace of God grow in living rightly, and this includes both showing justice and mercy. But mercy is not a one for one motivation for justice. A better motivation for justice is that justice is rooted in the character of God. God is just and therefore demands justice of everyone, whether or not they have tasted his grace. God is the universal standard of justice, not our subjective experiences of his grace. If Keller stuck to the traditional definition of justice (giving someone their due) instead of confusing it with mercy, many of the contradictions in his thinking would disappear.
Keller’s Marxism Strikes Back
In earlier chapters, Keller made several alarming statements we must to recall to understand the arguments of chapter 5. First, he asserts the Bible doesn’t endorse capitalism or socialism (32). Keller fails to realize that while we don’t find either term in the Bible, the principles of capitalism are far more biblical than the principles of socialism/communism. Second, Keller proclaims that the traditional terms of charity, mercy, grace and other similar terms do not carry enough moral force because they cannot be required of individuals (15-17). For Keller, redefining justice is about finding the coercive power to compel generosity, charity, and mercy. The problem is, when generosity, charity, and mercy are coerced they cease to be what they are. Third, Keller asserts that the Bible endorses, at least to some degree, the redistribution of wealth (19-40). As shocking as this statement is, what’s worse is Keller’s twisting of biblical texts to make his case. Keeping these all in mind, it shouldn’t surprise any of us that Keller leans more toward socialism than capitalism.
In chapter 5, the consequences of his arguments are revealed as undermines the right to private property. We must keep in mind that the main difference between capitalism and socialism/communism is the belief in property rights. As someone who is at least sympathetic to socialism/communism, it shouldn’t have surprised me that Keller doesn’t really believe in personal property, but it did.
Ideas have consequences, and this is true for all of us including Keller. If you are going to argue for wealth redistribution, for coercive charity, and that the bible doesn’t endorse (or forbid) either capitalism or socialism, then that will lead us somewhere—to endorsing the tenets of communism.
Look at these quotes from chapter 5 (emphasis mine):
Therefore, just men and women see their money as belonging in some ways to the entire human community around them, while the unjust or unrighteous see their money as strictly theirs and no one else’s. (90)
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. (91)
If the owner did not limit his profits and provided for the poor… 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. (91)
Keller emphatically declares other people have the right to your property. In other words, your property isn’t really yours, not even horizontally between fellow humans. According to Keller, your property belongs, at least in some way, to the entire community. Therefore, it is the right of the poor to receive charity from you. It only follows that if this is true, then the poor can demand your possessions as a matter of justice. Furthermore, if this redistribution is an issue of justice, then the government has every right to enforce it and thus punish the wicked and reward the righteous (Rom. 13.1-7). To put it clearly, Keller’s thinking leads to poor people and the government having the right to take from you to redistribute it as a matter of justice. Let that sink in. This is the clear consequence of everything Keller has argued up to this point—a denial of personal property rights. Denying property rights is no minor disagreement, as it undermines much of the teachings of the Bible and the ethics of the West.
If this is indeed what the Bible teaches, then we should joyfully submit. Thankfully, there are several problems with Keller’s ideology. First, the Bible teaches that we don’t have the right to our neighbor’s possessions. The commands in the Ten Commandments to not steal and to not covet the possessions of others clearly teach this truth (Ex. 20:15, 17). In the Ten Commandments, God establishes that between humans there is such a thing as the right to private property.
Moreover, Paul in Romans 13:8-10 reminds us that keeping these commands is the baseline of loving your neighbor and of living justly. The wickedness of socialism/communism is that it promotes theft and encourages covetousness defying the very commands of God. It is God who condemns theft and covetousness as he ensures the right to private property. Keller apparently refuses to balance out his ideology with these basic biblical facts.
Second, Keller’s argument doesn’t follow his premises. He argues the reason your property belongs to the community is because your possessions ultimately belong to the God who gave them to you. While it is true that everything we have ultimately belongs to God, it does not follow that what God has given to me also belongs to my neighbor. The reality God gave something to me and not to my neighbor means it belongs to me and not my neighbor. Just because God has a right to my property does not mean that my neighbor also has a right to it.
Everything belongs to God, and he has the authority and right to make demands of everyone. This is exactly what God does when he commands us to be charitable. He can make that demand, but I cannot enforce it on my neighbor. I am not God. For example, Christ called his followers to forgive others because God has forgiven them. This is good and true, but I cannot wrong my wife and then go up to her face and demand she forgives me. I can ask her to forgive, but I have no right to that forgiveness. This is what makes it forgiveness and a beautiful expression of mercy. I don’t have that authority to exact forgiveness, but I can remind her of God’s command to forgive.
Christians are to give because God has given to us. But our obligation is before God, not man. To put it another way, while God can tell me what to do with my possessions, it does not follow that my neighbor can come and demand that I give him 1,000 dollars because he has a rightful claim on my bank account. Such an argument is illogical and ultimately unbiblical.
Ideas have consequences. In many ways, Keller’s book lays the groundwork for Christians to endorse Marxism. Keller’s been honest about how Marxism influenced him earlier in his life, and it is on full display in this chapter (The Reason for God, xii). His arguments are dangerously unbiblical. I can offer no defense of these arguments, as it is clear he understands the implications of his thinking. This vision for generous justice is a thinly veiled endorsement of the economic principles which led to the suffering and oppression of millions under Marxism. It is a wicked and vile ideology. While Keller attempts to be biblical, he rejects the basic commands of God found in the Ten Commandments. The most unfortunate part of all of this is the influence Keller currently has in otherwise faithful Christian circles. Such an influence is bearing fruit with so many Reformed Christians advocating for social justice. God is not mocked, and we will reap what we sow. If the Reformed movement continues to sow the seeds of communist thinking, we will reap the death and unbelief of Marxism.
Levi J. Secord