We are approaching the end of my chapter-by-chapter interaction with Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. In Chapter 6, Keller explains how Christians, and the church, should do justice. There is some good in this chapter, but it was also frustrating to read. Many of the same mistakes that plague the other chapters also appear in this one. There is no need to address each of these issues again as the horse is already dead and hitting over and over again won’t help. For example, Keller again misuses the term justice as he conflates it with mercy. I’ve addressed this contradiction repeatedly, so I won’t belabor it here.
There is one new error I must address, but before doing that, I’ll note some of the positives of chapter six. First, Keller’s framework of different ways to assist the needy is helpful. According to Keller, there are three ways to help the needy: relief, development, and reform (113). I found these three categories sufficient enough and helpful for discussing the ways Christians can support the needy. Second, Keller offers a helpful distinction as he admits that doing these things is not the same thing as preaching the gospel; rather, these things complement our preaching. Again, I agree with him. Third, Keller gives a helpful concession when he admits that not all churches will do all three of these categories when helping the poor. For what’s its worth, I don’t know a single church that doesn’t at least help the needy in at least one of these ways. Perhaps Keller’s point is that we can do better, which is fair enough.
There is one major new issue that needs a rebuttal as Keller adopts a new distortion of justice. So far, we’ve seen Keller confuse mercy with justice; thus offering a redefinition of justice (chapter 1). By doing so, Keller stumbles over his own argument as he often contradicts himself by referring to justice as both getting your due, and receiving mercy. The problem worsens in chapter 5 as Keller declares that the poor have a right to the property of the rich. By arguing this, Keller insists charity is a justice issue. Now in chapter 6, Keller adds another layer to his redefinition of justice as he argues the equality of outcome is a standard of justice. This fallacy deserves our attention.
Justice vs. Equality of Outcome
To open this chapter, Keller tells the story of a Christian man who owns several car dealerships (109-112). This man fell under the conviction that by allowing the negotiation of car prices he was actually practicing injustice. Why? Because white males tend to be more persistent negotiators than black women. Since one demographic was better at negotiation than others, justice allegedly required this man to cease price negotiation as the former practice exploited the poor.
This story was troubling for several reasons. First, banning price negotiation places all of the power for car prices with the dealer and could result in everyone paying more money. Clearly the poor would suffer in such a situation. Second, what about the black woman who is good at negotiating prices? What about other minorities who are good at negotiating and who would benefit from such negotiations? Why should they not be allowed to get a better deal just because others aren’t as good negotiators? Third, what if a study showed that white people are more patient and are thus more likely to wait for a holiday sale when purchasing a car than minorities are, would this make holiday sales unjust? According to Keller’s logic, it would.
To be clear, if a store refused to negotiate with someone because of their ethnicity, sex, or income level, that would be an injustice because it would demonstrate partiality. To lower the price for a product based on someone’s skin color is sinful. Ironically, this is the standard process in most institutions of higher education, but that is a post for another day.
Keller assumes the existence of unequal outcomes is proof of injustice. This is a common trope for social justice warriors as they point to the income gap, education gap, incarceration gap, etc. as evidence of systemic injustice. Implicit to this thinking is the Marxist belief that justice is accomplished when everyone gets the same outcome. The problem is, the only way to achieve equal outcomes is by judging individuals by different standards. In this way, the sin of partiality takes root.
As Keller has elsewhere admitted, justice is about receiving your due. Yet, how do we know what is owed to someone? It is here merit enters into the equation of justice. We cannot know what someone deserves if we do not consider merit. Now, of course, the standard of judgment should be the same across the board, but when applying equal standards some people will earn one thing while others will earn another. This is essential to practicing justice.
It is true, certain rights are due to all humans because they are all made in the image of God. They all merit these rights because they all image their Creator. These are the inalienable rights of man, yet justice is about more than these rights. For anyone to receive their due, we must know what they have earned, what merits they possess.
For example, two men may be brought before the judge for killing someone who trespassed on their property and stole from them. One is set free because it happened at night and the other is punished because it happened during the day. Both men killed someone for the same reason, but their outcomes are different because of the merits (or facts) of the case (Ex. 22:2-3). Conversely, if two men kill an intruder in the exact same way and one is convicted because of the color of his skin, while the other is freed because of who he knows, then we have a clear case of partiality, and partiality is evil.
When it comes to work and pay, those who are better workers should get paid more than those who aren’t. This unequal pay is not an injustice, but rather affirms justice because it is rooted in merit. As long as every party is judged by the same standard, then we fulfill the demands of justice. To simplify it, merit directs justice to punish the guilty and to free the innocent. The outcome is unequal, but the result is justice.
Contrary to all of this is partiality. Partiality refuses to consider the merits of a case and instead bases its conclusions on who someone is (or isn’t). If we make justice about demographics, then we fall into this trap. The Bible condemns giving preference to either the rich or poor in matters of justice. When we do this, we have pervert justice and defy our Creator (Lev. 19:15).
Therefore, it is not unjust for car dealers to allow or forbid price negotiation, as long as their actions aren’t motivated by wickedness. So while I do not believe the man Keller mentions sinned by changing the policy, I do believe his reasoning was both misguided and sub-biblical.
Biblical justice necessitates the inequality of outcome. While the processes of justice must be equitable, justice requires judging each case and transaction on its merits. When merit enters the equation, unequal outcomes become inevitable. Contrary to the rhetoric of social justice, unequal outcomes are often the sign of justice. Turning a blind eye to merit means either embracing injustice or choosing to show mercy. Unfortunately, the influence of Marxist thought pollutes Keller’s reasoning as he embraces the silly idea that justice is attached to equal outcomes. Since justice gives people their due, merit is essential to its practice. In this way, executing justice often leads to unequal outcomes as different people earn different results.
Levi J. Secord