Chapter seven is the penultimate chapter in Keller’s Generous Justice, and it addresses how to do justice in the public square. This chapter perhaps has the least to do with Keller’s thesis, redefining justice to include mercy, charity, and benevolence. As we approach the end of Keller’s work, his distortion of justice ungirds most everything he argues. This is no different in this chapter, but there is little new ground covered in defining justice. Nonetheless, the influence of post-modern thought (i.e., relativism) does manifest itself in chapter seven.
Before critiquing this chapter, there is one item of praise from this chapter. Keller rightly notes there is no neutrality when discussing justice. Talking about justice requires a moral code, a standard by which to judge everything else. As long as we acknowledge that there is a universal standard found in God and his Word, and we apply it consistently, we can avoid the allures of relativism. Keller is right to note that no one enters this discussion neutral, but he fails to apply the Christian standard consistently to the conversation.
This is where the influence of post-modernism reveals itself. Keller sounds relativistic in much of this chapter, but I do not believe he really is. To be clear, he does recognize God as the standard, but he fails to use that standard when evaluating the various ideologies about justice. It is here he influence of post-modernism appears as Keller endorses values over virtue, and he implies everyone is equally right and wrong about justice.
Values vs. Virtue
In Losing Our Virtue, David Wells demonstrates the impact of post-modernism in how we think about right and wrong. Wells observes that in our culture, values replaced virtues. The problem for Christians is that virtue is rooted in an objective standard. Virtues are only possible and understandable in a moral world, where absolutes exist. Conversely, we rarely speak of virtue today as we favor personal (or communal) values. When we replace virtue with values we acquiesce to the spirit of the age because personal values are relative. They are subjective, relative to each group or individual. You may value one thing, but your neighbor another thing. In the end, it’s a vain discussion because values are relative and thus meaningless.
This type of thinking is the very air we breathe, and in chapter seven Keller unwittingly adopts this destructive way of thinking. He goes on and on about the values of different groups and the “common values” Christians should appeal to (160-161). Any Christian who wishes to engage our age must recognize that speaking of values is valueless. All it does is reinforce the lost in their relativism. Sadly, Keller advises Christians who desire to do justice in the public sphere to embrace this relativistic way of thinking. Instead, Christians must point to the universal standard of justice—the Creator God. For Christians, it is never enough to appeal to personal values because God has revealed the absolute standard by which everything will be judged.
Everybody’s Right & Everybody’s Wrong
The second major influence is Keller’s engagement with different camps in the justice debate. Keller asserts, “We should agree that, according to the Bible. All the various views of justice out there in our society are partly right. But they are also partly wrong” (163). Throughout this chapter, Keller appears to be intentionally vague and thus offers little clarity on how to evaluate the competing voices of our day. The reader is left unchallenged in our current post-modern stupor. Keller refuses to use the standard he endorses to measure and evaluate the various options.
For example, he admits that the various schools of thought on justice are all right and wrong. By doing so, he implies that they are all equal to one another, and therefore Christians should avoid being associated with one over and against the other. This is, in essence, what he argued earlier that the Bible doesn’t support capitalism or socialism. In fact, Keller asserts, the Bible affirms parts of both systems. In saying these things, Keller leaves his readers with the impression that all systems are equal, and Christians are free to choose between them as long as you don’t endorse them too much. A very post-modern idea to be sure.
His refusal to judiciously critique these views demonstrates the influence of post-modernism. Relativism loathes judging cultures, worldviews, and religions. This is often called multiculturalism, the belief that all cultures are equally good, and we shouldn’t judge any of them, except, of course, the Christian west, which is wickedly oppressive.
In the same way, Keller views all the various camps on justice as equally right. While I don’t believe Keller is a true post-modern thinker, I cannot read this chapter without coming to the conclusion it has significantly influenced his thinking. If Scripture gives us a standard for justice, as Keller admits, then some camps are certainly closer to that objective standard than others.
The frustrating part is Keller almost recognizes this truth as he writes, “It was within Christian jurisprudence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that human rights thinking began, rooted particularly in the Christian doctrine that all human beings are created in the image of God, and therefore have inherent dignity” (166). Keller is correct, the idea of human rights is Christian, and this is why it is a staple of the West. It is no secret the West has been shaped by Christian ideas as outside of the West, we don’t find the same discussions about justice, human rights, and limited government. While the West is far from perfect, its traditional practice of justice is more righteous than that of other cultures. To neglect this shows a great deal of biblical and historical ignorance.
The influence of Christianity upon Western thinking doesn’t mean that other cultures are worthless or that they get everything wrong. God reveals truth both in creation and in his word, but there is an objective standard to measure things by. For example, there is a big difference between America in the 1980s and Communist China and the USSR during the same period. One is objectively better than the others because it aligned more closely with the biblical standards of justice. Christians must measure and judge all the current systems by this standard. When this is done, some ideologies will be found better than others, and this will lead Christians to condemn the wicked systems and endorse the more righteous ones.
Recognizing this is particularly important for our discussion about justice. As I said, the justice systems of the West were never perfect, but they were better than what came before. The Western ideas of justice, especially in England and America, were shaped by Scripture. This is a historical reality. The Christian influence led to many benefits we must not ignore, such as presumed innocence, limited government, and inalienable rights. While the Western view of justice is rooted in the Christian worldview, the recent attempts to redefine just are rooted in anti-Christian beliefs such as Marxism. This progressive understanding of justice is evil in its totality. By that I don’t mean they get everything wrong, but that these ideologies are infected at every stage with rebellion against God. These views have trajectories that aren’t neutral to God and his Word. The end result of these false ideologies is rebellion against God. That is to say, the progressive (i.e., Marxist) view of justice is evil in its totality. Once we recognize this, it is clear all philosophies about justice aren’t equal, and Christians aren’t free to choose between them.
For centuries, Christians in the West built our inherited understanding of justice, and though it is not perfect, it is far more sanctified than the alternatives. Keller and I both recognize God and his Word as that absolute authority, but the difference is I measure other views by this standard. If we are unwilling to do so, then it is pointless to talk about such a standard which we refuse to apply. By doing so, we end up in a functional relativism which is tossed to and fro by the latest justice fads. Come to think of it, thisis exactly what is happening today in American evangelicalism with the rise of social justice.
Levi J. Secord