Reviewed in the United States on October 12, 2011
The book is an attempt, Keller writes, to connect a person's Christian faith with the desire to help people in need and do justice in all aspects of one's life. He is writing for four groups of people, he says. These are:
-- Those, especially the young, who are active in volunteering and want to help the poor but their concern does not affect how they spend money or plan their careers.
-- Those who don't see, as Jonathan Edwards said, that when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, "the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor."
-- Younger evangelicals who have expanded their mission to include social justice along with evangelism.
-- People like the atheist Christopher Hitchins who believe that religion "poisons everything."
This book, Keller writes, is for "the orthodox (Christian) to see how central to the Scripture's message is justice for the poor and marginalized. I also want to challenge those who do not believe in Christianity to see the Bible not as a repressive text, but as the basis for the modern understanding of human rights."
Keller spends the early parts of his book discussing how justice for the poor, the immigrant, the widow and orphan was central to the concept of mercy (in Hebrew, chesedh), justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzadeqah). Mercy has to do with aligning our attitude with that of a merciful God. Justice is aligning our actions -- equitable dealings with people -- with a just God's. Righteousness in the Hebrew context has more to do with right relationships than obeying a set of rules, as modern Christians often think of it.
Someone who is "right with God (is) therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life." (Alec Motyer) Righteousness is "day to day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness.While tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social. (See Job 29:12-17, 31-13-28.
Keller details the Hebrew law's provision for exercising justice. These are:
-- Shemitta, or release. The practice of the Sabbath year, every seventh year releasing people from debts or servitude. Deut. 15:1-2
-- Gleanings. The practice of not harvesting fields to their borders. Keller suggests that modern businesses could imitate this practice by not maximizing profits, thus giving price relief to their customers, and not paying workers the lowest possible wages. Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22
-- Tithing for the priests and the upkeep of the temple. Every third year the tithe was put in public storehouses for the poor, "the aliens, the fatherless, and the widows." Deut. 14:28-29. This makes me think that churches should practice this in some form by systematically committing a portion of its receipts to serving the poor and needy.
-- Year of Jubilee. The practice of every 49th or 50th year of forgiving debts and returning land to its ancestral owner. Leviticus 25:10, 23, 27:21.
These practices helped meet the needs of the poor and helped prevent permanent cycles of poverty.
The three causes of poverty, according to the Law are oppression, calamity and personal moral failure. The biblical emphasis is usually on the larger structural factors -- corruption, oppressive economic systems and natural disasters. The exercise of justice, however, never distinguishes between the three. That is, no matter why a person is poor, the righteous person should care for him.
Well, that's the Old Testament,, some might say. But Jesus showed the same concern for the poor and disadvantaged, if not more so. His response to John in Matthew 11:4-5, and the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4. As Eugene Peterson writes in The Message, the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. He identified himself with the poor and showed special concern for children, aliens, women.
Jesus and the prophets all "leveled the charge that while the people attended worship, observed all religious regulations and took pride in their biblical knowledge, nevertheless they took advantage of the weak and vulnerable."
Vulnerable people need three levels of help -- relief, development and social reform. Relief is the immediate problem (paying the rent, for instance); development is to help then move beyond dependency (job training); social reform is correcting systemic injustice (redlining).Social reform likely requires the creation of extra-church or parachurch organizations. Churches also can partner with existing organizations or churches that operate in vulnerable populations.
Evangelism and social justice "should exist in an asymmetrical, inseparable relationship. Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being ... not because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal. If there is a God, and if life with him for eternity is based on having a saving relationship with him, then the most loving thing anyone can do for one's neighbor is help him or her to a saving faith in that God, Keller writes.
Doing justice is inseparably connected to preaching grace. One way is that the gospel produces a concern for the poor. The other is that deeds of justice gain credibility for the preaching of the gospel.
This book is a slim one that carries a heavy message. It challenges us comfortable churchgoers to examine our community and ask whether we are of any importance to the wider community. If our "church" ceased to exist, would anyone miss us? What are we doing in obedience to God's commands to serve the poor, the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, the hungry? There is a lot here to reflect on and for a small group(s) to discuss and apply. Unfortunately, I contacted the publisher and there is no accompanying study guide.
Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.