Book Review: Generous Justice

Undertaking a law degree doesn’t automatically equate to lots of time thinking about your notions of justice, and yet few would argue that this is a critical part of the endeavour.  Law must be about justice if it is about anything at all, and yet there are so many different strands to and understandings of justice that it is difficult to wade through them. As a Christian law student, will faith in Jesus serve to clarify justice, or merely complicate issues further?

On such bumpy terrain, a guide is really helpful, and of guides, Timothy Keller is a particularly commendable one. It takes an immersion in scripture and a commitment to live in the way of Jesus in our day and time to make this possible, and this is the gift of Keller’s contribution. Generous Justice is an exploration of the what, why and how of justice which is rooted in the Bible and which traces skilfully the implications of the key principles derived from biblical times to our present world. Generous Justice is definitely a primer, but you’re in safe hands with someone who has read as widely as Keller.

The book is made up of eight chapters of moderate length and is written in characteristically accessible language.  Reading it felt somewhat like reading the transcript of one of his talks, with Keller's easy style and tone discernible throughout. The first section of the book outlines Keller’s framework for biblical justice, while the latter portion expands on this with helpful real-life illustrations. Two key aspects of this framework are outlined in the first chapter, What is Doing Justice? and these are the Hebrew words, tzadeqah and mishpat [10]. Tzadeqah refers to ‘a life of right relationships’, while mishpat signifies rectifying justice, ‘punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment’.  The object of exploring these words is to show that ‘the righteous life that results from right relationship with God is profoundly social’. This is evident in the subtitle of the book – ‘How God’s grace makes us just’. There is a depth to this statement, and to understand the force of this point one must consider the context Keller is writing in and to, helpfully addressed in the preface to the book.

He is seeking to avoid false dichotomies between religious activity and private morality, and he decries professions of concern for others that attract public attention but are never met with personal sacrifice. ‘If you have been assigned the goods of this world by God and you don’t share them with others, it isn’t just stinginess, it is injustice.’ [92] Keller’s aim is to tackle the problem of understanding the justice of God in isolation, as primarily transactional between us and him, without broader implications for all of life in God's world. This has particular significance considering the liberal/conservative divide in the United States, and in particular, where (white) American evangelical churches often fall in the balance. The brilliance of Keller’s approach is that the Good News is still front and centre; discomfort, inconvenience and sacrifice for the sake of justice are noted, but the motivation for just living is always grace and never guilt [107]. The promise of joy that comes from full dependence on gospel riches is captured well in this quote from an nineteenth century sermon within the book, ‘If you want to be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and the poor,  the thankless and the undeserving…it is not your money I want, but your happiness.’ [108].

Keller covers quite a lot of ground in this book. Among the issues highlighted in the latter portion of the book are important questions. Which economic system best caters to the poor? Should the church engage in social development programmes? If so, to what extent? How is the role and responsibility of the individual Christian balanced with that of the collective?  Is there such a thing as the 'undeserving poor'?  How might one navigate racial and cultural divides in the pursuit of justice? How do we make sense of the Mosaic law and its being handed down in the context of a theocracy, in contrast with our lives in a pluralistic, democratic society? What is the relationship between justice and evangelism?  Justice and historical disadvantage? Justice and laziness? Keller’s overview unifies and brings clarity to many different strands of justice.

 It would dull the force of this book (and be a whole exercise in missing the point) if I said it applied exclusively to lawyers, however there is value in noting the particular relevance of these questions to Christians in law. We should be ahead in our thinking on how our work in the law is an expression of the organic church taking its place in the pursuit of justice.  For the law student, this book is helpful for situating your work in the context of God’s view of justice, and also for uncovering the wealth of resources underpinning our work for justice that are unique to the Christian worldview. This is of significance when following Keller’s exploration of justice in the public square in Chapter 7.  We are equipped to stand against cynicism and apathy in the pursuit of justice, even in the midst of the confusion and controversies of our times, because of the beautiful truths that illuminate a life lived with and for Jesus.  

My only gripe with this book is its breadth, which is slightly cheeky of me in that I really enjoyed getting through it reasonably quickly. If anything, this is an inverted compliment – there is so much to be gained from Keller’s wisdom that I would have enjoyed him dealing with the trickier issues mentioned in more depth. My pondering of the best way to equitably manage state resources and respect individual incomes lives on!

Conclusion

I have found this book really helpful for casting vision. What would it look like for God to set the seeds of a radical outliving of justice into your life right at the start of your legal career?  Read this book to add momentum and force to your work for justice, knowing your endeavours are not just shooting in the dark or the result of youthful naiveté, but of importance to God himself. Uncover biblical resources to underpin a wholehearted pursuit of justice, not compartmentalising it to one area of your study, work, or even of your life.  Know freedom to enjoy pursuing right relationships through justice because of the vision of justice we see in and through the life of Jesus. Living justly holds the joy of becoming more like God, and giving a more compelling, accurate witness of his character to the world.

I respect Tim Keller. Ever since watching this video of him speaking truthfully and winsomely on faith in a secular context, I have admired his depth of understanding, his pastor’s heart and his eye for beauty.  I expected to encounter each of these while reading Generous Justice, and I did. For those familiar with Keller, this book contains the biblically informed wisdom that is his trademark; for those less so, this book represents a very good opportunity to change that.

*numbers in brackets refer to pages in the book. 

Related Content