A review of ‘Generous Justice’ by Tim Keller

Before I came to South Africa I read a number of books in preparation. One that has been particularly helpful during my time here is ‘Generous Justice’ by Tim Keller. I wanted something that helped me consider some of the issues to do with social action/ministries of mercy/social justice or whatever you want to call it and to to have a clear grasp of the Bible’s teaching on it. Ian asked me in November to share my review with you all, sorry it’s taken a bit longer than it should have done. The excuse for anything being delayed now is ‘I’m adjusting to African Culture’!

The basis premise of this book is that ‘God’s Grace makes us just’ and seeks to outline what the Bible says about Justice, in both Old and New Testament, and how and why we should do justice.

It is probably worth giving a definition of justice at the outset. Keller explains that justice is giving people what they are due, whether that is punishment, protection or care. Many Old Testament passages are used to show that God is a God who cares for the most vulnerable in our society, and exhorts his people to do the same (Zechariah 7.10-11, Psalm 146.7-9, 41.4, Jeremiah 22.3, proverbs 31.8) which in biblical times were often the widow, orphan, immigrant and poor but today would include a more extensive list.

What I found helpful was the continual reminder that our concern for the most needy in society is a response to the grace God has shown us in his son, Jesus Christ. I like this quote from an unnamed young Scottish minister preaching on Acts 20.35:

“Now dear Christians, some of you pray day and night to be branches of the true vine…If so, you must be like him in giving… ‘Though he was rich for our sakes he became poor’. Objection 1: My money is my own. Answer: Christ might have said ‘my blood is my own, my life is my own’…then where should we have been? Objection 2: The poor are undeserving. Answer: Christ might have said they are wicked rebels…shall I lay down my life for these?… But no, he left the ninety-nine and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving. Objection 3: The poor may abuse it. Answer: Christ might have said the same with far greater truth. Christ knew that thousands would trample his blood…, they would despise him, that many would make it an excusing for sinning more, yet he gave his own blood…If you want to be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely to the vile and poor, the thankless and undeserving.”

Keller also considers how we should do justice. He summarises it under 3 headings of relief, development and reform. Relief would include dealing with immediate needs e.g. temporary shelter for the homeless, food and clothing for those in need. Development goes a step further as it means giving the person(s) in need the ability to move from dependence to economic self sufficiency. Reform means seeking social reform which is defined as ‘instituting a new social arrangement that stops the flow of victims because of a change in social conditions’.

Having now been to South Africa and returned it’s interesting to reflect on what I’ve read and consider the work in light of it. From my observation in some ways there are much more obvious opportunities for Christians to show ‘generous justice’ in South Africa compared to the UK.

Let me explain. The AIDs epidemic is obviously a huge problem here with KZN being the province with the highest number affected. The poverty gap is striking with around 25% of the population living on around 83p a day! There are 3.7 million orphans in the country. Couple that with corruption in the government and the after effects of apartheid and the need is obvious.

The opportunities then for Christians to bring relief and seek development and reform are many. From my brief glimpse of South African life this can be done by providing for relief immediate physical needs such regular meals and food parcels, clothing, blankets and medical care. There is also opportunities for Christians to be providing education and training for individuals so they can have the skills necessary to provide for themselves. In terms of reform, I will reserve comment for now as I don’t know enough about the African context yet.

What is encouraging is how Musawenkosi is seeking to bring ‘generous justice’ to the rural communities. There is the feeding scheme, providing relief in the form of daily meals for around 50 children who otherwise wouldn’t have one. It also provided food parcels and clothing for the families of these children over the christmas holidays. In terms of the home, shelter, food and a loving environment is provided for those in need.There is also development; once a week a sowing class is held at Nseleni & Etoweni where local ladies are taught to sew and many have gone on to get jobs as a result. At the children’s home and local school we are seeking to help with the children’s education so they hopefully have better job prospects. There is also a desire to start skills training at Nseleni.

What is encouraging is that as Musawenkosi has sought to bring justice to these individuals there have been open doors for the gospel and people have been converted. It seems that justice and evangelism go hand in hand which has been the testimony of many missionaries and Christians throughout history. I was listening to a sermon by a South African pastor on ‘The Meaning of Mission’ which looked at relationship between social justice and evangelism. In summary his argument was that the two are important but we must keep the gospel at the centre and the priority.

However, although the needs may be more obvious in South Africa and by in large the UK does a lot more social provision and to be fair, a generally just government, it can seem hard for Christians to stand out as different. However, it doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities in the UK and Cardiff. The part of the city that the church is based in has many of those who would be marginalised from society; the asylum seeker and refuge, the unemployed, those in debt, single parents to name but a few. By giving sacrificially of our own time and resources to help these various people in need then we can very practically demonstrate the love of the one who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich’ (2 corinthians 8.9). Again what is encouraging is that many of the ministries of the church are seeking to do that!

Let’s continue to pray and labour in these works as God has promised ‘let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up’. (Galatians 6.9). Let’s pray there is a harvest where many individuals, both in Cardiff Bay and the rural areas around Empangeni, will come to know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, the one who secured the ultimate ‘generous justice’ for us!