Okay, one person requested a return to this golden oldie, “What We Owe Presbyterians (or, Presbyterian Justice)” (Dec. 9, 2010):
Tim Keller’s new book, Generous Justice, has him giving answers to reporters and bloggers’ questions about his argument and reasons for writing. One of those interviews came out recently at Christianity Today, under the title, “What We Owe the Poor.” Part of his strategy, as he explains, is to move people who are not convinced by the Ron Siders and Tony Campola’s of the evangelical world about the institutional church’s call to engage in social and political affairs. As such, Keller hopes to show than experience of God’s grace will inevitably lead to actions on behalf of the poor.
What those actions should be in each person’s case could differ widely. Most Americans when hearing about the poor immediately think of soup kitchens, donations, what to do when greeting a homeless person, and possible charitable organizations that provide needed services. In other words, justice for the poor should involve selflessness, taking from what you have and giving to someone in need. For Keller, caring for the poor seems to be a matter of delegating to others. As he explained in his interview with Kevin DeYoung to a question about his own personal pursuit of generous justice:
we have an excellent diaconate that works with those in need within our community. In addition, years ago I helped a group of people establish “Hope For New York,” a separate but closely aligned organization, that helps our church members give of their time and money to the needs of the whole city. As I say in the book, many churches who work among the poor establish a 501(c)3 often a “community development corporation” to do much of the direct ministry to people in need.
I wish Keller had said what his answer implies, namely, that he does not do much beyond work with and encourage others who get their hands dirty. There is no reason for a pastor to be engaged with the poor directly since he is called to other work, holy work, and since God gives different gifts and callings to members of the body of Christ. But that kind of explanation might have given an out to every other Christian who reads Keller’s book, has a full-time job, but lacks a session or diaconate to whom he can delegate his compassion. Such a person might compare his pay stub with the budget of the federal government’s Health and Human Services and conclude that he is doing as much as his pastor for the poor.
Despite this anomaly, Keller does expound a useful definition of justice. Typically we think in terms of law and order, righteousness and wickedness, as in let’s rid Washington of injustice and institute a holy and godly society. But Keller hearkens back to a classical idea where justice is “giving people their due.” “On the one hand that means restraining and punishing wrongdoers. On the other hand it means giving people what we owe them as beings in the image of God.” In which case, justice involves everything from “law enforcement” to “giving to the poor.”
Law enforcement and giving to the poor seem fairly unimaginative ways of rendering justice in this fuller sense. Other examples might include how to treat a young boy with exceptional intellectual gifts who is deciding on schools, an older woman with years of experience in child rearing or professional service who is contemplating what to do with spare time, a Senator in his home-state office who has no time to meet with constituents on a given day, a professional baseball player during the off season in an encounter at the airport who appears to want anonymity over recognition, or an auto-mechanic (see I didn’t go with plumbing) on a hot afternoon who is flummoxed by GM’s engine computers and has yet to work on your car.
In other words, a fuller account of justice might actually lead Christians to think in terms of the Shorter Catechism’s explanation of the fifth commandment: justice is “preserving the honor and performing the duties belonging to everyone in the several places and relations as superiors, inferiors, and equals.” One reason Americans likely shy away from this part of the catechism as a guide to justice is that we don’t care for those bits about superiors and inferiors. Be that as it may, preserving the honor and performing the duties would seem to cover Keller’s fuller definition of justice and while allowing for specifics instances of civil law and care for poor persons.
But why does justice for Keller only seem to extend to matters of politics or society? What about an expansive view of justice for the church, as in Presbyterian justice? What would it mean for a Presbyterian pastor to preserve the honor and perform the duties belonging to him in relation to session, presbytery, elders, General Assembly, and deacons? What would it mean also for a Presbyterian church member to do justice to the laws of his communion regarding the teachings of the confession on worship, the Lord’s Day, and Christian liberty? Furthermore, what would it mean for a Presbyterian church planter to do justice to rich people who give for the sake of establishing churches that will adhere to Presbyterian teachings and practices? What would it mean for a Presbyterian elder to do justice to those communions with whom he is in fellowship by virtue of ecumenical relations? And what would it mean for a Presbyterian denominational executive to do justice to the work of Presbyterian ministers who labored in years past to create a certain pattern of church life and teaching ministry that followed biblical teaching?
Obviously, I have my own answers to those questions. But the bigger point is why a larger conception of justice, even a generous one, does not seem to extend across the board, all the way to the claims that bind officers and members of Reformed churches by the vows they have taken to be received into fellowship and to render certain services.