Well, things just got away from me last week and I wasn’t able to get this post up, so here it is today! In this post on the next chapter, “A Justice That Does Not Create New Oppressors,” Tim Keller continues his discussion on the topic of morals and morality, this time examining how secularism, religion in general, and Christianity approach issues of justice and oppression. You can find an index of all the posts in my book study of Making Sense of God HERE.
- Keller agrees that religious people tend to use morality to oppress, condemn, and control those outside their beliefs. On the other hand, religious groups and people have also brought about much social justice in many times and places. (193-194)
- Instead of trying to weigh all the incidents of religious abuses and injustices against all the incidents of religious good and benevolence, Keller asks whether secularism or religion provides a better framework for promoting justice and human rights, and then examines how Christianity specifically speaks to the issues of justice and moralism. (195)
- Keller then essentially revisits some of his previous points to argue that secularism, strictly practiced, does not give us a compelling basis for justice or human rights:
- If there is no universal standard for morality, then one can’t argue that human rights are a universal standard that should be respected. Human rights that “just are” can be discarded because they’re subjective. Or, they might become imperialistic – a morality that is forced on other cultures who don’t want to adopt it.
- How does one even define “justice” when your idea of it is deemed to be equally valid and true to mine, even when they’re completely opposite?
- So religious belief in general seems to give us a better framework for justice and human rights because it assumes absolute truths about humanity and morality.
- But again, we come to the problem that these absolutes are often wielded to oppress others and often result in the very opposite of justice. “So we need universal values, but we also need something that undermines the natural, powerful human inclination to dominate others.” (205)
- Keller argues that Christianity gives us such a framework:
- A basis for dignity – Christianity teaches that every single human being is created in the image of God, endowed with an equal worth (regardless of culture, ethnicity, good deeds or evil ones) that should be respected and protected.
- A basis for justice – Throughout the Bible, in pre-Christian times and in the early church (and therefore for Christians today), God’s people are commanded to live justly, to treat others fairly, to extend compassion and love to all – even and especially to your enemies, to take care of the poor and those with no social status, and to treat others as better than yourself.
- A basis for humility
- Christians should never be self-righteously proud and disdainful of others, thinking they have all the answers, because oftentimes we don’t. God’s purposes and wisdom are often incomprehensible, and the Bible gives us plenty of examples of people who had to trust even when they didn’t understand. (205)
- “‘God’s repeated choice of the dominated and the wretched, the powerless and the marginal'” (206) – This is not just because God loves the underdogs. “It is because the ultimate example of God’s working in the world was Jesus Christ…[whose] salvation comes to us through his poverty, rejection, and weakness.” (208)
- Christians should always be humbled by the reality that they themselves were poor and powerless yet also oppressors of others before being saved by God’s grace.
- In summary: Christianity is the only worldview and religion that gives us:
1. A universal, objective standard for human dignity and how we are to treat others
2. A salvation that is not achieved through good moral works, nor by oppressing or killing non-believers, but rather via a gift of undeserved grace;
3. A morality that should never be oppressive because it’s modeled after the example of Jesus, who lived out humility, grace, and forgiveness.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
There seems to be this turning point where personally held ideals or beliefs morph into monstrous moralities that are used to harm and trample others. How does this happen? Why do we almost always start punishing people who don’t believe what we believe?
In short, I think it comes down to pride. It turns us from “This is something I believe,” to “I am sure that I have ALL the answers, therefore I can stand in judgment of you.” It assumes that everything comes down to you and your enforcement of your ideals. It leaves no room for humility, no room to admit that you don’t have all the answers and you are not ultimately in control. And it blinds you into believing that coercing and abusing others is an acceptable way to believe something.
So Christians, what does this mean for us?
On the one hand, this doesn’t mean that we should never take a stand for biblical truth. God has given us an outline of reality and some wisdom about the design and purpose of his creation, and we should not only hold fast to that, but love others around us and point them to Him. Often, this principled stand will seem like judgmental oppression, especially in our Western culture where any type of truth or moral claim – no matter how gently expressed, is seen as suspect, narrow-minded, and repressive. But calmly and lovingly stand, we must.
But we would also do well to remember that most of the time we mess up big time in this area, both today and in centuries past. We create our theological boxes that render God small, then shove it in the faces of others – non-believers and other believers alike. We don’t trust in God’s sovereignty and judgment, and think it’s up to us to forcefully convince others of what we believe. We choose to live in the dead shallows of legalism, moralism, and behavior modification instead of diving into the rich depths of a gospel and grace-permeated life. In doing these things, we bully people toward a list of dos and don’ts, instead of pointing them to a Savior of immeasurable worth.
This is why it’s so important to preach the gospel to ourselves regularly, to let those truths sink into every aspect of how we think and live. I think Keller rightly argues that Christianity is the only worldview that makes truth claims rooted in the example of a suffering servant; truth that, rightly understood, doesn’t oppress or moralize, but points to the example of Jesus so that we might treasure what He’s done so much that it completely transforms how we live.
One great example of all these ideas fleshed out is in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Keller discusses in this chapter. Here was a man who said that segregation is not just impractical or simply one way of doing things, it is sin. Why? Because “‘every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God.'” This morality was not relative or socially constructed, but grounded in Christian, biblical truth. Dr. King stood firm on this truth claim and used it to fight relentlessly for justice, to bring about a society that looked one step closer to redeemed and God-honoring creation. But his fighting and firm hold on truth was not expressed in worldly terms of power and aggression. Instead, he fought under a different system, one that was modeled after the example of Christ. Under this system, he could make a firm truth claim yet not hate his enemy because they too were made in the image of God. Under this system, he could fight for justice yet turn the other cheek (literally) when he was physically abused because he had the example of Christ, who said “I am truth” yet loved his enemies enough to willingly lay down his life for them.
“Believing in universal moral truths can be used to oppress others. But what if that absolute truth is a man who died for his enemies, who did not respond in violence with violence but forgave them? How could that story, if it is the center of your life, lead you to take up power and dominate others?” Additionally, “every Christian who understands the God’s admits that he or she has been an oppressor. Christians know they have the hearts of oppressors, yet have been saved by grace nonetheless. Therefore, even when they confront an oppressor, they may do it with steely and courageous determination, but the gospel teaches to do so also without self-righteousness or bullying. They cannot hate haters, or justify oppressing people they think are oppressors.” (210-211)
- If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you? Any questions, comments, or rebuttal on what’s been covered in this post?
- Have you personally seen the hypocrisy of a religious person who oppresses others with their moral beliefs?
- On the flip side, have you personally seen a religious person take a firm and principled stand, but humbly and with grace? How did those two experiences differ?