We need two types of messages concerning help to the poor. Type one is basic: Be generous. After we comprehend type one we need type two: Be generous in a way that helps and doesn't hurt those you hope to help. I once made a mistake at an Atlanta conference by giving a type two talk before individuals had heard a type one.
Tim Keller's Generous Justice (Dutton, 2010) is an excellent type one. As Keller notes, "a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor lapse, but reveals that something is seriously wrong with one's spiritual compass, the heart" (p. 51). Well said: "People who fast and pray ritually but still show pride and haughtiness toward the poor and needy reveal that no true humbling has ever penetrated their hearts" (p. 96).
He also notes what successful people often forget: No matter how hard we work, we have not gained success mainly through our own efforts. Talent and health are gifts from God, as are the opportunities we have by living in America in the 21st century rather than, say, Tibet in the 13th century.
Keller points out that scorn for the poor also shows a lack of thankfulness to God: "You cannot say, 'I won't help you because you got yourself into this mess,' since God came to earth, moved into your spiritually poor neighborhood, as it were, and helped you even though your spiritual problems were your own fault" (p. 103).
He rightly notes that government has a role in providing justice, and Christians should respectfully demand that local police departments respond to calls and crimes as quickly in poor areas as in prosperous ones. (I saw that problem firsthand while living for 13 years on the wrong side of the highway in Austin, Texas.)
Keller is right that the Bible warns against giving any preference to rich or poor but in the quantity and intensity of verses emphasizes the need to defend the poor, without similarly describing any need to defend the rich. This makes sense: "It stands to reason that injustice is easier to perform against people without the money or social status to defend themselves" (p. 7).
Keller, though, could do better on type two questions. He sees liberals complaining about "unjust social structures" and conservatives complaining about "character" (p. 91). But it's often conservatives who oppose and liberals who defend a remarkably unjust social structure: the system of assigning students to poor public schools when for much less money, provided through vouchers, students and their parents could choose a better school.
His attempt at evenhandedness is also oversimplifying when he writes that Democrats "believe a low tax rate is unfair because it deprives the poor and minorities of the help they need to overcome years of discrimination. Republicans think of justice more individualistically. They believe that a high tax rate is unjust because it robs people of their due" (p. 150). Yes, but many Republicans who are Christians also believe that high tax rates deprive the poor and minorities of opportunities by stopping the creation and expansion of enterprises that create jobs.
Keller rightly shows how God's writers frequently link justice and righteousness in the Bible, but he contends that when the two words are tied together, "the English expression that best conveys the meaning is 'social justice.'" In theory, maybe, but since the expression has been seized by the left, using that term without careful definition can lead to more programs that hurt rather than help.
His translation of Psalm 33:5 as "The Lord loves social justice" may thus be a disservice. The ESV translation is better: "He loves righteousness and justice." Overall, "righteous justice" would be a better combo-or if we want to convey the biblical understanding in a way that doesn't politicize the term, how about "relational justice"?
Still, be generous and give Generous Justice to those not thinking about the poor. Other books can follow.