Does Justice Equal Entitlement: A Book Review


Marvin Olasky, one of the most saintly people I know, has also done a review of Timothy Keller”s new book, Generous Justice. I’m sure it is superior to mine. Nevertheless, I think I have something to say.Timothy Keller, the innovative pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church PCA in New York City, has come out with a book that borders on the political by addressing the issue of God’s special concern for the poor and marginalized as an important concern for all Christians. The doing of charity overall is not optional for Christians. He points out that Hebrew, using the words tzedaqah and mishpat does not make a distinction between juridical justice and righteous deeds of mercy and charity. And he is right in this observation. Though I would have to add that there is more of a distinction made in the New Testament: famous to Christians is Romans 6:23, “For the wages [a juridical entitlement] of sin is death, but the gift [by definition not an entitlement] of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Keller rightly reasons that as God has treated us, so we should treat others. We are all “rich kids” or “trustfunders” to God. I will say it again. Everyone who has come into a saving relationship to God through Jesus Christ has acknowledged himself as a spiritual “trustfunder” and not a “successful person” before God. We are assured in Deuteronomy 8:17-18, “You may say to yourself, `My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.” We celebrate this fact every year at Thanksgiving.A practical issue that most of us are concerned with, however, is how we should respond to the flood of solicitations which most of us receive. Jesus, in Matthew 6:42, has made us a bit nervous about refusing any solicitation: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Jesus never handed out cash; as this applies to street beggars, it might mean offering them food if you have time or a ride to the rescue mission or something like that. I don’t think it applies to middlemen and agencies at all. Jesus is concerned that our hearts will be hardened by a continual habit of no-saying, so we must remember that we say No to most solicitations precisely in order to say Yes to the things He has called us to do and not fritter our time and resources away.Suppose we flip this around in the opposite direction, and alongside our general duty talk of what others, who solicit us or the political system, are entitled to. Now C. S. Lewis, in Screwtape Letters, has warned us of the danger of the mentality of entitlement. Screwtape declares in Letter XXI,

[Humans] are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered.

And along the same lines in Letter XVII,

But, however you approach it, the great thing is to bring him into the state in which the denial of any one indulgence – it matters not which, champagne or tea, sole Colbert or cigarettes – “puts him out,” for then his charity, justice, and obedience are all at your mercy.

I can testify myself, as one who has traveled to many countries, that when I go with expectations about how I should be served, when business and attractions should be open, and how things should work, I will often get into an ill temper. If I go without any expectations, which is usually the case in a less developed country, I can roll with the punches more easily.Quite obviously, too, the sense of entitlement is the chief cause of theft, covetousness, and other sins as well.As long as God is in His heaven, our entitlements will never be absolute. But tangible property is the nearest thing. God has clearly forbidden theft. It is very clear what “my land” or “my car” is. But when people claim entitlements to resources that may not clearly exist, as when they claim moral entitlements to lifetime support by others or the state, and not to a specific pot of money that is theirs, the possibility of those “entitlements” exceeding the actual money available is real. And on the other hand, you have people who believe that they are “entitled” to have no tax increased, ever. This is a recipe for inflation or gridlock. As my father used to say, inflation is inevitable in a democracy, because the people, in their infinite wisdom, will always choose to have bigger government benefits and programs than the people, in their equally infinite wisdom, will choose to tax themselves to support. We are seeing this now in the appeals for “smaller government” that lack specificity about how the big dogs of government spending, Social Security and Medicare, are going to be handled.Interestingly enough, Jewish humor includes a genre called “shnorrer stories” about the strong sense of entitlement of Jewish beggars as compared to Gentile ones. Gentile beggars display sores and bad legs and appeal to pity. But here are three well known shnorrer stories:

A shnorrer stops by a house and the housewife tells him, “Sorry, I don’t have any spare cash today. Could you please stop by tomorrow? The beggar answers, “Tomorrow? Lady, don’t let it happen again! I’ve lost a fortune, extending credit!”

A man gives money to a shnorrer, then gets suspicious of how he is going to use it. So he followed the beggar. The beggar goes into the fish market and buys a supply of lachs, or smoked salmon, which is considered a luxury. The man confronts the beggar coming out of the fish market. “I give you this money because you’re supposedly in need, and you go and spend it on lachs!” The shnorrer answers, “When I don’t have money, I can’t buy lachs. When I have money, you say I can’t buy lachs. Tell me, when can I buy lachs?”

A man declares to a shnorrer, “Why should I give you any money? You’re perfectly healthy. You’ve got the arms and legs of a horse! The shnorrer replies, “For one lousy dollar, I’m supposed to cut off my limbs?”

These stories, to me, reveal the greater sense of entitlement to “charity” in the Jewish tradition, and may go part way to explain some reasons why Jewish people are economic liberals.Keller, after all this, is willing to allow that there might be more than one sphere of authority or philanthropy that might have different callings or functions. He quotes Michael Sandel as having laid out three different visions of justice, “`maximizing welfare,’ ` protecting freedom,’ and `promoting virtue.’” (p. 153-54) Interestingly enough, these are the same three that C. S. Lewis mentioned in his essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment” in God in the Dock some years before. In this essay, Lewis warns that if we try to establish a Christian political party, it is likely to be captured by one of these three viewpoints, and the resulting party, being a small minority, would end up allying itself with the larger secular political party holding a similar view, and we would be back where we started. Keller quotes Sandel again:

Justice is inescapably judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts . . . surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or . . . CEO pay . . . questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.

Here Sandel, a Harvard professor, sounds like he’s been reading Cornelius Van Til, the “fundamentalist postmodernist” who argued that there was no neutrality! Keller also credits Abraham Kuyper with the distinction between the “institutional church . . . and the `organic’ church.” (p. 145). The institutional church is the actual institution of the church that is run by elders, or bishops, or whatever. The “organic’ church is the Body of Christ doing both ministry proper and restorative work in the world. It is the task of the institutional church to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and equip the organic church to do work in the world, and perhaps to do some local ministry, but only in a limited way to actually do the restorative work of Christ in the world. C. S. Lewis again, this time from Mere Christianity:

But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists – not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time. (p. 79)

Statements by clerics about economics, politics, etc., are often very naïve and stupid, not because the clergy is stupid but because their calling and training is different. The clergy is supposed to disciple us to be the sort of people who will want to carry the lordship of Christ into trade unionism, or education, or literature, and have enough understanding and virtue to do so.Keller does make a legitimate attempt to include all three perspectives. He observes,

[the three theories] are all partly right. The utilitarians [called “liberals” in America] are concerned with the common welfare. And in the book of Proverbs, we learn that people living justly do not consider their money to belong to them alone, but also to the community around them. Liberals [called normally in America “classical liberals” or “libertarians”] are most concerned with individual rights. And, as we have seen, the Bible gives us the strongest foundation for the idea of rights that there is. . . . Finally, conservatives believe justice is a matter of giving people what they deserve, and of promoting virtue. As Sandel and others have shown, neither the utilitarians’ “harm” principle, nor the liberal emphasis on equal rights is sufficient for doing justice. . . . In other words, according to the Bible, virtue, rights, and the common good are all crucial aspects of justice.

I have a few things to say about this. I do not necessarily think that my money partly belongs to the “community around” me. It belongs to God, and He has a concern for others than myself, especially the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And, incidentally, it is often the “community” by which they are oppressed and marginalized! This is why I am very hesitant to call myself a “communitarian.” God’s special concern is often for those who are marginalized by their communities. And, in regard to the conservatives’ “giving people what they deserve,” I speak as a trustfunder and I do not necessarily “deserve” what I have, nor, on the other hand, is it unjust that I have it. God often chooses the “undeserving”; if anything, only Jesus ever really deserved the honor that was thrust upon him. Deuteronomy makes very clear that Israel was not chosen for its unique role because they “deserved” it. The reader should check Deuteronomy 6:10-15, 8:10-18, and 9:4-6.I do recommend this book for study by Christians alone or in groups. We must, however, be careful and discerning. Keller is to be appreciated for trying to bridge the gap between the “evangelical left” and the “evangelical right” that has become such a serious division in the church over the last 30 years, and I understand that the younger generation is getting tired of this fight. They, especially, should make the effort to discerningly study this book. 

More Posts