Generous Justice (6) Doing justice in the public sphere

Chapter 7 of Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice: how God’s grace makes us just turns to the question of working for justice in the public sphere.

In that sphere there will be many possibilities of alliances and partnerships – with other faith-based organisations, with govt agencies, with voluntary groups. But it also something of a minefield.

Keller points out how words like ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ sound good but mean very different things to different people. Indeed they are often empty concepts because they can be filled with whatever meaning opposing groups want to give them. One group’s battle for equality is another’s group’s experience of oppression and so on.

Despite this, in the public square there is much talk of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ – but much less recognition that there are no such things detached from very definite moral and ethical beliefs that give meaning to those words.

[He’s right. I’ve been writing an article about a faith & public square issue. Political liberalism relies on the notion that the public square is a ‘neutral’ place free of religious values and beliefs. Why this aim? Because there is a liberal fear of endless division over religious truth claims and a fear of religious ‘intolerance’.  But the fatal weakness of this view is (at best) naivity – moral beliefs and values are smuggled into the debate all the time. There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ belief system. It’s a fiction.]

For instance if you believe like Stephen Hawking that ‘the human race is just chemical scum on a moderate sized planet’ you might have a very different view of what justice looks like if you believe that every person is made in God’s image and has an innate dignity as a result.

We can’t agree on what justice is because we can’t agree on our underlying beliefs.

In response Keller proposes Christians working in the public square should take a dual approach:

i. Humble Cooperation

Keller refers to Michael Sandal who argues that there are three contemporary forms of justice:

maximising welfare: bringing the most good to the maximum number of people (a utilitarian ethic)

respecting freedom: that which respects and allows individuals to make free choices (a liberal ethic)

promoting virtue: justice is best served when people act as they ought, according to morality and virtue (a conservative ethic)

The point here is that Christians should be able to affirm all of these to some degree in different circumstances since the Bible does. There will be areas of common concern among groups who may hold very different notions of justice. Christians will call this ‘common grace’ and ‘general revelation’ – their partners in justice may not. But they can still work together around common values and objectives.

Keller calls this humble cooperation because Christians need back off the idea that because they have truth they know all the answers.

ii. Respectful Provocation

But because they do not share the same beliefs, Christians should also do justice with others while willing to engage in a bit of ‘respectful provocation’. Keller means by this that Christians should not play the game that there are such things as ‘neutral’ beliefs or accept the imposition that they cannot talk about their reasons for doing justice. For justice is ‘inescapably judgemental’ – to make any judgement about what wrong should be righted is a moral action. Justice is all about how our values and beliefs shape our actions and objectives.

The very notion of ‘human rights’  depends on all sorts of religious values, especially once you start talking of ‘inalienable rights’. This is inescapably religious language (which some new atheists like Sam Harris try to smuggle into their framework).

So what Keller means here is that Christians should be provoking others to debate about the necessity to talk about beliefs and values that underly actions in the public sphere. It is a myth to say that there can be a ‘neutral space’ free of such talk. And it is a myth to say that we are not already deeply divided over beliefs and values.

It is much healthier for society, and much more honest, to say look, let’s identify and talk about our real differences and talk about what values and beliefs are best for society. [I tried to do a bit of this in this Irish Times piece the other month].

Comments, as ever, welcome


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