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Tim Keller: What the Biblical View of Justice Shows Us About Racism

justice in the Bible

Is responsibility for sin individual or is it corporate? It’s both, argues pastor and author Timothy Keller in his article, “Justice in the Bible.” This means, therefore, that we must address racism as an individual and a systemic problem. 

“Corporate responsibility is at the very heart of the Bible and the gospel,” writes Keller, while noting that corporate and individual responsibility are not mutually exclusive. “The reality of corporate sin does not ‘swallow up’ individual moral responsibility, nor does individual responsibility disprove the reality of corporate evil and responsibility. There is corporate responsibility, but in the end we are held responsible for the sins we personally commit.”

In a four-article series, Keller lays out a biblical foundation for understanding race, sin, and the Bible’s view of justice. In the first article, “The Bible and Race,” he examines race in the Old and New Testaments, as well as race as it relates to the gospel. In “The Sin of Racism,” Keller explores how racism violates God’s commands and goes against his plan to reconcile all things. Keller also introduces the idea of corporate responsibility for sin in that post. In his third article, “A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory,” Keller covers four justice frameworks—libertarian, liberal, utilitarian, and postmodern—and offers a biblical analysis of each, explaining their shortcomings. 

In his fourth and final article, Keller spells out four aspects of justice in the Bible, one of which is “asymmetrical responsibility.” In doing so, he not only gives us a framework for addressing racism but also offers a view of justice that is arguably broader and richer than what we typically imagine.

Justice in the Bible Requires a Lot From Us

When we think of “justice,” many of us likely think of restitution for wrongs done. However, justice in the Bible is much more involved than simply making a wrong right again. The first principle of biblical justice that Keller presents is somewhat unexpected: “radical generosity.”

“While secular individualism says that your money belongs to you, and socialism says your money belongs to the State, the Bible says that all your money belongs to God, who then entrusts it to you,” says Keller. For example, while the Old Testament law does teach that it is wrong to steal, it also operates on the principle that “property rights are not absolute.”

In fact, the Old Testament principles regarding money and wealth (which Keller believes are still relevant for us today) were specifically designed to care for the most vulnerable people in society, that is, the orphan, widow, and foreigner. Among other biblical examples he cites for the idea of radical generosity, Keller mentions Jesus’ instruction that his followers be “rich toward God,” rather than to accumulate possessions for themselves. Said Keller, 

On the Left, money is the State’s and the distribution to the needy will be involuntary. On the Right, money is yours alone and any giving is voluntary and optional. The biblical teaching makes the primary dimension the “vertical”—the relationship to God.

Keller’s next principle of justice in the Bible is one that readily comes to mind: “equality.” All people “regardless of class, race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or of any other social category,” are to be treated as equal.” This is a concept that was “unique and revolutionary in world history,” says Keller. We are not to oppress people, for example, because they are poor or because they are from another race or culture—as the Jews were tempted to discriminate against Gentiles and Samaritans. 

However, justice in the Bible goes beyond simply treating people as equals. God expects us to do more than avoid oppression and discrimination. He wants us to actually advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. This is Keller’s third principle, “advocacy.” 

“While we are to treat all equally, and not show partiality to any (Leviticus 19:15),” says Keller, “we are to have special concern for the poor, the weak, and the powerless.” He also points out that the Bible’s many commands to take care of the poor “assumes the reality of oppression.” Proverbs 22:22-23 warns of this reality when it says, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will exact life for life.”