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

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

The Bible shows us three ways that we can advocate for the poor. One is by providing for their material needs. Another is empowerment, that is, “helping a person, family, or community gain self-sufficiency.” The third is by seeking to change the systems that are causing people to be disadvantaged. Keller lists Luke 10:30-35, Deuteronomy 15:13-14, and Job 29:17 as passages that, respectively, illustrate each of these types of advocacy.

Finally, Keller lists “responsibility” as an aspect of biblical justice and explains why he believes that responsibility for sin and justice is both individual and corporate. He does not, however, give an equal weight to each type of responsibility. By “corporate responsibility,” Keller means that all of us, because of our relationships, bear some of the responsibility for other people’s choices. For example, our families play a large role in shaping who we are, including the sins that we commit. We all bear some responsibility for the sins of our political leaders and they for ours. We bear a communal responsibility when we are passive and fail to hold other people accountable for their sins. Institutions and systems have some responsibility for the choices that people make within those systems. 

Keller offers examples from the Old and New Testament as support for his position, including the fact that Scripture recognizes a corporate responsibility for the leaders involved in crucifying Jesus. Keller also observes that at times God’s followers have practiced a corporate, not only individual, confession of sin.

New Testament leaders recognized corporate responsibility for Jesus’ death after the resurrection of Christ. In Acts 2, Peter holds those who were in Jerusalem at the time responsible (Acts 2: 22-23, 36; Acts 10:39) though all of those people did not actually hand Jesus over to die. Yet when addressing the Jews in Pisidian Antioch, Paul says that it was those who lived in Jerusalem and their rulers who crucified Jesus (Acts 13:27). He does not blame all Jews everywhere for Christ’s death. In addition, both Ezra (Ezra 9) and Daniel (Daniel 9) confess sins of their people that they were not personally guilty of themselves.

Nevertheless, the Bible is clear that individual people are responsible for their own sins. For example, there are passages about the parent-child relationship that explicitly state that the one should not be held responsible for the sins of the other. 

So how do we reconcile individual responsibility with what Keller just explained about corporate responsibility? His answer is that the two do not have equal weight. Says Keller, “There is an asymmetrical relationship between them, with the individual responsibility being the strongest.” Individual responsibility and corporate responsibility coexist. Both are valid, but individual responsibility carries the greater weight of the two.

Keller encourages his readers not to oversimplify the Bible’s view of justice because to do so would be “reductionistic” and would promote a secular, not a biblical, view of justice. “The Left believes unequal outcomes are virtually always due to injustice, while the Right believes unequal outcomes are virtually always due to personal irresponsibility,” says Keller. Neither is correct. 

Keller wraps up his article by offering several ways the church can work toward a biblical view of justice, particularly as i relates to racism.  His points included the importance of the church reflecting the multi-ethnic society it is in, the need for local churches to fight for justice in their communities, and listening to Christian leaders of color. Says Keller,

When I was diagnosed with cancer and my life was threatened by it, I began to see things in familiar biblical passages that I had before overlooked. Why? You only get answers from the Bible to the questions you ask of it, and a man with cancer asks different questions of a Bible passage than one without it. Non-white Christians in the U.S. have a sharply different experience of life here in many ways, and so they can show white Christians things in the Bible we have missed. 

Keller also addressed the current evangelical controversy over critical race theory (CRT) and cultural Marxism, saying, 

Esau McCaulley explains the frustration that Black and Latino Christians feel when they say things about racism and injustice that the Black church has been saying for more than a century which now is dismissed as “Critical Race Theory.” [55] It may be the case that a young white person who is newly alert to systemic injustice has gotten his or her insights from some contemporary academic source steeped in CRT. But if the Black church came to an insight about justice from the Bible long before any rise of Marxism, then it can’t be the result of Critical Theory.

Justice in the Bible Is Based on a Person

Really, it should not be surprising that justice in the Bible is more comprehensive than individual responsibility and retribution. As Keller writes, “Biblical justice is not first of all a set of bullet points or a set of rules and guidelines. It is rooted in the very character of God and it is the outworking of that character, which is never less than just.”