Friday, January 24, 2014

Tim Keller and faulty economics

[Previous post on the topic here]

One of the more notorious practices of local banks is to "redline" poor and nonwhite neighborhoods. That is, they refuse mortgage and small business loans to applicants who live there. Their argument is that they simply look at the statistic and conclude that residents of those neighborhoods are more likely not to make good on the loan. God, however, says we are not to live that way in our relationships to the poor. He says, in effect, in Proverb 19:7: "Don't you dare 'redline' people. Don't look at someone and say, 'If I get involved with that person I might be taken advantage of!' I see a gift to the poor as a gift to me. I will, in some way, make the loan good. I will give you value, trust me."

—Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just (New York, NY: Penguin, 2010), 184

After quite some time, I have finally read Tim Keller's book Generous Justice. Looking back at my initial interaction with an interview he had done concerning the book, I saw that my assessment was somewhat correct though it requires tweaking.

Besides the categorical confusion over the Church and individual Christians, Keller has misread the Job narrative altogether, as if charity is justice. Keller uses Job 29:12-7, using the words translated as "justice" and "righteousness" to build his entire case that helping the poor is actually justice, not charity. In response, it must be said that "justice" is not the same as "righteousness." "Justice" normally refers to some form of external objective verdict, while "righteousness" is an internal quality. In context, Job rendering justice is his righteous actions. But saying that doing justice is a righteous action does not mean that justice EQUALS righteousness, must less infer that since the injustice Job addressed is oppression of the poor and payment of wages, therefore justice is to work for social good and injustice is not to work for social good. That action X is a subset of set J, and J manifests character R, DOES NOT imply that action X EQUALS character R!

The case I would like to make here concerns the above quote from the book, which is merely one instance, among many, of Keller offering practical steps Christians OUGHT to take in order to practice "generous justice." This quote is shown only because it could be easily tied in to the sub-prime crisis in America around 2007, whereby loans made to poor people were bad debts which had to be written off, and the accumulation of so much bad debt triggered a financial meltdown. The actions of the banks certainly sounds like rectifying the scenario Keller is painting, by not "redlining" people. We now know, in hindsight, what happened when banks decided to not "redline" those who are poor and in fact encourage the practice of allowing any Tom, Dick and Harry to take loans regardless of their financial status.

The point I want to make is that just because Scripture do tell us to be charitable to the poor does not give any pastor a right to propose solutions (which seems almost always to look and sound like Liberal social justice solutions), besides general teaching. Pastors are not economists, and even economists and politicians are not monolithic on the solutions that should be implemented to help the poor. It is one thing to say that believers should be compassionate and helpful towards the poor, it is another to tell them what policies they should do to help the poor. As it is, why should people accept Keller's solutions as actually helping the poor? Upon what basis should a pastor who is clearly not an economist pontificate about the proper way of dealing with sociatal problems? Furthermore, in hindsight, do we honestly think that allowing anyone to take a loan from any bank for any reason is actually a good idea for all?

Keller's book therefore fails to prove its points. The only thing worth salvaging is that Christians ought to be concerned about the plight of the poor, and I don't need his book to tell me that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Reblogged at EZC.