(In)Justice in Jesus’s Name (RJS)

In Chapter Four of  The Reason for God Tim Keller broaches a topic I have found a real stumbling block over the years: If the Christian story is true why has the Church been responsible for so much pain and injustice both large and small? We must address the behavior of Christians both individual and corporate. The list here can be legion, from the Crusades to the executions of William Tyndale and Michael Servetus to the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to the “heresy hunting” by some Christian watchdogs today, we chew up our own and spit them out far too often.

Martin Bashir after quoting Christopher Hitchens puts it like this in the Veritas Forum interview at Columbia.

The behavior of so-called Christians, followers of Christ, has been so reprehensible over the centuries that it in and of itself denies the very existence of this God of love you talk about in your book. How do you respond to that?

This isn’t a small problem. In fact Keller admits that this is the greatest argument against the truth of Christianity.

But according to Keller Christianity has self-correction built in. The first thing we should do here is examine the nature of the Christian message. The Christian gospel condemns violence, oppression, injustice and fanaticism – even fanaticism and violence in the name of Christ for the truth of the Gospel.

Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian, but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathic, forgiving, or understanding-as Christ was. … What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel. (p. 57)

and this one:

In Jesus’s and the prophets’ critique, self-righteous religion is always marked by insensitivity to issues of social justice, while the faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and the marginalized. The Swiss theologian John Calvin, in his commentaries on the Hebrew prophets, says that God so identifies with the poor that their cries express divine pain. The Bible teaches that our treatment of them equals our treatment of God. (p. 60)

and finally:

What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating critique of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. The Bible itself has taught us to expect the abuses of religion and it has also told us what to do about them. (p. 62)

So Christianity is not the problem. In fact, Christianity provides a foundation for our sense of justice and compassion and integrity. The Church strays… and corrects itself; a pattern repeated through the centuries. Christians are the problem, however – not because of Christianity, but because they are human. One of the things this means, or should mean, is that every Christian is poring over scripture trying to move to this fuller and deeper grasp of Christianity. Every Christian leader should be aware and wary of this repeating pattern of abuse within the church. We are all responsible individually and corporately for living within the scope of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles.

I wrote a post last summer that gave my answer to How Can You Be a Christian? in the face of the “image problem” caused by the behavior of Christians. The post was directed more to the image problem of the present – but applies to both past and present. My answer there still stands. The teaching of the New Testament leaves us nothing to be ashamed of – except the way that Christians (often self-righteously) fail to live up to it.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:14-17

Against such things there is no complaint.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:13)

But this doesn’t entirely answer the question — After all, if the Christian story is true, then the Church is the ordained, Spirit led, body of Christ, God’s people. Yet at times it seems that little actually changed with the incarnation and resurrection – people are still fallen, and it permeates the church. Why has God allowed his Church to err so profoundly on so many occasions?

What is the role of the Church within this story we find ourselves in?


What answer would you give if asked about the injustice committed in Jesus’ name?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"No one seems to be discussing the fact that we are involved in unjust wars. ..."

The Early Church and Military Service
""...the infallible truth of Scripture is not something self-evident." I agree that the "self-evident" aspect ..."

Bloesch on The Primacy of Scripture ..."
"I'm not surprised.Modern Liberalism elevates the rights of the individual over the group. Evangelicalism does ..."

Is Evangelicalism A Part Of Modernity?
"Does Hindmarsh agree with him?In any case: I'm surprised that anyone would call evangelicalism "the ..."

Is Evangelicalism A Part Of Modernity?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tim

    It’s interesting to see John Calvin brought up as an example of someone who can mine Scripture for self-correcting instruction. Whatever the insights Calvin may have had, they did not transform his personal life nor the lives of many of the followers of his movement away from the wanton violence condemned by Hitchens. John Calvin and his followers are infamous for their persecution of heretics and those antagonistic to their movement. Michael Servetus was one such victim, burnt at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva (though apparently John Calvin recommended beheading – that must be the light of God showing through him).

    Here are some of John Calvin’s thoughts on how to apply the love and light of Christ among humanity:

    “Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory”

    Of course, John Calvin wasn’t an anomaly. Neither was the inquisition. Some of the “brightest lights” of the Church share their company. Thomas Aquinas supported executing heretics. Augustine of Hippo endorsed torturing heretics, once he saw how effective it could be. Looking back on Christianity historically, we do not see some example of a shining city on a hill, some people infused with the light and life of Christ, the discernment of the Holy Spirit, a Kingdom movement of meekness, mercy, peace, love, and good that Jesus envisioned. Rather what runs through and through the history of the Church is just plain humanity – in all its tribalistic and vengeful glory.

    And are we to expect different? Well, we can brush all this away with a wave of the hand, say it’s a fallen world, depraved, none of us can escape from sin and temptation until we get to Heaven and all that. But the problem is there are no shortage of New Testament texts that tell us we should expect different. That we should expect to see “salt and light” amongst the Christians. That the truth of the Gospel message should be demonstrated through the lives of Jesus’ followers. But the Christians over the course of history fail to demonstrate any meaningful difference. No better, no worse than the rest of humanity. There’s no salt and light difference to be seen. Just a lot of humanity, complete with tribalism, small mindedness, vengeance, and pride. Hitchens notes this, and the criticism, I would agree, is pretty devastating.

  • I just recently read an old paper by Andrew Sung Park which addressed this very problem in a way which I found very satisfying. Rather than the usual “they aren’t real Christians explanation”, he seriously wrestles with whether there is something inherent in the teachings of the church which actually causes the problem. His answer was that it was the church’s tendency to focus on the sinner rather than on the oppressed as well as the offer of cheap grace over broken hearted repentence which lead the Christian church to so often be the oppressor. IOW, in the Western church at least, the needs and forgiveness of the oppressor are emphasized over the needs and healing of the oppressed. Which makes it much easier to be the oppressor and while basically telling to oppressed to suck it up and forgive. I found his argument persuasive and his critique of the theology involved quite persurasive. You can read the paper here:
    (that link will open a pdf file, but it’s clean.)

  • Norman


    As Tim pointed out it’s strange that Keller would invoke John Calvin as a paragon of sensitivity considering his intolerance that lead to his acquiescence in Servetus death.

    If there is one thread that Jesus invoked in His standards to His faithful followers was not to be a “murderer”, even within the heart. In fact murdering lead to excommunication or denial of entrance into the Kingdom of Christ.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The more I see these arguments and their associated selective readings (on both sides) the more it confirms that the primary question is “Do we worship power or love?” If God is essentially power, that suits some folk very well. If God is essentially love, that seems most reasonable to others. But the real question is, what is the Holy Spirit saying about these two positions? In our hands and minds, at least, these positions are incompatible. We can give historical examples of both approaches until we are hoarse. Seems clear to me which one is correct – but I too am capable of inventing a god.

  • MatthewS

    The notion that Christianity has built-in correctives is just huge. Keller also points out that some of the sharpest criticisms of religion come right from the words of Jesus. Any individual group may exhibit a gaping lack of correctives (a natural temptation for groups in general to succumb to group-think) but a fair read of the NT can bring sharp criticism to the problems, thus, a corrective from within Christianity’s own teachings.

  • I do think it’s important to point out that people who talk about the failures of the church, exclusive of the beneficial things Christianity has contributed to the world (both on the level of societal institutions & philosophies as well as on the level of, say, individual charitable action), are (perhaps unintentionally) painting an incomplete and potentially misleading picture.

    Yes, the church has much to lament; there are many contexts in which it’s important to do that and not attempt to soften that blow. But in the context of a free exchange of ideas in which Christianity’s being sort of theoretically backed into a corner it’s historically and philosophically irresponsible to miss the full picture of what Christianity (on various levels) has contributed to the world.

  • Tim

    Rory @ 6,

    I think it’s only fair, of course, to paint the Church in a comprehensive light. The good and the bad. But what portrait results from such a broad and balanced consideration? A portrait that compares favorably to other religions (e.g., Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, etc.)? To humanism? To the rest of humanity? There is good and bad all around. There are your Stalins, there are your caste systems, there are your crusades and inquisitions. There is also charity everywhere to be found, and mercy, and gentleness and goodness. Across many religions, and those inspired by more secular ideals. But does the portrait of the Christianity, as practiced and lived over the past two thousand years by its followers, the good along with the bad, separate itself out as significantly more moral, or enlightened, or kind or loving in any way against the greater backdrop of the world? I would say no, it does not. And given the teachings and expectations found in the New Testament, we should expect the reverse. We should expect to find a, while imperfect corporate Christian body, one that nonetheless shines as a light to this world. But the light it does shine (and there certainly is some), tends not to shine any brighter, all things considered, than the lights of so many non-Christian communities. And I think that is a real problem. And something that should be addressed if one is to recommend their faith to others.

  • Dana Ames

    RJS wrote:
    “One of the things this means, or should mean, is that every Christian is poring over scripture trying to move to this fuller and deeper grasp of Christianity.”

    Poring over scripture is not a bad thing – and that by itself does not transform a human being. The process of transformation is not something that is understood well; only its results are seen, sometimes, and probably most of the time are hidden from the rest of the world. I think real transformation happens primarily as a result of encounter with the actual Person of Jesus Christ, which can happen in many ways. Reading scripture can help put us in a “place” where we can encounter Jesus, but we can also read scripture and have it not make any difference at all.

    To answer a question about injustice committed in Jesus’ name, I would first of all admit it. What else is there to do and remain honest? If course if one is keeping score of incidences of moral acts, Christians as a whole or as individuals may or may not “keep up” with anyone else or any other group. If Christians think humanity’s basic problem is simply lack of morality, and Christians aren’t doing such a great job of being moral, this can be a source of great sadness and frustration, especially for serious Christians.

    I don’t agree with much of Keller’s theology, but whereas I would tend to get defensive in such a conversation, he does relate respectfully to people, and I agree with him that there is self-correction inherent in Christian teaching. I also think that in concentrating on the power and sovereignty and the will of God, people can end up gravitating toward worshiping power and a god of power, as Bev noted above.

    However, an emphasis not on God’s power but rather on God’s humility and what that means resists acting out of power and reinforces acting out of love. There are many, many public examples of Christians who have so acted. I believe the understanding of God not as a moral scorekeeper but as constantly seeking our healing and restoration to life and the fullness of our humanity makes a difference. The latter is good news; the former is not.

    Also, our notions of what is just and unjust have been formed by 2000 years of Christian life and teaching. There are many things that are considered wrong today, by religious and non-religious folk alike, that wouldn’t have caused people to bat an eye in other times and cultures, and that’s due to the influence of Christianity.

    I think that, cast in these particular categories, it’s a very difficult discussion.


  • RJS


    Also, our notions of what is just and unjust have been formed by 2000 years of Christian life and teaching. There are many things that are considered wrong today, by religious and non-religious folk alike, that wouldn’t have caused people to bat an eye in other times and cultures, and that’s due to the influence of Christianity

    Keller devotes a large part of the chapter to just this kid of argument. I couldn’t do justice to the whole thing in one short blog post.

    Poring over scripture alone doesn’t transform, and that isn’t really what I was trying to get at. I meant that we can’t simple rely on the “hierarchy” to get it right (they often haven’t), rather we must all be active in pursuing God’s truth and testing the teachings against scripture.

  • Tim

    RJS @ 8,

    “our notions of what is just and unjust have been formed by 2000 years of Christian life and teaching”

    I would disagree with that in part. Much of what we think of as just and unjust today, while certainly having a Judeo-Christian component, owes much to humanistic philosophies of the enlightenment and since. Many see Christianity responding to modern cultural advances, softening certain practices we now judge immoral and reprehensible, rather than itself spearheading such change.

  • Tim

    …sorry, should have been addressed to Dana @ 8

  • Hi Tim — I don’t think you are right. Brian Tierney’s work (See his The Idea of Natural Rights) shows that the idea of human rights and natural rights didn’t come from the Enlightenment but earlier, from Christianity and it’s idea of the imago Dei. Nicholas Wolterstorff (see his Justice: Rights and Wrongs) points out that secular authorities in the West are having a hard time justifying and grounding human rights now that they have abandoned Christian views of the image of God. Finally, Luc Ferry (A Brief History of Thought), though an atheist, observes that the very Christian idea that the universe was created by a divine person who became human, not by an impersonal force, created a context without which the contemporary emphasis on the importance and dignity of human beings and of love could not have developed. Even the idea of reaching out to and forgiving your enemies, Ferry says, was not part of human culture anywhere until Christianity came along. So Tim, I think you are giving Christianity way too little credit for your own sensibilities and convictions.

  • Chris

    Tough to toss stones at Calvin for what one perceives as his transformational shortcomings when David was called a man after God’s own heart, and I’m no Calvinist.

    I also don’t see how it’s a weak argument to point out that the deplorable behaviors we see Christians engaging in are just that, and that the very essence of Jesus’ teachings IS salt in practice since it is so rare.

    I appreciate Tim Keller’s interaction in the comments of this blog as well as his ministry and this blog’s excellent range. Keep up the good work.