Keller’s central message, based on Matthew 5:13, was that Christians have been, and are still called to be, salt to the culture in which they find themselves.
He pointed back to the original inhabitants of the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons, who only knew a culture built on honour and fear—and who couldn’t fathom society functioning otherwise. Nevertheless, they were won over by evangelising monks who showed them an others-centred ethic that still seasons UK public discourse today.
He pointed back to the abolition of slavery. Long before William Wilberforce, the seeds for the abolition movement were found on the lips of an early church father. Back in the 4th century, Gregory of Nyssa asked,
“Who can buy a man, who can sell him, when he is made in the likeness of God?”
Keller pointed back to the sexual ethics of ancient Rome. There, marriage was practiced, but men were favoured. Once married, men could require sex from anyone they liked. Women, on the other hand, were expected to provide it to anyone who solicited. This only shifted once Christians insisted that all sex should be consensual and covenantal.
He pointed back to the origins of the human rights movement. Keller referred to Brian Tierney of Cornell University, who insists that the idea of human rights—that every human has equal dignity and worth—didn’t come up out of the Enlightenment: it came up in the Middle Ages, and it came from Christian roots.
Keller pointed back to the civil rights movement in his own nation of America. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr, who said,
“There are no gradations on the image of God. Every human being, from a treble white to a base black is significant on God’s keyboard precisely because every human being is made in the image of God. This is why we must fight segregation with all of our non-violent might.”
And then Tim Keller pointed forward.
He explained that the UK still has a lot to benefit from Christians. In the past, Christianity acted as salt by flavouring society. In the future, however, it will be salt by preventing decay.
Keller illustrated this with a grim truth we dare not ignore.
We westerners are morally torn in two. On the one hand, we aspire to the highest moral ideals in history: we believe that every individual and every class deserves justice and care. On the other hand, we claim that all morals are relative.
There’s a glaring disconnect. We no longer have a moral foundation for our lofty ideals. As a result, when we encounter someone with different morals to us, all we can do is shout. We’re seeing this played out now on social media especially — and also in riots and rallies on our streets.
We in the West have to make a choice. Either all morals are relative, and we can go on shouting. Or we can go on extending universal benevolence to the poor and hungry, no matter where they are.
And the only moral foundation for the latter is Christianity. Keller quoted philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who has said,
“The ideals of freedom… of conscience, human rights, and democracy is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”
And as only Tim Keller can do, he went full Gospel-mode as he concluded:
“In myself I’m unworthy. But in Christ I am absolutely loved, perfectly, infallibly, without condemnation… That’s what turns you into a person who can be salt… That’s where the others-oriented ethic comes from. That’s where the infinite value of the human soul comes from.”
This is the message that the leaders of the free world need to hear. It’s a message that the whole world needs to hear.
Today, Christians who simply echo the ‘social justice’ mantras of the world have fading relevance. They sound just like those they copy, but in the eyes of the world, they’re laden down with unwanted Christian baggage.
There’s a better way, as Tim Keller shows us. As we extend justice to the world, what we need to do is also explain that the Christianity increasingly loathed by our culture is the Christianity that gave our culture the values we so love.
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