I’m starting a blog series today and I don’t know how long it will go or how often I will do it. But I do know what it will be about. I want to take a look at what the Bible says about social justice and the poor. I imagine that this series will last a couple months, with probably a post a week on the subject. My reasons for exploring this topic are:

1. I want to learn. I’d like to take some time looking at the major texts that talk about the poor and social justice and see what they say. I’m sure I need to be convicted and corrected (and you may too). A blog provides a good medium for serial exploration.

2. I think there are some exegetical mistakes, overstatements, and sloppy thinking being promoted in an effort to arouse our passions for social justice and the poor. Perhaps a careful, slow look at a number of different passages can help put our concern for the poor on more solid footing.

3. When we see poor exegesis in a lot of Christian thinking about the poor and social justice some of us can tend to write the whole thing off as misguided do-goodism or liberal social gospel. This is a mistake. The Bible does say a lot of justice and the poor, but if we are to be convicted and motivated by truth, we must pay more careful attention to what the Bible actually does and does not say.

I have no real outline for these posts and I’m not sure of all my conclusions, so I’m just going to move through different themes and texts as they grab my attention. Today I want to start by looking at the concept of moral proximity.

Moral Proximity = Moral Obligation

The principle is pretty straightforward, but it is often overlooked: the closer the moral proximity of the poor the greater the moral obligation to help. Moral proximity does not refer to geography, though that can be part of the equation. Moral proximity refers to how connected we are to someone by virtue of familiarity, kinship, space or time. Therefore, in terms of moral proximity I am closer to my brothers and sisters at University Baptist just down the road from us in East Lansing than I am to First Baptist in Tuscaloosa (I’m assuming there’s a First Baptist there). But physical distance is not the only consideration. In terms of moral proximity, I am closer to my brother-in-law who lives in Australia than to a stranger I haven’t met who lives on the other side of Lansing.

You can see where this is going. The closer the moral proximity the greater the moral obligation. That is, if a church in Alabama gets struck by lightning and burns down (don’t worry Tuscaloosa, I’m not a prophet), our church could help them out, but the obligation is much less than if a church half a mile from ours goes up in smoke. Likewise, if a man in Lansing loses his job I could send him a check, but if my brother-in-law on the other side of the world is out of work I have more of an obligation to help. This doesn’t mean I can be totally uncaring to everyone but my friends, close relatives, and people next door, but it means that what I ought to do in one situation is what I simply could do in another.

I believe the principle of moral proximity can be found in the Bible. In the Old Testament for example, as many scholars have pointed out, the greatest responsibility was to one’s own family, then to the tribe, then to fellow Israelites, and finally to other nations. From jubilee laws to kinsmen redeemers, the ideal was for the family to help out first. They had the greatest obligation to help. After all, as Paul says, if you don’t provide for your family (and you can) you are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). If family isn’t a possibility, the circle expanded. Those closest to the person or situation should respond before outside persons or organization do. Their moral obligation to do so is stronger.

A Tale of Two Texts

Consider two texts from the New Testament.

1 John 3:16-18 “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

This is a powerful challenge. I’ve preached from this text before and referenced it in sermons many times. We need to take this warning seriously. If we close our hear to our brother in need, God’s love does not abide in us and we are not born again. We must help our brother in need. That is the Christian thing to do.

But then in 2 Corinthians where he encourages the church there to excel in the grace of giving, Paul makes clear:

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love is genuine…So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promises, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction…Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (8:8; 9:5, 7; emphasis mine).

Clearly, Paul wants the Corinthians to be generous. He wants them to support the famine-stricken church in Jerusalem like the Macedonians have. But he lays no “ought” on them. 1 John 3 sure sounds like an ought, but not 2 Corinthians 8-9. The difference is moral proximity. I think the best way to understand 1 John 3 is as a reference to fellow Christians in their midst who are destitute and need relief, not just to any brother anywhere. So if a family in your church loses everything in a flood, and insurance won’t replace most of it, you have an obligation to do something. If you let them starve or live out on the street you do not have the love of God in you. But if the same thing happens to a whole bunch of families in a church three states over, it would be generous of you to help, but the obligation is not the same. This is the difference between 1 John 3 and 2 Corinthians 8-9.

The reason the rich man was so despicable in Luke 16 is the same reason the priest and the Levite in Luke 10 are such an embarrassment: they had a need right in front of them, with the power to help, and they did nothing.

Helpful Even With Planes and Internet

Obviously, this principle of moral proximity gets tricky very quickly. With modern communication and travel we have millions of needs right in front of us. So are we under an obligation to help in every instance? No. The principle gets harder to navigate in our age, but it still is helpful. The intensity of our moral obligations depends on how well we know the people, how connected they are to us, and whether those closer to the situation can and should assist first.

There are no easy answers even with the principle of moral proximity, but without it God’s call to compassion seems like a cruel joke. We can’t possibly respond to everyone who asks for money. We can’t give to every organization helping the poor. As result, many of us give up on every doing anything because the demands are so many. We just put “helping the poor” in the disobedience column and start thinking about football.

We must distinguish between a call to generosity to go above and beyond duty and help those in need, and the call to obligation whereby we must do something or we are sinning. This is where many of the well-meaning “pro-social justice” voices can actually do harm by trying to do get us to do so much good. If we are obligated to help the poor and needy everywhere, then we will feel little obligation to help the poor and needy anywhere. Thus, 1 John 3 is robbed of its power. Supporting AIDS relief in Africa is a wonderful thing to do, but a failure to do so probably does not make a church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa a gospel-less, selfish church. But if that same church did nothing to help their people and their community when the river flooded in 2008, then they do not understand the love of Christ.

In a future post I will talk about the different obligation we have to help those in the household of faith versus the obligation to help all people. But for today I just want us to grasp the simple point that we do not have the same obligation to help everyone everywhere. This principle of moral proximity should not make us more cavalier to the poor, but more caring toward those who count on us most.

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36 thoughts on “Social Justice and the Poor (1)”

  1. Chitchat says:

    First, thank you for this. I appreciate the time and effort it takes to process and write this type of analysis.

    Second, a request. I would be very interested to read your thoughts on a) Jesus and his personal identification with the poor (i.e. least of these, my brothers) b) Luke 12 (the "Do Not Worry" section).

    Third, have you read William Cavanaugh's "Being Consumed" or Paul Metzger's "Consuming Jesus"? If so, I would be interested to know whether you think they're on track or not with regard to the current state of evangelicalism.

    Not trying to side-track or derail…thanks again for whatever you decide to write on the subject.

  2. Pete Scribner says:

    Thanks so much for your decision to blog serially on this subject. I am sure it will a be a blessing to many of us and I look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

    There are obviously going to be more needs than we can ever meet, and your principle of moral proximity can be of great assistance in helping us determine which ones we pursue. In addition to mere pragmatixm, the Bible seems to support the principle pretty consistently. I would add to the examples you have mentioned Galatians 6:10 where Paul says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Both the “as we have the opportunity” part and the “especially to those…” strongly support your principle.

    All of this said, I have what I see as a pretty complicated question to answer. With the fact that there are many different spectrums along which we measure moral proximity (believer/non-believer, family member/non-family member, geographic proximity/lack thereof, other various connections, etc.), how does one determine a sort of “overall” moral proximity? Or is it that any one of these items place us in a position of moral proximity?

    It seems that there must be varying degrees of moral proximity (not just a yes/no), and I know it’s not as simple as some formula (“You get 5 points for being a believer, 3 points for being in my community and 2 points for being the sister of one of our church’s members, giving you the requisite 10 points to trigger my assistance…”). Perhaps you could help us with some guidelines or ideas of how you might work through the process of determining moral proximity. Thanks so much and keep up the great work!

  3. Chitchat says:

    Kevin,

    Just stumbled onto your "Exegetical Oops" re: least of these. Let me state up front that I'm politically libertarian. I'm not interested in statist solutions and find, rather than advancing the Kingdom, it makes the church lazy (by seeming to attempt to hand over responsibility to the state).

  4. Josh says:

    Looking forward to further discussion! As it relates to social justice in more general terms, perhaps you might include discussion of NT commands to submit to civil authorities, even in the case of abuse. (I've written a bit on 1 Pet. 2 here if you're so inclined.)

  5. chuckthomas says:

    Kevin, off to a great start on this series. Hope the rest are as thoughtful and HELPFUL as this one has been. Well considered and presented.

  6. Citizen Grim says:

    Looking forward to this! This is a topic where the commentary is dominated by those with secondary motives, so I look forward to your discoveries of what the *Bible* has to say.

    Although I have to be honest, I dislike the term "social justice", as I think it tends to be used in direct contradiction to Lev 19:15 "You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in rightousness you shall judge your neighbor."

    We clearly have a mandate to be concerned with the poor, but I think it's imprecise to confuse the concept of charity and mercy with the concept of justice.

    I also agree with Chitchat above, in that handing over our responsibilities to the state not only makes the church (and individual) lazy, it also deprives us! Charity blesses not only those on the receiving end, but also those doing the service and giving. When we turn over that honorable duty to the state, the inevitable result is that a) the state is glorified rather than God and b) we relinquish the spiritual benefits that we otherwise would have gained (because taxes are mandatory, whereas charity is voluntary).

  7. Bill says:

    Kevin,

    Looks like a good series.

    Are you familiar with Peter Singer's claim that, if we have an obligation to save a child we see drowning, then we have an equal obligation to save a (starving) child across the world?

    I would like your thoughts on "moral priority" and how it affects "moral proximity." That is, do I have a greater obligation to someone in Africa dying of a condition (starvation, easily treated medical condition) I could address through a donation to a Christian reief organization than I have toward a local brother who is homeless?

  8. cfb says:

    Will be reading with great interest – thanks!

  9. Andrew Cowan says:

    Kevin,

    I would like to add my thanks for what looks to be an interesting series of posts. I also like your concept of "moral proximity" in general, but your post did raise one question for me.

    You seem to portray the gift for Jerusalem in 2 Corinthians, your paradigmatic example, as a good thing to do, but less than a moral obligation. Does not Paul, however, treat this gift as more than an unnecessary gratuity? In 2 Corinthians 8:13-15, which follows soon after the passage you have quoted, Paul explains the appropriateness of the Jerusalem gift in terms of "fairness." As an illustration of this principle of "fairness," he quotes Exodus 16:8, which describes how God provided precisely the right amount of manna for the people of Israel in the wilderness. Does this appeal to "fairness" not add some dimension of moral obligation with respect to the Jerusalem gift? If not, what does it mean? It seems that more is going on for Paul than that he simply thinks it would be good for Corinth to send money to Jerusalem. How does Paul's employment of "fairness" in 2 Corinthians fit with your model of "moral proximity?"

  10. Ian McNaught says:

    Looks to be an interesting series. I like the Moral Proximity rule that you discuss, haven't heard it put like that before but it's helpful. One area that it would raise questions for me is how it would link to situations where there is little actual "moral proximity" but that are inextricably linked to our daily choices such as the products we buy and the companies we support. Those who suffer at the hands of unjust companies may not be known to us, but the means by which we can do something about them are very close.

  11. Michael Herrmann says:

    Pete. you wrote:

    "All of this said, I have what I see as a pretty complicated question to answer. With the fact that there are many different spectrums along which we measure moral proximity (believer/non-believer, family member/non-family member, geographic proximity/lack thereof, other various connections, etc.), how does one determine a sort of “overall” moral proximity? Or is it that any one of these items place us in a position of moral proximity?"

    I think that is an important question. I don't know if it's possible to determine an "overall" moral proximity but I hope that this series can help us determine the "ought" in any individual domain (believer/non-believer, family/non-family, etc.)

    Kevin, I really look forward to this series. Thank you brother!

    Michael

  12. Renee' says:

    Great thoughts. While I don't disagree that we have a moral obligation to those in proximity to us, I think it is important that we not try to find a formula as one commenter mentioned, but rather to listen to the Holy Spirit and let the passions that He puts within our hearts be our guide. One believer might have a passion for helping single mom's, another might be passionate about helping AIDS orphans in Africa. When we let the Holy Spirit into the equation, I think the math tends to get a little funky.

  13. Michael Boyd says:

    Kevin,
    How ironic, yes there is a sizable church in downtown Tuscaloosa called First Baptist. I'm sitting in my house around 2 miles from it, and I'm glad your not a prophet! One interesting tidbit, Basil Manly, Sr, a great reformed baptist leader of the past I believe use to be the pastor there and was also the president of the U of Alabama at one point.
    I'm so glad you're starting this series. I've been thinking about this topic and want my thinking to be biblical. I've read and heard some things that I have an inkling may be exegetically lacking, but am unsure. For example, "The Hole In Our Gospel" by World Vision American president Richard Stearns. This book is passionate, and with all he says in it really makes you feel an obligation to the poor in the world. I've mentioned this book after one of your blog articles on the book "When Helping Hurts" and you said you're suppose to read it for a journal article. I cannot wait to read your critique of this book.
    I would love to hear your take on David Platt's sermon from his "Radical" series called "The Gospel Demands Radical Giving" which can be found at this link: http://vimeo.com/5833626. He preached a little of this in his well known sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention pastor's conference back in June. His "Radical" series of sermons made a major impact in his church and beyond. His church is in one of the wealthiest areas of B'ham and I heard that many families down sized and are shunning "the good American life" so they can place more resources in to the advancement of the kingdom by spreading the gospel, adoption, helping the poor at home and abroad, etc. It's a good story. Colin Hansen had a recent interview with Platt in Christianity Today.
    I would also like to see your take on adoption since it is part of social justice. There is much being said in reformed circles on our obligation to the orphans in the world.
    There has been a lot of commnet on "social justice" lately. I'm sure you're aware of the talks and papers from Keller, Carson, Dever and others. I think Keller's and Carson's was especially good. I've seen much more discussion about this in various reformed blogs, so it appears to be becoming a major topic of discussion. I'm glad to see your series to get you take on this.

  14. micey says:

    Thank you for this. This was very helpful for me. I like what you said about trying to help all the poor leading to not helping any. I serve with a church for the homeless. Sometimes I feel like it's all such a drop in the bucket.

  15. Anna says:

    Moral proximity: It's an interesting concept, but it seems to be a stretch to use it to clear our minds of why we choose the things we choose. We can stay within our own political, economic, educational, and racial divides if we hold to 'moral proximity' as our mode of determining who to help.

    Looking at Luke 10: Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

    The idea of moral proximity is entirely thrown out the window with this text. The samaritan was not supposed to helpful. He was under no obligation to help except that he was being faithful.

    The concept of moral proximity makes the question of 'Who is my neighbor" too easy. If we follow it, we are also given every right to buld bigger barns (aka homes), drive bigger SUV's, keep health are to those of us who can afford $1500 a month to see the doctor, AND it keeps the American dream alive.

    While I respect that you're addressing the issue of social justice, it may be better termed "What is the gospel?" or "How do we hear the gospel?"

    Is a life of self-sacrifice our normal mode of operation or is it our mode of operation only when we are cheerful? It seems that Jesus went to the cross without too much of a fight; perhaps our lives are really meant to mirror his life more than the gospel that we like to promote?

  16. trice says:

    Nice beginning – I'll be interested to follow your exploration of the issue

    4 things this made me think of:
    1. That question asked of Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" and his response, as someone said, is the parable of the Good Samaritan… it does seem like something of "he whose needs are before you" and not "he who would be most logical for you personally to help" — relationship and convenience is definitely beside the point
    2. That problem/opportunity everyone's talking about known as globalization — can we really talk about moral proximity as being related primarily to either blood relationship or to physical proximity when each action we take can truly have global implications?
    3. There's a great book by John Stott called Human Rights & Human Wrongs that deals w/issues of social justice and the church's actions in that direction in historical context
    4. I've been following the work of Gary Haugen and the International Justice Mission (actually b/c of a mention at the end of Stott's book now that I think about it), an organization I'm very impressed with, and Haugen has written at least 3 books on the issue of social justice and the church. Stott is definitely more biblically solid, but Haugen has some interesting and inspiring thoughts and a lot to show in the way of practical problems and solutions. Actually this goes back to the proximity question as well. IJM's work is not in western industrialized nations but rather in developing nations. Still, ppl in these nations may yet be suffering the after-effects of colonialization, from which some ppl argue we are still feeling the benefits in developed nations (can this be a different kind of proximity?). Additionally, westerners, possibly even some from our own cities and towns are perpetuating injustices through participation in things as extreme as e.g. child prostitution in Thailand – something they have no access to in the west; here the sufferer is not our proximal neighbor and yet the oppressor (or one/some of the oppressors) may be… how does this change our discussion of moral proximity?

  17. Kat says:

    thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. We are going to continue teaching 2 Timothy 2:22 to our church's youth group, so we have been discussing social justice. Tim Keller has a great sermon on that available for free online.

    God bless you and your ministry. I am looking forward to next posts on this topic.

  18. Hooked by Joy says:

    Just a quick question, and my apologies if you've already addressed this in a post I've never read: What Bible translation do you use primarily when quoting scripture in your blog posts?

  19. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I use the ESV.

    Great questions. I've noted many of them and will try to address them as I move through the series. Thanks.

  20. Barry says:

    I have been intending to take a deep dive on this issue too. I will be reading with great interest!

  21. Ryan says:

    Thanks for these thoughts. I was pointed to your entry in response to a posting on my blog (http://ryansrandomremarks.blogspot.com) on this issue.

    As I read your post, I had similar thoughts as what Anna has commented on the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question "Who is my neighbor?" was about setting boundaries so that one could know when they have met their obligation. I think Jesus' whole point was that the issue was not about setting boundaries but responding to the need.

    Jesus flips the question around from, "Who is 'my' neighbor?" to "Who was the neighbor to the one in need?" The neighbor is the one who shows mercy; assists in this case.

    Two things to think about:

    1. You seem to be addressing this issue from primarily an individual perspective. What about corporate responsibility? Should the global church not be attempting to respond to the needs of the world? Is there moral obligation for the church to “remember the poor” and speaks on behalf of the widow and orphan and others being ill treated.

    2. If moral proximity is a valid principle, how does it relate to those living in the midst of poverty? You have stated, “the closer the moral proximity of the poor the greater the moral obligation to help.” While moral proximity does not relate exclusively to geography, it is a pretty significant factor when living in the midst of the poor. Almost all those one is familiar with, comes in contact with and lives among qualify. To suggest that the church’s global responsibility to the poor lies primarily with those living closest to or those most connected with the poor breaks down when the context is among those who live on less than a dollar or two a day. The local context does not have enough resources to assist itself. This may be the kind of reason that Paul took up a collection for the church in Jerusalem. Should churches with greater financial resources not be compelled to assist in areas where the local churches don’t have the financial resources to assist?

  22. Matt says:

    Give give and give. Just avoid state control of charity at all costs. And the term "social justice" still has a Marxist ring to it.

  23. joshnmarda says:

    Is John writing to set limits on who we love sacrificially?

    Was Paul writing to tell the Corinthian church it would be nice to give to the Jerusalem believers but they shouldn't feel too concerned about it because they lived so far away?

    I understand drawing secondary applications from the text and to a certain extent I can appreciate the principle of moral proximity, but I am wondering about drawing secondary applications from these two particular passages which might seem to some to actually run against the flow of the overall point of the passages themselves.

  24. Jamie A says:

    Kevin, thank you for you thoughts here. This post brought to mind a local ministry called Challenge House (www.challengehouse.org) that I have recently become aquainted with. The purpose of the ministry is to have local "missionaries" move in closer to the people that need ministering to. In other words it is an intentional movement to get closer geographically and relationally even though – or maybe because – it creates a deeper moral obligation. It is wonderful to see the work that the Lord is doing through this ministry and I hope, along with others in my church, to become more involved with it.

    On a side note…thank you, Kevin, for the time you invest in this blog and your other writings. I have recently finished reading "Just Do Something" and "Why We're No Emergent," and have been greatly blessed by both.

  25. ostrakinos says:

    Good post. We have had to examine these very considerations as we responded and continue to respond to the immediate and long-term needs in our local community due to Katrina. Four years later and there are still thousands to help.
    We established Homeland Missions to deal with this great need and named it based on the idea that our own land is a missions/relief place. http://www.SGHM.org

  26. lilian says:

    Hello All,
    Its wonderful to find a forum that embraces dialogue about those who are on the fringes of society.
    let us remember that no amount of exegesis can surpass the revelation of the living bible (it is not a living organism but it is alive:. one man asked Jesus “teacher, who is my neighbour”. and today we re tell the parable of the good samaritan, who were the loathed foreign, idol worshiping race peoples North of Judah.. my point? proximity ought not to be a primary determining factor in eschewing any acts of charity or agape love, rather the compassion for fellow human beings, a calling of love, the greatest commanment, ought to be the concern for all fellow man. Obligations towards family and local communities are a priority but we must never view those with less connections to ourselves as less deserving of our charity. Jesus died for the near and the far alike, both in distance and relation.

  27. John says:

    I have an interest in this topic. I was wondering if you have read the book “The Hole in our Gospel” by Richard Stearns (President of World Vision)? I admire the positive impact this Christian humanitarian organization is having, but I was curious what you make of the arguments he makes in his book. Thanks.

  28. Allysia says:

    Thank you for this blog, I had homework on moral proximity and this really clarified it! :)

  29. Justin says:

    Here’s a quote from Calvin’s Institutes that seems, at least in part, to contradict this: “Now since Christ has shown in the parable of the Samaritan that the term “neighbor” includes even the most remote person we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationship. I do not deny that the more closely a man is linked to us, the more intimate obligation we have to assist him… This does not offend God for his providence, as it were, leads us to it. But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves.”
    Calvin goes on to say,”Whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason not to help him.”

  30. pepscafe says:

    Hello !

    “Good blogue” !
    Je le découvre par l’intermédiaire d’un autre site(celui qui me précède !).
    Intéressante analyse, de nature à faire réfléchir…Etant dans l’associatif moi-même en France, je constate que la plupart semblent trouver souvent “plus facile”(plus valorisant ?)de soutenir ou de s’engager pour des “missions lointaines”, plutôt que de privilégier un “champ de mission” proche de chez soi, dans son quartier, dans sa ville ou dans son pays !

    God bless you et “bon courage pour votre blogue” !

    Fraternellement,

    “Pep’s”

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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