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.