Imagine (horrible as it sounds) a fire breaking out in a church kids club that your children are in. You rush into the building. Who are you desperate to get out of the building? Who is it that you’re looking for? Your kids, right?
Through this illustration Kevin DeYoung raises the issue of moral proximity when it comes to our obligations as Christians to helping others.
In conversation with Matt Chandler, Trevin Wax and Jonathan Leeman during TFTG’11 DeYoung uses it to inform a discuss the issues that surround social justice and church mission.
What was most helpful for me was DeYoung’s recognition that whilst the whole world might be my neighbour I am not under exactly the same obligation to the 6 billion and more people on the planet.
In fact unless and until we recognise that Scripture does differentiate on the matter we will find ourselves under an ‘impossible burden that will beat us up’ and a sense of obligation that no-one lives up to.
According to DeYoung Moral proximity describes ‘the different moral obligation we have on us in different situations’.
Why does this matter? Well quite simply if Jesus tells us that the whole world is my neighbour and I am under an obligation to love my neighbour, indiscriminately, then what does it mean to fulfil this command? How is it possible, to love every man, woman and child equally?
What would it mean for my personal priorities and our corporate church programmes?
DeYoung argues that the notion of moral proximity is not an excuse to avoid responsibility but is clearly demonstrated in the New Testament and life of the early church. Whilst the whole world may be my neighbour I have particular responsibilities to some by virtue of their relationship to me ie their proximity to me and me to them.
Where in the Bible do we find moral proximity?
He touches on a number of examples in the Scripture (and I’ve added a few others!)
We have a particular obligation to our biological family – so much so that to fail to provide for family is to behave worse than an unbeliever and also to place an inappropriate burden on the church. c.f 1 Timothy 5:3-4, 16.
We have an obligation to our local church family – so 1 John 3:11 the call to love one another is best understood in the context of the local church.
We have an obligation to our wider church family – so Jesus in Matthew 25: 34-40. Paul, in Galatians 6v.10 differentiates a particular obligation to the people of God when he says ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’
The collection of money for the church in Jerusalem, 2 Cor. 8&9 would be a further example.
Does that mean that these statements negate the teachings of Jesus that the whole world is my neighbour and that I therefore cannot put limits on my love? Not at all.
But even Jesus’ parable suggests something more. Snodgrass in Stories with Intent writes
One cannot define one’s neighbour; one can only be a neighbour. We cannot say in advance who the neighbor is; rather nearness and need define ‘neighbor’.
I guess what that means is that as individuals and churches we are willing to respond to all in need but geographical nearness and urgency of need suggest a greater obligation.
Geographical nearness may mean choosing some social justice project in our community to join with or establish.
Urgency of need may mean collecting money to meet for example a famine in east Africa.
Snodgrass also cites Kierkegaard
‘To love one’s neighbour means, while remaining within the earthly distinctions allotted to one, essentially to will to exist equally for every human being without exception.’
To my mind every human being without exception but not every human being without distinction serves as a helpful summary.
A few take home points for me;
1. No-one lives as if they owe the same obligation to every member of the human race. DeYoung’s argument helps liberate us from a sense of guilt or hypocrisy.
2. The Bible gives us a framework for assessing who we owe what to. It would seem to me that we are to be proactive in seeking to provide for our biological family and the local church and that we are to reactively respond to need as we discover it in the wider world on the basis of nearness and need paying particular attention to the needs of believers.
3. We need to identify some social justice projects that we think it wisest to support. Not because we dismiss all others but because of our limitations and that moral proximity will help us decide.
4. We need to watch our hearts that are quick to avoid the awesome obligations that Jesus puts us under. Am I really ready to be a neighbour to even my enemy?
Why not follow the whole conversation or listen in to Kevin’s answer at the 40 minute mark.
DeYoung’s book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission addressing these issues will be available (in the US) from September.
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