This isn’t a question many of us ask as we go about our days, but when it comes to responding to the needs of this world it could be a very important one. Richard Lundie explains.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed HIV+. She was working her hands to the bone to earn enough to prove that she could take care of her children who had been placed in a foster home. As her friend I wanted to do everything I could to help her, but her situation also made me ask myself, “If I help her, shouldn’t I also be doing something to help the millions of other South Africans with stories similar to hers? Why should my compassion stop with her?”
The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 demonstrates that our neighbour is anyone in need. Anyone. In a world that is so fill of need how do we show love to all our neighbours?
Helping a friend or family member is one thing, but what about the needs of the millions of other people in this city, this country, this continent?
It’s easy to become overwhelmed when the needs are so broad, so deep and so big! But should we treat each situation equally? With limited time and resources, where should we be focusing our efforts?
How can we sift through these immense challenges and point our time, talents and treasures towards a few? We are only human after all. If we tried to respond to every situation we could risk burn out, or we might become so demoralised by our attempts to ‘save the world’ that we’d eventually stop trying to respond at all.
There is a concept called ‘moral proximity’ which I think can be a helpful lens to look through when deciding how or when to respond to an injustice or a need.
Let me explain.
When reading scripture, we see how the early church was called to provide for their families. 1 Timothy 5:8 uses pretty strong language to get this point across saying that not providing for your family members makes you “worse than an unbeliever”. Yikes!
But I think the reason Paul made this bold statement is because our family is the closest to us in terms of our ‘moral proximity’.
Moral proximity states that the closer the person is to you, the more responsibility you have to act and participate in addressing their need. This is not necessarily a geographical proximity, but primarily a relational proximity.
An example is: your sister, who lives in another part of the country or continent, has a particular need. You feel a stronger desire and perhaps obligation to assist her, compared to another person who lives in the same city as you, but whom you barely know. That is moral proximity.
This is why in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul urges, encourages, inspires and blesses those from the church in Macedonia who contribute towards supporting the church in Jerusalem undergoing famine, but at no point does he say that if they don’t give they’ll be “worse than an unbeliever” – the strong warning he gave to the believers in 1 Timothy 5:8.
I believe the reason for his change in tone is because the two churches he’s speaking about in 2 Corinthians were far apart, but connected, so the contribution was an opportunity, rather than an obligation.
The closer the person or the need is to you, the greater the obligation. The further away it is the more responding to their need becomes an opportunity, and less of an obligation.
This is not about drawing a line so we can ‘get away with less’. It’s more about distinguishing between those situations which provide an opportunity for us to be generous and those situations where we are obligated as Christ-followers to sacrificial love. And, here’s the tough part, where not responding is actually sinning.
So what does this mean for us? As we face the wide range of human needs in this world, the first people we should be looking to help are those around us. We should be careful not to clamber over people in need who are in our midst to help others ‘further out’.
Who are the people in your life in need who you could move towards in relationship? Have you perhaps overlooked the person that works with you or for you? Or the congregant in the seat next to you?
While God still wants us to take those opportunities to love our neighbours across cities, oceans and continents, he has mandated us to care for those who are nearest to us in space, kinship, time and geography.
There could be people who are outside of your social circle, but who fall within your moral proximity. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 shows us that we should not limit our love to those in our ‘inner circle’. And moral proximity should definitely not be used as an excuse to only help those who are like us.
Why not prayerfully consider those people who God has placed in your sphere? What are the opportunities that God is offering you to be generous and loving? Who are those closest to you – in your family, your small group and so on – who you could moved towards in compassion and support during a time of need or injustice? What can you do to journey with them?
God wants to use us as his instruments to bring hope and restoration to this world but he can only do this if we’re willing to open our eyes and see the people in our midst who he is calling us to love and serve.
-Richard is the Partners and Initiatives Programme Manager at Common Good. He also serves on the leadership team of Common Ground Church Wynberg, together with his wife, Ruth.
(Author’s note: I’d like to credit the book “What is the Mission of the Church” by Kevin deYoung and Greg Gilbert as a key resource in writing this post)
What are your thoughts on this? How do you decide when and how to respond to those in need? Do you think ‘moral proximity’ could be a helpful lens?