The Bible and the Principle of Moral Proximity
Religion & Liberty Online

The Bible and the Principle of Moral Proximity

helping-hand-610gr“The Bible does say a lot of justice and the poor,” notes Kevin DeYoung, “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.”

An example is a concept that DeYoung says can be derived from the Bible, the principle of moral proximity:

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.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).