More Social Justice Thoughts (who should we help?)

There is no doubt that the idea of caring for the poor, needy, and oppressed is biblical. However, how do we do social justice in a way which is not just guilt-laden and heavy-handed? The problem is that every day we are confronted by a world racked by sin and decay – a world that groans for liberation (Romans 8:22). And even Jesus himself stated that in comparison to his physical presence, we will always have the poor amongst us (Matthew 26:11;John 12:8). We feel the burden of caring for all those people in need and at the same time until Jesus returns, the work of social justice will never be completed. So how do we decide what how we should adequately direct our limited resources to the task of social justice?

The idea of propinquity can help make godly decisions in this situation.[1] The word, propinquity, just means nearness. For example, I have a higher propinquity to the people working in my office than other people who work in another suburb – in terms of physical nearness. However, propinquity is not just physical, it can also be relational. For example, I have a higher propinquity to my niece in the U.S. than I do to the sales assistant I am buying groceries from at my local shops in Sydney, Australia – in terms of relational nearness even though I am not physically near my niece. I wonder if this idea of propinquity helps shed light on how we might decide where we spend our limited time and energy and other resources for social justice.

Interestingly, the idea of propinquity for Christian action is key to many of the “social justice” passages we find in the NT.[2]

  1. Galatians 6:10 – we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.  There is a priority of obligation to those in the church.
  2. 1 Timothy 5:8 – if a Christian doesn’t look after their family then you haven’t got much claim on being Christian.  The highest priority goes to our immediate family.
  3. 1 John3:16-17; 4:7-11 – If God’s love resides in you then you will love one another. The “one another” aspect is what I want to draw to here.  The idea is not everyone but those who have a higher propinquity.
  4. 2 Cor 8:1-15 – Gracious generosity is key.  And this generosity comes as a voluntary act of sharing resources with Christians who don’t have enough – ie they had a high relational nearness.

Moreover, I think you’ll find that even the OT “social justice” passages also have the idea of propinquity embedded in it.

  1. Jeremiah 22 – The king called to administer justice to the people of Israel.
  2. Isaiah 58 – the people of Israel are called to be just and fair to one another instead of just participating in meaningless rituals.
  3. Micah 6:8 – in it’s original context, the command to “do justice” is primarily to do with the people of Israel acting justly within the land.

For the biblical thrust is not so much always give everything to every person in need. It is wrong to believe that “God’s people always had a responsibility to see that everyone in society was cared for at a basic level.”[3] From the Bible, it would be very difficult to say that God’s people were responsible for the material needs of everyone in every place.  Instead, there is a priority that seems to be driven by propinquity – a priority of obligation for those most near, both physically and/or relationally.

What does this mean for me and my church? I think there a couple of things we could draw from this:

  1. We are morally obligated to those with the highest propinquity (ie those most near to us). Remembering that propinquity can mean physical and/or relational nearness.  This would mean that we are obligated to care for those not only in our nuclear family, our church family and those who are physically near us.  Moral obligation to those of high propinquity could also mean we should care for those we are relationally near to yet not physically near – eg a partner church in another country.  However, it means we have less obligation to those who have low propinquity.  Say for example, with the recent “Make Joseph Kony Famous”, although it seems like a good cause and it seems compelling, it would be a lesser priority than those with a higher propinquity.
  2. We ought to be concerned for those not near us remembering that God is still sovereign.  Even if some social justice issues may have a low propinquity to us, we should still be concerned for the needs of those suffering.  After all, since God is still sovereign we can definitely pray for those who we may not be able to help at this time.  Moreover, even if something has a lower propinquity, you can still choose to help – the God of grace taught us grace and shows us grace in Jesus so we can also show grace to others.
  3. Grace and love are always better motivators than guilt and shame. I can’t stress this enough!  If love and grace were not driving our response to the needs of the world then our motivations for social justice inevitably come from guilt and shame – which quickly become overburdening. Moreover, if we want to see the Christian church do more for the poor and oppressed then it is much more empowering and biblical to use love and grace as our motivating principle than guilt.
  4. Discipline and discernment is required in social justice or we succumb to the “tyranny of the urgent”. We have limited time, energy, and other resources so we actually do need to prioritize what we do with them. The idea of propinquity can help us here.  Moreover, “if we do not keep people’s eternal plight in mind, then immediate needs will force their way to the top of our agenda, and we will betray the gospel and the people we profess to love.  The most loving thing we can do for the poor is to proclaim the good news of eternal salvation through Christ.” [4]

End notes:

[1] The idea of propinquity is an adaptation of the moral proximity principle recently articulated by Kevin deYoung and Greg Gilbert – in What is the mission of the church? and on Kevin’s blog.

[2] When I mean “social justice passage(s)”, I am referring to the passages Christians most commonly refer to when speaking about Social Justice.

[3] Stearns, The Whole in our Gospel, 123.

[4] Chester and Timmis, Total Church, 78.

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