Moral proximity and the cry of the global poor

“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor

will also cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13

This is a distressing verse in the age of globalization. In this age we are all aware, not only of those who are poor within our families or neighborhoods, but of the countless who suffer in poverty all around the world. Furthermore, we are all within technical reach of many of those in poverty and most of us have the means with which to provide for them out of a first-world abundance. I know someone who sponsors one of those poor children through Compassion International. This is all well and good, but this person also has the means to sponsor two, three, or even ten more children, assuming they were willing to sacrifice their standard of living or cut back on retirement savings. Does this person have a moral obligation to do this? They know the need (“hear the cry”), have the financial means, and have the technological capability, to do it. What justification could be provided for not doing more? And, at what point would such an obligation stop? Would it continue so long as one person has abundance and another has need? In other words, as long as there is someone in poverty, is abundance morally inexcusable?

These are exactly the sort of questions which John Schneider addresses in his book The Good of Affluence (and are much broader than I will attempt to address in this short post).

One way to answer this is to consider the principle of “moral proximity.” This principle, according to Schneider, “states simply that our moral obligations in economic life are greater or lesser in proportion to their moral proximity to us.” This is similar, says Schneider, to the Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity “which means that social problems ought to be handled first by the people and agencies nearest in location to them rather than by remote ones.”

What does this “moral proximity” look like? In ancient Israel it meant Israelites had primary duties first to their own families and then tribes and then to their religious community as Jews. They had no material moral obligation to those outside of Israel but, in keeping the laws of Israel (which included instructions for caring for the poor) were to serve as “a light to the nations.”

The same basic principle seems to be evident in the New Testament. Here believers again have a primary obligation to care for their families. Then they have obligations within the family of believers. And then they have obligations within the broader fabric of society.

So how does this apply to the global poor? Schneider agrees that wealthy Christians do have an obligation, “but not obligations of the ultimate sort that influential writers judge they do.” What exactly this looks like Schneider addresses later in the book (which I haven’t gotten to yet) but at least this obligation is of a different sort than that which we have to people within our direct obligations (i.e., family) or close obligations (i.e., our local congregations or close friends).

Still, I think it is in keeping with this tone of Proverbs 21:13 that those with means who “hear the cry of the poor” at least feel a certain sort of moral weight. Schneider later states, in commenting on Amos, that “we cannot be righteous unless we have a proper sense of grief” (and thus action) about the material suffering that is going on around us. It would be a tragedy if we used a principle like moral proximity as a way to “shut our ears” or to justify our own selfish hearts. Still, this principle is helpful for me to understand my obligations, and why some are primary and some secondary.

Book Recommendation:

The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth

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2 thoughts on “Moral proximity and the cry of the global poor

  1. Arie Uittenbogaard

    I think it’s also important to make a distinction between aid provided out of a sense of obligation and out of genuine compassion. The old lady and her two copper coins comes to mind…

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