Generosity vs. Moral Obligation – The Gospel and the Poor (Part 5)

the gospel and the poor

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert in their book, What is the Mission of the Church, make a different argument than the one we were left with by David Platt in the last post:

Some Christians make it sound like every poor person in Africa is akin to a man dying on our church’s doorstep, and neglecting starving children in India is like ignoring our own children drowning right in front of us… This rhetoric is manipulative and morally dubious…. We must distinguish between generosity and obligation, between a call to sacrificial love and a call to stop sinning.[1]

DeYoung and Gilbert are arguing for the concept of “moral proximity” to delineate the difference between an obligation to help the poor and generosity that flows from a heart of gratitude.  They are staking the claim that Christians have an ethical debt to relieve poverty as it appears in their moral proximity. So a believer has a greater obligation to alleviate the poverty of his brother-in-law than he does to alleviate the poverty experienced by an unbeliever he has never met ten-thousand miles away. This is the gist of what Paul says when he writes to Timothy, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8, ESV).

The concept of moral proximity is one of concentric circles working from the individuals and families experiencing poverty to a wider and wider community.  Thus the Apostle John writes about the moral obligation a believer has towards another believer, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, ESV).  Likewise the epistle writer James notes that true faith will involve action to benefit those among the congregation who are living in poverty, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16 ESV).

Moral proximity is precisely the point of Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan and the rich man and Lazarus. In each case it was the proximity that created a moral obligation. The rich man had Lazarus at his gate every day in need while he himself dined sumptuously (Luke 16:19-20).  He was not responsible to alleviate every suffering of every beggar on the planet, but he was responsible for Lazarus precisely because Lazarus was at his gate.  Likewise the Good Samaritan did not help every man of a different ethnic origin and culture that had ever been beaten nearly to death by robbers on the Jericho road; he simply helped the one who was in his path that day.

Moral proximity is a good check against hurting those whom economic aid is intended to help. Jay W. Richards in his book, Money, Greed, and God, notes how quickly financial aid intended to relieve poverty can actually cause poverty in the consumer option of purchasing fair trade coffee:

The problem is subtle. Paying artificially high prices for some coffee encourages poor farmers to enter or stay in the coffee market when it’s against their long-term interest to do so. Consider this statement by one fair-trade organization, Global Exchange: ‘Coffee prices have plummeted and are currently around $.60-$.70 per pound. ‘With World Market prices as low as they are right now, we see that a lot of farmers cannot maintain their families and their land anymore’… There’s a reason the market prices have dropped…. When the supply goes up, the price for coffee goes down- not because of injustice, but because of the law of supply and demand…. There’s no law of economics or morality that sets the price of coffee high enough so that every coffee farmer everywhere will always be able to make a decent living growing coffee- anymore than there is a law that everyone will always be able to make a decent living manufacturing tallow candles or buggy whips or eight-track tapes or Winnebagos.[3]

When consumers are uneducated about the effects of purchasing fair-trade coffee, they can be under the assumption they are doing a lot of good to help poor farmer when indeed they are contributing to keep people bound in poverty for generations.  Richards suggests individuals really interested in helping the plight of poor coffee farmers are better off dealing with issues more locally, such as supporting initiatives to reform the South American land laws inhibiting an individual to improve property for fear the land owner will then take it away.[4]

Working to alleviate poverty in developing nations such as India may be similar in nature. One of the largest issues that keep people in poverty in India is the Hindu cast system.[5] American churches can shell out millions of dollars every year to create some sort food provision for slum children, but until they break the back of the Hindu cast system nothing will have ultimately changed. In the coming generations American churches will be supporting the children and grand-children of those they support now.

The question that should always be addressed when it comes to global poverty such as starving children in India is the same question that should be asked in a local context, “why are they poor?”  Generally it is those who are in the closest proximity who will be able to intelligently answer and address the underlying issues of poverty.  Generally it is those who are closest who are morally obligated to alleviate poverty.

Moral proximity does not remove the opportunity to alleviate poverty on a global level; rather moral proximity removes alleviating global poverty out of the category of obligation and places it in the category of generosityDeYoung and Gilbert write, “Moral proximity should not make us more cavalier to the poor. But it should free us from unnecessary guilt and make us more caring toward those who count on us the most.”[6]

It is not as though the American Church should not attempt to alleviate poverty in developing nations such as India. Rather the American church should first look to its own doorstep of moral obligation before appealing to the nations on economic grounds. Each church has an economic responsibility for reaching those in its moral proximity first and foremost before the nations.

[1] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), 185.

[3] Jay Wesley Richards. Money, Greed, and God, (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 41.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Frederica Misturelli and Claire Heffernan. What is poverty? A diachronic exploration of the discourse on poverty from the 1970s to the 2000s. European Journal of Development Research, Dec2008, Vol. 20 Issue 4, 675.

[6] DeYoung and Gilbert, 187.

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One thought on “Generosity vs. Moral Obligation – The Gospel and the Poor (Part 5)

  1. This is a fascinating post. I most confess that while I’ve pondered moral proximity before, I’d yet to come to a conclusion. What you’ve written here makes a lot of sense. If everyone did their research first and found out where they could help the most, the effects would be huge. Thank you so much for bringing to my attention the importance of thinking before I give.


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