Whom Should You Help?

Augustine of Hippo ponders the dilemma of “doing good to all men” with limited resources:

All people should be loved equally. But you cannot do good to all people equally, so you should take particular thought for those who by the chance of place or time or anything else are, as if by lot, in particularly close contact with you. Suppose that you had plenty of something which had to be given to someone in need of it but could not be given to two people, and you met two people, neither of whom had a greater need or a closer relationship to you than the other: you could do nothing more just than to choose by lot the person to whom you should give what could not be given to both. Analogously, since you cannot take thought for all men, you must settle by lot in favour of the one who happens to be more closely associated with you in temporal matters. (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.61-62, CSEL)

Is Augustine’s answer satisfactory? In its favor, it demonstrates an organic approach to giving. The Latin word proximus is an adjective meaning “near,” but it can also be used as a noun meaning “neighbor.” Augustine is saying that it makes sense to concern yourself primarily with the well-being of those around you, with whom you already have a connection. The New Testament seems to verify this approach: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Even more pointedly, “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).

In this advice, there is a respect for providence. God places each of us in a family, a society, a physical location for some reason. Wherever we are, our responsibility is to look out for those near us, our neighbors. If each Christian would tend his own parish, as it were, mercy and evangelism would kiss. Christians, having in interest in and a reputation for compassion in their communities, would naturally proclaim the gospel.

On the other hand, there is a significant objection to this advice. Many Christians live insular lives. My church, perhaps like yours, is predominantly white and middle-class, with a healthy sprinkling of well-to-do professionals. Undoubtedly, there are genuine needs in our midst, and my family has been blessed to be on both the giving and receiving ends of church compassion. However, the neediest people in my city don’t go to my church, and they may not go to any. They may not have many, or any, Christian friends. They may have few ties to the community. They may not speak English.

Humans tend to build their lives so that those nearest to them do not need their help. Networking teaches us to seek out those higher on the social ladder, so that we can ride their coattails to the top. In Israel, the Wall keeps Jews from having to see their Palestinian neighbors. Out of sight, out of mind. In America, we don’t have literal walls, but institutions and established patterns of living serve just as effectively. It is possible, perhaps even easy, to build a life in which poverty is an occasional flicker on the periphery, even if it surrounds you in reality.

Augustine’s advice, then, is not bad, but it’s often abused. We should do good to those near us, our neighbors. But it will not do to position ourselves so that our neighbors are safe, pleasant people who would never need our help. If we do so, we will blind ourselves to the needs around us and convince ourselves that we truly are caring people because we perform an occasional act of kindness.  We may even end up stammering like those confounded by their Lord’s rebuke, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” (Matthew 25:44).

Our faith is founded on the conviction that Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). He did restrict his kindness to those who were like him or near him, but “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). By his Spirit, he has poured love into our hearts, so that we don’t need the Wall, and we can call all people our neighbors.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

Published in: on January 24, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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