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On Priorities

On Priorities

In the spirit of brotherly disagreement, I'd like to respond to one or two points raised by Joshua in his piece on fear and its relation to our handling of Syrian refugees. If you're interested in a more thorough elucidation of the skeptic's position (and I count myself a skeptic), then I commend to you this post by Kevin DeYoung. In the meantime, a few thoughts.

Josh writes,

Arguments over the word "neighbor" have been foolish. Let us remember that Christ's teaching on "neighbor" came after a man sought to justify himself by limiting who his neighbor was (Luke 10:29). When we attempt to prioritize our neighbors by proximity, race, gender, or religion, we are merely retaining the word without its Biblical meaning. James taught us about the sinfulness of favoritism (Jam 2:1-7).

If my understanding of this is fair, and I believe it is, then it necessarily follows that my family, my friends, and my immediate community have no greater claim on me than a stranger does. This is unhelpful and untrue, for reasons I think I need hardly explain. Is it not self-evident that I bear obligations to my own family which I do not bear to other families? Is my relationship with my friends not qualitatively different from my relationship with, say, the cashier at Wal-Mart? What about my local church body? Should I not be particularly diligent in ministering to those with whom I worship and fellowship on a weekly basis? 

Acknowledging that there are, in fact, special obligations to those near and dear to us does not mean that we adopt an “us against them” mentality. God forbid. It does not mean I'm free to treat my cashier rudely, or that I should only ever consider the needs of my fellow congregants. 

What it does mean is that priorities do exist and should exist in the realm of moral obligation. We can't escape them. A married man is covenantally bound to one woman, not two, let alone all. A father is responsible for nurturing his own children in the fear and admonition of the Lord before he tries to nurture anyone else's. A child should obey his own mother before considering what Johnny's mother has to say on a given subject. 

Paul himself reinforces prioritization in 1 Timothy 5:8: “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.” If, as a husband and father, I were caught distributing money to strangers while my own wife and children were left to fend for themselves, I would expect to be collared and roundly rebuked. For Paul, this sort of scoundrel is lower than an infidel.

Then there's Galatians 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We are called to do good to all men, but we are especially called to do good to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, prioritization. 

Aquinas argues (ST II-II, Q. 26, Art. 6) that “one's obligation to love a person is proportionate to the gravity of the sin one commits in acting against that love. 

Now it is a more grievous sin to act against the love of certain neighbors, than against the love of others. Hence the commandment (Leviticus 20:9), 'He that curseth his father or mother, dying let him die,' which does not apply to those who cursed others than the above. Therefore we ought to love some neighbors more than others.

He goes on to distinguish between beneficence and benevolence:

Love can be unequal in two ways: first on the part of the good we wish our friend. On this respect we love all men equally out of charity: because we wish them all one same generic good, namely everlasting happiness. Secondly love is said to be greater through its action being more intense: and in this way we ought not to love all equally.
Or we may reply that we have unequal love for certain persons in two ways: first, through our loving some and not loving others. As regards beneficence we are bound to observe this inequality, because we cannot do good to all: but as regards benevolence, love ought not to be thus unequal. The other inequality arises from our loving some more than others: and Augustine does not mean to exclude the latter inequality, but the former, as is evident from what he says of love.

Those who wish to comprehend the entirety of Aquinas' argument can read it here.

With regard to James 2, I think its applicability here is a stretch. The order of charity described by Paul and Aquinas has nothing to do with the sin of partiality. Further, I have yet to see anyone argue that our acceptance or rejection of refugees should be determined by the amount of gold they bring with them.

There are people on both sides of this debate whom I respect, and Josh is one of them. This is a good conversation to have. I'm glad people are having it. But regardless of the side you fall on, I trust we can all remember the importance of tending to our own houses first.

On Neighbors, Love & the Magistrate

On Neighbors, Love & the Magistrate

Introducing The Lord's Prayer

Introducing The Lord's Prayer