Who is my neighbour?

Today’s departmental research seminar on loosely on the future of political theology, and more specifically on reapplying Augustinian thinking to what the visitor saw as the present world situation. I always find such seminars an unsual experience, because the presuppositions everyone else there is working on are ultimately feel so alien. Indeed as I have come to realise since my first year as an undergrad, the things I know through the restored Gospel come with some very different presuppositions than modern western culture or general Christendom, and lead to a very different place. I sometimes feel it very difficult to interact with arguments built on very different foundations.

However, there were some specific claims made in today’s seminar that caused some quick reflection. I certainly question the optimistic depiction of the present world situation, as I do Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. While it’s true that the material situation of much of the world has improved over the last century, I believe there’s a big “if” around “if present trends continue”. I also severely doubt claims that human beings have become less violent over the last five centuries – I wonder how such claims are assessed, and the history of the twentieth century should be a sober reminder of what human beings are capable of.

However, I think there are even bigger question about the claim that there has been some kind of “moral revolution”; that modern people (presumably meaning the West, but there was no discussion about location) being more concerned with universal moral problems worldwide, such as poverty, disaster relief and so on. This appeared to be little disputed by some of the academic staff present, with the idea that concern for (generally perceived in terms of donating to charities) people far away may have an affect on nearby relations too.

I doubt all this. For one thing, I look around me, in the many different places I’ve been, and while I’ve met some genuinely good people (and I don’t include myself in that number!), I see little evidence that people generally are more moral now than before. Yet aside from this, it’s particularly this claim to universal moral concern I find dubious. Are people more moral because they’re concerned about people they do not know or cannot see? Possibly, though I feel it is impossible to really love someone without coming to know them, and more importantly I see little evidence this is reflected in better treatment of the people we do see, in the way we treat our families, our neighbours, those people who need service and are right before our eyes. Does giving money to a charity to people whose identities – because we do not know them – are little more than a fictional construction in our head compensate for lack of service, apathy or even hatred of those people we interact with every day? To draw upon John, if we do not love not our brother who we can see, how can we love our brother whom we have not seen?

Charity, meaning the pure love of Christ, is not a strength of mine, and its one I’m working on. I also don’t think that concern for the general welfare of humanity is a bad thing. Yet it strikes me as a very effective deflection if such a generalised concern for people as an abstract distracts us from actually developing charity for the very real individuals in front of us.

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