Matthew Parris wrote in the Spectator last week: “Why is Christianity so unhelpful on the very ethical dilemma that most concerns ordinary people in our everyday lives? Why does Jesus have nothing helpful to say about the ranking of obligations?”
His problem is that Christianity doesn’t help in the practical decisions of who to prioritise care for. Why is it that we consider some things more grievous wrongs than others, why are those closer to us more ‘important’ than those in identical situations who we do not know? He uses the example of someone applying for a job, we might want them to succeed, those who believe in prayer and many who do not, might pray for their success. But that success comes at a cost, for them to get the job almost certainly requires that someone else does not.
When I pray to find a parking space I’m probably interceding against someone else finding that slot.
And yet God cares for everything, appropriately given Parris’ example, Matthew 10.29 says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” Even more fittingly, the verses that immediately follow give possibly one of the few examples of biblical prioritisation.
I physically cannot relieve all of the need in the world. I cannot resolve the problems of every hungry child in London, I cannot house every homeless person I pass on the streets. To suggest that I could, or that I should is ludicrous. Except that’s what the Bible seems to suggest. It seems to say that my neighbour is everyone. My family is not just my mother and father, my sisters and their families.
There are a couple of passages in the gospels when Jesus makes comments about family, and these are often taken as the necessary revocation of familial ties in preference for fidelity to Christ and universal care for everyone. Instead I think it’s saying, look how much you care for your family, what if you could care that much for people you do not know? What if you were their father or mother, what if it was your sister on the streets.
It changes your thinking. And it doesn’t help decide who to care for first, it doesn’t tell you how to prioritise your obligations. But how could it? What sort of guidance is Matthew Parris looking for?
A divine version of the deserving and the undeserving poor? Those who are willing to genuflect before the alter of confessional obedience to receive a hand out? Do we help those who are most vulnerable, or those who have the most to lose? Do we focus on early intervention, correct the steer at an early stage, but let the terminally ill slip off their mortal coil? Or do we tend with care the most egregious of wounds, the hopeless and the dying, the unwanted and the downtrodden, those forgotten by all, those likely to prioritised by no one else. And let more reach that perilous state because we considered them not needy enough.
I do not know. Does charity begin at home, or is that a convenient opt out? Does travelling to Africa to build houses and distribute medicine salve our conscience more than solve the problem?
One thing I do know is that in the towns and cities of Britain it is people of faith, and most frequently Christian faith, who are reaching out to care, who are tackling the horrendous scar of food poverty, who are counselling those in debt, who get started before funding begins and carry on after grants are cut. It’s not just me who’s noticed, and it’s not just in Britain, someone else wrote (£): “I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
There is something about Christianity that makes a difference. It might not present an easy menu of priority items to tick off, but it orients people to something other than themselves. It’s my biggest problem with the new Guide promise, ‘be true to yourself’ is ultimately selfish, it is whatever you want to be most important, it could be altruistic, it could be spiritual, it could be material, but it is that which you consider to be significant for yourself.
Christianity is defined by the other. It places an orientation at the heart of its beliefs towards something other than the self. It does not deny the self, it is not gnostic in its spirituality, but it does focus on surrendering oneself to something else. And it is this that is truly counter cultural, it is this that means the new Guide promise does not catch everyone under its dumbed down philosophy.
For those who believe in God, for those who believe his Son came to earth as man, to know suffering, to feel pain, to carry the weight of all our wrong, we believe the response is to give our live in response. It’s a choice, it’s a choice to respond to the love of God with the pale imitation that we can give. We love because God first loved us.
And we choose who we serve, we choose who are the recipients of that love. We make difficult decisions, we prioritise, we do so imperfectly, we do so in accordance with the selfishness that remains. The Bible isn’t an idiots guide to life, nor a rough guide to charity, less still a DIY kit for goodness. It’s the word that reveals what relationship with God is like, and how that is available to us. It is the word that reveals what love looks like. And we learn to practise that love.
We tend to love those we know more than those we don’t. But we also know that is not enough. If in order to love we need to know, then the first step is to know those who otherwise we would not. To live beside those who struggle, to share in their grief. To put it another way, to become incarnate among them.