Be a Neighbor

Michael Metzger

Neighbor—then neighborhood. This was one of the tenets of the Clapham Sect. It ought to be for generous givers as well. It makes generous giving a whole lot simpler.

The Clapham Sect was a band of English activists living in and around Clapham, England, from the 1790s to the 1830s. They were mostly aristocrats, so their involvement in the abolition cause brought significant social stigma on their heads. The English ruling classes viewed them as radical and dangerous, similar to French revolutionaries of the day.

Clapham was radical. Radical means from the root. Clapham activists recognized the root of the gospel is love, for God is love. As we receive his love, we love God and neighbor (Deut.6:5). Neighbor means near one. Being a neighbor made generous giving simpler, as love is seeking the good of others, beginning with our neighbors.

This is why the Clapham Sect was exceedingly generous—first in their neighborhood, then nation, and then overseas (mostly Africa). Banker Henry Thornton gave as much as six-sevenths of his income until he married, then at least a third of it afterward. With Thornton’s financial help, Hannah More established over 800 schools for underprivileged children. Clapham lived out “freely you have received, freely give.”

That was then—this is now. In 2005, 47 percent of Americans reported that they knew none or just a few of their neighbors by name. There’s been a sharp rise in that number since, according Marc J. Dunkelman, author of The Vanishing Neighbor. He describes society as having three rings of relationships—inner, middle, and outer. Americans invest in inner-ring relationships—family, sports leagues, etc. They invest in outer-ring relationships—Facebook acquaintances, international works, and so on. But investing in middle-ring relationships (PTA, a local church, or local ministries) is vanishing.

We see this in a shift in giving. According to numerous surveys, only about 20 percent of giving goes to local churches and ministries. The other 80 percent goes to “outer-ring” international ministries. This is partly due to international organizations increasing in number over the last 50 years. They’ve also have been quicker to use information technologies. They tout dazzling numbers that make middle-ring ministries look dull by comparison. But this is not a numbers game. Our generosity ought not to be grounded in numbers but in love, beginning with God and then neighbor. This is properly ordered love. And properly ordered loves yield properly ordered generosity, or what is called moral proximity.

Moral proximity is the idea that our moral obligations in economic life are greater or lesser in proportion to their physical proximity to us. Consider the rich man in Luke 16. Lazarus, a beggar, lived close by. He was the rich man’s neighbor. But the rich man didn’t help Lazarus. God judged the rich man harshly. By proximity, he had greater moral obligation to this one beggar among tens of thousands of others like him. We are to love God and then neighbor.

In Roman Catholic tradition, this is called subsidiarity. It’s the idea that problems are best solved when authority is given to local institutions rather than large bureaucratic states. Being a neighbor means investing in neighborhood organizations that mediate solutions.

Moral proximity was fairly straightforward in the ancient world. People generally had little contact with those outside their own region, much less with societies in distant parts of the world. They sought the flourishing of neighbors because most folks only knew their neighbors. Being generous to neighbors was fairly straightforward.

Today, most any ordinary person living in the developed world has, by technological means, access to almost any other person anywhere in the world, including the developing world. We can now invest in almost any ministry in the world. Many do, but at the expense of merely “tipping” local ministries. That’s not neighborly.

Being a neighbor solves this. It makes generous giving as simple as possible. Einstein said everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Love is the root of the Christian faith. It’s that simple. As we experience God’s love, we love God and neighbors. Love is seeking the good of others, beginning with neighbors.

Consider this: Generosity works the same way as knowing God’s will. There is no record in the Bible of anyone struggling to discover God’s will. Yes, there are many who struggle to do what they have discovered to be God’s will. That’s another matter. No one struggles to know God’s will because Jesus said those willing to do his will—inclined to do it—will discover it (John 7:17). When there’s a will, there’s a way.

Generosity works the same way. When we’re inclined to be generous—the Greek word hilarious—we will be generous. If we struggle to be generous, we’re not inclined to generous. It’s that simple. The rich young ruler wasn’t a neighbor. He found it impossible to give up his possessions. It wasn’t. Same for the lawyer seeking eternal life (Luke 10). He had difficulty defining neighbor. Jesus cleared it up for him. Be a neighbor.  Loving neighbors then becomes quite simple.

Genuine neighbors are lovers. They find ways to be generous with neighbors. They’re philanthropists, lovers of humanity, as philo means love and anthropos means humanity. They love humanity in the order that God loves humanity—neighbor first.

And so this is Christmas. Christmas is not primarily Jesus coming to save us because we sinned. He was always coming to marry us. But because we sinned, he first came near—was a neighbor—to woo and win his bride. Jesus is coming again to wed and bed his bride. The ideal bride longs for this day. Like Jesus, she loves what he loves—neighbors.

Over the past few weeks I’ve rooted generosity in love. Love is best understood inside marriage, the central metaphor for the gospel. There are hundreds of metaphors in the Bible that picture the gospel, but love is central as it is eternal. God is eternal. God is love. Experiencing God’s love, we love to give of ourselves, first to neighbors and then to others. Neighbor—then neighborhood. That’s how Clapham operated. That’s how generous givers operate. It’s that simple.

Merry Christmas.


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  1. Thanks for an important message for us all. Maybe we can use this holiday season to reach out to our neighbors in some baby-step kind of way: maybe a plate of homemade goodies, an invitation for coffee and a chance to see our Christmas tree from inside the house, perhaps, up here in snow country, inviting the other shovelers/snowblower pushers in for a cup of hot chocolate or cider after the work is done.

    What better time to show our concern for our neighbors than when we celebrate the birth of the One who emphasized love of neighbor over and over.

  2. Mike, I love your stuff. Always thought-provoking! You have a tiny error in this one. Your story of Lazarus (from Luke 16, presumably) has Lazarus as the rich man. Actually, Lazarus was the beggar.

  3. A couple of years ago, Mike was in Milwaukee doing a small workshop that I attended. At that time, I was trying to blow-up a home purchase deal that my wife and I were at odds over. Mike’s workshop had me challenging my desire to dump the deal and move on. Now, I own the home, and it’s in the center of the neighborhood. The house has an open yard, on a corner with an inviting presentation. Most people don’t go for a walk without walking past my house, and they comment on how beautiful it is. I’ve met almost all of my neighbors, and gifted many of the neighbors in close proximity. This year, it seemed like that call has been more intense and I’ve wanted to ignore it.

    Before today, I only knew that God wanted me to have an impact on my neighborhood. Now I have a working theology that helps me understand His will.
    Thanks Mike

  4. Mike:

    Thanks as always for this provocative post.

    I’m intrigued by the statement that “20 percent of giving goes to local churches and ministries. The other 80 percent goes to ‘outer-ring’ international ministries.”

    These percentages are counter-intuitive to my observation and experience; therefore, could you please site the “numerous surveys” that support this information.

    Thanks so much.

  5. One comes from the work of David King of the Lake Family Institute for Family Philanthropy at Indiana University (Indianapolis).

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