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Loving Our Neighbor-Near and Far

St. Augustine once wrote, “You cannot love what you do not know.” He was making a disarmingly simple point about the first great Christian commandment to love God, wholeheartedly. However, Augustine's words also apply to the second great commandment—to love our neighbor, unselfishly. The application is especially important now, in our newly globalized world, and Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical, Deus Caritas Est , provides a timely framework for seeing how that is so.

In the second half of the letter, Benedict XVI writes: “Today the means of mass communication have made our planet smaller, rapidly narrowing the distance between different peoples and cultures.” As suggested in an earlier passage, this dramatic change is among the latest in that spigot of “new things” that keeps coming forth from the wellsprings of modern capitalism. The letter thus continues the steady flow of tradition that extends from Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum (1891), to John Paul II, in Centesimus Annus (1991).

As Benedict XVI observes, our shrinking world elicits new awareness of “how much suffering there is in the world.” And most importantly, it has enlarged the world of our “neighbor.” Citing Vatican II, this is indeed a new thing: “charitable activity can and should embrace all peoples.” For “we now have at our disposal numerous means for offering humanitarian assistance to our brothers and sisters in need.” As a consequence, older parochial and national boundaries are blurred, as concern for our neighbor “has increasingly broadened its horizon to the whole world.” The once remote global poor have become the Global Neighbor. The “they” has become a “he” or “she,” a Lazarus lying at our gate.

The main focus of what remains in the papal letter is on the desired attitudes and qualities of the people who work for the church's charitable organizations. His counsel to them is remarkably rich in its effort to lay out distinctly Christian teaching on human love in this context. But what I wish to do in the remainder of this essay is to focus on a somewhat different concern—a deadly new temptation—in addition to the ones that Benedict XVI directly engages in the letter. This temptation is especially great for sensitive laypeople, those who do not work for the church's charitable organizations, or live otherwise amid the world's poor. They rather seek to serve God while living and working within cultures of advanced capitalism, and thus amid the world's most affluent.

When they face the poverty of their Global Neighbor amid their own prosperity, they are indeed moved. The trouble is that very often the experience does not move them to enlarge the reach of love from where they are. It rather enervates them in a fundamentally existential way. It weakens their capacity to affirm the goodness of who they are, their ability to love themselves and to envision how, as themselves, they might well love others. The Global Neighbor seems to them to expose their entire social and economic existence in all its typical modern human forms as evil before God. They feel God's disapproval and condemnation fall upon their entire cultural existence, because of its social and economic forms—on the forms of their marriage, family, property, work, and lifestyle. It is an assault on the depths of their personhood, as shaped by their culture.

I propose that what I have just described is, for a great many Christian people, not the dawning of a “prophetic” awareness, as certain Christian writers encourage them to think it is. I propose that for most Christian people the experience is diabolical and destructive, and counts among the novel temptations that such Christians face in our global time. Of course, it is rarely understood that way.

The Temptation of Brute Utility

Reflective Christians should be alarmed that Peter Singer—an atheistic moral philosopher—has given this temptation its most lucid and persuasive voice. Singer is famous (or notorious) for advocating abortion, euthanasia, and even infanticide as state policies to further a more “just” global distribution of wealth. Christians will instantly discern in this advocacy a hardened form of what Benedict XVI refers to broadly as “the anti-culture of death.” These programmatic policy proposals make sense to Singer, since in his metaphysics he is a materialist (“what you eat you are”), and in his ethics he is a material utilitarian. Material utilitarianism simply teaches that our moral compass must always point toward achieving the greatest material good for the greatest number of people possible. And since people are poor worldwide, it makes sense to eliminate unnecessary and expensive people in order to save them. The metaphysics and ethics of Christianity obviously prevent such theory or practice, since they are anchored by belief that every human individual is created in the image of God. Christians thus instantly and rightly recoil in disgust and horror at Singer's program of death in the name of life. Unfortunately, however, too few Christian writers, teachers, and ministers have discerned a similar devaluation of humanity in Singer's proposals about economic habits , or more particularly, on habits of consumption and general lifestyle within advanced social economies.

Singer's “paradigm case” is a story he tells of a woman from Brazil named Dora. Dora is poor. One day she reads a flyer promising $1,000 to anyone who brings an orphaned child off the street to a specified place for care and adoption. Dora knows of such a boy; she takes him to the place, receives her money, and then buys her very first television. But then Dora learns from the news channel that a child-smuggling ring is operating in her neighborhood, and that they are buying children for $1,000 and selling them into slavery worldwide. Realizing what she has done, Dora returns the TV, takes the money back, and frees the little boy. But, Singer muses, what if she had not done so? What if Dora had put the boy out of mind and simply enjoyed her new luxury? Obviously, we would judge her guilty of something terribly immoral. She would be responsible for whatever evils happened to the poor child. But Singer concludes: This case illustrates the situation for modern consumers who enjoy luxuries despite the palpable presence of their poor Global Neighbor. Routine consumption, then, is judged the moral equal of oppression and murder.

On close inspection, Singer's analysis goes way beyond the matter of consumption and lifestyle. It also has profound implications for moral assessment of the economic infrastructure—market patterns of investment, production, advertising, product distribution, the offering of services and so forth, and for the economic forms that human personhood, marriage, and family take in such human cultures. His analysis amounts to a moral condemnation of capitalism as a “way of life” (Michael Novak's fine phrase). It thus stands as a moral indictment of involvement in the culture at any level. As a material utilitarian, Singer, of course, can bear this moral burden. Since consumer capitalism creates the most material good for the most people, and no better alternative exists, to eliminate consumer capitalism would itself be immoral. Like Marx, Singer can endure the oppression, exploitation, destruction, and killing that he believes is inherent in capitalism for the same reason he endures the costs involved in systematic abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide. They are the costs of doing “good” as best we can. So instead of removing capitalism, he urges societies to reduce consumption of non-necessities by one third (which may amount to the same thing), and then to distribute the discretionary wealth (which he imagines is “left over”) to the world's poor.

But—and here is my point—on Singer's moral analysis of capitalism, the Christian cannot bear this burden. They (we) cannot plausibly accept his judgment of routine consumption as vicious evil, as oppressive, exploitative, and murderous, on the one hand, and remain nevertheless immersed in a veritable economic culture of such morally vicious habits, on the other. On his analysis, a model program of “simpler living” might as well be called “comparatively less oppressing,” or “less extreme exploiting,” or just plain “killing fewer poor people.” The sad truth, however, is that Christian advocates of “simpler living” typically do accept one version or another of Singer's moral analysis without seeming to grasp what is implied by doing so. In the process, alas, they give a Christian “prophetic” form to his seductive, and destructive, voice of condemnation against entire populations of good and decent people. They are led to think, perforce, that the judgments of Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are aimed at them (for eating at restaurants, or working in various businesses, for having nice homes, or cars, and so forth) right along with the likes of Imelda Marcos, Saddam Hussein, or the executive culprits at Enron.

However, for Christians who are convinced—for good reasons—that the church has a strong role to play within cultures of consumer capitalism, this implication alone should be enough to expose Singer's judgment as seriously anti-Christian in this area, too. If indeed we have learned, especially in the light of Rerum Novarum and its successors, how to bring human value to the “new things” of labor, capital, and entrepreneurial enterprise, there must be a way to humanize existence in consumer capitalism—even as we respect the new nearness of our Global Neighbor, and seek to make him our Friend. Obviously, my last points along this line must be left to stand as suggestive, and not as anything like complete proposals.

“Human Particularity” and a “Multiplicity of Goods”

In order to find an answer, we must at least get on the right track. I believe that two interlocking Christian notions help us to do so, especially in the light of certain comments in Deus Caritas Est . One of the notions I call “human particularity,” the other a “multiplicity of goods.”

By “human particularity” I refer to the simple biblical truth that God respects and even blesses our natural limitations as creatures. He does not call us to be “gods,” or even “messiahs.” In a different context (on the seductions of partisan ideology) Benedict XVI teaches similarly: “It is God who governs the world, not we.” God calls men and women into new forms of their natural “particularity,” and achieves “universality” in and through them, not despite them. Furthermore, if it is true, as Benedict XVI writes (also in a different context), that love is not merely about meeting needs, but is “a sharing of my very self” and that “I must be personally present in my gift,” then perhaps this recasting of Augustine's words is also true: What we know best we can love best. Stated in this way, one makes appeal to something like the well-known Catholic principle of subsidiarity, applying it freshly, though, to the complex matter of personal Christian vocation . We should take seriously the likelihood that God calls us to be and to serve precisely where we are.

This suggestion leads to yet a second one, that there exists a metaphysical “multiplicity of goods.” There are, of course, material goods, but not only those. We cannot really live by bread alone. The haunting stare of our Global Neighbor makes it very hard not to ignore or to downplay the human (and even moral) importance of other goods. But neither we, nor our Global Neighbor, will ever really live without them. Besides spiritual goods, we must re-affirm the human importance of intellectual goods and aesthetic goods, too, and with them the multiplicity of loves they validate. There exist many valid loves in and through which to mediate divine and human love for our neighbors.

So our question is now sharper, at least. If called into the “particularity” involved in the goodness of one love or another (as a company CEO, say, or manager, employee, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, violinist, chemist, meat packer, writer of fiction, artist, housewife, househusband, fashion designer, film maker, or farmer), how do I also extend love to my Global Neighbor from afar? But to formulate the question this way is already to resist the temptation of self-contempt (in this case an escapist's rebellion against the call of God—for we are able to hate best what we know best, too). It is also to have framed an answer yet to come. For if formulated in these terms, none of us can know in advance the form that such distant love between persons may take. In seeking, prayer and faith, however, we may trust that God knows, and that (also presuming prayer and faith) God and time will tell. And we may trust that God will do so in love —for our Global Neighbor, of course, but also for us, in keeping with who and where we are.