I’m doing research for my continuing ed class on Catechesis. (Message or email me if you’d like to attend. There is still room!) I’ve been looking through the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, and I noticed something. Scripture talks of our neighbor. Because of this, the Lutheran Confessions also speak of our neighbor. The Large Catechism (the best ethical treatise ever written outside of Scripture) is fairly thick with it. But in the Roman Catechism the language isn’t neighbor. It’s society.
It may not seem a big difference. But it is.
Neighbor is a person. He stands in a relationship to me. And there is proximity to neighbor. It doesn’t only mean the guy in the house next to mine, although it does include him. Neighbor is all of the people God has placed near my calling and station in life. So, first is spouse, then children, parents, siblings, people on my block, co-workers, local authorities, etc. etc. It moves outward from me. And the largest responsibility I have is to those closest – those whom God has placed in my station and calling. I am responsible to feed my children each day. If my neighbor is hungry, I am responsible to help him get food. But (except in extraordinary circumstances) I don’t provide food each day. I may help him to find a job, or give him the occasional cup of sugar when he runs out. I do help the poor in my local place by giving to the local food bank. But I don’t cook the food for them and then watch them eat it. I do that for my kids. You get the idea.
Neighbor keeps everything in its proper place.
Human Society is the whole big general mish mash of people on earth. It is the man in the house next to me as much as it is the man who lives on the opposite side of the globe – and certainly no less. All of society works together(?). And if society is a thing, then I have a responsibility to this Human Society. The problem is, that can’t be quantified. Because it is everywhere, it is also nowhere. It doesn’t end, so it also can’t have a beginning.
And because it is everywhere, and I am responsible to everyone in everyplace, it causes all manner of mischief. For example, if my neighbor is a drunkard, I can provide assistance to him to help him stay on the wagon. I can drive him to meetings, I can offer support to him in his struggle. But if society has a problem with alcoholism, then the solution is to pass a law banning the demon rum. Prohibition is born of such nanny-state do-goodism. But those solutions never work. Well intentioned though they may be (and I would argue quite often they aren’t even well intentioned), such ideas always cause more harm than they do good: the law of unintended consequences.
Also, because I am here in this place, I should not presume to understand how to solve the problems your neighbor has in your place. My town does not have a large contingent of homeless people. Yours does. According to the doctrine of neighbor, I should help the poor in my place, and leave you to help the poor in your place. According to the doctrine of society, I can start dictating how you must solve your homeless problem, because it is mine as well. It doesn’t really matter that I have no clue what has caused it, or how to solve it. The point is the intention. And those intentions end up far astray.
We have seen prohibitionists (alcohol, tobacco, soda pop, salt, monounsaturated fats, etc.), moral majorities, social justice warriors, teenage climate warriors, etc. None of them has ever done the least amount of good, but they have done much harm. How much better the entire society would be if I showed love to my neighbors, and you showed love to yours, and we left it at the scriptural definition.
Ah, you say, you are going too far with your analogy. It need not be that way. We can certainly teach our young about society without drifting into crazed social justice. Think of the good we can do by working for the improvement of society!
I give you the three headings in this section of the Roman Catechism, in order:
1) The Person and Society
2) Participation in Social Life
3) Social Justice.
While Rome may not intend the same meaning as Social Justice Warriors in our day, it is all of the same cloth. Social Justice Warriors didn’t arise independent of the ideas in the Roman Catechism (Though they usually renounce Roman doctrine), and they didn’t pick the name out of a hat. It is just a little bit farther down the path of the same error. Lutherans have rejected “social justice” since society first started talking about it. And we have done so for a reason. We have a neighbor. And we show love to him. That’s enough of a responsibility, and by keeping the language straight, we keep our doctrine intact.
Let’s keep our neighbor as our neighbor. It will solve a lot of problems, and prevent many more. The world can try and improve society, and stay up late at night stewing over injustice. Lutherans help and serve their neighbor during the day, then we say our prayers, and go to sleep at once and in good cheer.