It seems to me that proximity is an important concept for justice seekers. In fact, the more I grapple with it, the more important is becomes. I view justice in the world in terms of movement towards restoration or reconciliation. In wider, theological terms, God’s story of justice and reconciliation involved Him getting close to us. He became one of us in order to restore us to Himself. But in our search for justice, we are often so far removed from the things that are “broken” that reconciliation is not only out of sight, but also out of mind.
Take for instance the plight of many of the world’s most materially poor. It is easy for those of us who do not live in those situations to ignore those who do, because they are not in proximity to us. Often, they are not near in space, time, or relationship. Even with the materially poor in our own cities and neighborhoods, while they may be near in space and time, they can be distant in relationship; we sometimes unintentionally maintain that distance by ignoring them or averting our eyes as we walk by. Yet, even if we are in true proximity (near in space, time and relationship) to those who experience material poverty, we feel distant from the causes of their situation – large economic and trade systems, entrenched racism, broken social or family systems, etc. This lack of proximity frequently leads to a lack of justice; economic and social justice.
Or consider the impacts of climate change. While we might joke about an extra warm summer, or laugh incredulously at blips in our expected patterns of weather (“what, snow in July?!?!”) the effects of climate change are by and large felt by those in the Global South. Therefore it often effects the very same people experiencing the economic injustices mentioned in the previous paragraph. Once more, we frequently feel a great yawning chasm between our desire to address the root causes of climate change and our actual ability to make any sort of impact in the face of the larger mechanisms of power. Again, a lack of proximity leads to a lack of justice; climate justice.
Space, Time and Relationship
I have been blessed to be able to be in proximity to people from very different backgrounds and contexts than mine. For a time, that meant being near in both space and time while I lived in Rwanda. That fed in me an appetite for greater economic justice in the world. It created a hunger that we all could experience greater justice and motivated me to work with them for that. Even now, while I don’t live near to my Rwandan friends in space and time, I still experience a nearness of relationship that continues to spur me on.
But it’s not practical for all of us to be near in space, time and relationship with all others who experience different forms of injustice and brokenness. So what can we do? I wonder if we might start with the things that are actually in proximity to us.
Brokenness and injustice are not limited to people and places far away. There is more than enough brokenness within arms-reach of all of us to start with.
The second greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) There’s been a lot of talk about Jesus’ answer to the question, “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29-37) In this highly-connected digital age, we cannot excuse inaction for the plight of the world’s materially poor because we are ignorant. We feel nearer in space, time and relationship to more people worldwide than ever before. But my concern is that our perceived connectedness to people who feel nearer in time, space and relationship can sometimes become a barrier to engaging with the people and places that actually are nearer in time, space and relationship.
Where Is My Neighbor?
The injustices experienced by far away people who feel much nearer now, are often injustices that feel completely out of our capacity to impact. It can be overwhelming. It can freeze us into apathy. Or distract us into “liking” or “following” causes in ways that make us feel like we are doing something. Meanwhile there are people and places within our literal space of influence crying out for real proximity with us.
Let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying we should forget about injustices in other, far-away places. My whole career has been built on, and continues to revolve around, amazing people following God’s movement in distant lands and joining Him in His restoration of His creation there.
What I am saying, is that neighbor can also mean the person who lives right beside you; the people you share your home with, your family, neighborhood, city, province, and country. Where is God moving in the world? It’s not just in places far away. It’s right here, too! God works in proximity to us and He has placed other people in proximity with us. The key thing is to be faithful in following His invitation to join Him into whatever He is inviting you into – wether with your literal neighbor, or your neighbor who lives on the other side of the world.