Injustice, Poverty, Pain, And Our Proximity Prejudice

There’s a famous old adage: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

(Not all old sayings are created equal).

The truth is, when it comes to the people we treasure and those we are indifferent to, distance really does matter.

It’s natural and healthy to have an affinity for those who are close; our families, our neighbors, our nation, but that affinity also brings with it something extremely dangerous and insidious as a bi-product: a prejudice of proximity.

This prejudice can fool us into overvaluing what is near; into subconsciously believing that the lives of those around us, actually have more intrinsic worth than those who are far from us.

It can make us believe that the pain and the needs of those we know, should matter more than the pain and needs of those we don’t.

That’s why in America, we can feel so much urgency when we think about a child in our city starving, but relative indifference over one (or thousands) in the slums of Kenya.

It’s the reason a school shooting in our country grips our hearts deeply, while another thousands of miles away barely registers on our emotional radar.

It’s why the death of a few thousand people one September day on our own soil merits a national day of mourning, while the same number dying worldwide each day since due to starvation and disease, isn’t even a thought in our collective minds.

It’s why the plight of war-raged, poverty-stricken places we’ve never heard of half a world away, rarely make us even flinch as they fly across our timelines and TV screens every day long.

It’s a fairly common truth: The further away something is from us, the less we seem to care about it. It’s human nature, yes, but still a pretty lousy bit of it.

And this prejudice isn’t just about physical proximity either, but emotional proximity; about the closeness we feel toward those we determine are “our people”, based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation or political affiliation or economic status or nationality or some other common thread that we choose.

This selective compassion shows up in the great disparity on the sides of so many issues we wrestle with.

In the stark racial lines over police treatment of people of color.
In the religiously polarized conversations about the rights of LGBT people.
In the fight for workplace equality for women.
In the debate over how our government allocates finances.
In the discussions about gun violence or poverty or domestic violence or disease.

Most of the time, we’ll fight most passionately for the things that hit close to home and for the people who live there. We’ll defend our tribe with everything we have, even if it means allowing the suffering of another.

Somewhat understandably (yet still sadly), the more people look like us or vote like us or worship like us, the more likely we are to take a hit for them and give a rip about them. 

As much as I can help it, I don’t want proximity to prejudice me.

I want my heart oriented toward relieving need and pain regardless of where it’s happening. I want to be fully outraged at injustice wherever it raises its head. I want to defend the hurting and the marginalized and the damaged even if they seem nothing like me.

As a Christian, I believe my God demands it; that I love in a way that transcends borders and breaches barriers and spans divisions. 

Humanity at its best does this. Religion too.

It pulls us beyond proximity and preference, compelling us to love the foreigner and the outcast; to serve and give and sacrifice for those who can give nothing in return beyond gratitude.

It enables us to see and deeply feel need beyond our own.

It allows us to find our victory in another’s liberation.

I think people of faith are most in the image of God when their hearts have the capacity to break for the whole world, not just their cozy little corner of it; when they can find complete affinity in simple humanity.

Does your compassion have a geographic limit?

Does your outrage at injustice come with caveats or qualifiers?

Where do you find your heart showing favoritism?

Where do you find commonality, enough to care?

How does distance determine the depth of your burden?

How does proximity prejudice you?








0 thoughts on “Injustice, Poverty, Pain, And Our Proximity Prejudice

  1. Social media perpetuates group think and the idea that everyone sees things the same as us. The problem is that social media (and Facebook most of all) shows us only what our friends and others that we interact with post. We then start to believe that the whole world or at least the country thinks the same way we do. Social media radicalizes and separates us.

    I have friends on both sides of the political divide so I get to see the rants on both sides and the people agreeing with each other. The differing points of view are never presented to the other side.

    I don’t have the answer to this. Social media has been great to get back in touch with childhood friends, military comrades, and others. I just have to remember there are differing viewpoints out there.

    • It’s not just social media that does that to us. Shoot, even our search engines do. Google, which I absolutely love, works hard to tailor your searches to what you want to see. That’s great when I’m looking for that perfect Christmas present. Not so great when I’m researching a news story or political issue and I’m only presented with the stuff that supports my views.

  2. I agree with much of what you have shared John. If we allow our hearts to be open to the injustice all around us we would be much more gentle and compassionate to the world around us. And yet I feel that if I for example were to literally take a stand against all the injustice I came across, my efforts would be spread so thin as to become ineffectual.

  3. Very powerful. Truer words couldn’t be more powerful. We as a society pick and choose what means something to us yet the one simple thing we all tend to ignore and fight is an innate gift we were all born with….the simple character of “caring”. If we focused more on caring and less on our own selfish desires, this world would be in a much better place.

  4. I don’t believe my compassion or empathy are strongly affected by proximity, but more by financial constraints. I believe the problems confronting this over-crowded planet are, by and large, so immense that our only hope is for each man (or group, or state, or government) to “clean up his (it’s, their) own back yard,” and do what he can realistically for the people and/or problems that fall within his geographical scope. That’s why I give to charities that focus their efforts on assisting my city or my nation. To my logic, it’s not only that children are dying of starvation in Kenya as well as in our own country, it’s that I can only assume a feeling of personal responsibility for American children because I’m only one individual with only one pocket to dole dollars from. Someone wealthier (much!) than I am may be moved to build a school for girls in Rwanda or oversee clean-water projects for a town in Ghana or even serve as U.N. Ambassador, symbolically lending his or her celebrity to an important cause. But I can’t even afford to fly to Africa or many other developing areas, and even if I did, the thousands it would cost me would better serve to purchase food or clothing or medicine right here in Los Angeles. If I feel moved to help feed the homeless on a xmas afternoon, I can drive to downtown and the Midnight Mission but I couldn’t afford, or be prepared for, a trip to India even though a city there may have more people suffering from hunger on that particular day.

    I also believe that if I choose my charities wisely, my contributions will grow and spread. For instance, if I contribute to a college scholarship fund for prospective dentists or doctors to attend one of the great universities here in town, it’s possible the individuals I help may be inspired by my assistance and “pay it forward” by traveling to other parts of the world where the need is greater. Similarly, I believe (perhaps naïvely) that if my small efforts, in conjunction with the efforts of others, can serve to strengthen the positive aspects of this nation, America will be better able, better equipped, and hopefully more prone to use its power in a justifiable way to feed, clothe, educate, rescue, even perhaps fight, for the betterment of those who are trapped in locations where their governments are even more corrupt than our own. I believe that even now, with nearly 7 billion of the human species using its resources, there is “plenty to go around.”

    If corporations, the über-rich (top 2% in the USA), the absurdly wealthy citizens of all countries (from Haiti and the Philippines to China and Mexico) could be coaxed (perhaps by tax breaks or taxes imposed, perhaps by other incentives, perhaps even utilizing methods draconian) to settle for less of their wealth being squirreled away into off-shore bank accounts (American corporations, I’ve read, now keep at least $22 TRILLION in hidden foreign accounts, which if circulated into our economy would quickly end privation across this country for everyone), then America would not be the world’s temporarily greatest super-power, it might also become the most altruistic nation in the recorded history of the planet.

    Faded or extinct super-powers usually have little good said about them. In some cases their art, architecture, literature, and natural wonders catch the attention of tourists, but the tourists go home unimpressed on the whole with the erstwhile super-power’s political or humanitarian achievements. If in a couple or three hundred years the USA could be remembered not for its aggression, clever construction of weapons of war, its manipulation of world-wide political events or its cynical claim of “bringing democracy” to sovereign nations whose land it can use to build strategic military bases or which possess natural resources we think we need, it might instead be remembered for its contribution to saving this planet for those who currently and in the future will occupy it. Maybe even for starting a historical trend where a rich and strong nation, through educating and sharing with poor and weak nations, managed to lift up all earth’s inhabitants to a better standard of living.

    That’s why I choose to leave the conundrum of proximity to wealthier entities than myself, but do not hesitate to do what I can in my own neighborhood or homeland.

  5. Your sentence “Religion at its best does this” in truth don’t you really mean Humanity at its best does this? One does not have to have faith in God to do these things. One does not have to pray to any God to do these things. One just needs to be human. Would you not agree?

    • So true, Willard. I guess as a Christian, in that part of the piece, I am challenging believers who claim faith but who segregate their compassion, but yes, you are absolutely right.

      • I identify as agnostic and have been troubled over the years by the church’s treatment of my fellow man. I read your post on a regular basis because it resonates with me as a human being. Thank you for sharing my friend!

  6. Wow. Thank you for this today. Pondering proximity’s affect on my heart’s vision, I think of two things that are troublesome in my own life:

    1) I am forgetful. I allow the immediacy of today to wash over the urgency of things that caused my heart to break in the first place. Today’s breaking news becomes tomorrow’s last-segment soundbite. I raise a flag high and then let it fall because my hands get distracted.

    2) I am prone to wander, not keeping Christ at the center. And my vision is clouded as I allow my eyes to roam away from the cross.

    Those two things come crashing in when the quiet of the night visits and I ponder how I lived the day given to me. I’m praying even now to stay close to what matters…

    Again, thank you.

  7. I am a public defender deeply concerned with the rights and integrity of oppressed people – those who are marginalized by their sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, race, and criminal history.

    So as a Christian of the more progressive sort, that’s not where I need help loving people. Where I need help is with loving the oppressORS, the rich, the willfully ignorant, those who have a beautifully put-together facade but are lost and in pain on the inside.

    I’d love to see a post about that someday.

    Thank you for your blog – it warms my soul. I can’t think of a less-cheesy way to put that.

    • Yes VeeMay! I was going to write the same thing since I have the same problem. I am a Social Worker and readily side with the marginalized and the poor. But in truth I am hard pressed to find any compassion in my heart for the Donald Trumps and Jerry Falwell Jr’s of the world. I can’t even begin to figure out how to identify with the pro-gun people and those who arrogantly feel that the world can only be made right through violence. I don’t even know where to begin…even a prayer becomes more of a request to ‘fix’ them so they think like I do! sheesh….certainly not what I expect I am supposed to be praying for. 🙂

  8. I am a public defender deeply concerned with the rights and integrity of oppressed people – those who are marginalized by their sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, race, and criminal history.

    So as a Christian of the more progressive sort, that’s not where I need help loving people. Where I need help is with loving the oppressORS, the rich, the willfully ignorant, those who have a beautifully put-together facade but are lost and in pain on the inside.

    I’d love to see a post about that someday.

    Thank you for your blog – it warms my soul. I can’t think of a less-cheesy way to put that.

  9. Proximity prejudice, very keen of you … and talk about a wicked two-edged sword.

    It both boxes us into very narrow geo/socio/political boundaries and, in my perception, makes us look to offer aid in faraway lands to help rather than here at home.

    Example: most towns have great food drives locally, and there are all these amazing organizations working to help end hunger around the world, and yet one-in-five children in the US don’t get enough to eat. In a country where childhood obesity is a problem, 20% of our kids aren’t getting enough to eat. That’s just crazy. It’s as if most kids in the US are not in close enough proximity for us to help them, but they’re also too close for comfort (Americans don’t like to be reminded they can’t feed their own kids.)

    And I had to look in the mirror on this on, too. We give most of our money to AIDS and LGBT youth projects, causes to which we are in close proximity. I don’t regret it, but I guess I hadn’t thought of it like this before today.

  10. A couple of thoughts on this: “Religion at its best does this.” I’ll posit an idea, that any religion is like a car. Do we say ‘this car saved people or helped people’, or is it the driver of said car (a believer) that made a religion be at its best? I say it’s the driver. Do we care about others in far off or close places to us because God tells us to in writings? Or do we do it because God is in us, every one, and we do it because our hearts are doing what comes naturally to them. *winks* Religion aside, here’s a interesting scientific take on what we are becoming, which is rather heartening:

  11. Pingback: Taking A Step Back | mybrightspots

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