The Big Family: The Expansion of the Moral Circle, Part 2

In yesterday's post I discussed Peter Singer's notion that our moral psychology is largely kin-based. Love and charity, generally speaking, flow naturally among family. Thus, no great moral demonstration is taking place when I love my sons, help my brother put in a new floor, or care for my mother as she ages. That is just what families do.

And Jesus recognizes this. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states that if we greet “only our brothers," if we love only “our brothers," what credit is that to us? Even the irreligious do this. Everyone does this. No, what is a clear sign of the Kingdom is the EXPANSION of the moral circle--the kinship bond--outward. To consider even my enemy as "family."

And that is the genius of the gospel, this extension of familial language to include all of humankind. The gospel vision meets human psychology where it is—with its bias toward kin—and co-opts the mechanism for the purposes of the Kingdom.

Thus, we see co-opted kinship language sprinkled throughout church. We call the church the "family of God." We call each other "brother" and "sister." Jesus is our “older brother.” God is our “father.” And the center of Christian worship is eating around a table, a symbol of home and family gatherings.

And who gets this “family treatment”? Jesus was asked this very question. The Torah expert asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? It was a question about the Moral Circle. Where can I draw that line? Who is inside and who is outside? Who is family? And Jesus tells the story at the heart of his ethical vision: The parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbor? Who is inside my Moral Circle? Everyone. Everyone is now family.

Thus the gospel takes a moral psychology that is naturally parochial and small-minded and gradually universalizes it, allowing familial affection to flow toward all. As a psychologist at church, as I witness this expansion of kinship language watching how it exploits our natural biases for good, I’m always amazed by the genius of it all.

But how fragile this situation is. As the parable of the Good Samaritan stands at the center of our moral lives, pushing the Moral Circle farther and farther outward, there are forces squeezing that Circle to encompass fewer and fewer. Forces such as nationalism, politics, race, religion, sexual orientation, chauvinism, elitism, and on and on. Those forces and others make us strangers to each other; they force us to draw that dark line between us, marking you as an Outsider as Alien, Stranger, and Enemy.

So as I psychologist, when I survey our world, our country, and our churches, I watch the boundary of the Moral Circle. And I ask you to monitor its boundary as well. Everyday I watch Jesus try to push the Moral Circle outward as all those other dark forces fight against him, narrowing our moral interests from the Many to the Few.

And I ask myself, Whose side am I on?

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply