...you know, constantly in Jesus' teaching there's stuff about the stranger, there's stuff about the other, there's stuff about the Good Samaritan, and our moral responsibility is always to this person who is more other than us, rather than same as us.
I want to sketch out an argument as to why Christianity can't be understood this way.
But first let me concede that our moral responsibility in Christianity does extend to the stranger. That is on the basis that as man is made in God's image, that to love God is to love our fellow man. And this is not only derived from the Bible, but can be argued for from natural law. We do share a common humanity, so we should help out a stranger in dire need on this basis.
However, to limit Christianity to this one principle is a prime example of "intellectuals' disease," in which moral positions are derived from a single principle or formulation.
Giles Fraser's single principle cannot explain a great deal of Biblical morality. Take, for instance, the issue of infidelity. There is no doubt that Christian marriages are supposed to be faithful. But why?
It could be answered, simply, that this has to do with sexual purity or that it is a matter of justice to one's spouse. Even if we leave it at that, we can see that our moral responsibility is not just to the stranger, but to the person closest to us, the one with whom we have become, in Christian terms, "one flesh".
But we can take this a little further. There is a post on marriage that has gone viral called "Marriage isn't for you" by Seth Adam Smith. The message of the post, in a nutshell, is that marriage is about selfless love. By selfless isn't meant an absence of self. It means being focused on others, in this case on your spouse, your children and your wider family. As Seth's father put it to him:
You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. "Marriage is about the person you married.”
The truth of this is that marriage is not passively sitting back and getting things from your spouse. It is an active process of service to spouse and family and, as part of this orientation, to drawing together in a relationship with your spouse, physically and emotionally, i.e. to truly live as "one flesh".
|Seth and his bride|
Infidelity, it seems to me, is not just sexual. You could have infidelity when a spouse still performs the basic social role of husband or wife, and does not commit adultery, but has turned away from their spouse and no longer seeks actively to draw together into a marital relationship.
For those who are married, this effort to draw together within a relationship through what we gift to our spouse will be a significant part of our day to day orientation in life. It is not a commitment to the stranger but to the person with whom we are seeking the closest union, within a sacrament that has made us one flesh. And fidelity within this relationship matters a great deal.
It is a similar thing when it comes to fidelity in our relationship to God. Fidelity here means that we are turned toward the relationship, seeking out God and gifting ourselves in service. It is about a deepening union rather than a seeking out of the stranger (which is why, I think, I get so cranky when the mass is oriented toward secular politics- it is supposed to be time to stop from our busy schedules to turn toward God.)
One final point. If faithfulness in our relationships is morally significant, this applies as well to the particular relationships we have beyond family. Whether these are to clan, tribe or nation, they draw from individuals the same concern to give of themselves in the relationship, and to nurture and protect what is loved. This is particularly true of communities that we are deeply embedded in through ties of ethnicity (of shared descent, history, culture, language etc.), as these are the ties that call on us the most. The loss of these communities is felt deeply, in part, because it takes away one of the spheres of life in which we are set most closely in relationship with others and most challenged to give of ourselves.
Liberal moderns are not big on fidelity (in the sense I have described). They seem to seek out infidelity whenever they can. It is a pity that some Christians have followed them in this, on the basis, as Giles Fraser put it, that our moral responsibility is always towards those most other to us.
I don't see how that can fit into a Christian understanding of marriage, nor of fidelity in relationships in general.