On Natural Communities

Part 1: Natural vs. Non-natural Communities

In this article, I will briefly address two issues in the discussion about natural relations. First, I will address the nature of natural communities as distinct from non-natural communities. Second, I will address the types of natural communities and their relationships to each other and to non-natural communities.

First, what are divinely established natural communities? For the sake of this discussion, I am only addressing communities that include human beings.

Natural communities, first, are distinct from supernatural communities. Supernatural communities are of four kinds.

The first kind is the eschatological community, which includes all those moral, rational beings (God, angels, and men) who dwell together in eternal blessedness in the heavenly, Spiritual realm (cf. WLC Q. 90; WSC Q. 38). Though man was designed for this community from creation (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44b–46), he could only attain it through special providence, by way of covenant (cf. WCF 7.1; WLC Q. 20; WSC Q. 12), not by nature. And after the Fall, he could only attain this end through redemptive grace. Yet grace does not destroy nature; it restores and advances it. So the eschatological community, in which grace attains its end in the kingdom of glory, does not destroy natural identities and relations, but builds on and advances them. Male and female no longer marry in the eschatological state, for example, because there is no need for procreation (cf. Matt. 22:30). Yet human beings in this state remain male and female. Indeed, orthodox Christianity depends on this point. The resurrected and ascended Jesus continues to be male, and his resurrection is the pattern for our resurrection (cf. Phil. 3:21). Likewise, the resurrection does not destroy tribal, ethnic, or racial identities. Again, Jesus is the pattern. In his resurrection, he continues to be a son of David, from the tribe of Judah, an Israelite, and a Semite. So the resurrected saints will retain their familial, tribal, ethnic, and racial identities and the natural communities that depend on and arise from these identities (cf. Rev. 7:9).

The second kind of supernatural community is the intermediate heavenly community, which includes all those moral, rational beings (God, Christ [since his ascension], angels, and men’s souls) who dwell together in the heavenly realm prior to Christ’s return, the resurrection from the dead, and the eschatological state (cf. Heb. 12:22–24; WCF 32.1; WLC Q. 86; WSC Q. 37). This intermediate state is a consequence of the Fall, the end of which is death, including the separation of the soul from the body (cf. Rom. 6:23). The separation of the soul from the body is unnatural. It temporarily destroys, or at least impairs, our natural identities, on which our natural relations are grounded. Redemptive grace climaxes in the reunion of our souls and bodies, and so in the restoration of our natural identities and relations. While the chief joy of the resurrected state will be our perfect communion with God, and while we will enjoy fellowship with all God’s elect, we should be particularly eager to rise again from the dead with our own bodies, to regain our natural identities, and to reunite with our loved ones, the family and friends with whom we not only shared a supernatural, but a natural relationship on earth. And we should particularly celebrate God’s saving grace toward our tribe, nation, and race (cf. Rom. 9:3; 11:13–14).

The third kind of supernatural community is the spiritual community of God’s people on earth, which, since the Fall, is redemptive. This community is the invisible church militant and includes all human beings on earth who are united to Christ by Spirit-generated faith. As in the eschatological state, this supernatural community does not destroy or interfere with natural communities. Indeed, it cannot because it is concerned exclusively with man’s spiritual condition before God as righteous or unrighteous, not his natural identity (cf. John 3:6; 6:63; 8:15; Rom. 2:28–29; 9:3–5, 8; 11:14; 1 Cor. 15:50; 2 Cor. 4:16; 10:3–6; Gal. 3:3, 26–29; Eph. 2:11–13; 6:12; Phil. 3:3; Heb. 12:9). This is true of OT saints as well as NT saints (cf. Deut. 10:12; 30:6; 1 Sam. 16:7), so that, if natural identities and relations are important for God’s people in the OT (and they are), it is not because these natural identities and relations pertained to a man’s spiritual standing in the OT, but not in the NT. Rather, natural identity and community matter in both OT and NT because God created these natural categories and providentially works through them. For example, he communicates his covenant promises and other external elements of the covenant to families, tribes, nations, and races, at different times and to different degrees (cf. Acts 2:39; Rom. 3:1–4; 9:4–7; 11:17–24). Granted, some features of OT Israel were uniquely typico-symbolic, but natural communities were not among them. These communities are common to all humanity, and so God sometimes deals with other natural communities as he dealt with Israel’s natural communities. For example, God’s Word came to the nations of Europe and Christianized them, though not all Europeans belonged to this spiritual, redemptive community and though the Europeans who were redeemed were not redeemed on the grounds that they were European. Yet God, according to his good providence, brought his Word to the nations of Europe (which are natural communities), transformed them, and supernaturally saved many of their members while Native Americans, for example, had not heard the gospel and so remained lost in their sins. There is no room to boast here. There is nothing that we have that we did not receive (1 Cor. 4:7). But we also must not be ungrateful by ignoring the ways in which God has blessed some families, tribes, nations, and races in ways that he has not blessed others.

The fourth kind of supernatural community is the visible community of God’s people on earth, known as the visible church, the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the house and family of God (cf. WCF 25.2; WLC QQ. 62–63). At least two features distinguish this community from the third kind. First, this community includes those who “have tasted of the heavenly gift” and “have shared in the Holy Spirit,” yet who are not united to Christ by true faith and so are not among the elect and will not participate in the first two kinds of supernatural communities (Heb. 6:4–6). Second, as noted above, the invisible church, as such, does not recognize any natural categories. Regarding the spiritual state of believers, with which the invisible church is concerned, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). But in the visible church, the supernatural and the natural touch, because, though the visible church itself is a supernatural institution, it exists in a natural context. We have already noted how God providentially works through natural communities in the application of redemption, so that some families and tribes are included in the visible church long before others hear the gospel. And, indeed, the very structure of church authority reflects the intersection of the supernatural and the natural. Elders and ministers are primarily responsible for addressing spiritual affairs (Heb. 13:17), while deacons are responsible for addressing the temporal interests of the church (Acts 6:2–3). The narrative in Acts 6 demonstrates how much natural relations, not only moral qualities, can contribute to election to church office; the church chooses Hellenistic Jews, not Hebrews, as deacons to address the needs of Hellenistic Jewish widows, who were being overlooked (Acts 6:1, 5). Likewise, women, while enjoying all the spiritual benefits of union with Christ, are prohibited from holding offices in the church because of their natural condition (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34–35; 1 Tim. 2:12). And in the early church, Christian slaves, while recognized as fellow believers, were prohibited from holding ecclesiastical office for practical reasons arising from their socio-political status (cf. Apostolic Canons 82; Fifth Council of Orléans, canon 6).

Natural communities are also distinct from artificial communities. Artificial communities are those non-supernatural communities that are not established by natural relations, but instead are humanly devised. They may be voluntary or involuntary. Examples of voluntary artificial communities include sports teams, businesses, and philanthropic organizations. Of course, antecedent natural communities and commitments may affect the membership of these artificial communities, to greater or lesser degrees. But these communities per se are artificial. Involuntary artificial communities include empires, for example, such as the Persian and Roman empires. The members of these empires are not included in the empire because of their natural relations. Rather, one people group subdues other people groups and organizes them into one political community.

The three types of community (supernatural, artificial, and natural) coexist, and a man can be a member of all three at the same time. The communities are not distinguished by chronology, but by the modes of relation in each community. For example, a man may have a natural relationship with his son as his son, a spiritual relationship with his son as a brother in Christ, and an artificial relationship with his son as a teammate in a golf match. Of course, not all these relations are equally important, and some may inform others. But they do not destroy each other now, and even in the eschatological state, these communities will coexist. The important point here is that no one may appeal to the supernatural community and its relations to deny the reality or importance of the natural community and its relations. As noted above, spiritually, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free among those who are united to Christ by living faith. Yet Christians continue to belong to ethnic and racial groups. Christians continue to be either male or female. Christians continue to inherit certain socio-political arrangements. And these identities determine our duties in our natural communities.  

Divinely established communities are distinct from manmade communities. Manmade communities are of two kinds. They are either artificial or natural. We have already addressed artificial communities above. Manmade natural communities are non-existent. They have no place in the Christian faith. Man is not the Lord of nature; God is. Whatever is natural is immediately created by God, or the providential outworking of natural principles inherent in creation. Natural communities, therefore, are not mere creations of human will, whether individual or collective, though human decisions shape the development of natural communities. Because these communities are divinely established, not manmade, they also impose obligations on us without our consent. To deny that God created and providentially governs nature, by asserting that nature is subject to man or that nature is an irrelevant accident, is essentially atheistic. Man may sinfully attempt to transcend nature and transgress its boundaries, or otherwise deny nature’s significance, but nature (or, rather, nature’s God) will always push back. We will refer to divinely established natural communities simply as natural communities, since no other kind exist.  

A natural community, then, is a group of human beings bound together by characteristics either immediately created by God or providentially worked out of the natural principles inherent in creation. These communities can be divided into three types, corresponding to the kinds of natural characteristics on which they are based: communities of blood, communities of land, and communities of time. Natural communities of each type are either more general or more specific. We will discuss these natural communities in part 2.

Part 2: Types of Natural Communities

Communities of Blood

The family is the most specific blood community. The human race is the most general blood community. Between these extremes, there are more general and more specific blood communities. For example, moving from the more specific to the more general, there are clans, tribes, nations/ethnicities, and races. We can apply the term “race” to blood communities at each level of generalization. So there is the human race (descended from Adam), the Semitic race (descended from Shem), the Israelite race (descended from Jacob), the Judahite race (descended from Judah), the Davidic race (descended from David), and so on. (The Latin gens and natio and the Greek γένος and ἔθνος can likewise apply to blood communities at different levels of generalization.) As these examples indicate, “race” at each level is ordinarily determined by the paternal line.

Christians today generally recognize the family as a God-ordained natural institution and acknowledge that the family imposes on us moral obligations (cf. Gen. 4:9; Exod. 20:12; Matt. 15:4; Eph. 6:2; 1 Tim. 5:8), though we did not consent to be born into the family to which we belong. The more general the blood community is, the more likely modern Christians are to reject these communities as social constructs or at least as irrelevant. Yet Scripture and the Christian tradition repeatedly affirm that God providentially established these blood communities and that they are significant, as Achord and Dow’s anthology Who Is My Neighbor? illustrates. I will not attempt here to give an exhaustive account of the biblical passages demonstrating this point, but I will briefly provide some examples. First, the human race is divided into three parts: Semites, Hamites, and Japhethites (Gen. 9). These divisions are divinely recognized and established and so cannot simply be redefined by any human individual or community. Further, God generally deals with men differently depending on the race to which they belong. Race, as noted above, does not determine anyone’s spiritual status before God; the only exception is the human race as federally represented in Adam. But race is an instrument by which God confers temporal blessings and curses and by which he preserves and propagates his covenant promises. So the descendants of Shem and Japheth received blessings that the descendants of Ham did not receive, not because of anything they did, but simply because of their lineage. Indeed, one branch of Ham’s race, the Canaanites, are uniquely cursed because their ancestor Ham sinned against his father.

There are also nations, or ἔθνοι. The three major races were sub-divided into “their nations” (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31, 32). God deals with these nations as nations (cf. Gen. 15:14; 25:23; Exod. 9:24; 34:24; Lev. 18:24; 25:44-46; Num. 13:28–29; Deut. 2:8–25; 32:8; Acts 17:26; Titus 1:12). And we are morally obligated to love our nation above other nations, a loyalty that Paul models for us (Rom. 9:1–3; cf. 11:1). As Hodge notes on this passage, “The Bible recognizes the validity and rightness of all the constitutional principles and impulses of our nature. It therefore approves of parental and filial affection, and, as is plain from this and other passages, of peculiar love for the people of our own race and country.” Likewise, Murray writes in his commentary on the same passage, “The use of the term ‘brethren’ bespeaks the bond of affection which united the apostle to his kinsmen. ‘According to the flesh’ is added to show that those for whom he had concern were not contemplated as brethren in the Lord…but it also expresses what is implicit in the term ‘kinsmen’ and supplies an additional index to the bond of love created by this natural, genetic relationship.” R.L. Dabney expresses the same idea in The Practical Philosophy (p. 95), though he also brings into view other natural relations alongside the blood relation: “Other active principles come in to limit and intensify the affection [of patriotism]: similarity of language, race, and modes of thought and feeling; common interests; the ties of a thousand proud associations of country and ancestors; the local associations of the familiar and beloved scenery, the plains, the mountains, the streams, the homes, the cemeteries, to which our hearts are knit by a thousand tender bonds of suggestion.” Besides having a particular love for our nation, we should also desire the preservation of all national identities, since a world reflecting a colorful variety is more beautiful than a world of gray, cheerless uniformity, and since each nation contributes something to humanity that the others cannot. Indeed, as Vos writes in his Biblical Theology (p. 60),

Nationalism, within proper limits, has the divine sanction; an imperialism that would, in the interest of one people, obliterate all lines of distinction is everywhere condemned as contrary to the divine will. Later prophecy raises its voice against the attempt at world-power, and that not only, as is sometimes assumed, because it threatens Israel, but for the far more principal reason, that the whole idea is pagan and immoral…Under the providence of God each race or nation has a positive purpose to serve, fulfillment of which depends on relative seclusion from others.

While national identity is generally determined by lineage, there are other factors that aid in distinguishing one nation from another. Several of these distinguishing factors properly belong to other natural communities, but they intersect with lineage and so must be mentioned here. A nation generally occupies a common land (cf. Gen. 10:5, 20, 31). Territory alone does not constitute a nation, since multiple nations can inhabit the same land (cf. Josh. 23:12–13) and since, under some circumstances, a nation can be divided by geographical boundaries (e.g., Reuben and Gad east of the Jordan; English colonists across the Atlantic). A nation also generally has a common native language, or “mother tongue” (cf. Gen. 10:5, 20, 31; Neh. 13:23–25). Yet different dialects can develop within a nation, and nations can even change their native language. So, for example, there were national/ethnic Jews in the first century AD who spoke Greek (cf. Acts 6:1). And even the Israelites who spoke Hebrew in the late OT period were speaking a language different from Jacob’s. Yet they still belonged to the nation of Israel. A nation also generally has a common religion and culture (cf. Lev. 18:24; 20:23). Again, this feature does not determine national identity. Israelites frequently departed from the faith of their ancestors, yet they remained ethnic Israelites (cf. Rom. 2:17–29; 9:6–7). A nation also generally has a common political system (cf. Gen. 25:16; 27:29; 35:11; 36:40). Yet, again, this feature is not essential to national identity. During the period of the judges and during the divided monarchy, national/ethnic Israel had no common political structure, and during the exile, they did not have their own political system at all. Finally, a nation generally has common genetic features, many of which are easily perceived, such as hair, skin color, bone structure, and so on (cf. Jer. 13:23). Several nations that belong to the same race (e.g., Israelites and Moabites; French and Germans) will also share many of these same features, so these features do not define national identity. Also, members of two nations with significantly different genetic features may procreate, resulting in members of the nation whose physical appearance is distinct from that of the other members of their nation. While the categories discussed here do not determine the boundaries of national communities, the more of these categories that are present in a nation, and the greater the degree to which they are present, the more easily identifiable the nation is, and the farther it is from extinction. A nation that preserves its own territory, its own language, its own religion, its own culture, its own political system, and its own physical appearance is more easily identifiable and less likely to perish than a nation that does not. The above is merely descriptive; it does not address whether (and, if so, under what circumstances) a nation should abandon any of these features.

Tribes and clans are also divinely determined, and Scripture treats them as significant (cf. Gen. 10:5, 18, 20, 31, 32; 24:38; 36:40; Exod. 6:14–25; Num. 26). Many of the same features that generally accompany nations also accompany tribes and clans on a smaller scale. For example, tribes and clans generally have their own territory, and their dialects may differ from that of other tribes and clans in their nation. They may also have their own unique cultural practices and smaller political systems.

These blood communities­ — family, clan, tribe, nation, and race — are natural, not socially constructed, and they impose moral obligations on us. (I will not address all our moral obligations toward our natural communities; for more on this, see Johannes Althusius, Politica, chapter 3.) But the biblical ethic generally moves in concentric circles outward from the moral agent (cf. Matt. 7:5). Therefore, we ordinarily have greater obligations to our family than to our clan, greater obligations to our clan than to our tribe, greater obligations to our tribe than to our nation, and greater obligations to our nation than to our race. And so our obligations extend from our parents outward to all our blood relations, as Thomas Aquinas writes in ST II-II, Q. 101, Art. 1, co. [my trans.]:

Man is made a debtor to other men in various ways, according to their various excellence and the various benefits he receives from them. In both respects God holds the highest place, since he is most excellent and is for us the first principle of being and government. In the second place, the principles of our being and government are our parents and our fatherland, by whom and in which we have been born and nourished. Therefore, man is a debtor especially to his parents and his fatherland, after God. Hence just as it pertains to religion to worship God, so it pertains to piety, in a secondary degree, to honor one’s parents and one’s fatherland. Included in the honor given to our parents is the honor given to all our blood relations, since they are called our blood relations because they descend from the same parents, according to the Philosopher. In the honor given to our fatherland is included the honor given to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our fatherland. Therefore piety extends principally to these.

Before we turn to the other natural communities, we should briefly address how important the doctrine of blood communities is for the Christian faith. How we view these communities is important for understanding our duties toward others. But it is also an essential part of the gospel. As we saw above, grace builds on nature. According to the gospel, Jesus Christ had to be a Semite, an Israelite, a Judahite, and a son of David (cf. Gen. 9:26–27; 49:10; Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:32, 69; Rom. 1:3; Rev. 5:5). These categories, then, must be natural, not artificial, and they must be significant. They are not supernatural, and so are of no saving significance in themselves. But they are antecedent natural realities on which the structure of redemptive grace rests. To deny this is not necessarily formal heresy (by which I mean the error of teaching a doctrine that one knows undermines essential features of the gospel), but it is material heresy (by which I mean the error of inconsistently believing a doctrine that, if believed consistently, would undermine the gospel).

Communities of Space

The second type of natural community is the community of space. Human beings are spatially limited. Therefore, we cannot discharge the same duty in two places at once. As mentioned above, our moral obligations move outward in concentric circles. So my moral obligations to another man generally decrease the farther away he is from me. Globalist philanthropy pretends that we have the same responsibilities toward everyone on the planet and so pretends that we (or at least some of us) are gods. Christianity, on the contrary, recognizes man’s finitude and teaches us that we especially are responsible for those who are near us. We cannot solve problems halfway around the world, but we may be able to solve problems down the street. Globalism is in fact nothing other than an anti-theistic imperialism that seeks to erase natural communities in favor of a homogeneous world community under the management of a godlike central government. But God has created irreversible natural distinctions within the human race and has imposed on us obligations suitable to our limitations within these natural communities. Globalism, then, is necessarily futile. The obligation to aid those who are near us, even where other close natural relations are not present, is demonstrated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Yet our communities of space generally overlap with our communities of blood and time. When we are born, we are initially bound by our community of blood to the same community of space. And since most people spend most of their lives near their family, and since traditions (which belong to the community of time) are ordinarily transmitted through families, the community of time generally depends on the community of space. Prolonged, especially generational, relationships on the same soil reinforce not only our commitment to a particular place, but also to the people of that place, with whom we share blood and tradition. From this relationship to our land and its inhabitants arises patriotism, the love for the people of our patria, or fatherland. 

Communities of Time

The last type of natural community is the community of time. Our moral obligations in this relation become stronger the longer the relation lasts, whether directly or indirectly. Directly, we generally have greater obligations to our friends and family the longer we are in relationships with them. This is not always the case. For example, a man owes more loyalty to his wife whom he married yesterday than to his parents whom he has known his whole life (cf. Gen. 2:24). Yet a man generally has greater obligations to a friend he has had for twenty years than to a friend he met a week ago. Indirectly, as members of families, nations, states, and so on, we generally owe loyalty to inherited traditions (insofar as these traditions are not intrinsically immoral), and the more established these traditions are, the more loyalty we owe them (cf. Prov. 22:28; 23:10). As Kirk notes in his essay “Ten Conservative Principles,” “The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.” A group of people who are not bound by ties of blood and who have not all met each other may be members of a community of time because they have inherited common traditions. Yet these indirect communities of time generally overlap with communities of blood and space, since we commonly inherit cultural and political traditions from our ancestors and from those with whom we live. For example, English political traditions generally existed in predominantly ethnic English communities and spaces that were inhabited by Englishmen. As time passes, if a community of blood retains its identity and continues to transmit its religion and culture from one generation to the next, this community will develop in ways that distinguish it from other blood communities and in ways that no other blood community could merely adopt in a few generations. For example, a nation with two thousand years of Christian civilization behind it cannot successfully assimilate large numbers of people from another nation that has been Christianized for only a generation, much less one that has not been Christianized at all.

We earlier identified the church as a supernatural community and the family as a natural community. But what about the state? Where does it fit among the various communities? The state consists of a group of people inhabiting the same territory who are organized into a political body with a common civil government and inherited political traditions. The state is divinely mandated (Rom. 13:1) and arises out of man’s natural condition as a political animal. Wherever there are groups of men, there will be states. There are moral and immoral states. Moral states are those political communities whose organizing principles are consistent with God’s moral law, and immoral states are those whose organizing principles violate God’s moral law. God has granted man some latitude in the arrangement of his political affairs, and so there are various political structures that are not intrinsically immoral (e.g., monarchy, aristocracy, republic). Yet even among the moral options for organizing political communities, some are better and some are worse, and which is better or worse depends on circumstances and so may differ for different natural communities. The state, both in its constitution and in the actions of its government, is not permitted to prevent us from discharging our duties to the supernatural community or to our natural communities. Indeed, the state exists to serve both. While the state as such is a natural community (since human nature demands it), a particular form of the state is only natural for us insofar as we have inherited it in the community of time and insofar as we are members of the community of space where our state has jurisdiction. So we are naturally obligated to show loyalty to our state, and we may not change its constitution by rejecting the legal system we have inherited. But we may change the constitution of our state morally by altering our political order according to the legal system we have inherited. Here is the difference between revolution and reform. The state, then, belongs partly to the community of space (because it belongs to people inhabiting the same territory), partly to the community of time (because the people in a state inherit political traditions which they are then morally obligated to respect), and generally to the community of blood (since the members of the governing class in a state often belong to the same community of blood and since members of a political community generally inherit their political traditions and their territory from their blood ancestors).

Part 3: Challenges of Defining and Relating Natural Communities

Defining the above communities is difficult because their boundaries can be vague. The rules are designed to address the needs of common human experience, not rare exceptions or the “fuzzy” edges. But only rationalists will deny the existence or importance of nations, for example, simply because we cannot precisely define a nation in a way that includes all and only members of that nation. As G.K. Chesterton writes in “The Patriotic Idea,”

Lastly, if he says, as he certainly will, that it is unreasonable to draw the limit at one place rather than another, and that he does not know what is a nation and what is not, we shall say: “By this sign you are conquered; your weakness lies precisely in the fact that you do not know a nation when you see it. There are many kinds of love affairs, there are many kinds of song, but all ordinary people know a love affair or a song when they see it. They know that a concubinage is not necessarily a love affair, that a work in rhyme is not necessarily a song. If you do not understand vague words, go and sit among the pedants, and let the work of the world be done by people who do.” It is better occasionally to call some mountains hills, and some hills mountains, than to be in that mental state in which one thinks, because there is no fixed height for a mountain, that there are no mountains in the world.

Once we have defined these categories, we face the additional difficulty of determining how to order their relative importance. I cannot address every case of competing loyalties in this article. But I will give two examples.

First, do we have greater obligations to our family (a natural blood community) or to the church (a supernatural, redemptive community)? We may be inclined to say we have greater obligations to the church, since our bond with believers is spiritual and eternal. But there are at least some cases in which our devotion must be to our family rather than to the church. For example, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for teaching people to give money to God rather than to their parents (Matt. 15:1–9). Of course, giving our resources to God is good; it is not in itself sinful. But when we must choose between supporting our parents financially and supporting the church, we are obligated to support our parents (cf. 1 Tim. 5:3–16). As a friend noted, if we must choose between being at the bedside of our dying mother or the bedside of a dying church member, we ordinarily should be at the bedside of our dying mother, even if she is an unbeliever. A safe guideline here is to prefer our natural blood communities in those things pertaining to nature and to prefer the church in those things pertaining to redemption.

Second, do we have greater obligations to a neighbor of a different nation or race or to a man in our natural blood community who lives farther away? Again, the answer is complex. If we can help either, but not both, we should ordinarily help the man who belongs to our natural blood community, if the blood relation is relatively close. Imagine, for example, that a disaster strikes the state of Joe, a black man, and vital resources, such as water, are scarce. Joe’s white neighbor needs water. But so does Joe’s son who lives on the opposite side of the state. He has enough water to help either, but not both. He should ordinarily help his son. But if the choice is between helping his white neighbor and helping a black man whom he has never met, he should ordinarily help his white neighbor. The nature of the help, however, will also inform our answer to the question. If the help pertains to his white neighbor as an individual, he should prioritize helping him over helping a black individual whom he does not know. But if the nature of the help is understood to include advancing the interests of the white community as such at the expense of Joe’s own nation or race as such, then he is forbidden to offer this help and must advocate for the interests of his own nation or race, just as he would promote the interests of his own family rather than the interests of another’s (though neither man is necessarily sinning by promoting the interests of his own family, as long as he does not violate the moral law). The same principles apply, of course, if Joe is white and his neighbor is black.

Accurately assessing our various relationships and weighing our obligations can be difficult, especially since changing circumstances can alter the relative importance of our communities. But the solution is not to deny the reality of our natural identities and relations. Rather, the difficulty of the task should humble us, and we should be content to discharge our duties in the various concrete communities to which we belong, including our families and nations. So, aside from spiritual concerns, take no thought for other people’s natural communities. Sufficient for your people is the evil thereof.

Michael Hunter

Michael Hunter is a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and an ordained elder in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He received his BA in Greek from Wake Forest University, his MSt in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature from the University of Oxford, and his MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. He has served as a translator or assistant editor on several projects, including Reformation Worship (2018), Disease, Scarcity, and Famine: A Reformation Perspective on God and Plagues (2021), volume 3 of Petrus Van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology (2021), and The Book of Ruth Explained in Twenty-Eight Homilies (forthcoming).