Christians need to adopt a WOA approach to ethics.

WOA is an awkward acronym that represents the biblical triad of widows, orphans and aliens – WOA.

These social groups represented women, men and children that existed on the margins of their communities. They struggled daily for dignity and survival.

The quality of care provided to widows, orphans and aliens is a biblical criterion for evaluating the morality of a community or nation.

This approach to ethics offers an important perspective that can be used to analyze current social issues.

This way of doing ethical analysis demands that we consider moral dilemmas based on the needs of people whose lives are impacted by poverty, discrimination, hunger and violence.

Do our actions give priority to addressing the hardships and isolation of those who live in the borderlands looking over the fence at those who live with relative security and dignity?

An ethical approach provides a vantage point from which to analyze moral issues and evaluate proposed actions.

The utilitarian approach gives priority to results that bring happiness to the largest number of people.

The ethics of egoism emphasizes personal responsibility and agency for one’s own well-being.

The virtue approach inquires about character and values required to face moral dilemmas.

Duty ethics concentrates attention on wholesome motives and social obligations that are inherent with responsible citizenship.

The altruistic approach seeks the common good of all people.

There is need for another approach to ethics that will cast light on some of the most pressing moral issues of our time.

Poverty, hunger, racism, violence and disease are social evils that drain and extinguish innocent lives.

We have chosen the somewhat clumsy term “the WOA principle” because the Bible brings these three groups together in a manner that emphasizes the community’s obligation to care for its vulnerable members.

This model inspired by the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures emphasizes that God is the protector of the widow, orphan and exile (see, for example, Deuteronomy 10:18 and Psalm 146:9).

The traditions contained in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures span a period of almost 2,000 years. Life is contested and fragile at every turn during these two millennia.

At one end, Abraham is forced to reside as an alien in Egypt because of a famine (Genesis 12:10). Near the other end, the apostle Paul organizes a collection of funds from churches in the Roman Empire to alleviate a famine in Palestine (2 Corinthians 8-9), accepting the ethical standard of remembering the poor (Galatians 2:10).

The widow, the orphan and the exile are social groups that represent extreme poverty and marginalization.

Of course, not every member of these broad categories was destitute. However, in general these three classes of people lived at the edges of social and economic life in their communities.

They came to represent the poor that struggled to survive deprived of dignity and security. Accordingly, the prophetic tradition provided moral instruction that recalled the Torah’s concern for the widow, the orphan and the alien.

Drawing on the work of biblical scholar Donald Gowan, we draw attention to certain characteristics to the social vulnerability and isolation of these three groups:

  • Widows are poor and powerless because of an unexpected event (the death of their husbands) and their gender.
  • Orphans are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of an event (death of their fathers), their age and – in the case of girls – their gender.
  • Aliens are marginalized because adverse circumstances forced them to relocate outside of their ethnic and kinship groups. Gender may be an additional factor of their vulnerability.

These different factors are suggestive as we seek to apply the WOA principle to ethical issues of our own time.

Gordon King serves as Canadian Baptist Ministries’ (CBM’s) resource specialist. He recently published “Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting our Lives in the Parables of Jesus.” His writings can also be found on his website.

Rupen Das is global field staff with CBM based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and a research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Canada. He is author of “Strangers in the Kingdom” (with Brent Hamoud). His writings also can be found on his blog.

Editor’s note: This if the first of a two-part series. It is adapted, with permission, from a multi-part series first appearing on King’s website. Part two is available here.

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