"Loving Your Neighbor Professionally": Theology, Social Work, and the Limits of Moral Agency
In response to God’s call to love neighbors, some Christians in the United States enter the social work profession. Yet, within a severely curtailed welfare system and the asymmetries of the professional helping relationship, moral hazards abound in discerning the shape of this love. Charged with supporting individuals and families meet their basic needs, social workers decide and act in conditions of insufficient recourses and unmanageable caseloads. Moreover, they frequently serve as gatekeepers to medical treatment, housing, or, paradigmatically, another’s children. Paternalism and exhaustion threaten. Drawing upon interviews with thirty-five Christian social workers in the American southeast, this dissertation traces their reasons for the work, their moral deliberations and judgments, their confessions of uncertainty and regret, and their prayers. In doing so, I offer a theological anthropology and phenomenology of moral agency pressed to its limits. I contend that at these limits, the human agent finds herself to be a creature dependent on God’s care for herself and for others, a confession often mediated by prayer. As a corollary, I illustrate how a properly Christian account of the moral life depends upon reconstituting a version of divine command theory situated in close relation with a prayer-infused practical reason.
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