Thoughts on the Common Good

I met this gentleman in an abandoned building while touring the backside of Dayton with case managers from Miami Valley Housing Opportunities. Whether it’s for one homeless person or the planet, improving conditions for others creates a better common good.

The term, Common Good, is often disparaged for political, cultural, or religious reasons. A good friend questioned my use of those words, so I’d like to clarify why I consider this a useful expression.

First, we need to take this petition of the Lord’s Prayer to heart: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.  Jesus stated and understood the kingdom of God to be in effect now, not in some future state.  We humans are responsible for trying to fulfill God’s will on earth. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, God’s will is the common good.

In an excellent book on the subject, On God’s Side, Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian voice for serving Jesus today, says: “…faith should be lived out in our public life for the common good.  As people of faith, our challenge is to rise above political ideology and lead on moral grounds. Don’t go right, don’t do left; go deeper.”  “The common good comprises the best of both ideas–we need to be personally responsible and socially just.”

That word “just” is used a lot in understanding the common good. Marcus Borg thinks that one of the most important books in the Bible is Amos which focuses on justice for all people. A cable TV commentator ranted several years ago about how one should run from any religion that says they’re for “social justice.” Unfortunately, this showed an utter non-understanding of the Old Testament and Jesus’ message.  Essentially the Bible is all about creating wholeness in individuals and societies. The contemporary term “wholeness” (akin to “holiness”) is thematically the same as “salvation” as used in the Bible.

John Wesley described salvation as “not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul…the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.”  He said:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Jim Wallis says, “When Christians do what Jesus has told us to do, when we act on behalf of others, when we really do love our neighbor as ourselves, when we treat the world around us as the parish that we are responsible for, it speaks loudly about God.”

Wallis quotes the Catholic Bishops’ Conference (British Isles) definition: “Common good is the whole network of social conditions which enable human individuals and groups to flourish and live a fully, genuinely human life.”  Later he states:  “Jesus calls us to conversion and to community, to personal salvation and to social justice, to individual transformation and to societal change.  People come to Jesus Christ as persons, but then they join something called the body of Christ, which is the only community that exists to serve its nonmembers and has the vocation of demonstrating God’s purposes in the world.”

I strongly feel that the common good is our goal for creating wholeness in and of the world. It is the salvation we seek for ourselves and others. However, I recognize two problems. One, we’re very human and will never achieve perfection in this concept. If we could, we wouldn’t be human. It’s the quest that’s important. Our lives become rich by loving ourselves to be all we can be, and by helping others, our neighbors throughout the world, do the same.

Now comes the hard part, defining the common good in specific, measurable terms. Once again, we’ll never totally agree on exactly what the ultimate goals are and probably not even many of the objectives or methods to get there. However, we have a Christian responsibility to contribute to the fullest extent of our capability. Comparing any list alongside Jesus’ teachings gives us a good way to measure most human goals. Plus, all major religions have similar overarching aspirations. So, thoughtful humans can come to a consensus of what would feel like “the common good.”

What are the Judeo-Christian principles for “wholeness of the common good?”

Freedom from unmet needs: Whatever unfairly holds someone back from achieving their full human potential.

Freedom from fear: Our personal safety and that of our community, group, nation.

Freedom of opportunity: There’s a level playing field for all appropriate human endeavors, supported by laws, education, taxes, social systems, and infrastructure.

Acceptance and affirmation of each person. Not necessarily agreement about beliefs, lifestyle, or human choices.

Care of the world, such that we make it not only hospitable for future generations, but that it’s improved beyond the current debasement.

These are baseline issues. The “common good” doesn’t mean that all people have to be or think alike, equally succeed, nor get the same results. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And every religion reveres a version of the golden rule. If we apply those criteria to what we ask of ourselves and others, we will be working toward the common good, the will of God.

What’s a simple example of the common good today? In this Covid-19 pandemic time, it’s serving your neighbor by staying home, wearing a mask in public, and washing your hands frequently. That’s what Jesus meant by love your neighbor as yourself. Both you and all of society benefit from showing mercy with these simple acts.

_____________________________   Art Fabian — May 12, 2020

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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.