Common Good

It was about this time last year when I listened to a sermon on the common good.  The pastor argued we had no concept of it now in America.  He preached that the common good is a theme in the Gospels.  His sermon named a concern I have about modern American life.

I started wrestling with it when I was introduced to the concept of the tragedy of the commons.  The tragedy of the commons is that everyone can act in their self-interest and ultimately create a tragedy of epic proportions.  An example is declining fish stocks.  Each fishing boats self-interest is to catch as many fish as possible.  If every fishing expedition acted solely on this self-interest, a sustainable population of a particular fish could be wiped out.  Ultimately everyone suffers if everyone acts out of personal self-interest alone.

Many of the big issues facing the country could be explained in terms issues around the common good and the tragedy of the commons.  Whether it is global warming, entitlement spending, or deficit spending, if we all act on our immediate self-interest, we are creating future problems.  No one inherently wants to change to more expensive energy sources.  Most people do not want to give up entitlements they are benefiting from or think they will benefit from.  Few people want higher taxes.

What makes the tragedy of the common more problematic is we have no sense of the common good.  I was talking to someone who I do not know very well the other day and he told me Obama was a socialist.  I was appalled.  On a scale of economic positions, Obama might be slightly liberal, but he is no where near socialist levels.  Very few people are arguing for the common good economically.  A socialist would, but as a country we sacrificed socialism on the altar of capitalism a long time ago.

Many people will speak eloquently and passionately about liberty.  Who is speaking up for the common good?  If a politician makes a proposal that might cost some, so more might benefit, they are called a socialist and that usually ends the discussion.  Large problems go unsolved, because we cannot work towards realistic and reasonable solutions.

Personal liberty needs to be tempered by the common good.  We have a responsibility to society.  Government at its best protects liberty and looks out for the common good.  A society requires citizens to be responsible to each other.  Even forms of anarchy, require mutual responsibility to really work.

All of us living in the United States benefit from our past efforts related to the common good.  Schools, roads, sewer lines, water lines, power lines, hospitals, higher education, have often been been funded by either the government or private citizens concerned about the common good.  Time and time again, people have identified problems, dreamed solutions, and then worked together so that all might benefit.

Without a sense of the common good acting in our own self-interest hurts everyone.  When Eduardo Saverin renounced his American citizenship, possibly for tax purposes, he acted in his own self-interest.  Unfortunately though, the common good was hurt.  He benefited from the common good all the time he lived and was educated in the United States.  Eduaro apparently feels no obligation to give back as a thankful citizen might.  Using the system when it is in your self-interest, and abandoning it when it is not, might make sense in terms of liberty, but hurts the common good.

I see this in the church all the time.  On paper we might say the church is not about us.  In the United Methodist church, the purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our focus should be on those outside the church.  We have Good News to share.  What we do should be based on discerning what God is calling us to do.  Not our personal whim.

Unfortunately, we have bought into the whole notion of personal liberty and self-interest.  Church, then, is not about God or God’s work, but about us.  When I was in college I read a book Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium.  The book highlighted how people shopped for faith as if it was a product to be consumed.

This impacts the common good.  A church is at its best when everyone is using their gifts and graces for the work God has given us in our own particular contexts.  Ministry is difficult.  We all experience situations that are less than ideal.  For every mountaintop, there will be long ascents and difficult descents.  Often we will struggle with our co-workers.

When ministry is about the kingdom of God (a theological sense of the common good), we will weather through the storms by the grace of God.  When ministry is about our own self-interest, we leave the church because of a host of reasons not related to God.  We will shop for a church with better goods. Where will we get the better deal in terms of service for efforts rendered?

The excuses are legion.  People complain that they are not fed.  They get envious of greener pastures.  Some churches will ask what can they do for you instead of what can we do together for God.  Anyone can look around at any church and realize there are problems.  Perceived problems are always good excuses for leaving.

Often there is no sense of the common good, or God’s kingdom.  If God is calling you to move to a different place, then you better do it.  Yet, if you are moving because it feeds your ego, or is giving you a better deal, how is that helping the kingdom?  Does that full service church really need one more stat?

If we all act in our self-interest, God’s work gets neglected.  Jesus did not call us to be the church solely for our own benefit.  God’s gift at Pentecost was not to be locked away for personal use.  The farther we move away from the common good as a society, the harder the church will have to work for the kingdom.  God’s way is not selfish self-interest.  Jesus did not say grab the gold and follow me if its convenient.  We ultimately, invite others into discipleship, not for our benefit or glory, but for God’s.

In the public domain.

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