After listening to this week’s episode of On The Media I was left wondering why we are so obsessed with John F. Kennedy as a culture. I never really thought about it before. Part of me really liked the explanation that it is Baby Boomer narcissism, it appealed to my generational superiority complex. Obviously the assassination has something to do with it. I know I often think about James Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable. With all that I have read about the assassination, I have yet to see anyone adequately answer the questions he raises.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
A mighty plea for the common good. As individuals, as a country, as a world community, could we sacrifice together for a better world?
An example of JFK working for the common good during his presidency is the Cuban missile crisis. With JFK’s middle way through the Cuban missile crisis, by the grace of God and obviously the help of the Soviet Union, both sides were able to sacrifice self-interest for the good of the world. It demonstrated, at least in some way, his call for the common good. Kennedy was president when many people were struggling for the common good. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech” was delivered the same year Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson was able to use JFK’s assassination to propel forward civil rights legislation. Before being sidetracked by Vietnam, LBJ proposed “A Great Society.”
Over the summer and fall I have been reading David McCullough’s Truman. I have been asking, as a I read, what happened to politicians who are “forward looking” (as Truman might say) who will fight for the common good and a better tomorrow. Where are politicians who propose “Square deals, New Deals, Fair Deals, Marshall plans, and paint visions of a better tomorrow by mutual cooperation?
I guess the United States fight over health care has been the closest thing we have to someone calling for us to work together for the common good. Healthcare has been a problem. Obama pushed congress to solve it. Now we have a mess.
Instead of working towards the common good, the opponents attack it without offering alternatives. In order to pass it and get reelected, the President lied about people being able to keep insurance plans that they currently have. The argument that upsets me the most in this mess is that it is somehow “generational theft.” It sounds good at first. Why should young adults have to subsidize older unhealthier people? So that all might have healthcare? We all sacrifice so that all might have the medical care they need in the most trying times in their lives? So that when a young adult has an expensive illness they can get healthcare, preexisting condition and all?
Without a sense of the common good we are left with the lowest common denominator in terms of our behavior. Fear, greed, cynicism, and narcissism rule the day. With no common goal, with no hope in something better, we get stuck in depressingly hopeless environments where we all are fighting for whatever scrap of power or money that is still left.
The common good changes the dynamics of power. A vision of a better tomorrow can give us something to work towards that bridges differences and self-interest. At its best, it allows multiple parties to win in the midst of conflict and disagreement. It can be the glue that holds people together in the midst of strife.
As I read with horror what is happening in the United Methodist church, and then with even more horror at what some think should happen, especially in terms of our debates on human sexuality and relationships, I wish the common good would be more part of our conversation. If our purpose as a church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then is this not what we should all be striving for? Will trials with vindictive punishments make disciples for Jesus Christ? Will calls for schism? Will interest groups using this as a wedge issue to consolidate their power and raise funds be making disciples when all is said and done?
Nothing is set in stone. What we do is less important than why we do what we do. What are we going to prioritize? Who or what will we lift up at the end of the day? Are we willing to sacrifice/surrender our desires, our power, our need to be right, our self-righteousness for something larger than ourselves? Maybe we remember Kennedy because we long for a time when felt like were were working for something larger than our own petty self-interests. Maybe we can do that again. It is my prayer that we will.
“Program from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.” ©2013 Copyright National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution. Licensed Under Creative Commons.