The Common Good

Potluck Perspective

The "Church Potluck" is an old and cherished tradition in this country. Churches of all denominations and backgrounds ask their members to bring and donate a dish to share with the rest of the congregation for a lunch that they all eat together. Each person or family brings a salad, a "main dish," or a desert and lays it out on the table to share with everyone else.

There is of course always the person who fails to bring a dish but seems to eat the most. There are those who bring a full roast chicken cooked to perfection and those who bring a crunched loaf of white bread they picked up at the store on the way. There is the woman who has brought the same unpalatable looking casserole that no one has yet to try for the past 20 years, and every once in a while everybody brings desserts.

Almost always, the church potluck is "unfair." People eat more than they brought, or eat better food than what they offered. There are even the people who come expecting to give nothing and leave with a lot. And yet, for generations, this tradition has survived and is even growing among a younger generation in their 20s.

A church potluck is not the American economy. I would never suggest that we try to run it as such. But this simple tradition teaches a few lessons. First, in all aspects of life, there are always going to be times when things seem a little unfair and some people will try to get away with whatever they can. Second, most people, in their own way, want to contribute to the common good, and when that happens there is always more than enough for all of us.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC, Americans seem to think of the administration's housing plan a lot like they think of a potluck. A significant majority, 68 percent, support the plan, with only 25 percent in opposition to it. However, when asked about the "fairness" of the plan, 48 percent of respondents said that it unfairly benefited those who were fiscally irresponsible. In a separate poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, 64 percent responded that the plan is unfair to those that pay their mortgages on time.

It is natural to feel uncomfortable or upset at the idea of paying for your neighbor's house because they acted irresponsibly. Indeed, it is of the utmost importance for this plan to be monitored and safeguarded from abuse. In spite of that, it will also certainly benefit some people who we feel are "undeserving" or even just should have known better. But, as indicated in the poll, that doesn't stop most people from supporting it. A significant majority of the American people look at the plan, recognize its faults, and support it anyway because they understand that what is good for their neighbor is not just the right thing but is good for them as well.

Earlier this week, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressed the U.S. Congress and said:

Let us remember there is a common bond that unites us as human beings across different beliefs, cultures, and nationalities. It is at the core of my convictions, the essence of America's spirit, and the heart of all faiths. And it must be at the centre of our response to the crisis of today. At their best, our values tell us that we cannot be wholly content while others go without, cannot be fully comfortable while millions go without comfort, cannot be truly happy while others grieve alone.

And this too is true. All of us know that in a recession the wealthiest, the ten most powerful, and the most privileged can find a way through for themselves. So we do not value the wealthy less when we say that our first duty is to help the not so wealthy. We do not value the powerful less when we say that our first responsibility is to help the powerless. And we do not value those who are secure less when we say that our first priority must be to help the insecure. These recent events have forced us all to think anew. And while I have learnt many things, I keep returning to something I first learned in my father's church as a child. In this most modern of crises I am drawn to the most ancient of truths; wherever there is hardship, wherever there is suffering, we cannot, we will not, pass by on the other side.

It is a danger in this crisis to assume and expect the worst of your neighbor; to live as if they are ready to take from you what you have left if only given the opportunity; and for our only hope to be to separate ourselves more from others, act as solitary individuals, and pursue our own selfish interests more than ever before. But the lessons we learn in church, from potlucks and pulpits, show us a better way.

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