The Common Good

Life, Death, Taxes, and the Common Good

I haven’t written much in the past two months. I think it’s because I’ve experienced a lot of death lately — death and new life, actually.

Months ago we decided to focus this month’s column on the common good. Then over the past month, several issues moved to the fore in our public discourse: gun control, immigration reform, and the budget. All three are ultimately about the common good.

But, I have a confession to make. As I considered what I would write about the common good, I drew a blank. I found it hard to focus on urgent political questions when attending the memorial service of my friend,Richard Twiss, after holding vigil in his hospital room for three days. I found it hard to maintain interest in higher questions of politics after speaking to my 94-year-old grandmother about death, assuring her that death has no sting for those who have walked with God. Days later she passed away. I found it hard to care about chained CPI when I was staring down at my 10-week-old niece during her Baptism and praying I have what it takes to be a good godmother to her. And I found it difficult to focus enough to wonk-it-up on gun control as I stood over my dad’s hospital bed after he suffered heart problems and had to be rushed to the emergency room — knowing he and my mom are separating.

It was in that last tense hospital room, with my dad (and mom), that I had a revelation: this is the stuff of life. This is the stuff everyday people go through every single day: birth, death, health issues, family brokenness, and the list goes on.

If this is the stuff of everyday life for everyday people, then how can faith leaders make space in their minds, hearts, sermons, and leadership to call their congregations to “work toward the common good?” How can faith leaders carve out the space to understand (or even care) what chained CPI is? How do they prioritize understanding the difference between a path to legal status and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants? And how do they possibly carve the space to connect those dots to the Gospel?

In light of death, life, and the raw stuff of life — like the pinch families feel this time of year while filing taxes — the common good can feel lofty, insignificant, extra-curricular, or like the self-indulgent rhetoric of the political class.

All the talk about the common good began to sound more like the teachers in a Charlie Brown special: “Wah wah wah wah.”

And then, as I held my newborn niece, Dove, it hit me: I am seeing the common good all wrong. I was seeing it as a laundry list of political issues we should care about and have to help the church care about. When you put it that way, who would want to “care” about chained CPI or even immigration reform, for that matter?

But the common good is not only about politics. The common good is about life and how we live it. It is ultimately about how we are all connected. It is about how our love or lack of love affects our families, our neighbors, our communities, our cities, our nation, and our world.

The common good is about personal brokenness. Have we taken the time to let Jesus come in and heal the wounds that distort the image of God within of us — wounds that drive daughters and sons, mothers and fathers to self-destruction? Have we taken the time to let the Great Physician heal the personal wounds that break families and friendships, slicing the central fabric of society? We are all connected.

The common good is about reconciliation. Have I followed the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and reconciled with my enemy (or at least tried) before bringing my sacrifice to the altar (Matthew 5:24)? According to Scripture, my love affair with bitterness and failure to reconcile has the power to break communion within the church (Matthew 18:15-18). Broken families and broken churches have an impact on society. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and health serves the common good because we are all connected.

The common good is about truth telling. Do I love truth or have I become bedfellows with lies? Lying is such a big deal in scripture that God highlights it in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16) Why would lying be so important? Because lies spin webs authored by the evil one, not God. The outcome is death, not life; broken relationship with God and others, not reconciliation and integrity. Truth-telling serves the common good. We are all connected.

The common good is about generosity and humility and ultimately it is about love. Are we cultivating generosity? Are we cultivating humility? Are we cultivating the kind of love that reflects God’s love for us — the kind of love that is poured out on enemies (Matthew 5: 43-48, Luke 23:34), extravagant love like the Father’s love for his lost son (Luke 15), generous love like the love that flowed from the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)? The state of our families and churches and communities and cities and nation is a reflection of our ability to love. We are all connected.

That is why immigration reform matters. That is why gun control matters. That is why creation care matters. That is why whether the FY14 budget cuts Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits matters. That is why it matters whether we, as citizens of a democracy, are content with minimum wages that trap working families in poverty. That is why America’s engagement with Syria and Israel and Afghanistan and North Korea matters. It matters because we are all connected.

As much as my ability to love my mother, father, sister, daughter, son, and nephew matters, so too it matters how I love the little girl across the tracks who lives in a single-parent family and depends on food stamps and universal lunches at her public school for her meals. It matters how I love the 73-year-old woman who depends on the Social Security check every month. And it matters how I love the undocumented immigrants who pick my vegetables, cleans my hotel rooms, mows my lawns, washes my dishes at fine restaurants, and drives my cab. I don’t know their names, but Jesus does, and each of them matters to him. So, they matter to me. As much as I love my niece, I love the quartet of the vulnerable, as Nicholas Wolterstorff calls them: the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, and the poor through my public voice, my taxes, and my vote. In a democracy, we are all profoundly connected.

On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, by Jim Wallis is a deep reflection on the ancient concept of the common good. Released this month, the book is already launching conversations about the common good across the nation. Please read it. Join The Common Good Forum and start the conversation in your church and community.

The common good is not only about politics. It is about love of neighbor, love of enemy, love of the least and love of God. It has political implications, but it is not fundamentally about politics. The common good is about our discipleship. It is about our walk on this earth with God and neighbor.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and a member of Emerging Voices

Image: Abstract heart cardiogram, Petr Vaclavek / Shutterstock.com

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