The Common Good

Surprising Our 'Enemies:' What If We Flipped the Script?

Editor’s Note: Jim Wallis’ latest book On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good is sparking a national conversation on what it means to come together on issues that traditionally divide the nation. Bloggers Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins are having that conversation here, on the God’s Politics blog. Follow along, and join the discussion in the comments section.

What if we surprised our enemies?

I mean, really surprised them. What if we surprised them with something totally unexpected? When our personal, political, and national enemies strike us, they expect us to strike back. That’s been the human script since the foundations of human culture. We mimic violence blow for blow. Only each side wants to be the side who delivers the final blow.

What if we surprised our enemies and changed the script?

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We Are in a Battle for the Common Good

I hear it over and over again both during my conversations on the road, and as I skim the headlines each day, that we are in a battle for the common good.

I learned about the Boston bombings as my plane landed in Portland, Ore., traveling for an 18-city book tour to spark a conversation on “the common good.” As I read and watched more about the tragedy, there unfolded such a stark and brutal contrast between the explicit intent to kill, hurt, and maim others, and the actions of those who rushed toward the blast, risking their own lives to help the wounded. One act of vicious violence was aimed to destroy the common good and create a society based on fear. The others displayed the highest commitment to redeem the common good and insist that we will not become a nation based on fear, but on mutual service and support.

When real or imagined grievances combine with rage, religious fundamentalism, political extremism, mental illness, or emotional instability, we lose the common good to dangerous violence, fear, and deep distrust in the social environment. But when grievances lead to civil discourse, moral engagement, and even love and forgiveness, different outcomes are possible.

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Gender, Sex, and a Trans-Inclusive Common Good

I am privileged to have a body that fits my gender, and for the majority of my life I was unaware of this ingrained and assumed personal and public privilege. As is the case with many in our world, during my adolescent years I never realized that “gender” and “sex” were two different aspects of my male identity, or in the words of Virginia Prince, I was unaware that “… gender is what’s above the neck and sex is what’s below the neck.” In light of these often ignored differences between gender and sex, I have come to recognize that many in our world do not experience full harmony between the two, and the result is a significantly misunderstood and strikingly marginalized transsexual and transgendered community.

While the differences between gender and sex are complicated, and the various distinctions between cultural and biological identity constructs are ongoing, The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that 1 percent of all U.S. citizens are “trans.” However, as gender variance is rarely discussed in mainstream society, it would appear that far too many continue to make false generalizations based upon sensationalized media accounts of cross-dressing and transsexuality. As stated by Deborah Rudacille in The Riddle of Gender: Science, Activism, and Transgender Rights:

Gender variance still seems to be considered a more suitable topic for late-night talk show jokes than for journals of public health and public policy, even though a recent needs assessment survey in Washington, D.C., estimated that the median life expectancy of a transgendered person in the nation’s capitol is only thirty-seven years … Though many are far better off materially that the subjects of the Washington, D.C., study, transgendered and transsexual people of every social class and at every income level share many of the same vulnerabilities. Public prejudices make it difficult for visibly transgendered or transsexual people to gain an education, employment, housing, or health care, and acute gender dysphoria leaves people at high risk for drug abuse, depression, and suicide.  

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VIDEO: The Story of the Common Good

I recently went back to the Lincoln Memorial to tell the story of how and why I wrote my new book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. And I reflected on my favorite Lincoln quote, displayed on the book’s cover:

“My concern is not whether God is on our side: my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

I invite you to watch this short video, and to engage in the discussion as we move forward toward our common good. Blessings.

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A Caution in Pursuing the Common Good

Whenever I hear the term Common Good I think of Thomas Paine’s infamous pamphlet Common Sense,which challenged the British government and the royal monarchy, but did not challenge the institution of slavery. As an African-American woman I enter the Common Good conversation cautiously because I know that in our society we have a habit of taking what is good for Western hegemony and making it the standard for everyone else.

As we pursue the Common Good, let us remember what was once considered common and good during earlier points in American history: chattel slavery, indigenous genocide, and institutionalized sexism. To truly come to a Common Good, we need to honor a diversity of voices and challenge our assumptions about what is common and what is good. Our default is to take what is good for our culture, gender, or community and make it the common standard for all. I have experienced being invited into organizations that were aiming to do good in the world, but an expectation existed that I would be silent about my unique concerns as an African woman. I know that denying my reality can never be good for my spiritual, physical, or social well being.

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Balancing our Budget through Humility, Shared Sacrifice, and Hope

This week a large number of Americans are celebrating Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday. Churches will be packed with both the regulars as well as the once- or twice-a-year worshippers for the "Super Bowl of Sundays" to celebrate Christ’s victory over death and sin and his glorious resurrection.    

In the midst of an exasperating and polarized political debate around the U.S. budget, our national and political leaders can learn valuable lessons from Holy Week. Whatever your faith background may be, we could all benefit from a greater commitment to the humility, shared sacrifice, and hope that Holy Week embodies. An extra dose of humility, sacrifice, and, ultimately, hope represent the balm that could bridge many of our ideological differences and resolve the current political impasse around the budget that has paralyzed our political system and divided the nation.

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On God’s Side: For the Common Good

A revealing thing happens when you remove yourself from the daily drum of politics and become a mere observer. I did just that last year, during some of the most divisive moments of the presidential election. Sitting back and watching the deluge of insults and accusations that feeds our political system, I witnessed the worst of us as a nation. And I came to the conclusion that it’s time to reframe our priorities.

When did we trade the idea of public servants for the false idols of power and privilege? When did we trade governing for campaigning? And when did we trade valuing those with the best ideas for rewarding those with the most money?

We’ve lost something as a nation when we can no longer look at one another as people, as Americans, and — for people of faith  — as brothers and sisters.  Differing opinions have become worst enemies and political parties have devolved into nothing more than petty games of blame.

During a three-month sabbatical, observing this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, I prayed, meditated, read — and then I put pen to paper. The resulting book gets to the root of what I believe is the answer to our current state of unrest. It is not about right and left — or merely about partisan politics — but rather about the quality of our life together. It's about moving beyond the political ideologies that have both polarized and paralyzed us, by regaining a moral compass for both our public and personal lives — by reclaiming an ancient yet urgently timely idea: the common good.

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Reclaiming the Commons

The commons was the name for the public space shared by all in New England towns. It is the root of commonwealth, a nice term for an entire civic entity, like a state, in which every citizen is viewed as a stake-holder. Its values are the opposite of those decried in the lament “private wealth and public squalor.” The commons are the opposite of gated communities. 

Today, there are two crises of the commons — one on the right and one on the left. One is indifference to the commons, even starving the commons. This means the demise of “social capital” (the sum total of all social networks and human investments in a community or polity) and civic values shared by all, and their surrender to utilitarian individualism and the dominance of the market. The other is the argument over what discourse style is appropriate to the commons — what language should be spoken and what subjects allowed in public life. Hint: lucid rationality is in, religion is out.

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Sojo Stories: The Preemptive Love Coalition

A few weeks back at the Justice Conference we had the chance to sit down with Jeremy Courtney, cofounder of the Preemptive Love Coalition, to tell the story of his amazing work in Iraq providing heart surgery for children.

Special thanks to Matthew Willingham and everyone at the Preemptive Love Coalition for providing us with footage from Iraq to tell their story.

The video below is a first in our new series Sojo Stories, where we sit down with individuals to hear their stories about using their talents for the common good. 

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Using Spending Power for Good: A Conversation With Nathan George of Trade As One

At the Justice Conference last weekend I had the opportunity to sit down with Nathan George, founder of Trade As One, and ask him about buying fair trade and his company's awesome — and newly launched — fair trade subscription service. Here is the fruit of that conversation.

The interview was edited for length and content.

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