Over the past couple of years, I have been so passionate about the common good, that I wrote a whole book on the subject and then talked about it almost every day and night for six weeks across the country. But, ultimately, what I discovered in the end was more spiritual than political.
I came to this realization after leading 50 events in 18 cities over six weeks, meeting those who came to hear the message. I came to it after spending two weeks recovering from cancer surgery, reflecting on my time on the road. I realized it after being interviewed countless times by people who wanted to politicize everything, after watching our politicians from afar touting anything but the common good. But what I want to say about the common good — about how we are to do our public life — isn’t really political.
Night after night, people would come into the events, in book stores, universities, churches, and town halls, with what felt like a very deep hunger for what we call the common good — that our life together could and should be better. And they wanted to know how they could help make that happen, which is what the book is all about.
But, virtually every night, I would also feel from those who came, along with that hunger, a very deep cynicism about social change even being possible. And when it came to Washington or Wall Street, the cynicism was overwhelming. Virtually no one trusts either our political system or marketplace to be fair, honest, moral, or even open to doing the right thing. Most Americans seem to believe that the primary institutions of our public life completely lack integrity. And sadly, that cynicism, for many, even extends to their churches or other religious institutions, which they don't regard as playing an independent leadership role for the common good that could hold other institutions accountable.
So, every night, my task felt more pastoral than anything else, and I was doing much more than just talking about what the book said. At each event, I had about an hour to try to help take people from a debilitating cynicism to a new place before they walked out the door. The most frequent comment I heard from people at the book signing tables or on their way out was, “I felt inspired tonight to commit myself and take personal action.” And those were the words I most wanted to hear.
Here is what I tried to say every night — even more as the tour wore on and the problem of cynicism became so painfully clear.
Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, I told every audience. Be skeptical and ask the hard, tough questions about our institutions — especially Washington and Wall Street. But cynicism is a spiritually dangerous thing because it is a buffer against personal commitment. Becoming so cynical that we don’t believe any change is possible allows us to step back, protect ourselves, grab for more security, and avoid taking any risks. If things can’t change, why should I be the one to show courage, take chances, and make strong personal commitments? I see people asking that question all the time.
But personal commitment is all that has ever changed the world, transformed human lives, and altered history. And if our cynicism prevents us from making courageous and committed personal choices and decisions, the hope for change will fade. Along the way, I got to thinking how the powers that be are the ones causing us to be so cynical. Maybe that is part of their plan — to actually cause and create more cynicism in order to prevent the kind of personal commitments that would threaten them with change.
And this is where faith comes in. Hebrews 11:1 says it best, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And at every stop on the tour, I found myself repeating my personal paraphrase of that biblical text, “Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” Faith enables us to act in hope, despite how things look, and that’s what can help make change finally occur and change how things look.
Instead of fighting the conservative/liberal wars, some of us can find common ground for the common good, like we are on immigration reform. Instead of blaming each other for poverty, some of us could together create the opportunity and fairness that can end it. Instead of having the endless ideological arguments about the size of government, some of us could focus on the biblical purposes of civil authority to protect from evil, promote the good, defend the vulnerable, and solve our problems with all the other sectors of society — including the faith community. Instead of continuing the old culture wars, some of us could commit to the absolutely essential role of parenting our children, which would most change culture. Instead of becoming so focused on ourselves and our own group, some of us could extend the definition of who our neighbors are, as Jesus asks us to do, even globally to those who make our cell phones! Together, we could attract a new generation of young people by helping them create the social movements around justice issues like human trafficking, climate change, or the morally unacceptable worldwide rates of deadly poverty and disease. Finally, some of us could start a new movement for democracy that would help take the power of money out of politics. And for Christians, some of us can raise the most fundamental question of all, “Who is this Jesus and why does that matter?”
The tour showed me more than ever how politics and the media have become enemies of the common good. It also showed me that this will be more of an uphill battle than I expected. But I saw so many ordinary Americans and so many people of faith who are hungry for this ancient and now so timely vision — a idea so deeply rooted in all our faith traditions and even our secular democratic history.
Despite the powers that be, we can all make personal decisions that would recommit ourselves to the common good. That’s why I am committed to lifting up this message now more than ever. I learned along the way that it will take deeper study, fervent prayer, and new conversations together, all leading to the personal commitments that create a common good. I continue to hope the book will help with that — that you will read, use, and pass it along to your friends.
But it’s time for action. It’s time for realistic, skeptical, but post-cynical Christians, who are willing to act because of their faith, along with others of deep moral conviction. It’s time to make the personal decisions that can change the world.
Image: Woman with cynical and happy emotion, Fotovika / Shutterstock.com