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.
Many Americans, including practicing Jews, Christians, Muslims, and New Agers, have let themselves be convinced that religion is best quarantined from the commons, that society should be kept free of the intrusion of religion onto public space. For the sake of a common lingua franca that unites rather than divides, everyone should speak the language of secular public discourse, and religious language should be saved for table prayers or bedside invocations in private homes. Recent religious fanaticism seems to confirm the wisdom of that intuition. But this amounts to the claim that one’s first language, perhaps also the language of the heart, the language that carries one’s deepest meanings and motivations, cannot be spoken in public. Consider totalitarian states around the world that forbid speaking indigenous languages in public. “Network standard,” so prized for its self-evident common sense, can be oppressive and a denial of one’s cherished identity.
But more worrisome than the quarrels over the terms of discourse is the fate of the commons itself. The commons has regressed to a figment of moral imagination, and it is sometimes said, in political contexts, that Americans have lost or renounced the capacity to “think the state.” They utterly lack or willfully renounce the imagination of all of society as an interdependent family. There are continuing attempts by conservatives to abolish social security, or privatize it, but more far-reaching is the conviction that nothing good should be expected from government. Indeed, Europeans, living in their social democracies so much feared or decried by American conservatives, are far more likely to talk enthusiastically about the benefits of government than Americans are. Holding culture or wealth or the good in common has given way to a privatizing individualism or to a political economics that starves the public sector and privileges the private. (Even the Wall Street bailout seems to imply private gain but socialized risk.) It is hard even to imagine and care for a community enterprise, like healthcare or social security, for the good of all.
We have learned to recognize the ontological reality of the individual, but we have forgotten the meaning of collective nouns like the commons or the state or the village. The habits of the heart necessary for living in the commons have atrophied. That this has not occurred in the social democracies of Europe, where a much smaller percentage of the population are church-goers, is a wonder.
It appears the European commons is a legacy of historic Christianity, while American individualism is a new creation of this country’s Protestant right, or of capitalism gone wild.
It is now time for concerned, social-justice seeking Christians to re-enter the commons, freely speaking their own distinctive language, while also aligning with rational, secular discourse communities for the sake of the common good. The commons then becomes the place where what Calvin might have called "common grace" flourishes, even as the evocative language spoken by the Christians re-entering the commons may beckon others to hear the distinctive word of the Gospel in our own Christian precincts.
All Christians needs to learn that it is precisely the Gospel that drives Christians to enter the commons with care and hope — it is the Gospel that helps us redeem the commons. The Christian calling is never to write off any part of the earth we all share, or to abandon any of the human family.
Donald Heinz was professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Chico, and is a Lutheran minister.