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.
We focused on that powerful alternative the day before the Boston tragedy, gathering in Birmingham Ala., with national church leaders who issued a response to Dr.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” on its 50th anniversary. It was the first response of the churches to this powerful letter in its 50 years. I helped open the event by speaking together with Congressman John Lewis, a man almost beaten to death in Selma a half century ago as he marched toward Montgomery in pursuit of the common good for all people. In response to the very real grievances of brutal racial discrimination and violent attacks by Bull Connor’s Birmingham police — including fire hoses and dogs unleashed against children — a group of “moderate” white clergy wrote an open letter to King blaming him and the civil rights movement for causing all this trouble. In response, while sitting in jail, King wrote his historic response full of civility, reason, clear analysis of the situation, mutual respect and great love, even for his critics. Lewis spoke powerfully about how important love is as the response to injustice. What struck me was how all those clergy critics have been forgotten, and the memory and power of Dr. King and his letter are remembered 50 years later.
Over and over, we are reminded of the battle we face, and we debate how to respond. We saw it even again last night, sickened at how senators voted against any common sense rules to limit gun violence, even though 90 percent of the country — including a majority of gun owners —support the bill on simple background checks. It felt to the people gathered with me on tour in Seattle like a thwarting of democracy and the common good.
And we have before us a common-good fight on another front: On the very same day, a new bill to achieve comprehensive immigration reform was introduced, with bipartisan senators saying it is an example of “Washington working.” This is actually an example of forces outside Washington working to influence good decisions — forces like businesses, law enforcement, and faith groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table. Now, the fate of 11 million undocumented people faces an intense battle, with millions of dollars about to be spent to defeat immigration reform by appealing to fear and anger. But with our continued influence, I believe we can overcome.
There is a thread uniting each of these events: tragedy in Boston, reconciliation in Alabama, cowardice in Washington on guns, and possible movement on immigration reform. They each show us the true and real attacks we face — attacks against what holds us together as a people. But they are also opportunities to show love, to show resolve, and to show that we as Americans have it in us to keep fighting the hard battle for the common good.
My favorite event on this book tour so far was a “town meeting” in Arlington, Mass.—literally at their town hall—on the subject of common good, sponsored by more than a dozen diverse faith communities. The takeaway or the “altar call” was for people to sign up for common good “book groups” around On God’s Side — to be led by local clergy. The intent is not just to read the book, but to have many conversations in their community about committing themselves to learning the meaning of the common good for their families, congregations, neighborhoods, nation, and the world. While I was signing books, I saw many people registering for the book groups, and clergy stepping forward to lead them. That was my goal when we began this tour.
So let me ask all our readers to start that conversation where you are, on the route of this tour or not, and sign people up in your congregations and communities to have this important conversation now. Because I am more convinced than ever now, that we have a battle ahead — for the common good.
Jim Wallis is CEO of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.