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The common good: A great idea

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“Mama!” he squealed. “Look! A digger and a tractor!” Three-year-old Alexander pointed enthusiastically out the window, bouncing up and down like a human pogo stick.

My son was probably the only person on our block excited about the construction zone outside our homes. The city was upgrading the pipelines, and we were facing parking bans, incessant noise, piles of dirt and construction materials, and traffic troubles. It was a nuisance.

The goal was to provide basement flood relief in our area, so I tried to grin and bear it. I recognized the importance of supporting efforts that would contribute to the common good of my neighbours. The new pipes would make Winnipeg a better place for us all to live. I smiled weakly at the construction vehicles rumbling past our house.

Resurrecting an ancient idea

The idea of the common good has been around for centuries in the church. Augustine introduced the concept in his literary masterpiece, City of God. Hundreds of years later, Thomas Aquinas honed it, making the concept a benchmark of Christian moral theology.

The common good is defined as “the most good for all people.” When we work toward the common good, we assert that all human beings are of infinite worth. We take care of others, not just ourselves. We consider all people, including those who are poor, weak, vulnerable, or disabled. We care about groups and individuals equally. We work with everyone, even those with whom we disagree.

A unifying concept

In the past few years, conservative evangelicals and liberal Christians alike have started buzzing about the common good. Q: Ideas for the Common Good is an online resource featuring essays, videos, blog articles, and podcasts by evangelical leaders such as Luis Palau, Ed Stetzer, and Andy Crouch, with the goal “to see Christians recover a vision for their historic responsibility to renew and restore culture.”

Q founder Gabe Lyons “distinguishes the common good from narrower ideas like ‘the public interest,’ which he paraphrases as ‘the most good for the most people,’” says Andy Crouch in Christianity Today. The public interest focuses on actions that will make the greatest number of people happy, even if those actions result in suffering for some, whereas the common good seeks fulfillment for all people.

Christian writer and political activist Jim Wallis launched a book at the beginning of 2013 called On God’s Side, What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good:

Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion – from looking out just for ourselves to looking out for one another. It’s time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God – a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world. That better way of life was meant to benefit not only his followers but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.

More spiritual than political

So, what might it look like to foster the common good? Often, it starts in our own backyard.

It’s helping with flood relief and cleanup after a disaster like the one in Calgary a few months ago (see Outfront). It’s supporting new immigrants through local ESL programs, so all Canadian families can flourish. It’s making wise and ethical investment choices, so all people can enjoy safe and fair workplaces. It’s choosing travel and recreation based on the relationships and knowledge they can cultivate (see Travel with a purpose).

But it’s not just about us. Working toward the common good requires ongoing grace and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. Because, ultimately, humans will never be able to achieve good on our own. We will never agree on what’s best for all people. We will quickly become cynical and pessimistic.

That’s where faith comes in. We have faith that God’s kingdom can – and will – break into our world in small, surprising, significant ways (Luke 13:18–35). “Faith enables us to act in hope, despite how things look,” says Jim Wallis, “and that’s what can help make change finally occur and change how things look.”

Bradley Lewis puts it this way: “In the simplest sense, the common good is God. It is God who satisfies what people need, individually and communally.”

For those of us who follow Jesus, the common good is an uncommonly hopeful idea.

—Laura Kalmar

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1 comment

Dee August 1, 2013 - 12:50

Thank you for this perspective, Laura. It resonates so deeply with what I believe so many of our church families need.

And yet a big challenge in my own spiritual journey has been relating with fellow believers, church members, leaders even, who seemed to believe the opposite.

When a relative, formerly an MB pastor and missionary, came down with a degenerative disease, he noticed himself losing friends. When his family asked church leaders for help, a pastor told them that people quite simply weren’t comfortable around their loved one anymore. Apparently, the pastor didn’t consider this a contradiction of the gospel he preached from the pulpit.

The sick man’s family then asked if they could present the situation to the congregation, as they’d seen it done at another church. This way, they hoped, one or two church members might step forward as ‘volunteer friends’ for him. But, the leadership told them this was not possible. “You’ve got to understand our culture,” one staffer told them. “You just can’t do that here.”

The family was led to believe they had to accept their loved one’s loneliness, that their church family wouldn’t be involved in his life any longer. Except at the funeral, perhaps.

In another family, a retired pastor’s wife came down with cancer. When her terminal diagnosis became known in her church, she noticed her friends slowly backing out of her life as well.

Somehow, we’ve cultivated a subtle disconnect between our theology and our lives.

While many Christians would agree with your article in principle, on a deeper level too many of us are like that pastor who defends ‘personal comfort’ as a reasonable excuse not to befriend a sick church member. Except, most of us wouldn’t be quite as blunt about it as he was. Not out loud, anyway.

I know, of course, that people aren’t perfect and that we can depend on God when others let us down. But this doesn’t mean we need to let sin, especially a ‘respectable sin’ like the idol of personal comfort, go unchallenged in our lives or in our churches.

What I’d love to see is a practical, rubber-meets-the-road conversation about this in the MB denomination. We need to examine our hearts. We need to address the idol of personal comfort. And then, if the Spirit is alive in us at all, we need to see growth.

We also need pastors who don’t make excuses for sin. Ones who don’t limit their teaching to “platitudes, subtle hints, or over-principlized ‘sermonettes,'” as Byron Forrest Yawn writes in his book, What Every Man Wishes His Father Had Told Him. “They must put their proverbial finger in men’s faces and tell them exactly … how they’ve wasted years of spiritual opportunity. Not with belittling harshness, but with frustrated optimism.”

In other words, we need leaders who’ll teach us how to put our faith into action when it’s uncomfortable. We need them to model this in their own lives, and we need them to expect us to follow suit.

And in doing so, we’ll discover a hidden secret of serving others: It brings us surprisingly more fulfillment than anything we find inside our comfort zone.


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