Our Faith and the Common Good
This article was originally submitted to Pacific School of Religion as part of Progressive Christian Witness, a 2006 initiative of PSR designed to bring voices of progressive Christianity to churches nationwide.
Sometimes we have to learn the lessons of life the hard way. For years now, denunciations of government, demands for lower taxes, protests against federal regulations, and calls for “cutting the fat” from the national budget have been heard all across the country. But, suddenly, a catastrophe strikes the nation: Entire towns along the Gulf Coast are wiped out, a major southern city lies in ruin, tens of thousands are left homeless, even more are without jobs, and the displaced are scattered over half the continent, not knowing when they will return home or if there will be a home to which they can return.
After this, our fulminations sound a bit hollow. We’ve witnessed an event that has swamped our resources and resourcefulness. Hospitals, churches, charities, and even government have proven incapable of responding effectively to such a large-scale calamity. The event has left in our hands the plight of a segment of the populace that an affluent society normally finds it convenient to overlook and ignore—people who, as one of its number put it, “had nothing and now have less than nothing.”
We have been confronted with a huge natural disaster and its aftermath has left us to ponder a question which, in biblical terms, is as old as humankind itself: What responsibility, if any, do we bear for the misfortunes of others, of those who are unknown to us and not a part of our daily world?
For Christians, this question is inescapable. We believe we have a greater duty in life than looking only after our own well-being and that of those closest to us. This belief places before us the question of the common good: What we are obligated to undertake, beyond caring for our own needs, in order to secure the well-being of others?
Some years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr, that giant among Christian theologians, pointed out how resistant we are to addressing this question as a society. As individuals and small groups, we are often able to consider the interests of others, and on occasion we willingly accept personal sacrifice on their behalf. However, we find it very difficult as a society, as a nation, to attend consistently and effectively to the needs of others. As individuals we are compassionate; as a society we are massively indifferent—even though we often hide our collective indifference behind slogans of concern.
If there is any group of people in our country who should insist on accepting our corporate responsibility, it should be Christians. No message is more pervasive in our Scriptures and our traditions than the insistence that we have profound obligations to those whose fortunes in life are less than our own. This message has prompted Christians in modern times to build schools, hospitals, houses, libraries, and other institutions that contribute to the common good. And it has also motivated Christians to insist that government, as an expression of our individual concern, should first and foremost be devoted to advancing the good of all, not only by building infrastructures that protect our safety and health, but also by establishing social and economic policies that serve the common good.
Saint Paul admonished us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). The Gulf Coast disaster reminds us that bearing another’s burdens requires societal action, and not only the actions of individuals and church groups. And it illustrates the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. From this disaster we have learned, to our horror, that there is an enormous price to pay when neglect and indifference have shattered the common, public good.
As Christians we must be in the vanguard of those who call for the personal and collective sacrifices that it will take to rebuild and restore a devastated region of our nation. More than that, as Christians we must lead in the renewal of a sustainable common good throughout the land. Our roads and bridges, our parks and schools, our health care and welfare systems—all of these must be seen by Christians as an essential means of bearing one another’s burdens.
As we take the lead in restoring a sense of the common good, we must also boldly reject the secular condemnation of public institutions that is so popular in our country today. Instead, we must affirm government as a constructive institution made possible by God our creator, criticizing its failures without hesitation but never demeaning its potential. We must view taxation as one of the ways we invest in our common welfare, criticizing unjust loopholes and giveaways but never condemning taxes as inherently evil. We must support programs for those who are emotionally, physically, and vocationally at risk, criticizing waste and ineffectiveness but never minimizing the central importance of social programs for a good society. In so doing, we are seeking, as Saint Paul went on to say, to “fulfill the law of Christ.”
Others may have their own reasons for caring about the common good. We care because we are Christians.
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About the Author
Hubert Locke has focused his career on examining justice in society and has a long and distinguished record of community service. He has published numerous books and articles on race, criminal justice, religion, and public policy. He is dean emeritus of the Daniel J. Evans Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, has served as acting president and trustee of Pacific School of Religion, and has taught at Wayne State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. At the time of this article Locke was vice chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Church Relations Committee.