Our world has many private and public interests. I should be able to go to the library and read any book I find there or own any book I buy at a bookstore. Those are private interests that no government or other entity should have the power to interfere with.
On the other hand, I should not be able to walk into a crowded theatre and yell “Fire!” when there is no fire.
These are not just First Amendment arguments about free speech or possession of private property; they are also issues that touch on the common good.
There are behaviors that affect not only individuals, but also communities.
Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor of Old Testament at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Ga., describes these community behaviors in his recent book, “Journey to the Common Good.”
“The great crisis among us is the crisis of ‘the common good,’ the sense of community solidarity that binds all in a common destiny – haves and have nots, the rich and the poor,” writes Brueggemann in the opening chapter. “We face a crisis about the common good because there are powerful forces at work among us to resist the common good, to violate community solidarity, and to deny a common destiny. Mature people, at their best, are people who are committed to the common good that reaches beyond private interests, transcends sectarian commitments, and offers human solidarity.”
To offer a radical example of what Brueggemann is talking about, imagine a situation where police protection or the fire department only responded to those who had resources to pay for those protections.
A commitment to the common good recognizes that the community as a whole benefits from these kinds of services for which everyone contributes a part.
It only takes a slight expansion of our imaginations to understand how other issues of the common good require a common commitment.
Public education is a good place to start. Those committed to the common good are not just interested in having their own children receive a quality education, but are equally interested in all children knowing how to read, do math and understand history. The whole community benefits from an educated citizenry.
A commitment to the common good is not only concerned with the health care of our family, but is equally concerned that all those around us who are in need of health services have access to the best care possible. The whole community benefits from providing care for those in need.
Sustaining hurting people during times of economic crisis also contributes to the common good. Making sure that children have food on their table, and that parents have resources to find jobs or retraining if necessary – all of this makes our communities stronger and more viable.
Gandhi is reported to have said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
That becomes the ultimate test of our commitment to the common good. Not just what is good for me and mine, but what is good for all of us – and especially the least of us.
By the way, Jesus had some thoughts on this issue. Do unto others, he said, as you would have others do unto you.