The Common Good

20 Mar

Our church’s theme for Lent is The Good Life. We are looking at parables in Matthew, full of people searching for The Good Life, and Jesus often flipping expectations on their head: the last will be first, surely the rich will struggle entering the kingdom, I dwell among the least of these. We too, like the people in Matthew’s Gospel, are all searching for The Good Life, and often mistake values in this world with what God values in the next.

 

A video series on the Good Life is accompanying worship, and with the camera rolling, I got asked what I think the Good Life is. I talked about balance: striving for balance between my introverted self and my extraverted self, between my mind, body and spirit, between my personal/private life and professional/public life. I talked about being mindful, living fully in the present moment and fully engaging in the stage of life I am currently in, not wishing away moments or pining for the past.

 

“Okay, thanks so much,” the videographer said. “That was great.”

 

Hours later, I was still thinking about what he captured me saying on video. I came to realize what was bothering me was what I didn’t say. My answer was self-centered. My idea of The Good Life, at least the part caught on tape, was all about me. It was individual, personal self-improvement. So were most people’s answers, actually. An eighth grader, for example, succinctly stated the American Dream as The Good Life: “I want to graduate college, get a good job, have my own house, and raise kids to be successful.” A man in his seventies talked about striving in his life to achieve his goals. Maybe it is the default of humans, or our society’s obsession with self reliance and independence, but the instinct to go personal when building The Good Life is undeniable. 

It could be argued that personal work is a good place to start, but I don’t believe it is the place to end. I believe, deep down, that my own joy and well-being is tied up in the joy and well-being of all people. I do believe that I am only doing as well as the least of these. If given another shot, I would have focused my answer about The Good Life on The Common Good.

 

Darwin tells us that natural selection operates on the individual level. I pass my genes on to my son, and it is easy to fall into the trap of caring so much about my immediate family that I do not look further to the health of my community. With a three-month-old baby, I do feel this way at times. There is a strong element of survival, that turning inward to protect my child has an undeniable biological element to it. I love my child so fiercely that it can be consuming. At the end of the day, I think, “Well, I kept this human being alive today. That’s probably enough.” We take care of our own, and we define our own narrowly.

 

However, Darwin also saw that civilization works on the tribal level. Groups of people who work together and value the common good outlive groups of people who work as isolated individuals. One person might not be able to successfully hunt a predator, but a group of people working together can. Community matters for our own good. 

I agree with Lord Jonathan Sacks when he says:

Community is the antidote to individualism on the one hand and over-reliance on the state on the other.

He goes on to say that church is still one place in society where we believe in and act out The Common Good:

Frequent worshippers are also significantly more active citizens. They are more likely to belong to community organisations, neighbourhood and civic groups and professional associations. They get involved, turn up and lead. The margin of difference between them and the more secular is large. When we celebrate or mourn we do so as a community. Even when we confess, we do so together. We find God in community. We develop virtue, strength of character, and a commitment to the common good in community. Community is local. It is society with a human face. It is not government. It is not the people we pay to look after the welfare of others. It is the work we do ourselves, together.

Worshipping together, with a group who would otherwise be strangers, builds community. Church is still a place where people can come together and create community that will act together for The Common Good. Worshipping together turns out outward, reminding us of The Common Good as a main component of The Good Life.

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