Initial Thoughts on the Common Good

| Past,Present

In this blog, I will be referring frequently to the common good. While there are political, economic and philosophical ways of discussing this concept, I would like to keep it simple and straightforward. I will also be placing it in a theological context, since that is my training – and also since much of our national discourse is highly influenced by the Christian right.

For our purposes, let us define the common good as those things that are beneficial to the majority of a community’s citizens, whether that community be a town, city, state, nation or the world. I hope that most of us will agree that the common good will include the following:

  • Safety and security: law enforcement, common defense, fire protection
  • Clean water to drink
  • Clean air to breathe
  • Safe food to eat
  • Safe drugs (prescription and OTC)
  • Roads and public works
  • Public transportation
  • Basic if not also higher education

We could probably think of other items and services to add to this list. The European Union, for instance, adds health care, which the US does not. Article 35 in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states, “Everyone has the right of access to preventive health care and the right to benefit from medical treatment under the conditions established by national laws and practices.”

How does a community provide for the common good? Primarily through taxation. If citizens of a community are not taxed, it is unclear to me how the above aspects of the common good could be provided for the vast majority of citizens. There is a longstanding American sentiment that rails against taxation; perhaps this originates in our American Revolution, but it also seems to derive from our capitalist mentality (more on this later) that asserts that we are entitled to our own earnings and to make decisions about how our earnings are spent.

European and other Western industrialized nations do not share this mentality. Their taxes are considerably higher than ours (US highest rate 39%; Denmark 56%; Germany 45%; Sweden 57%), yet citizens of those countries do not complain, generally speaking. Rather, there is a widespread understanding that fair taxation serves everyone – the common good. Europeans obtain something – they actually obtain a lot – from their taxes. While we will deal with these topics more in the weeks to come, let us say at the outset that Europe – not the US – boasts the highest standard of living the world has ever known, and at the base of this phenomenon is taxation, fair and robust.

From the perspective of Christianity and Judaism, on which many of the West’s standards are based (for better or worse), the notion of the common good permeates Scripture. Unfortunately, in the US context, it often gets lost in a hyperindividuslistic mindset that is distinctively American. We will examine these perspectives in more detail as well, but for this first introduction, let us offer three quotations:

  • Jeremiah 7:5-7 (RSV): For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place . . . then I will let you dwell in this place.”
  • I Corinthians 12: 24-27 (RSV): “God has so composed the body [of Christ], giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
  • Revelation 21:2-4 (RSV): “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. . . [God] will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. . . he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.”

Obviously each of these passages lends itself to a great deal of scholarly scrutiny. But they give a flavor of the communal nature of our forebears’ cultural milieu spanning at least 1,000 years. Let us explore together the dimensions of the common good in our own context, looking respectfully to our ancestors when appropriate.