The common good. What’s your policy?
This morning, as we consider that question, let’s begin with the Bible.
Two brief passages selected because of their centrality and familiarity.
And for the point I think they make.
First, from Hebrew scripture. The very heart of the Torah.
This verse which, in the book of Deuteronomy, sums up what we know as the 10 Commandments.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is alone.
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6: 4-5)
Later, religious leaders, including Jesus, would link an additional imperative from the book of Leviticus to this first commandment:
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
These two verses, they declared, provided a summation of all of scripture.
And, second, these verses from Matthews Gospel written some 40 years after the execution of Jesus, but words which Biblical scholars believe Jesus may have actually said.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has lost its taste…it is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp and puts in under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others. (Matthew 5: 13-16)
As I thought about this morning and these passages from the Bible, I found myself wondering about the personal pronoun you. When we read in the Bible, “You shall do this or you shall not do that…” or when we read in the Gospels “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world…” or “You are to love God and love neighbor” or “You are to treat others as you would like to be treated…”
Is the pronoun we read singular or plural?
Is it speaking to us as individuals or speaking to us as a community?
As a Presbyterian minister I should know all this because to become one I was required to take both a year of Biblical Hebrew so I could read the Old Testament or Hebrew Scripture in the original language and also a year of Biblical Greek so I could do the same with Christian scriptures.
Talk about nightmares.
I obviously made it through those classes, but as soon as I completed the each and passed the required exams I clicked the “Delete file” button on my mental computer.
So, a week ago, already thinking about this morning, I asked for help.
I emailed Rabbi Jason Nevarez, one of the Rabbis at Temple Shaaray Tefila and asked him about the Hebrew. And, I messaged Ben Perry on Facebook, who this year is a second year student at Union Seminary in New York City and taking his required Greek.
Here is what I learned.
In Christian scripture the you is plural.
The imperatives of the Gospels are addressed to us collectively for us live collectively. You…all of us together…are the to be the light of the world.
In Hebrew scripture the you is singular, but for an interesting reason.
The Torah, Rabbi Nevarez told me, always speaks to Israel as one people.
It assumes community.
Now, to be clear, there are always personal responsibilities within whatever community we are a part of. Expectations for who we are called to be and how we are called to act in relationship to one another.
But, the corporate is primary.
It is not just my responsibility, but the community’s responsibility to care for and to protect and to watch over and to instruct and to include.
It seems to me, the religious question is not about the common good.
The common good is assumed.
The question with which religious communities wrestle, both then and now, is who falls within the circle of those for whom we bear responsibility?
I am convinced the religious narrative is a narrative of the common good.
Watching out for and caring for one another, but not stopping there.
We are to also to watch out for and to care for the disenfranchised named in Hebrew Scripture as the widows and orphans, and in Christian scriptures as the least of these.
But that narrative is not the only narrative which competes for our attention, is it?
Another narrative which competes for attention is the narrative of rugged individualism. Of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.
I, and no one else, is responsible for me.
And, it is my responsibility is to look out for that which is mine.
All of which, at some level, each of us knows and understands.
We are naturally protective of those whom we love and that which is ours, and we know we have a responsibility to watch out for and to care for those who are and that which is entrusted to us.
Another narrative which competes for our attention is that there is really no such thing as the common good. Ayn Rand, whose writings have regained popularity in recent years argues there is really no such thing as the common good. She argues that the common good is only a social construct which the powerful have used and continue to use to limit freedom and subjugate people.
So, here we are…
Living as we are in the midst of what I think is a significant debate centering around which narrative becomes the primary narrative for our lives and for our lives together.
Which brings me back to the question of the day.
The common good. What’s your policy?
We can and do respond to that question in multiple ways.
In terms of social policy.
But, if we take the Biblical witness seriously we need to allow its voice to be heard alongside all of the other voices we listen to as we make decisions about who we are and how we live and our relationship to and responsibility for one another.
This is where I find myself.
The language of our faith envisions the common good in terms of God’s Kingdom come. Where all have enough and all have a place. Where all are recognized as sisters and brothers. As a part of the human family of which you and I are a part.
And, it envisions the common good as incorporating that understanding of neighbor that Jesus spoke of when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. An understanding of neighbor that might be as surprising to us today as a Samaritan was to those who heard Jesus speak who, in their wildest dreams, would never have considered a Samaritan to be good let alone be considered as a neighbor.
And, it envisions the common good as witnessed to by the prophets who spoke about the relationship between caring for those known and named as the least of these and our ability to rebuild the communities in which we live and in doing so discover something of God in our midst.
I, also, think Ayn Rand is correct in her assessment that tyrannies use or misuse the concept of the common good to manipulate power and to maintain control. And, knowing that, we must always be vigilant in the presence of power. But, I disagree with her because I don’t think any of us live lives independent of others.
At least my life is not.
I am who I am today because another saw something in me that I did not see myself and made it possible to get the education I needed. I am who I am today because of this congregation whose vision and expectation and support has shaped who I am as a pastor today. I like and agree with the African understanding that I am who I am because of who we are together.
I believe there is such a thing as the common good which we, both as people of faith and as citizens, need to rediscover and to reclaim, and to begin to think and to talk about what that looks like in the public square.
So, where are you?
What do you think?
In the discussion and debate about the common good, what is your policy?