Each Sunday, Christians around the world gather and pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is both a request for an outcome and a statement of commitment to that outcome … to give witness to the coming shalom of the new creation.
In the previous post, we affirmed that selfishness is not of the Kingdom of God. Our self-interest is inextricably connected with God, others, and creation. So surely, then, our mission must be to pursue the common good of all.
My favorite book on theology and work is Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit. Volf writes:
Individual self-interest can be pursued validly, but it must be accompanied by the pursuit of the good of others. These two pursuits are not in principle mutually exclusive but complementary (though in concrete cases they often conflict.) …
The horizon of individual concern for the common good is the whole of humanity. … But she [the individual] can keep in mind the good of the world community and attune the pursuit of her own self-interest and the interest of her local community to the good of the world community.
As they work, individuals many not limit their perspective only to local communities, but have to seek the good of all human beings. ... (192)
Brian McLaren writes in Everything Must Change:
Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate:
Wonderful sentiments, but based on previous posts, do you see the insurmountable challenge? With any given decision, how do you or I or any other entity know what the common good is and which choices advance it? Who, exactly, oversees this striving for the common good and on what knowledge base are they achieving it?
Proximity to others is essential for accessing how decisions will impact their lives. Society is not a family writ large. I can’t assess the impact of my decisions on me and seven billion of my closest friends. There is no oikonomos (household manager) managing the household, nor can there be. To effectively manage societies to the optimal common good would require near omniscience. Remember that every major totalitarian leader and regime of the Twentieth Century claimed they possessed this knowledge and would achieve the common good.
Surely limiting income inequality is in the common good. Yet no one argues that everyone should get the same income. On what basis do we have fair inequality and how do we know what is optimal for the common? What if it turns out that allowing a lot of inequality makes everyone better off but a there would be a greater distance between the top and bottom of the scale? Is this better for the common good?
Take something as seemingly straightforward as murder. Surely we agree that murder is not in the common good. Yet there are honor and shame societies where the preservation of honor demands the execution of a family member who has brought dishonor on the family. This practice is said to maintain greater social stability. Who says this isn’t better for the common good?
Economists are sometimes accused of creatively assuming things about a problem in order for their theories to work. A joke says an economist was asked what a man should do who falls into a deep hole. The economist’s response begins, “Well first we assume a ladder …” The common good is the theological equivalent of the economist’s ladder. The common good exhortation assumes there is a universal standard for what the common good is, that it is readily accessible to each of us, and that there is an apparatus for its implementation, none of which is true!
I think there are four groups of folks who believe something approaching the common good can be discerned and implemented.
Totalitarians – Whether based on an ideology or personal charisma, the leader claims to know and pursue the common good.
Free Market Fundamentalists – Markets function with near perfection. The common good is best achieved by letting markets run their course.
Economist Managers –Believe they can so thoroughly model the real world that they can manage the economy toward the common good.
Mainline Theologians – Carry a presupposition that someone is or should be in charge of economic outcomes … an oikonomos. Tend to lean heavily on the communitarian wing of modern day American liberalism for substance on what constitutes achievement of the common good.
“Common good,” as it often plays out in many discussions, is a rhetorical device to justify interventionist views over against what is characterized as greed, selfishness, and chaos. Those who would oppose an intervention oppose the common good in favor of their selfish behavior or ideological enslavement to markets.
Common good as theological concept conjures up images of the peaceable kingdom and the coming new creation with God, humanity, and all creation living in perfect harmony … in contrast to a world dominated by sin and death. But when the Bible speaks to issues we might consider being of economic importance, it is speaking in the context of a culture with little economic specialization and little integration with others beyond the local community. Production options were fixed, meaning economic ethics was focused on distribution and just interaction within people who lived in close proximity. Ethics discerned by casting a modern specialized and integrated economy as a small community writ large is useless … even dangerous.
We know that simply pursing selfish desires, even in our modern context, is not Kingdom building and we know that none of us can discern the optimal common good with certainty. That is the paradox in which we live.
(For an excellent book that demonstrates the challenges of discerning the common good see Good Intentions: Nine Hot-Button Issues View Through the Eyes of Faith by Charles North and Bob Smietana. For an excellent journal article that addresses the problem of personal versus impersonal systems in making ethical decisions, see Markets and Morality: Things Ethicists Should Consider When Evaluating Market Exchange, by Peter J. hill and John Lunn.)