Did Christians leave the common good to the state and the market?

Have you been to the Post Office lately? It can be a slow-moving place. I have been making weekly trips to my Post Office to pick up mail from the P.O. Box, so I’ve got to see how this bureaucracy works. I think it’s easy to see how slow things go in there and decide that the efforts of the government to produce a common good is failing. And it’s true, our legislators don’t seem to be interested in maintaining any sense of common good and are ready to give up the territory to the market.

In the United States, the two big chief social actors are the state and the market. So when the state fails us, we turn to the market to fill in the gap in the common good. The Post Office is a good example, since so many of us use FedEx and UPS. Soon Amazon will have its own delivery service. With services like Venmo, we won’t even need to mail checks anymore. We use Uber instead of hopping on the subway or the bus. Coffee shops are places for gathering, when parks or libraries may have been (in fact, “public houses,” used to be called that because they offered public restrooms). The problem, of course, is that the market doesn’t care about the common good, just the profitable end. And we were deluded into thinking that the state ever did.

Christians seem to have forfeited their own desire for and advocacy for the common good. For many of us, as long as the market provided for them and the state protected them and their rights, we were content. The church may have abdicated its desire for commonality and mutuality to the state and the market. They are the chief social agents, whose benevolence may or not benefit us and we are at their whims. To be sure, this is a very cynical portrayal, but it seems to me like Christians are often standing idly by as horrible things happen in the world (and sometimes ever-participating in them), from the disintegration of the common good to the rise of authoritarian leadership in the U.S. and across the world.

I’m afraid that our desire for the common good, for a common mission, for mutuality may be disintegrating as well. We are so atomized and separated. We clearly are longing for a sense of community. And instead, we’re given more social media platforms. We might be together, but we’re still alone. Our time is filled up, but our hearts aren’t.

If we’re not careful, the state’s indifference and the market’s power will separate us completely. There’s no sense of oneness, it seems to me, among people who share a lot in common. We are bifurcated and separated into our own quadrants. Even in liberation movements, we are engaged in horizontal hostility. We can’t get along even to bring about change that will help all of us. We are still fighting for our piece of the pie, instead of sharing. We’re fighting over whose turn it is to be on the swing set, meanwhile, we’ve lost sight of the fact that they took the playground.

I’m framing out a basic problem here. The state doesn’t care about the common good. The market takes advantage of its apathy and sells us back some product that doesn’t replace the common good, and will only stick around if it’s profitable. And the church and Christians are stuck in that back-and-forth between the chief social agents, and can’t keep their head above water to do anything more.

Can the church be an answer to the state’s abandonment of the common good and the market’s blatant opportunism? I think so, but I think we’ll have to be committed to a local expression of the Gospel, for starters. We can’t just expect to express our faith individually and expect to form any kind of common good. The Evangelical reduction of faith to a “personal expression” or a “personal relationship,” removes the need for any sort of community, it seems.

Second, we’ll have to have a common vision and mission. Again this happens best locally in a church—I mean since the very beginning Christians have had a hard time agreeing at all. The Catholics and the Orthodox are still arguing about a phrase! So local expressions seem to be a good place to come to a common agreement about how you are even going to restore the common good.

Finally, listen to what the needs of the region your in are. What do they thirst for? And what could you do to create a sense of common good? For me, cells are a wonderful common place for sharing and community—outside of bars where we need lubricants to get us talking, that kind of space is rare. How about forming a good business in a community that needs them? I’m grateful we have a team dreaming up some ideas in that realm. Or how about a new compassion team that offers something back in common? Nick and Amanda have been hard to make sure the Frankford Ave. garden remains open and accessible to the public.

These practical examples of commonality and the common good help us to move from the abstract political economic space that I began with, and actually get down and dirty helping to meet the needs of our neighbors, and even our embedded desire for mutuality.

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