Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Christian Participation in the Common Good

According to Jeremiah 29, apparently the Jewish exiles of the first deportation to Babylon were being led to believe that a return to Palestine was imminent. To counter this, Jeremiah sends a letter to the elders and leaders telling them to settle in Babylonia and to even pray and work for the good of the state:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Jeremiah’s instruction runs counter to a theology of Jewish exceptionalism. He ties Israel’s well-being to the well-being of society at large. This is nothing less than a call to invest in the common good.

For Christians to be full participants in the common good, we have to relinquish Christian exceptionalism (the view that only Christians are God’s people and know God’s will). An inclusive faith recognizes our solidarity with and connection to every other person.

News reporter and commentator Peter Arnett told about the time he was in a small town on the West Bank in Israel when an explosion went off. Screams sounded from all directions. .

A man suddenly emerged from the chaos holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. He cried, “Please Mister, help me. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you are press. You can get through. Please, help me!”

So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time he was hurtling down the road to the city, the man with the little girl in his arms kept pleading for him to hurry, “Can you go faster. I’m losing her! I’m losing her!” 

When they finally arrived at the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room. Then the two men retreated to the waiting area, where they sat on a bench in silence, too exhausted to talk. After a short while, the doctor emerged from the operating room with the news that the girl had died.

The man collapsed in tears. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The moment he said, “I’ve never lost a child,” the man looked at Arnett in a startled manner. He said, “Oh Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.”

That is the kind of faith that inspires work for the common good and will help us realize God’s dream for the world. Such faith does not gloss over substantive differences, but the deeper truth that transcends all our different beliefs and worldviews is that we are all one people, one family in the Divine.

Unfortunately, Christian exceptionalism is still pervasive and dominates much traditional Christian thinking, worship and evangelism today. And it poses a great obstacle to Christian participation in the common good.

In addition to recognizing that we are all God’s children and constitute one people, a second universal truth that can inspire Christians to engage in the common good is the admission that we all need God’s grace and human love and support.

Jean Vanier founded the L’Arche communities in France that has now spread to other places. These are communities where the mentally disabled live in community with their assistants, those committed to caring for their needs.

Vanier says: “People come to l’Arche to serve the needy. They only stay if they have discovered that they themselves are needy, and that the good news is announced by Jesus to the poor, not to those who serve the poor.”

The good news is announced to the poor, not those who serve the poor. Maybe that is why Matthew’s version of Luke’s beatitude, “Blessed are the poor,” reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew’s version may not be so much a spiritualizing of Jesus’ original saying as it is a recognition that regardless of our economic status, place, or condition we are all poor, we are all in this together. Our spiritual well-being depends on our readiness and willingness to confess our own physical, psychological, and spiritual poverty.

Whatever our economic or social or psychological condition or status, we are all wounded and broken in numerous ways. None of us have any claim to a place of honor or privilege.

If we can acknowledge and accept our personal faults and brokenness, as well as the faults and brokenness of our faith communities and traditions, this will help to ignite and sustain a passion to work for the common good of all.


If more Christians could claim and live these two truths—our solidarity and unity with the human family as God’s children and the essential need of every person for God’s grace and human support and love—we could make a significant impact in realizing God’s dream for a just world where the common good prevails. 

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