Issue 46, December 2005
Ethics of the common good
For the consultation on the relation between ethics and law (with an emphasis on politics), this paper focuses exclusively on the U.S.A. – a nation that is internationally viewed as a problem today – and on its churches’ attitudes, in the hope that its simple, if tentative suggestions may enable broader conversation about common life.
In the deepest sense, ethics derive from religious sources, but political processes in the United States are governed by the reality that the United States has no legally established religion and is a country with a religiously mixed population. Hence, the development (and enforcement) of law within the political structures of the United States is not based in a particular religion. This reveals the challenge of ethics for public and political life. On what are they based? Among the choices available, an ethical system that focuses on the “common good” has much to commend it.
It is on this ethics that I wish to reflect as a Christian – beginning by highlighting some relevant characteristics of the American context; next, defining what is meant by ethics of the common good; following this, examining some statements about the common good made in the United States; and, finally, analyzing some of the requirements for such an ethic in political life and making comments on this.
I. Characteristics of the American context
American churches exist in a religiously mixed environment. Founded after the Reformation in Europe had fragmented western Christianity into various forms, the United States of America as a nation was religiously plural from the beginning. To the religions of the indigenous Native Americans were added the various Christian traditions and the Judaism of early European settlers; Muslims came to America’s shores, at the latest, with the Africans who were early slaves (though slaves were generally prohibited from the free practice of their religion). The ethnic and religious mix of the United States has continued to expand, recently as a result of the enactment of new immigration laws in 1965.
There is a historic legal separation of religious institutions from governmental institutions in the United States – even though the exact meaning of this is being tested at present. Many of the early inhabitants of the American states came to America out of a desire to exercise deep religious convictions freely. They did not want government to impose a particular religious tradition upon them nor were they generally tolerant of religious traditions other than their own. Not surprisingly, they created a federal government in which no religion was to be recognized by the government as an established religion to which preference would be given; no religious tradition would exercise exclusive influence in the making of public laws.1 The tendency for such a secular system to disregard God is, of course, always present; so, too, is the search for greater religious influence and observance in public life.
In the pluralistic environment of the United States, tolerance became an acceptable goal for relationships. Tolerance allows people to live in close proximity without the conflict created by demands for common belief or practice. Tolerance may recognize with abhorrence the “violence in the service of truth” of the past (in the words of the late Pope John Paul II, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, ¶35), yet simple tolerance can allow a group to view itself as normative and to endure others’ views without any respect for them. And, in American society, tolerance has led to widespread unwillingness to discuss certain topics in public and, finally, to a personal unwillingness on the part of many to articulate general ethical standards. This goal of tolerance is today breaking down into frequently chaotic disagreement about ethics, even among members of the same religious community.
II. Defining the common good
What is the common good? Scholars at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in Santa Clara, California, quote the late John Rawlings’ definition of the common good as “certain general conditions that are . . .equally to everyone's advantage.” The scholars go on to say, “The common good consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people.” Examples are a health care system available to all, an effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, an unpolluted natural environment, or an economic system that effectively works for the benefit of all (Velasquez et al.). In a fine book on the common good, the Jesuit scholar David Hollenbach reflects particularly on the issues of urban poverty and globalization as he considers the common good as compared with tyrannical authoritarianism or the excesses of modern western individualism (see, e.g., Hollenbach 2002, ch.3).
The concept of the common good is traced back, in western ethics, to classic Greek thought. Aristotle reasoned that what is good for many people has higher value than what is good for an individual. But a Christian understanding of the concept is more fundamentally rooted in the thought of the medieval Christian, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas said that “the supreme good, namely God, is the common good, since the good of all things depends on God” (Summa contra Gentiles, III, 17). Seeking the common good, he believed, is a fulfillment of Jesus’ summary of the commandments – that we are to love God with heart, mind, and soul and love the neighbor as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). (The Bible makes clear that, in Jesus’ usage, a “neighbor” is not a nearby person but any other human.) (Hollenbach 2002, p.4)
III. Speaking about the common good
Let us look at several segments from statements made by American religious organizations in recent years and reflect upon them briefly:
! A group of Christian scholars drafted a statement in 2005 on “God’s Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States” (Hessel et al.). The document lists norms that should guide both the churches and society. Two of them speak about the common good: first, in terms of the norm of solidarity, which they define as “a commitment to the global common good through international cooperation”2 and, second, concerning the norm of generosity, which they say is “sharing earth’s riches to promote and defend the common good in recognition of God’s purposes for the whole creation and Christ’s gift of abundant life.”
The common good in this example is related to the entire world and its inhabitants. Written by Christians for Christians, this statement’s intent is to motivate actions that cannot be limited to Christians. All humans share the same natural environment, and all are affected by the actions of any.
! A 1999 statement of policy of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. describes “pillars” on which peace may be built (“Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century”). It says,
In this second example, structures of collaboration are required to make the common good possible at every level.3
! The following example is a statement released by an American multireligious group. It highlights the importance of community, which it describes in relation to the common good.
The term “community” ideally implies people living together unified in their commitment to the common good. Such unity of purpose takes into account values held in common, but it also allows for differences in belief that should be respected, so long as these differences do not infringe upon the fundamental rights of others. (U.S. Conference of Religions for Peace, “Diversity and Community,” 2000)
! Finally, as a last example, a group calling itself Protestants for the Common Good issued a pre-election statement in 2004 (“A Declaration of Resistance to Inequality: A Call to the Common Good”), which illustrates the role of religious persons and bodies in the United States speaking in critique of current realities. It says in part:
These words recall the commandment to love the neighbor as the self and refer directly to the understanding that, “if we love one another, God lives in us” (1 John 4:12; cf. Colossians 3:14). Again, we have a statement written by Christians but this one may not be written solely for Christians, so its language refers to a biblical idea but does so in a form it is hoped everyone can understand. The form of the message seeks to promote the common good by calling for increased interdependence of all citizens.
Thinking about the quotations from statements we have just heard, we can list some important words: community, concern for all, interdependence, structures for collaboration, accountability, love for others as an expression of love for God.
IV. Analysis: Collaboration toward the common good
The statements from which we have read demonstrate that, if religious groups are going to give serious attention to ethics of the common good, two requirements present themselves from the outset:
first, that they engage in cooperative, collaborative thought and action together with others
secondly, that they adhere faithfully to the fundamentals of their own religious tradition’s faith and practices (cf. Hollenbach 2002 p.137).
Only when we listen collaboratively can we discover how others describe the common good in relation to themselves. Only when we are faithful can we be attuned to what God teaches us about the common good that we ourselves are called to pursue. Yet, these two requirements are often viewed as being somewhat incompatible. In practice, being as open as is necessary for collaboration appears to threaten the ability to stand firmly within one’s own religious faith.
One way to view this is to look at the additional question of effectiveness. Some argue that those American churches that are related to the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches have not had an outstanding record of success in recent years as measured by the public realization of the ethical standards they have promoted. For example, a National Council of Churches statement on peace and responsibility was made in 1968. It called upon the U.S. government to be willing “to share sovereignty for the common good, in the awareness that sovereignty is strengthened, not lost, when power is used to secure common objectives.” It critiqued the behavior of the American government, saying, “The United States has defeated its true national interest by hoarding sovereignty,” with reference to U.S. attitudes toward the World Court and the failure of the U.S. government to ratify conventions on human rights. Particularly, “Professions by the United States in support of the promotion of human rights and freedoms . . . have not been matched by action to strengthen United Nations policies or to bring justice to the victims . . .” (“Imperatives of Peace and Responsibilities of Power”).4 The history of the years since 1968 only adds to the list of failures of the U.S. to share sovereignty. Thus questions arise about what the churches have apparently accomplished through their statements, in concrete terms. Is there anything that can be done to improve effectiveness? What other criterion might be used to test accomplishment of goals?
In answer, the churches must reaffirm their own theology. They understand themselves to be witnesses to the Kingdom of God – that is, to be signs of God’s will to rule over all human life, whether the individual or the state. This means that one of the primary tasks of the churches is to point toward that which God wills. They are to do this whether they deem themselves successful – in terms of being able to see that they have caused change to occur – or not. This is so because ultimately God is in control of the world God has created. And because this is so, churches must be willing to speak out and to act even when they see nothing happening. But, at the same time, churches need to evaluate whether they have made appropriate choices about what to advocate – whether they have heard God speak in what they have chosen to do – and whether they have done their best to communicate the ethical standards to which they are pointing.
Here we return to the two requirements: one, collaboration with others and, two, faithfulness.
In relation to the first of these requirements, we can say that, if others are willing to join with them, perhaps American Christians should collaborate more broadly with others outside their tradition than they have done heretofore in the hope that this might make communication, education, and advocacy more effective in the American context. Indeed, many churches have begun to do this. Additionally, however, we can argue that, in relation to the second requirement, churches should collaborate precisely because to do so is to be faithful to their theological tradition (a tradition articulated in the “Interfaith Relations” policy of the National Council of Churches, see sections on the theological rationale).
Honoring human dignity is the basis for ethics of the common good in which collaboration occurs. And Christians have been taught that all human beings have an equal dignity that can be violated but cannot be destroyed in God’s sight (cf. James 3:16-17); human dignity resides in the awareness that human beings are all creatures formed by God, the Creator. God has created humans in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27) and, because it is in God’s nature to be in relationship, humans are therefore created to be in relationship – both with God and with fellow humans. It is God’s will that humans be in community and that they demonstrate community through justice (Amos 5:23-24).
When humans use God’s gifts for the purpose of causing antagonism and shattering community (e.g., Adam re Eve, Genesis 3:12, or Cain re Abel, Genesis 4:9), it is the Christian affirmation that God offers reconciliation4 and that God calls humans to restore relationships among themselves (Matthew 5:24). This can happen through collaboration.
V. The way forward
Finding points of convergence
Within the structures of the United States, collaboration presents an opportunity for religious people to work together to determine points on which they agree and on which they can therefore join to speak about the ethics of political life. They can advocate for civil laws and for the enforcement of laws and standards. This is based on no particular religious “law” but on their willingness to share in obedience to God.
Religious people need to find the points at which the differing lines of their thinking meet in points of agreement on which they can speak and act. I think of this as “convergence” – the term used to describe points where differing lines intersect. Convergence does not require general consensus but only willingness to see specific places where agreement has come. People of differing traditions need to spend many hours exploring particular human concerns in order to ascertain where they agree. This is not the exclusive work of special people who have been assigned the task of dialoguing with people of other faiths. It is much more general work. And it is trust-building work that can expand intentions for good will.
On what may people agree? Their concerns for the common good may find expression in concern for the maintenance of human life through better health care or through seeking an end to war’s violence. They may agree that humans need an opportunity for basic education made available to all.
Becoming involved internationally
A search for points of convergence can happen domestically or internationally.
It is important to note that Christians in the United States have a particular unity with Christians around the world. Nevertheless, all these Christians do not share the same political loyalties; they are members of different cultures and “civilizations.” For example, Iranian Christians are unlike American Christians though they share a common faith; they derive their culture from the environment of Iran and of the Middle East in general. On the other hand, there are many citizens of the United States who share a common faith tradition as Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists with their co-religionists in other countries with whom they do not share a common political environment. It seems important that these citizens feel the permission of their co-religionists to participate fully in internal U.S. discussions and advocacy based on ethics of the common good.
In the international arena of politics, people of the same or of different religions can challenge one another through speaking about what they believe to be the common good. One recent example comes from a working group of the House of Bishops of the Church of England that released a paper critiquing not only the British government but also the American government5 and, in addition, addressing the case of Iran and its nuclear program (Church of England, p.76 and following).
Moving beyond enmity
The Anglican bishops, in their hundred-page document, speak about seeking the common good where there is disagreement that places nations or peoples in active enmity with one another.
Jesus called not only for love of God and love of the neighbor but also love of the enemy.
For Jesus to tell his followers they are to love the enemy is but another way of saying they are to love all people – even those they are unwilling to call “neighbors.” No one is excluded; none need be described as friend or as enemy. Jesus expects his listeners to act as God has acted in sending blessings of nature upon all people without exclusion on any ethical grounds. Love here implies not so much an emotion as an intention for the good of the other.
The Anglican bishops have commented on this Christian teaching as they talk about dealing with situations where there is conflict:
Christians and the churches, the bishops say, are part of the problem in conflict but nonetheless are carriers of a message of peace and reconciliation, for which they have a special responsibility.
The shared language of ethics
Sheila Seuss Kennedy, an American scholar who teaches law and public policy, contends that, though Americans “argue in secular, generally acceptable terms for policy prescriptions that may have very particularistic theological underpinnings,” the process results in transforming those who participate in the debate (Kennedy). Though the process and the environment appear to be secular, something religious is involved. The secular need not be secular, she argues.
Kennedy writes that “theocratic nations come to the policy process – and the international community – from a dramatically different perspective.” Americans often find themselves uncomfortably recognizing that both law making and law maintenance in some other nations are directly religiously oriented and that “God talk” is the acceptable standard. Yet, strangely, it seems to me that, on an international level, nations who want to relate to one another share the predicament of the United States. They are part of an international community of nations in which persons of many religious persuasions or none are found. While they may wish to remain faithful religiously, they must talk to others in a language that is not their particular religious language (Vendley, 16ff.). Can they use the language of ethics and the concept of the common good?
We live in a world that cannot be safely divided into different spheres of political influence. A religious appeal to the common good may be one means forward for religious people who do not want to lose contact with one another. We need this on the level of faithfulness to God, beyond the question of effectiveness.
Rev. Margaret Orr Thomas was for many years the interfaith officer of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a member of the Reference Group on Inter-religious Relations of the World Council of Churches. She also participated in drafting the Ecumenical Considerations for Dialogue and Relations with People of Other Religions, printed by the WCC in 2003.
2. Hollenbach 2003 writes, “Pope John Paul has defined solidarity as a moral virtue expressed in ‘a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.’ Such commitment to the common good is directly opposed to the deep divisions of our [U.S.] society, like those between core cities and suburbs. As the U.S. Catholic bishops put it in 1986, solidarity requires working for ‘the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.’ Put negatively, ‘The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be treated actively or abandoned passively as if they were nonmembers of the human race.’” (cf.Hollenbach 2002, p.187) Hollenbach 2002 situates solidarity most particularly in civil society, not the state (p.102); this has important implications for the churches. These words stand as a commentary on the events related to the 2005 Katrina hurricane that struck Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; it was widely held that the less able were abandoned to their own fate without adequate assistance either by government or the citizenry.
3. Cf. “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” (National Association of Evangelicals, 2004) which asserts that God has set in place governments to maintain public order, restrain human evil, and promote the common good. (p.5) Going on, it adds: “Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our goal in civic engagement is to bless our neighbors by making good laws. Because we have been called to do justice to our neighbors, we foster a free press, participate in open debate, vote, and hold public office. When Christians do justice, it speaks loudly about God. And it can show those who are not believers how the Christian vision can contribute to the common good and alleviate the ills of society” (p. 3).
4. A recent essay by an American public figure, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., talks about an American “delusion of innocence” that encourages “dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics.)” The antidote he suggests is the humility born of recognizing human “original sin” – a Christian concept that makes us aware of “the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history,” in the words he quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr taught that sin can taint all human perceptions, including the judgment of those who claim divine sanction for their opinions.
5. The document was released on September 19, 2005, for the church’s executive archbishops’ council by a working party of four diocesan bishops – of Oxford, Coventry, Worcester, Bath and Wells.
Hessel, Dieter et al. “God’s Earth is Sacred: An Open Letter to Church and Society in the United States,” 2005. (Available at www.ncccusa.org)
Hollenbach, David. “Christian Ethics and the Common Good,” Woodstock Report, June 2003, No. 74. Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. (Available at www.georgetown.edu/centers/woodstock/report/r-fea74.htm)
The Common Good and Christian Ethics (New Studies in Christian Ethics 22, Robin Gill, ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2002. (Available not only in print but also as a downloadable e-book from www.cambridge.org.)
John Paul II. Tertio Millennio Adveniente (“As the Third Millenium Draws Near”), pastoral letter released November 14, 1994 (Available at www.vatican.va)
Kennedy, Sheila Seuss. “When the Secular Is Not Secular” in Sightings, July 10, 2002. Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago. (Available in the archives at http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/
National Association of Evangelicals. “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” adopted by the Board of Directors, 2004. (Available at www.nae.net/images/ civic_responsibility2.pdf)
“Interfaith Relations and the Churches,” a policy statement adopted by the NCCCUSA General Assembly, 1999 (Available at www.ncccusa.org)
"Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century: A New Policy Statement on the United Nations,” adopted by the NCCCUSA General Assembly, 1999. (Available at www.ncccusa.org)
Protestants for the Common Good. “A Declaration of Resistance to Inequality: A Call to the Common Good,” adopted by the Board of Directors, 2004.
Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. “Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr,” New York Times Book Review, September 18, 2005, pp. 12-13. (Available in the archives at www.nytimes.com)
United States Conference of Religions for Peace. “Diversity and Community: A Multi-Religious Statement on Social Responsibility in the Context of Ethnic, Cultural, Racial and Religious Diversity in the United States,” adopted by the USCRP Council of Presidents, 2000. (Available at www.ncccusa.org)
Velasquez, Manuel, and Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, Michael J. Meyer. “The Common Good,” paper prepared for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, University of Santa Clara, 2005. (Available at www.scu.edu)
Vendley, William F., “Religious Differences and Shared Care,” in Learning to Dialog (Louisville, Ky: Church & Society, September/October 1992, Margaret O. Thomas, content ed.)