Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Common Good
distributed 7/2/10 - ©2010

Here in the United States of America, we're headed into the weekend when we celebrate our national birthday. Along with fireworks, picnics and other acts of celebration, this is also the annual occasion when it seems most appropriate to ruminate about our national identity and shared values.

My thoughts, not surprisingly, bring an eco-justice perspective to the Fourth of July theme. Along with many commentators this weekend, I'm concerned with the way we're living up to the "self-evident" truths of equality and liberty set forth in the Declaration of Independence. But as I draw on my faith heritage, I also am inclined to ask harder questions about how well the US is doing at embodying God's shalom.

I want to be clear that the US is not a "Christian nation" in either design or practice. Judeo-Christian values are only one part of the diverse principles that have shaped our country. As a person of faith within this country, though, I look to the religious theme of shalom as a guiding vision in evaluating my nation's values and actions.

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Shalom (along with the closely related idea of the realm of God) is a pervasive and complicated theme in our religious tradition. The essence of the theme is captured in the phrase, "peace with justice for all creation." I find shalom most vividly and concretely expressed, though, in a wonderful short passage in Zechariah 8. (I have worked through the history and details of that text more thoroughly in The Election Question.

In five core sentences, Zechariah paints a picture of Jerusalem restored as the city of God, reflecting shalom in its fullness. We find a community where all needs are met, and where justice prevails. It is a hopeful and joyous vision, inclusive of age and gender, with sufficient food and shelter for all, social systems that meet the common good, and natural systems that are reliable and productive.

This year, in my musings for the July 4 weekend, I am especially aware of the fact that shalom is a quality of the community as a whole. It isn't about individual wealth or opportunity, personal fulfillment or salvation. Shalom is present when the whole community -- humans, livestock, and natural systems -- functions fairly and harmoniously. God's peace is found in collective well-being.

In the US, as in all nations, the need to strengthen and serve the whole community is well recognized. Nations do that by issuing currency, building roads, providing for defense and security, supporting education, and in various forms of social services. Within the US, there have been times when the common good has been an especially strong theme -- with the development of Social Security and welfare programs, and with the Great Society programs. This year's legislation on health care funding had at least some elements that stressed the need to care for all members of the society. At their best, each of those efforts toward collective well-being have been movements toward shalom.

That attentiveness to the common good stands in stark contrast to what I see as a highly individualistic, anti-community trend in our nation's character. The current "tea party" movement is a visible expression of a libertarian approach which distrusts government, and which emphasizes personal responsibility to such an extent that concern for the neighbor and the community is lost. The extreme goals of personal freedom and opportunity that I hear from reports about tea party rallies, and in other settings of arch-conservative politics, contradict the more communitarian goals of shalom.

A virulent anti-tax stance (as seen in California's Proposition 13 and Colorado's TABOR) insists that "I know how to spend my money better than some bureaucrat or politician." Such a stance implies that there is validity only in personal goals, not in things which are good for the community as a whole.

There is certainly room for debate about the ways in which government, business, community institutions and individuals interact in building the common good. The visionary goal of shalom does not define one set of policies or structures that define a just and compassionate community. It does not spell out the details of how community goods will be served. But shalom does insist the godly peace and justice are found in and through the health of the community as a whole. It is not enough to focus on individuals.

I am especially jumpy and concerned about anti-community trends because of three items that will appear on the ballot this fall in my home state of Colorado (Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101) . If passed, they would change state fiscal policies so dramatically that core government functions -- the ability to maintain roads, provide for education, and conduct routine business functions -- would be devastated. The ideology which lies behind these initiatives rejects the sense of common good which is inherent in shalom.

As I reflect theologically on the health of my nation in 2010, as I bring to bear considerations of shalom and justice during this Fourth of July weekend, I affirm the central importance of our common good. In the face of opposing calls from those who seek only individual freedom and opportunity, I insist on the fact that our personal well-being in intrinsically tied to the health and vitality of the whole community. In the context of this year's political conflicts, I lift up the value of the services provided by government agencies in ensuring our common good.

In the coming months of this election year, I hope that Christians and Jews will find meaning in the principle of shalom which is central to our faith tradition. I pray that individuals will shape their choices on policies and candidates, not from short-term and personal self-interest, but through a commitment to the common good. And I pray that congregations and religious leaders will be outspoken in affirming their values that call our nation toward the common good.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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