American individualism is rooted in the DNA of ordinary Americans since the Puritans set foot on the promising shores of the eastern coast of our country in the early seventeenth century. They were fleeing oppression for their religious beliefs. Soon there emerged the colonists who saw this land as an opportunity to create a community free of monarchical rule. Oh my! We were swinging in the dawn of sheer resistance from British rule and it had to have been an exciting time because we were recognizing the essential, soul deep, God given right to be free and to explore and to begin a life without fear in a land that was totally open to striking roots there. We started settling in the east and when some of us discovered the vast openness that the west offered, we penetrated that land as yet unclaimed and unnamed but a comfort to our seeking souls. Yes, we settlers, soon to be Americans, plunged a deep mark into our spirit, a mark of rugged individualism. It became our evolutionary DNA.
Eventually, we developed our two-party system and the occasional third party, all of which strengthened our experiment in democracy and made us into a leading nation, the proverbial city on the hill, for the rest of the world. At the center of this experiment was the philosophical root of the ‘common good,’ taught by Aristotle in the hopes of establishing a democratic society in Greece. He wrote, “Only matters of the common good are right; matters for the rulers’ good are wrong.” Over the centuries, thinkers and revolutionaries in western societies advocated for the common good in the structures their countries were creating.
Fortunately for America, the common good was the goal of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay who wrote the Constitution and Federalist Papers laying out the guidelines protecting the common good when they argued: “In contrast to private good and the individual, security and justice can only be secured through citizenship and collective action.” Meaning the will of the citizens enacted by the work of the government.
Our Christian faith is fairly explicit about the vocation of the Christian and the common good. And, what I know about other religions suggests the same: Love of others and the welfare of others is what motivates us to create a society of the common good. Let’s look at only two here. First, the followers of our major religions experience a change from individualism to community as they commit to their new beliefs. A sense of trust in prayer and learning begins to take hold. The Holy Spirit becomes part of this quest. Call it what you will, Scriptures, catechism, teachings all converge to say to a neophyte: “Turn over whatever holds you back from total inclusion.” Trust your benevolent God and the people the Spirit works through for the common good. Trust is a basic element in creating the common good.
“ Those who believed shared all things in common; they
would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on
the basis of each one’s needs.” Acts 2:44-45
Could it be that selfishness holds one back from total acceptance of a community and its common good? Perhaps personal resources, opinion, need for recognition block a commitment to a good larger than oneself and one’s confined and rigid world? The second element of the common good is, thus, unselfishness. Biblical scholar Henri Daniel-Rops has written of the Jewish ceremonies for bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah saying that the candidate, “…upon coming of age, must understand he/she belongs to a community.” Community, not a self-interested tribe, nor a clique, or a gang. Selfishness divides, unselfishness unites.
“The community of believers were of one mind and one heart.”
There is so much more that could be said about the need for a spirituality for the common good. Journalist David Leonhardt wrote recently that Americans are filtering information selectively through political affiliations; in other words, we believe the mountain of news covering us like an avalanche without discussion and I would add, without the context of prayer and faith. Working on trust and unselfishness in one’s own spiritual life is a start. Wearing a mask and getting vaccinated is a contribution to a cause greater than myself.
A spirituality of the common good is so needed. Places of worship and dioceses could address this in educational programs and they should since community is the core of every religion. But for now, you and I need to support the common good through prayerful trust and unselfish participation in whatever we are asked to do.
Perhaps you could read the first five chapters of the Acts of the Apostles and come to see the wonderful generosity of the first community of believers. Reflect on that generosity and compare it to what we are asked to do today in our faith and the common good.
Has your prayer provided any inspiration on the challenge of the common good in your own life? Your sharing might help someone else…
I encourage us to reflect on the demands of the common good. It takes a deep spirituality to yield my own inclinations.