Two weeks ago my nephew, John Hartman, was elected mayor of Churchville, NY, near Rochester. After serving as a trustee and then as deputy mayor for 8 years, John ran unopposed. Churchville is a small town. Population about 2,000. You might be asking: So what’s the big deal? Well, even small towns have some of the same issues as large cities: welfare of schools, trash disposal, safety and security issues, road maintenance, zoning issues, and planning for the future. John will be balancing his family and his business obligations along with his new duties as mayor.
And that’s what makes his election a big deal. John and myriads of people like him are investing a significant amount of their time and talent in some form of public service. Another way of saying this: They are assuming roles of leadership in serving the common good. So today I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the vital importance of the common good.
First, what do we mean by the common good? Here’s a simple definition: the common good is that which benefits all or most of the people in a society or group. One reason we have taxes, as we know, is to insure that all citizens contribute to those entities that benefit all—such as schools, roads, the military, health care, programs for the poor, to name a few. But sometimes, a major threat to the concept of the common good is the principle of individual rights. Balancing these two values can be challenging.
Historically, the spirit of individual rights has been strong in the United States. In our American lore we celebrate explorers like Daniel Boone who supposedly moved every time he could see the smoke of a neighboring chimney. We have idolized drifters and lonesome cowboys. We see this individualism reflected in popular slogans such as these: my home is my castle, good fences make good neighbors, I have my rights, and don’t tread on me. Some hot button issues in our own day—abortion and gun control, for example—can be viewed as conflicts between individual rights and the rights of others or the common good. It boils down to the individual right (to have an abortion or to own guns—even assault rifles) versus another’s right to life or the right to be safe in the community, whether at school, on the street, or in a place of worship. Lately, in some instances, the case for the common good seems to be losing.
Embedded within our Constitution is the “Bill of Rights.” Someone has asked, “Why don’t we also have a Bill of Responsibilities”? Good question. Why don’t we delineate those responsibilities we individuals have toward the common good, that is, toward our local community, our country, or the world community in which we live?
I think there is evidence that reverence for the common good is eroding. We build palatial individual homes in our rural areas while our nearby cities decay. We drive our luxury cars on roads and over bridges that are deteriorating beneath our tires. We complain about money needed to update sewer systems or power grids. We get nervous whenever we hear the phrase “government regulation,” seeing it as an infringement on our right to amass unlimited individual or corporate wealth. We vote against levies for schools, libraries, fire departments, mental health services. We cut funds to the arts and environmental projects. And we run up a national debt that threatens to enslave our children and grandchildren for decades to come.
I know, I have painted a pretty grim picture. Let me add that throughout our history in this country (and in other countries as well) we still have concrete symbols of the promotion of the common good: museums, hospitals, libraries, universities, zoos, courthouses, city halls, police and fire stations, Rotary Clubs, garden clubs, the Scouts and 4-H, food banks, community centers, homeless shelters, women’s shelters, and our magnificent local, state, and national parks.
Reflecting on our investment in the common good is a good Lenten practice. Lent is a time we remember God’s investment in our common good: the person of Jesus. We recall Jesus’ core mandate to love one another. We remember his injunction to care for those in need in our midst, an injunction enshrined in Matthew 25. Today, let us ask ourselves:
How are you investing your time and talents in the common good?
Has Matthew 25 ever been a motivating force for you?
If you drew up a “Bill of Responsibilities,” what one or two responsibilities would you want to be sure to include?
Where do you see evidence of reverence for the common good in your local, state, national, or world community?
Today’s song is the melody that some of us know as “Tantum Ergo,” attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. These words, I believe, were written by Fred Kaan in 1968. I have written out the 3 verses below the video:
For the healing of the nations, Lord, we pray with one accord.
For a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords.
To a life of love and action help us rise and pledge our word.
Lead us now, Lord, into freedom, from despair your world release.
That redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace.
Show us how through care and goodness fear will died and hope increase.
You, Creator God, have written your great name on humankind,
For our growing in your likeness bring the life of Christ to mind.
That by our response and service earth its destiny may find.
Now it’s your turn. I invite you to serve the common good of our Sunflower community by offering a response below: