What is the common good and (how) are we a part of it?
Psalm 24, Isaiah 56:1-2 and The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel
Sunday July 11th, 2021
Happy Sunday and thank you again for joining us for this worship service on what is the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost on this beautiful July weekend.
Today’s sermon comes from a topic that was purchased by our Friday Men’s Group at our fundraising auction last year. This is part of how we creatively support ourselves as a non-profit doing good in the world, like public radio, we are supported by members and friends and people like you. Money does not come from the top down, in fact, we support ourselves together. Thank you to the Men’s Group!
As we come to this time in our service, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and let yourselves arrive and take in some deep breathes and hear from Psalm 19. Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
What is the common good? Is it something for which we can strive, or is it something we can participate in or be a part of creating? And does it have anything to do with our spiritual journey? And could being committed to it, lessen the great divides where we currently reside?
I am increasingly convinced that a commitment to a common good comes from getting close up, getting close in to the lives of others, daring to see the experiences, pulling ourselves proximate.
At one point in the pandemic, we were having some of our groceries delivered. I admit I don’t like all of the cardboard discarded in boxes and bags, but with parenting, partnering and pastoring in a pandemic, we did this on occasion, as part of getting by.
And there was one night that I will never forget- a Saturday in the early evening when the sun was still out and our little corner of the world was mostly still, just the sounds of kids playing and dogs barking and the smells of grills getting going, when up pulled a sedan and out jumped a boy. The driver was clearly a mom or a relative doing her rounds delivering groceries. I choked up, as I realized that my order was being brought to the porch, in the hands of a child. I was choosing to participate in convenience over conscience. I was contributing that which allowed a child to somehow be the worker? In my mind this happens in Bangladesh, but not Boulder.
That kid should have been shooting hoops somewhere or doing chalk drawings with his cousins, but instead he was spending his Saturday night making sure those who already have enough, had their English muffins in a timely fashion.
This is of course oversimplified in a way, but it pointed out to me perfectly how in this country, we have designed our economic system and much of our modern life together in such a way that prioritizes the convenience over conscience that prioritizes the needs of certain kinds of people, over what is best for the group as a whole. We have valued unimportant work, over essential workers and it is costing us and killing the common good.
The Men’s Group pointed me to this great book The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? By Michael J. Sandel from which you heard some excerpts.
In it Sandel argues that creating the common good can come from focusing on rethinking three main areas: the role of college, the dignity of work and the meaning of success.
I grew up in a time when we were told that the only way to success and happiness and the good life in America was to get a college degree and to buy a house. And somewhere along the way those two things have become nearly impossible for many and maybe most who don’t have inheritances or legacies on which to build a life.
This “tyranny of merit,” with its accompanying backlash of bitterness, arrives in what Sandel names “credentialism,” which he labels as one of the biggest divides in this country- those who have degrees and those who do not.
But it turns out that nearly 2/3 of Americans don’t have a four-year college degree, so Sandel points out how obviously unworkable and unjust it is to create an economy that requires one. And further, for many of us, the pandemic revealed up close, how we have failed to truly value what is essential in our common life.
In our current structure, what we value are those who deal in complex financial services, like hedge fund managers. The top 10 hedge fund managers take home an average of $1.3 billion a year in earnings, while teachers trained to help us raise thoughtful children toil and beg for more bake sales to do right by the role. The pandemic showed us that what we need to thrive together as a human community, when a lot is stripped away, are things we haven’t actually really invested in- ensuring those who work in grocery stores and education and sanitation are supported to be our human infrastructure.
What would it look like to have our economic system value what we actually care about? Not only for that reason, but because it will actually be smarter, kinder, more financially responsible in addition to being more just.
In 1968 as part of the sanitation worker strike in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant.”
We human beings have been wrestling with the concept of the common good for a while. The Ancient Greek philosophers took up this question and as one scholar argued, Aristotle’s philosophy still informs us today with this meaning that the common good is: the "good proper to, and attainable only by, the community, yet individually shared by its members.”
In The Republic, Plato wrote that the greatest good in society is the "cohesion and unity" that "result[s] from the common feelings of pleasure and pain which you get when all members of a society are glad or sorry for the same successes and failures."
There is true wisdom there- what would be different if we were all glad and sorry for the same successes and failures? This means that there is an intention in and a kind of commitment to falling and rising together.
What if our measure of success was not the Growth Domestic Product, not the value added created through the production of goods and services, but the value added created through the production of good care for one another, for healthcare of the mind, the body, the eyes, for people of all ages? What if our policies made things better for our sanitation workers instead of always making things better for shareholders? This is the common good to me.
What would be different if we were all glad and sorry for the successes and failures of one another?
And what does this mean for us in our shared life together on this spiritual journey? Is there a common good for us as a church? When we get close up, get close in, when we dare to see the experiences of one another, pulling ourselves proximate, what do we see? What divides do we observe? Whose work and whose lives are valued with how we are structured together?
I confess that this week, this year, it has been especially hard for me to see some of these chasms in our own church. Some in our church have multiple homes and dividends, capital gains and cushions of comforts. While others among us don’t have secure housing or any safety nets beyond prayers, stuck in the trap where it is expensive to be poor. I don’t know what we are to do about this, but I wonder if we are called to live in to the common good together in new ways?
You might remember that in the book of Acts, we read of the earliest Christian communities trying to live things out for real, risking the rub of moving beyond philosophy to practice when they wrote this, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” They put their lot and their lives together, seeing their own thriving as a movement dependent upon everyone having what was needed.
I believe this is true for nonmaterial essentials as well, passion and caring, patience and prayers, these are internal resources we can distribute among us as well. Maybe that is part of building the common good for us as people of faith? Holding at the center, what is possible when we are willing to bridge the chasms we see with care, to pull one another up, to rise together, to be glad and sorry for the successes and failures of one another.
Maybe the common good is about policy and plans that prioritize things differently and also maybe it is just as much about the goodness we bring to one another, across all the divides, where we reside. May this be so, for each of us and all of us. Amen.