The angry comedian, Lewis Black, is on to something important when he calls our hand on fundraisers for public schools. (1)
We think of these fundraisers as charity he says, but educating children should just be part of what free societies do. What could be more important? More for the common good?
So, why should we ever need to raise charitable funds to educate our children? To buy supplies and provide technology? Even to provide weekend snacks, if lack of nutrition is keeping a child from learning? We ought to want to educate our children, all of them. It is the common good – even if we have to pay more in taxes to do it.
How is it going to help me, and my affluent neighborhood, if more and more children in the poor neighborhoods of Charlotte and our backwardly re-segregated schools fail to learn to read in the 3rd grade? Put in crude terms, if those children fail, they’ll be coming to our neighborhoods soon enough – either looking for a handout, or for whatever else they might take, since they have no jobs, no hope, no future.
What other choice will they have if we don’t give them a future? These aren’t other people’s children – not if we believe in the common good. And people of faith, more than any people in the world, ought to demand good education for our children.
But let’s be honest.
When it comes right down to it, most Americans, even Christian Americans, don’t really believe in the common good. Not when we actually have to put it in practice. Everyone says they believe it, until we try to figure out what it actually means.
If some politician says, “We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.” Then all those people who said they believe in the common good start yelling “get your hands off my money,” and we hear the sneering accusations of “social engineering” and “communism.”
But how else is it going to work? The common good. How?
Tax and regulatory policies and financial sector strategies put us where we are today, with the gap between rich and poor being as large as it’s ever been, and still growing, and larger than most other industrialized nations in the world.
Some argue that policies that give the poor an advantage are inherently unfair. But let’s be fair enough to admit that our policies and the people behind them, created this crisis in inequality, a crisis that threatens our very future.
There is no free market. Not in a pure sense. It’s only free until someone gains an advantage, which will always happen – some people are just smarter than others, and some are lucky. And then, because we are inherently greedy, those with the advantage use that advantage, maybe not even intentionally or maliciously.
Sin is more insidious than that.
So, in actual practice, the free market is never really free. It’s always quietly influenced, and not by the “invisible hand” the economist Adam Smith envisioned. It’s always influenced by those with voice and power; by those who have been advantaged to begin with.
There is hope, however, because the common good is, in no small part, in our hands. In the hands of those of us who have been advantaged. And we will have to decide if we are going to use our gifts and our money, our voice and our vote to keep that advantage.
Or, will the Spirit give us a bigger vision? A vision that sees the best good for me, in the best good for all. Even if that means the advantage I have received needs to be shifted to the disadvantaged.
“Salvation” is another of those very powerful, good words of scripture that has been greatly misunderstood by limiting it as a “spiritual” concept. Biblical theology dares us to believe otherwise.
From start to finish, the biblical view is of a God whose mercy is wide, whose priority is for the poor, the weak, the disadvantaged, a God whose kingdom welcomes all, whose salvation will be known when every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.(Isaiah 40.4) Salvation comes in this world, when all people can know the fullness of life that Jesus came to bring.
In other words, the common good is our salvation. We will be saved by seeking the common good, and we will be saved by experiencing it as a reality, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6.10).
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
May it be so, today.
(1) In an interview recorded at www.vulture.com, Gwynne Watkins asks: “You talk a lot about… charity… Do you think more people should [feel] just guilty enough to give something back?” Black answers: “A lot of what I consider to be charity should be a part of what we do when we pay a tax. When you’re fund-raising for schools, then something’s wrong. We seem to have lost some sort of sense of what the common good is…” (His book is, I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas.)
Photo: Mark Strozier