Friday, May 14, 2010

The Common Good

Commonwealth: The People’s Well-Being

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the word commonwealth. I was born in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and it was next door to where I grew up, since my parents’ property sat literally on the state line separating Delaware from Pennsylvania.

There are three other states that call themselves Commonwealths first: Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky.

The use of the word commonwealth to designate a particular sort of political entity dates to fifteenth century England. The word has two obvious parts common and wealth (the latter originally weal). Wealth (or weal) connoted a sense of “well-being.” So think of the origins of the word commonwealth in terms of a common well being, what might also be called the public welfare. In the seventeenth century the word came to mean “a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people or a republic or democratic state.”

Words have power. Commonwealth, suggesting “the people” and their “well being” is a power laden word. It has echoes in the famous words that begin our national founding document: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address spoke of this nation in terms of it being “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Lincoln borrowed these words from a famous ante-bellum Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who had borrowed them from John Wycliffe’s fourteenth century preface to his translation of the Bible, indicating Wycliffe’s belief that Scripture was a sort of commonwealth and should be readily accessible to all. Thus he presented the Bible to the people in the vernacular—their English language. (Here I point out the radical nature of both the Protestant Reformation and of the American Republic relative to “power to the people.”)

This begins to suggest that there is a pervasive ethic that relates to the people’s well being; that ethic, at least in the American experience, is a national ethic. This ethic makes the state and the state serves the ethic’s purpose. It is an ethic of the people, by the people, for the people: the ethic of the common good.

Our historic congregation has its variation of this ethic, written by the founding minister William Channing Gannett, and sung at our building’s dedication hymn in 1889: “Here be no one a stranger, no holy cause be banned. No good for one not counted a good for all the land.” I appreciate Gannett’s intention in saying, “No good for one not counted, a good for all the land,” as a different way of expressing what is connoted by the notion of commonwealth.

The Common Good: Moral and Political Aspects

In relatively recent years the phrase “common good” has gained traction. For example there’s a Chicago-based organization, Protestants for the Common Good, originally conceived as a balance to a newly aggressive Religious Right.

They self-describe: “We are a voice of progressive Protestant Christianity. Founded in 1996, PCG brings an informed and progressive Protestant voice to public life. In keeping with its mission, PCG offers educational programs and advocacy opportunities to people of faith on matters of public policy and community life.

“We bring a biblical and theological perspective to critical public issues. Our approach to public life emerges from an understanding of God’s inclusive love and the recognition of justice as mutuality and interdependence. We respond to God’s love by working for the common good and by creating a community of mutuality in which each person is given maximum opportunity to flourish and contribute to the whole.”

Strip away religious terms and you’ll find in this statement of the Protestants for the Common Good characteristics of what is generally meant today by “common good.” Consider these words and terms: Progressive. Inclusive. Justice. Mutuality. Interdependence. Community. Individual opportunity and responsibility.

The popular use of the term "common good" relates to the last decades of the twentieth century, when liberals, after considerable retrenchment, reacted to the ascendency of political and social conservatism. The vision of promoting and serving a common good represents the convergence of liberal social values recast in so-called progressive language.

When I designed this sermon a month or so ago, I didn’t anticipate that I’d be so concerned with the highly politicized divisions of this day: conservatives and liberals, blue states and red states, Republicans and Democrats, and so on. I was naively thinking that the notion of a common good, my chosen theme, was somehow above the fractiousness and fray, the posturing and righteousness of contending political positions. A little research has indicated that it isn’t so. The notion of a common good clearly represents an emergent progressive outlook; and progressive is a meaningful moniker adopted by liberals who have reacted to conservative criticism but haven’t abandoned core liberal values of justice and community.

Here’s an early appraisal, circa 1992, regarding the scope and intent of the common good, from the journalIssues and Ethics published by Santa Clara University, a Jesuit university in the Silicon Valley of California, “The common Good:”

“What exactly is "the common good", and why has it come to have such a critical place in current discussions of problems in our society? The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the contemporary ethicist, John Rawls, defined the common good as ‘certain general conditions that are...equally to everyone's advantage.’ The Catholic religious tradition, which has a long history of struggling to define and promote the common good, defines it as ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.’ The common good, then, consists primarily of having the social systems, institutions, and environments on which we all depend work in a manner that benefits all people. Examples of particular common goods or parts of the common good include an accessible and affordable public health care system, an effective system of public safety and security, peace among the nations of the world, a just legal and political system, and unpolluted natural environment, and a flourishing economic system. Because such systems, institutions, and environments have such a powerful impact on the well-being of members of a society, it is no surprise that virtually every social problem in one way or another is linked to how well these systems and institutions are functioning.

“As these examples suggest, the common good does not just happen. Establishing and maintaining the common good require the cooperative efforts of some, often of many, people. Just as keeping a park free of litter depends on each user picking up after himself, so also maintaining the social conditions from which we all benefit requires the cooperative efforts of citizens. But these efforts pay off, for the common good is a good to which all members of society have access, and from whose enjoyment no one can be easily excluded. All persons, for example, enjoy the benefits of clean air or an unpolluted environment, or any of our society's other common goods. In fact, something counts as a common good only to the extent that it is a good to which all have access.

“It might seem that since all citizens benefit from the common good, we would all willingly respond to urgings that we each cooperate to establish and maintain the common good. But numerous observers have identified a number of obstacles that hinder us, as a society, from successfully doing so.”

The article’s authors identified four obstacles standing in the way of the common good of our pluralistic society: 1) disagreement among people and groups about what constitutes the good life; 2) the “free-rider” problem, that is there are those who take without contributing in return; 3) the arch American value of individualism and personal rights get in the way; 4) and an unequal sharing of burdens, that is, sacrifices must be made by individuals or by groups, including corporations.

Let’s take these four obstacles standing in the way of the common good and apply them to one of the most contentious of contemporary issues, health care reform.

Think back just a few weeks: What were the various groups that heatedly supported reform and what groups opposed reform? (A majority of Democrats aye, and except for one resounduing Republican nay. How did physicians line up? Insurance companies? Middle Class Whites? African Americans. Latino? Women?) And for what reasons? What segments of the population were projected as potential free riders, that is, who would be taking and not returning? (Think here of class and race issues.) How would individual/personal rights be coerced by compulsory participation under penalty of law? (Frequently cited were young adults of generally good health who often risk no health insurance.) And who would have to make enormous sacrifices? (I heard a doctor declare that the system couldn’t handle a flood of 30 million new patients. And Medicare recipients groused that their services would inevitably be cut back.)

Selling the common good doesn’t seem a realistic strategy given the contemporary contentious cultural climate.

In the article the “Common Good” in the journal Issues and Ethics, after surveying obstacles to implementing such an ethic, the authors conclude, nevertheless: “All of these problems pose considerable obstacles to those who call for an ethic of the common good. Still, appeals to the common good ought not to be dismissed. For they urge us to reflect on broad questions concerning the kind of society we want to become and how we are to achieve that society. They also challenge us to view ourselves as members of the same community and, while respecting and valuing the freedom of individuals to pursue their own goals, to recognize and further those goals we share in common.”

Covenants and Covenanting

The ethic of the common good poses a dilemma for American society. In this regard, there are certain parallels between American society and Unitarian Universalism when it comes to a common good. Since we’re non-creedal and emphasize individual belief and conscience, what are the personal bonds of membership? And since each congregation is independent and self-governing what bonds congregation to denomination, specifically the Unitarian Universalist Association? (Note that it is an association, indicating the lack of authority of association over congregation.)

The answer to both the bonds of membership and the bonds of association is the notion of covenant.“"Covenant" is Latin for “come together” and means a “solemn agreement” or “promise from the heartregarding a course of action between parties.

Covenant, of course, has roots in the Old Testament where a variety of covenants were effected between God and Adam, God and Abraham, God and Noah, and so on that established right relationships with cause and effect resulting when the relationship went a kilter. Protestants picked up on the convenental process. Important in our tradition is the Mayflower Compact drawn by the Pilgrims of Plymouth as they crossed the Atlantic in 1620 agreeing “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, [to] Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid…” Also important is theCambridge Platform of 1648 drawn by New England Puritans that declared, “There is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place.” This places authority in the local congregation, a form of governance known as congregational polity. Recognizing a need to join congregations in common effort and mutual support member congregations create the UUA, whose bylaws begin, “"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote."

We UUs often say, though we’re not a creedal community, we are a covenantal community. As individual members we covenant together in love and purpose to create this church--truly a living tradition renewed with each new member. As a congregation we covenant with sister congregations across the continent to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. In individual freedom and in congregational freedom we choose to come together to fulfill higher purposes. We are more together than we could ever be alone.

In both instances we seek a common good of spiritual and religious dimensions. This morning we’ve considered the ethic of the common good. It is an ethic that hinges on sincere and ongoing personal commitment to what I alluded to last week (in talking about the wisdom of Joseph Campbell) as a myth. And like the covenant of marriage, when a couple commit more than to each other’s welfare, rather to a common welfare, the covenant to community is a realization of a relationship of spiritual dimension.

When it comes to the notion of common good, I like the implication of covenant, a promise of the heart for a transcendent value, whether for society or for our chosen faith of Unitarian Universalism. Think of covenant relative to the relationship you make.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coming of Age

A favorite film is the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (released in 1974) based on a 1959 novel by the famous Canadian author Mordecai Richler. It stars a young Richard Dreyfus as the protagonist Duddy. I love the film for several reasons, including the settings: Montreal, the Laurentian Mountains of Northern Quebec, and the Adirondack region of Upstate New York— all part of Ellie and my life in the early 1970s. Ellie and I saw the film in a Montreal theater with patrons intimately familiar with the places depicted. To see a film in the environs where it was shot is always an electric communal experience.

The story is a humorous, but poignant coming of age tale, in literature what is known as a bildungsroman. Duddy Kravitz is a young man on the make, who’s willing to shave morality for money time and again, and, as a result, reaps the sorry consequences. One of the subplots involves a scheme he and a blacklisted American filmmaker have to document bar mitzvahs for wealthy families. Their attempt to create an arty chronicle of one young boy’s ceremony mixes the actual bar mitzvah with cuts from African ceremonies, including incongruous drum beating, frenzied dancing, and images of circumcision. The obvious intentions of this little documentary within the bildungsroman were to universalize coming of age stories.

Coming of age rites are universal, though in the contemporary American culture coming of age is a long and vague process with a number of markers throughout adolescent and early adulthood. (Some brain scientists contend that brain development doesn’t fully take place until the mid-20s.) Puberty, high school, drivers license, college, ages 18 and 21 are among the markers on the road to full adulthood in our culture and times.

Religion has long observed a transition from youth to adulthood through ceremonies. In Christian traditions, the ceremony is called confirmation, when the gifts of the Holy Spirit are bestowed and full membership in the church follows. In Jewish tradition, the ceremony of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, signify that 13 year old boys and 12 year old girls become fully responsible for their actions.

In recent years, Pam has devised a coming of age program for our youth on the cusp of adolescence that asks of the youth and their families their respectful and engaged attendance. It is a great a great success and a tradition that continues to grow.

Being UUs, we have our own sense of what the coming of age program is about. It includes the notions of individual worth and dignity, relationships across the generations (each youth has an adult mentor), a group retreat something like a vision quest, and a community celebration—this service in which the youth offer their faith statements. Now we also extend the choice of church membership.

The following meditation of mine speaks to our youth, lifting up our collective intentions and hopes:


Young man,

Young woman,

Life turns for you.

This is a magic time,

a mythic passage,

In your becoming.

We who welcome you,

None of us is too old

So as to have forgotten

--the mystery of not


--the delight of first


--the impatience to hurry

what will come next

--the terrible wonderfulness

of the changes.

Don’t forget.

We remember.

And with memory and hope

We welcome you,

Knowing that what you may become

Is a bud

Bursting into a flower

Just now.

To you,

young man,

To you,

young woman,

We wish

all the mystery

all the moments,

all the changes

That are yours.

We can’t give them;

For they are yours

To take!

[from Coming of Age: A Treasury of Poems, Quotations, and Readings for Growing Up, collected by Edward Searl]