Justice and the Common Good

By The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab

[All Saints, South Burlington, VT; July 7, 2013; Isaiah 66:13]

We surely know it is summer now!

Summer has its gifts.  We are out of the house back to nature – its beauty and riches.  For me, it was the sheer abundance of blossoms on the rhododendron – a blossom on every branch!  A fresh meeting with our Creator and our Creator’s handiwork.

This summer brings another side to this encounter – encounter with the basic structure that underlies this creation.  Too much carbon in the air and global warming increases and storms and high winds where they were new and drought where there had been plenty.  It’s an encounter with a structure that is the Creator’s handiwork.  That’s the way I try to see power failures due to storms – another encounter with the Creator and the balance in creation that cannot be violated.

It’s as if the creation has its own form of justice.  Treat the creation right and we enjoy the rhododendron.  Mistreat it and we endure severe storms and droughts.

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We should not be surprised.  Justice underlies God’s way with us.  Along with loving care, the biblical stories abound in justice.  We hear justice in a variety of ways.  There are many notes in any biblical passage.  Justice – or the need for it – is always there in some form.

Isaiah uses feminine images for God’s care of Jerusalem.  “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you . . . Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13).  Isaiah practices justice by using feminine as well masculine images of God.

The psalmist recalls that God helped Israel to escape pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea.  Today as we take on the structures of injustice in our time, the psalmist reminds us that God helps us too.  When the unjust powers of this world seem too big to challenge and change, remember God will deliver us from our “pharaoh.”

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul says work for the good of all.  Do not work for your side only to win.  Be fair; be just.

Jesus welcomes back the seventy.  They have cast out demons – demonic powers – in Jesus’ name.  They are not to brag but to rejoice that the Healer has used them.  They are not better than others.  They are only servers of heaven – of God, God who works for justice for all – for freedom from demonic powers for all of us.

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We need to define justice.  Whatever God does among us, it is for love and justice.  We need a fresh way to talk of love.  Love is seeking without limit to value others as they are and to help them to use their best skills to make the world more loving and more just.  Justice is the public face of love.  You cannot love a crowd.  You can work for equal access to the good things in life each one of us – for an equal chance at health, at education, at a job, at friends, and at a caring community.

Let’s go further.  Another way to talk of justice is to talk of the common good.  We want the common good for everyone – the common good of health, education, a job, friends, and a caring community – equal access to each of these values for all.

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Two stories of working for the common good, for justice, for equal access to all of life’s goods.

San Diego has 3,000 homeless from 12 to 17 years of age.  Can you imagine what it must be like to be homeless at 12!  What makes them homeless?  A host of problems – primary, are homes that do not know how to care for children and, in one way or another, push them out.  An Episcopal Church Center by name there welcomes these homeless kids with free music lessons.  They are given a marketable skill to work for a better life.  Its founder, Jeffrey Sitcov, wants all of San Diego’s charitable institutions to work together to end this homelessness.

There is a problem here.  There are not enough such institutions.  Casting out the demon of 3,000 homeless kids and youths takes public policies about adequate food and guidance and incomes for families – public policies of full employment – the list goes on.  Here is where I ache – do you ache? – over the inaction of churches and their members to speak up for and to work for the public policies that will address the conditions that lead to homelessness.  Congregations as a body and each member individually need to be on mission to build up the common good – to work for more equal access to life’s goods for these 3,000 children and their families.  Who is speaking up in these churches to work for the public policies that are needed – for the common good?

That is a story of Christians needing to work together for the common good.

Here is a story of what we as individual Christians can do.

The scene is the snack bar at the company.  The conversation gets to welfare programs, unemployment, and the social safety net.  A familiar line is heard: “Welfare programs don’t do any good.  People abuse them all the time – they will stay on welfare and unemployment the rest of their lives.”

You are a Christian.  You are the lonely outpost on this front line.  Will you speak up?  Will you challenge this discounting of our social safety net? Or you nod acknowledging you have heard the complaint but intend to let it stand unchallenged?  Here is where much of public opinion is shaped – in informal conversations that go unchallenged or challenged.  Talk about risk – to challenge this view is likely to be unpopular.  What will you do?

I don’t know about you – I ache over this silent assent to injustice, to this denial of the common good!

One can speak up.  You may not change the minds of others but you can at least show there is another view-point out there.  Will you?

One challenge goes like this: “My reading shows that only 10-15% of the people on welfare who abuse the system.  That leaves 85-90% who needs this help to survive.  Would you end what keeps so many alive just because of a minority of 10-15%?”

An interesting side light on how the church community is needed to support such a challenge.  I recall the first time I used this challenge and did so a bit half-heartedly.  When I shared it with my Bible reflection group, they said, “Well done.”  From then on I offered the challenge with greater force and conviction.  I needed the church to strengthen my solitary witness to the common good – as I see the justice of God’s kingdom.

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Live and talk the common good.  The common good is rooted in God’s way and will for justice.  As part of the Kingdom or Reign of God, there are certain ways to think and to act.  Here is one way to put them.  Make your own list – here is mine.

  • See yourself as committed to a covenant – this nation is really a family and as family we have covenanted, promised to care for each other.
  • Know that it’s the rest of us who have made us who we are.
  • We are indebted to each other for who we are.
  • We are called to pay back that debt at with service to others.

This nation is a family

that made us who we are

we are in debt to this family of a nation

and each of us must give back from what we have been given.

Put it your way.  That’s my way to reach for living God’s justice by seeking the common good – as a theology teacher used to say, “It’s a poor thing but my own.”

Christians, our baptism seals us in devotion to justice and the common good.  This is God’s call to the holy life of commitment to justice and the common good.  We are part of God’s ongoing struggle against injustice and the flaunting of the common good.  Resolve to work for it – to work for justice.

Talk justice wherever you are.  Talk the common good and everyone’s equal access to the good things of life – health, education, a job, friends, and a caring community.

[Rev. A. Wayne Schwab; Coordinator of Member Mission Network, Inc., President of Member Mission Press, Chair of the Spiritual Formation Committee for the United Church of Hinesburg, VT, Author, Speaker, and Workshop Leader.]