Christian Social Justice and “the Common Good”?

I’m a big admirer and supporter of Sojourners Magazine and its editor-in-chief Jim Wallis, who was just interviewed on the Homebrewed Christianity Culture Cast again, and just released a new book entitled On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.  Jim gets this phrase from a famous Abraham Lincoln statement.  It’s been around since antiquity and perhaps finds its roots in Greek political philosophy, but does this idea of “the common good” invoke an adequate Christian social ethic?

Last week the question was raised by several Missio Alliance folks about whether Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell are two sides of the same coin.  At first I had a hard time not finding the mere suggestion of this to be ridiculous, but then I thought it nonetheless might be a good segue into a related discussion.  If for further argument’s sake one grants that this is true, then I would submit that Gustavo Gutierrez and John Howard Yoder are two sides of the same coin as well (see the diagram below).

One concern is that “common good” language might just be repackaged utilitarianism or Christian realism, in the modern tradition of doing the greatest good for the greatest number.  I’ve benefited significantly in recent years from the work of Hauerwasian-leaning political theologians who might say this, like William Cavanaugh or Daniel Bell Jr, whose latest book, Economy of Desire, I recommend.  Here is an interview with him.

The question that always arises for folks like this seems to be something like, whose good?  On whose terms?  This question is one of the main reasons post-liberals and Anabaptists are reluctant to engage in politics in a formal, and what they would call, coercive manner.  Their epistemological issues are varying and complex, but without getting into a discussion of the limits of language, perhaps a pithy summary of this position might be that Christians should only enter into dialogue and commerce in a Christian way and for Christian reasons.  Does this preclude interreligious justice efforts or any kind of public collaboration on legislation in the public square?

In keeping with the spirit of last week’s exchanges regarding Subverting the Norm and Missio Alliance and Geoff Holsclaw’s suggestion that we talk more about differences, I’d like to try out a way of “mapping” some of those differences.  In seminary I took a class with Roger Olson (Homebrewed interview here) entitled “Christian Social Justice” at the same time that I was enrolled in Marc Ellis’ (Homebrewed interview here) seminar on Liberation Theology.  While Olson’s class framed the discussion generally in terms of different views on capitalism and the morality of violence, Ellis seemed to me to be more intent on organizing the class around the themes of justice and religious identity and building community vs. empire.  I’ve tried to include these dimensions in the following graph: Christian Social Justice

For a brief summary of my understanding of what each quadrant represents, go here.

Kathryn Tanner is another political theologian who has influenced me.  She was interviewed on Homebrewed Christianity by Philip Clayton in 2011.  Her latest research deals with what Christianity can say about the global economy in light of the hyper-financialization of international markets and the recent Great Recession.  Here is something she said a few years ago in an article in the Christian Century about Christian theological and ethical responsibility today that has really stuck with me:

Enlightenment challenges to the intellectual credibility of religious ideas can no longer be taken for granted as the starting point for theological work now that theologians facing far more pressing worries than academic respectability have gained their voices here at home and around the globe.

Theologians are now primarily called to provide, not a theoretical argument for Christianity’s plausibility, but an account of how Christianity can be part of the solution, rather than simply part of the problem, on matters of great human moment that make a life-and-death difference to people, especially the poor and the oppressed.

I interpret Tanner to be saying here that, in the context and age of globalization, the proper Christian response is one that seeks to make a difference and be good news for the world and those living in it.  The criteria for this “good”, and what makes it “common” appears to be something like life instead of death, and addressing the needs of our shared material existence and limitations despite other differences — be they religious, cultural, geopolitical, etc.  Can this be done without sacrificing Christian character and identity?  In other words, do we have to speak the same language to work toward a common ethic? Is this materiality the best “public” or “common” ground?  I tend to think so.

At AAR this past November in Chicago, I got to interact with Christine Hinze and others in the ecclesiological investiations group who have attempted to offer Christian theological and ethical critiques of and responses to the financial crisis of 2008.  In my paper I tried to argue that North American emergent church ecclesiology provides a good model for Christian resistance to the financialization of capital that is always threatening to privatize profits and socialize losses. After thinking about this more lately, I wondered if the above diagram couldn’t be transposed ecclesiologically (note the change from “government” on the left to “culture”):

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Like the previous one, this graph is not sufficient to capture the diversity of ecclesial forms and perspectives in the North American landscape, as it doesn’t include many others such as Catholics, Pentecostals, the Eastern Orthodox Church and so on.  It also fails to consider the ethnic diversity of our ecclesial context.  Moreover, as we’ve seen, the labels of “emergent”, “missional”, and even “evangelical” are often more confusing than clarifying.  In light of the conversation last week though, I do think this layout can be helpful.

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2 comments
bwalkeriii
bwalkeriii like.author.displayName 1 Like

That's a good point.  I think the Catholic Social Teachings might be the best example of the "Christian Realism" quadrant, and maybe it would even be better to label it as such -- or at least add it in there.  Interestingly, I just heard that Pope Francis has "unblocked" the push for Oscar Romero's sainthood!

BC_CI
BC_CI like.author.displayName 1 Like

"One concern is that “common good” language might just be repackaged utilitarianism or Christian realism, in the modern tradition of doing the greatest good for the greatest number."
In the Catholic Social Teaching tradition the concept of the common good is distinct from a 
utilitarian view in that  "If one of us is suffering we are all diminished."
See here for a short summary on the Catholic teaching: http://businessconnect.je/blog/item/the-common-good-in-catholic-social-teaching.html

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