The Common Good

So Joshua said to the children of Israel, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord, your God. This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst, who at your approach will dispossess the Canaanites. The ark of the covenant of the Lord of the whole earth will precede you into the Jordan. . . . While all Israel crossed over on dry ground, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord remained motionless on dry ground in the bed of the Jordan until the whole nation had completed the passage. 

Joshua 3:10-11,17

What are the ties that bind a human society together? Given that, by our very nature and drive for survival, we humans are egocentric, tribal, inherently drawn to those who are like us and fearful, if not antagonistic, to those who are other to us, is it even possible to maintain bonds of community or even acceptance and tolerance? In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln redefines the American social experiment as government of, by, and for the people. It would seem, however, that such is not possible without some shared sense of the “commonwealth.” There cannot be a “people” without some core belief, purpose, or goal that they hold in common. Thus, the question that the movement of history is always refocusing is whether or not a diverse peoples can adequately become “a people” who share enough aspiration and intention to govern themselves for all of themselves.

As we read from the story of Joshua today, we are reminded that the “people of Israel” are held together and dare to continue to move into their unknown shared journey because they “know that there is a living God in . . . [their] midst.” While the people cross the dry bed of the Jordan, the priests “carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord remained motionless on dry ground in the bed of the Jordan.” The is a stillness at the center, at the core of the people’s unfolding journey and life. This is the sign of and the contact with the “living God” who is the center, the core, and the heart of this people. This God is the the one whom they hold in common and by whom they are held together.

It is a God, however, whose presence is attended to in stillness and mystery. We know that throughout their Exodus from Egypt, the people were continually tempted to create idols whom they could actually see to worship because the living God seemed absent to them. Despite our sometimes romantic notions of Israel’s theocracy, they did not, and do not, comprehend and relate to the same God. For God is always mystery; the name of God cannot even be spoken, for that suggests that one knows and controls God in a way that is impossible for human beings. So, the experience of Israel can perhaps teach us who seem so different from them. The American struggle to know what is common among us is not a distinct one. The post-election conflicts in Kenya, the anticipated and feared conflicts in Congo, the increasing tears in the fabrics of so many European societies that were once but no longer based on single tribal, racial, and cultural identities are all reminders of the need for humanity to find a core, a still center, that is our place of community and communion. Jan van Ruusboec says that the common person is the one who has discovered in him or herself that place of communion with the Mystery where love and rest are one. As the people of Israel can continue to journey together because the living God is in their midst—and they know this by the priests who carry the ark and remain motionless on the dry bed of the river as they pass through—so human beings can only know that they are “in common” as they realize the place of rest within that is with them throughout their journey.

We know the dangers of speaking of the place that we believe a sense of Mystery must have in the social sphere. It is that each person or faction believes that it is their definition of the Mystery that must be shared for the sake of the realization of our common humanity. Oftentimes in the United States, zealots of a certain stripe will rail about the need for everyone to espouse the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance to the flag. That phrase, however, hardly adverts to the Mystery inherent in life. It was added to the pledge in the 1950’s during the height of the Cold War. The god of that phrase is primarily a patriotic anti-communist god. As Lincoln said, there shall always be factions praying “to their own god.” We can never share a common vision and belief of the Mystery precisely because it is mystery. It is our nuanced and diverse perspectives that when held together perhaps afford us helpfully differing modes of relating to that Mystery.

Yet, when there is in us a degree of stillness, of being in our own place, in the simple and small reality of our own being, we know in that place a presence to whom we are responsible. We know that to live is to be responsible to the One who gives us life and who will take it back. At this same moment, we also realize that our responsibility extends to all, that the life we have is a common life, the same life that is in every other person and that is the life of the universe.

The absence of such a core, of a sense of mystery in our current socio-political climate is, perhaps, most largely manifest in the lack of a sense of responsibility. It is difficult to remember the last time that a political figure called on the people to be responsible to and for each other. Our greatest aspiration often appears to be the increase of our wealth, particularly the increase of the wealth of the wealthiest. There seems to be a belief among politicians and their handlers that to summon us to realize our responsibility for each other would be political suicide. Such a perspective is the most cynical of denials of the possibility of which Lincoln spoke. For a government of, by, and for the people requires that the “people” realize that our life is a common life. In presence to the Mystery from which we come, we know that our own life is a life of and with all others. We only truly live in responding to the others and their needs. This means that the “quality” of our life is totally dependent on the “quality” of the life of all. Our life is diminished to the degree that the life of the least among us is diminished.

We are a people when we know that “the living God” is in our midst. We must not confuse that God, however, with our own biases and prejudices. It is the “living God” not “my god” that makes us a people together. We know that God in stillness and mystery, a mystery that calls us to realize that our life is, at its core, responsibility to and for each other.

A mature life of being “with” others rather than simply tending against, toward, or away from them requires an extraordinarily open heart, mind, and will. To arrive there entails a difficult, demanding shift from sinful individualism to a stance of mutual giving and receiving. 

Living this interpersonal dimension of our lives asks us to relinquish some of our defense mechanisms. It expects us to affirm the others as persons, to encourage their uniqueness and freedom, and to become concretely and intimately involved in their lives. We try it, and we constantly run up against the fallenness, the brokenness that haunts all human relationships. One way or another, we are caught in the conflict between self and God that underlies them all. 

Unless we are grounded in Mystery — unless we experience both ourselves and the others as co-participants in Mystery — we find it almost impossible to live in compassionate love of one another for any length of time. Unless we have “new eyes” that can see the others contemplatively, it is easy to miss the many-splendored thing that is our life together.

Carolyn Gratton, The Art of Spiritual Guidance, Chapter 9

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