Who defines the common good?

Feb 26, 2015 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Who determines what is in the “common good” and “national interest”?

These terms are themselves so flexible as to be rendered nearly useless. Depending on the definer and their perspective these terms can be dropped into any camp to support particular partisan visions and to demonize enemies, outliers or appeasers.

Take for instance the myriad drums which beat for new war across 2,000 miles from Kiev to Mosul and Tehran. Defenders of the National Interest suggest ISIS must be destroyed, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions must be thwarted, and Kiev must be armed in a proxy war with Russia — all at this same time in history. At 38, I’ve lived in near constant war, but I’ve never woke up to the possibility of three new wars on top of two long-time conflicts.

Propaganda, rhetoric and history all unmask a shocking direction we seem to be marching towards: multiple multi-front wars. John McCain has been relentless in his push for more war, reminiscent of the false and fear-mongering claims Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to Iraq War 2. So, too, it seems are Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s false suggestion that Iran is close to acquiring WMDs.

Defenders of the War-as-Common-Good theory use slight of hand euphemisms such as “sacrifice,” “freedom,” “patriotism,” “national interest,” “war on terror,” and “defending democracy” to turn our gaze from the actual stories involved. John Kerry loves to call upon “the global community” (an equally euphemistic phrase which simply means those who agree with U.S. global dominance) to defend global interventionism; all the while the founders of our country – the vast majority of whom were anti-interventionists – are likely lamenting with disgust.

When regard for a soldier’s sacrifice trumps hard-hitting truth telling about policy, we’re destined for destruction. Drones, bombing campaigns, nuclear deterrence and the threat of “leaving all options on the table” ratchet up tension that we created in the first place.

Sacrificing more of our precious youth to the machinations of empire could not possibly be in our best interest. Massive death, maiming, wide spread PTSD, increased soldier suicides and moral injury are the true price of the wars that loom for us today. Not to mention environmental degradation, national bankruptcy and austerity at home. Is this a price you’re willing to force someone else to pay to secure what some pundit suggests is in our collective interest? It’s a devastating assumption.

Closer to home arguments continue on multiple fronts regarding what treatment of our LGBTQ friends and neighbors constitutes Houston’s “common good.” Conservative Christians promote equal rights denying lines between us and them; while I and many many others suggest full inclusion and equal rights is in our best common interest.

Climate change, oil pipelines and production also polarize camps who are all working for Houston’s “common good.” We’re told that either capital and job creation or respect of native lands and concern for climate change is in our best interest. Again, who decides which is true? Or is it possible no one is actually concerned about truth?

Other issues that neuter “common good” and “national interest” of all meaning based on use from all sides include the death penalty, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, corporate welfare, wage theft, economic imbalances, immigration, racialization and interfaith dialogue.

I admit, as someone deeply engaged in the missional conversation both here in Houston and beyond, use of common good language is ubiquitous and equally problematic.

So again I ask, who determines and defines what is in the common good and national interest? To illustrate the conundrum we need look no further than embrace of government policy based essentially on who resides in the White House at any given moment.

Far too often Christians unnecessarily cede the answers to these difficult questions to politics and policy makers, with little awareness that an alternative lens is readily available at the heart of Christianity.

We’ve concretized a gap between ethics and salvation. Or, put a different way, we promote a distinction between the interests of the world and the intents of religion. Jesus, we say, was apolitical and only concerned about matters of the soul. Religion is not concerned with the material here and now, but with our spiritual future. Therefore we are forced to look elsewhere for our answers. This is of course Gnosticism dressed up as fundamentalism. Add in a heavy dose of Calvinistic determinism and a deadly cocktail is mixed for war, territoriality and nepotism.

In a book I’m working now to publish, I suggest that Jesus’ gospel clarifies nearly everything. From his radically contextual, marginalized, poor and homeless, non-nationalistic and prophetic perspective, his life and message peals back the fogs that blind us to seeing our world and God’s desires clearly. It’s essential for missional communities to define common good through a Jesus-centered lens.

The theology we use creates the lens we look through which determines ethical behavior.

If your lens is a hammer then every crisis looks like a nail. If we are a violent God’s “holy nation” then war is practical and desirable.

But if Paul is correct, and Jesus’ gospel reveals the justice of God (Rom. 1:16-17), then boldly naming tension with the status quo, unmasking violence and the traps of hate is the Christian calling.

War, sacrificing humans for empire, exclusion, valuing business over people and demonizing the other (Hillary Clinton actually compared Putin to Hitler), have never been, cannot be, and will never constitute the common good. No matter how much fear and fluff they throw at us.

For Jesus is the one who is creating peace (i.e., the common good) by defeating hostility and death, breaking down the walls that demonize, and confronting the lies of violence. In such a time as this, faithfulness may most clearly take the form of protest, civil disobedience and conscientious objection.

Church, throw away the mythic lens of American purity and goodness and put on the gospel of Christ which is God’s redemption for all creation.

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church and writes at blog.chron.com, where this post originally appeared. He tweets @thepeacepastor and is on Facebook


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Dale Welty

    Marty, who defines the common good? The same God who defined common
    good pertaining to the death of the Egyptian first born who did not have blood on the door posts, who drowned the Egyptians in the Red Sea, who
    instructed Joshua on the destruction of Jericho and all the inhabitants except for Rehab and her family and,
    who instructed Gideon on how to go to battle, who instructed King Saul
    to destroy all Amalekites including women and children. It is Jesus who
    comes riding a white horse to make war with a sword in his mouth (Word)
    and with it he should smite the armies of the nation. A Heavenly angel
    invites all the fowls of the air to feast on all the dead men and
    horses slain in this battle (Rev 19), Dale Welty

  • Berry Friesen

    Marty, I’m very glad to read this, especially your reference to an upcoming book that elaborates on these themes.

    You are working with ideas similar to those John Stoner and I engaged in our survey of the Bible, where we describe Jesus as bringing not a new religion, but a new politics for the struggle of saving Earth. See http://www.bible-and-empire.net for more.

    • Elaine Fehr

      Berry, if it is true that Jesus brought a new politics for the struggle of saving Earth, what was the purpose of His sacrificial death and resurrection?

      • Berry Friesen

        Elaine, Stoner and I have penned an essay on the question you raise. MWR may publish it later this month.

        In brief, Jesus gave his life to rescue us from our sin problem. All of the gospels start with the Baptist’s call to repentance and Jesus himself included repentance in his opening statements. But along with repentance, Jesus declared–and then embodied–a new way of living in the this world, a powerful and transformative way, that the repentant could follow. He called this way the “kingdom of God.”

        The act that more than any other demonstrated this new way (this new politics) was his willing acceptance of execution as an enemy of the state on the empire’s cross.

        • Elaine Fehr

          Will be glad to discuss this further after your essay is published. Just curious though – what you mean when you say “saving Earth”.