Common Ground, Common Good

Sermon preached September 6, 2015

Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-9; Mark 7:24-30

Alice Cooper, “Elected”

Labor Day is often associated with politics. People tend not to pay a lot of attention to elections until this weekend, and many candidates use this weekend to begin campaigning in earnest. Of course, already the 2016 presidential election is making a great deal of news. The presidential political season seems to have begun early. The intertwining of theology and politics has also begun. I saw a picture on Twitter from a big Donald Trump rally in Alabama. A woman was holding a sign reading “Thank you Lord Jesus for President Trump.”

I did not grow up in a very political family. There were no yard signs or bumper stickers at our house indicating any political preference. We did not discuss political issues at the dinner table, or really ever. Somehow, though, I developed an interest in politics. Here is a book I ordered from Scholastic, probably in third grade – The Arrow Book of Presidents. This also tells you I enjoy buying books and hang on to them for a really long time. In this book, I wrote about the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections. I noted when Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson died. Out of a non-political family, I became interested in politics. I remember watching the Watergate hearings, which said more about my interest in television because in the summer of 1973 that was the only thing that was on tv. But I watched.

So I developed this interest in politics, and still maintain that interest. As my faith grew and developed, what interests me most and engages me most are the theological-moral issues wrapped up in political issues. I also became interested in the theology and ethics of democracy. Some of you know that I hold a Ph.D. in religious studies from Southern Methodist University. My dissertation, and this is the “look how hard I worked” version – bound with print on one side of a page, is entitled “Political Majorities, Political Minorities and the Common Good: an analysis of understandings of democracy in recent Christian political ethics.”

In that dissertation I argue that the heart of a politics rooted in the Bible and Christian faith is some notion of the common good. More importantly in my on-going thinking and living as a Christian, I believe that the moral core of a Christian politics is working for the common good. The common good points toward a social arrangement, a quality of community, where all can share in the goodness of the community and all have opportunity for growth, development and flourishing. It is a quality of shared life characterized by work toward justice; enhancing freedom – particularly the freedom to grow, develop and flourish; enhancing relationships – which involves increasing inclusion and encouraging participation in the decision-making processes of the community. The common good, ultimately, is a way of thinking about how the Biblical idea of the Kingdom of God relates to our lives here and now. Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that the Kingdom of God is a vision of shalom where peace characterizes our relationships with God, self and others, and where justice and peace embrace joyfully. This, he says “is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 72).

The heart of a politics rooted in the Bible and Christian faith is some notion of the common good. The moral core of a Christian politics is working for the common good. I think this means trying to find common ground with others. I think this means seeing the common humanity of others. But that has been a challenge throughout human history.

Proverbs: Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause…. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity…. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the make of them all. Here is the challenge to find common ground, to see common humanity, to work for the common good.

But we need to be reminded. Hundreds of years later, in the emerging Jesus community, James offers that reminder. My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? So believing has consequences for how we live, apparently. If a person with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves?… You have dishonored the poor…. You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin.

It is rather sad that communities claiming the name of Jesus struggle with this as much as we do. There are few more powerful stories about recognizing common humanity than the story told in Mark 7, the encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman. Jesus is tired in Tyre. He needed some down time, but this woman finds him out. She is a Gentile, a Syrophonecian with a little daughter who was hurting. She came to Jesus and begged him for help. This may not have been an easy thing for her to do, seeking help from a wandering Jewish teacher. Jesus makes her quest more uncomfortable with his uncharacteristically terse and unkind response. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” To be compared to a dog was highly insulting, for dogs were regarded as shameless and unclean. Her tenacity and wit are remarkable. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus understands something. “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Jesus should not have been talking alone with a woman, let alone a Gentile woman. Their encounter is fascinating and in some ways they both benefit. Jesus initially seems to see only a Gentile woman asking for something from him. He ends up seeing her common humanity, sees her as a caring mother and as a bright woman. His initial response calls out her strength, perhaps she sees herself differently because of her ability to respond so well. The result is healing.

Seeing common humanity, seeking common ground, working for the common good – these are part of the work of God in the world and part of our calling from God. They are a part of kindness. Let me again refer to the theologian Robert Neville who I quoted last week. Christianity first and foremost is about being kind. Love is the more customary word than kindness, but love is too complicated in its symbols, too loaded with history, to be a plain introduction to Christianity.

Christian faith is about kindness which involves seeing common humanity and working for the common good. This is the heart of relationship between Christian faith and political engagement, but this broad understanding of the moral core of Christian politics leaves a lot of questions open, as it should. Neville writes: Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists. Whether a social welfare system is ultimately kind if it creates a long-term dependent class of people is a debatable point at this stage, and how to amend it to make it more kind is also debatable. But some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases. These include being generous, sympathetic, being willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent. (Symbols of Jesus, xviii)

What kindness, what the common good require, in any time and any context can and should be debated. I would suggest this morning, though, that having a three-year old Syrian fleeing the violence in his country wash up dead on a Turkish shore cannot fit any Christian idea of common humanity, common good, or kindness. How to respond is complicated, but not caring is not an option for us.

Let me also suggest this morning that being drawn to seeing common humanity, seeking common ground, and working for the common good requires our willingness to engage in difficult conversations about our society and the world. Let me mention a couple just briefly as we move toward the end of this sermon.

Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church is asking predominantly white Christian churches to engage seriously in conversations about race and racism. The AME was created in the United States out of the broader Methodist movement due to racial exclusion. We need to continue to talk about race in this country, and some of these conversations will be uncomfortable. After the recent shooting of a deputy sheriff in Houston, the county sheriff suggested that we get beyond Black Lives Matter and simply affirm that all lives matter. Wouldn’t that be the best way to affirm our common humanity? At one level, yes, of course. However, we cannot simply speak in abstractions. We must take seriously our history and in the history of this country black lives have mattered less. Recognizing the common humanity of black persons means understanding something of their unique history – including slavery and discrimination, and reaching toward a mutual sharing of stories, working toward a common good.

There is a unique history for Native American persons that needs to be heard as well. In the coming months in our community we will be invited to hear stories of Native children forcibly removed from home and family and sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language or expressing their heritage. The point of hearing these stories is not to engender paralyzing guilt but to enhance mutual understanding, to see common humanity and find common ground for common good.

We are struggling in this country with wide gaps in inequality that are eroding opportunities for too many of our people. Equality of results is not the definition of justice, but too great an inequality is inconsistent with justice and the common good.

By one measure, U.S. income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928. In 1982, the highest-earning 1% of families received 10.8% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 64.7% (according to research by UC-Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez). Three decades later (according to Saez’ preliminary estimates for 2012) the top 1% received 22.5% of pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s share had fallen to 49.6%. Wealth inequality is even greater than income inequality. A NYU economist (Edward Wolff) has found that, while the highest-earning fifth of U.S. families earned 59.1% of all income, the richest fifth held 88.9% of all wealth. (Pew Research) It is difficult to fathom that such inequality is consistent with the common good.

So here’s my hope in the coming months as politics again becomes more prominent in our national life. I hope that we will, in the Spirit of Jesus promote healthy conversations about challenging issues, conversations that carry beyond the political season, and that go beyond electoral politics. I hope we will, in the Spirit of Jesus, see common humanity, seek common ground to address important issues, and work for the common good. In short, I hope we will be part of God’s work in the world of offering hope and healing, and offering it right from this place on the skyline. Amen.