The most important subject facing the world
BookReclaiming the Common Good: How Christians can help rebuild our Broken World, collated and edited by Virginia Moffatt (London: DLT, 2017)
By George Browning
August 9 2018
This collection of fourteen essays makes a sterling effort to address what is arguably the most important question faced not simply by Christians but by all people of faith: at this point in history what are we here for, what is the point of “church”?
The short answer will be an affront to many Christians: we are not here as a haven for the few on their way to heaven, but to be a source of transformative blessing “to all nations”, to quote the words associated with the blessing of Abraham. Of course, it is both, but given the overwhelming victory accorded a privatised and individualised faith in the West, the point needs to be resoundingly made.
The context from which the essayists write is contemporary Britain, which may be off-putting to some Australian readers, but the problems they address are also our problems. The book has two main sections: “Service and Society” and “People and Planet”, each with six essays. The sections are preceded with an opening essay by Patrick Riordan SJ, “What is the Common Good” and concluded with an essay from Simon Woodman, “New Jerusalem: Building a Vision for the Common Good”.
The book’s argument that the escalating problems – caused by neo-liberal economics and a largely unregulated market of rapidly growing inequity and an outrageous disregard for environmental responsibility are well made and desperately need to be better understood by the wider community. Similarly, the book’s argument that the failure of “conservative politics” to understand that its role is to regulate for the common good is also well made. That there appear to be a growing number of libertarians in government ranks is a cause for deep concern.
I would like to have seen commentary about the way our current world has been shaped by the Enlightenment and that without correction, the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual will ultimately bring about the collapse of Western civilisation.
I am less convinced that the essays deal well enough with the theologies that must undergird our mission to serve the common good. Many years ago, I attended a lecture given by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. At the end of the lecture he was asked, “in what way does your belief in the Trinity affect the way you live your life?”. He answered: “This belief informs me that relationship is the ultimate truth”. Individualism is anathema to Christianity, we are always about community and social justice.
Good can only be good if it is common. Bernadette Meaden in the fourth essay reminded us that William Temple, who was deeply immersed in the social consequences of Christian faith, was more responsible than most for the NHS which emerged soon after the end of WWII at a time of severe economic strain. We live at a time of considerable economic wealth and yet find little room for programmes of social justice. (The NDIS might be an exception, but it seems to be more a trough for unqualified servers to make a buck out of government largesse than it is about genuine service of the disabled).
I would also like to have seen commentary about the binary nature of 21st century political and religious life and the insurmountable problems this creates. As the new Bishop of Gippsland, Richard Treloar, is reported to have said in the June TMA, there is no place for binary thinking within Christianity and addressing it must be a priority if the common good is to be served.
The chapters on “People and Planet” focus, as one might expect, on climate change, migration, war and peace, and how to build sustainable local and regional communities. They are well and thoughtfully written and again challenge prevailing binary thinking that has led us into wars that should not have been fought, into stigmatisation so often associated with migration and shameful refusal to address climate change.
So, what of the way forward? The essayists rightly point us to the reality that Christians have, or at least should have, a profound sense about what citizenship means. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the compass of the world and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). In an ironic way modern day nationalism is the enemy of true citizenship. As the 1920 Lambeth conference following the Great War said: “If State citizenship is in conflict with the citizenship of God, Christians must understand where their true citizenship lies.”
Over the centuries movements focussing on what true citizenship might mean have captured the hearts and imaginations of ordinary folk. But such movements do require leadership. Leadership is unlikely to come from within institutions which by their very nature are resistant to change. Unsurprisingly those who lead such movements are women like Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan or Rosie Batty of Australia.
Simon Woodman’s final chapter, “The New Jerusalem, building a vision for the Common Good”, draws its inspiration from John’s Revelation chapter 21. Woodman would have us picture the biblical narrative beginning in a garden and concluding in a city, a polis. He would also have us understand that the chapter is not a vision about ultimate destiny alone, but a vision about the way in which our contemporary experience of life on this planet is to be transformed.
Our current manner of life is so far removed from this. We live in a world of winners and losers. Mr Trump told his people that under his leadership the American people would grow weary of winning. The absolute reality of the world in which we now live is that it is global. It is not possible for one State to have national best interests in conflict with global best interest and avoid the consequences of loss somewhere else. It is most true in relation to climate change. It is also true of migration, economics, and avoidance of war.
The subject this book addresses is the most important subject facing the church and the world. If it brings more people into the conversation it will have done its job. I warmly commend it.
Dr George Browning is a former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.