We are facing a virus crisis. Perhaps it is not unprecedented, in that there have been previous pandemics with huge death tolls. Yet the world is also more connected than ever before, and more integrated economically. The result is that the infection and its impacts spread faster than ever. These factors may make the whole event unprecedented.
The gospel of Jesus addresses our situation in a host of ways and gives hope and direction. Here I want to pick up one important theme that can guide Christians thinking about and response to the crisis—the idea of the “common good”. The virus and its impact show us the existence of the common good and underscore why we need to be committed to it.
COVID-19 Attacks the Common Good
Our crises reveal how highly connected-to and dependent we are on one another. In our individualist consumeristic culture, we easily imagine that almost everything in life is available, at a cost, to suit our preferences. What our neighbour wants or needs seems relatively independent of our own options. Again, that’s a myth. In fact, we are highly dependent on each other.
The threat of coronavirus shows our interconnections. It spreads because we spend time together and are connected across cities and nations. At the same time, it shows us that we need help from each other. A huge network is involved in responding: cleaners, paramedics, delivery drivers, medicos, corporations, researchers and more.
The threat of coronavirus shows our interconnections. It spreads because we spend time together. It shows us that we need help from each other.
The economic effects of the pandemic also reveal our connection. As China struggled, other economies suffered. Now, as the pandemic rolls around the globe, interruptions to travel and trade have sent the global economy into a tailspin. No doubt there are weaknesses in the global economic structure, and perhaps it is too dependent on a few major economies. Even if we restructured the world economy, human prosperity would still depend on our multiple connections and mutual interests.
At the local level, each café that closes and every cancelled concert means less money is spent on clothing or cars. So, the effects ripple through the community. Economics is not a zero-sum game. Often prosperity for one funds that for others. Of course, it is far from a perfect rule, and there are many times when the rich prosper at the cost of the poor. But that too is also evidence of our connections.
Our lives are woven on the warp and woof of social connections. Our families, friendships and communities make us who we are. These in turn depend on wider networks with billions of people we do not know personally, each in their own web of relationships. Like economics, our shared good can expand as it is shared.
These shared realities of life form the “common good”. This not simply what is good for most people. It is the common life shared by all members of a society in which everyone has an interest. Roads, sports grounds and the local shops (stocked with toilet paper) are all material elements of the common good. The legal system is also a part, as are shared culture, symbols and activities.
The Gospel and the Common Good
The common good is a profoundly Christian idea. Adam and Eve were set in the world to fill it, and from them was meant to develop a human community with a godly culture. God made us to live together, not apart. From the very beginning, humans gathered in families and in cities (Gen 4:17). Later, God’s response was to call Abram and make his descendants into a great nation (Gen 12:2-3); to establish them in the land to live as a people, not simply as individuals.
The pattern of Israel is re-established in the church through Christ. The body metaphor of the New Testament underlines how connected we are to Christ, as head, and to each other. We know God together, we grow together and suffer together (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:12–20, 22, 24–25, 27; Gal. 6:17;Eph. 1:23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:4, 12, 15–16, 25; 5:23; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19). God’s final purpose is to have his people, gathered from all nations, living in unity in fellowship with him (Rev. 21:3, 9–21).
All of that means that God is committed to community and we are made for it. Families, neighbourhoods, cities, nations and the whole human race are not the church; but the church is the foretaste of God’s kingdom. With that perspective we recognise that we live together—the real goods in life are common goods.
Church is, at least, the foretaste and sign of the city of God. It reflects the way God has made people to live. On that basis, we should be concerned about the “secular” common good, as well as the church. (For more on this see Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good : Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World IVP, 2019, which I have reviewed here).
Invest in the Common Good
The current medical crisis underlines the importance of the common good. As various events are cancelled and institutions closed, there is a loss to our shared life. The cancellations make us all poorer.
The crisis challenges us to pursue the common good. Through the bushfires, Australians showed some real commitment to this. The RFS were the heroes of the summer because they represented ordinary Australians working for the whole community in their own time and at their own cost. (Well-meant calls to pay the RFS missed that).
In contrast, panic buying and hoarding seem to be all about individual (and family) survival—or comfort—with no apparent concern for the impacts on others. Empty shelves in the supermarkets are a telling example of the way a series of relatively small personal actions can accumulate to undermine the common good.
Another way to serve the common good is to follow guidelines designed to reduce the spread of infection. You’ve probably heard people say, “I don’t need to worry, since I am young and healthy I’ll be fine”—implying that the inconvenience is out of proportion with the risk. But for Christians, personal convenience can never be the top priority (Phil 2:4). Every time you wash your hands, you are not simply protecting yourself, family and friends—it’s care for each of us and all of us together.
In the next few months, Christians and churches will have great opportunities to work for common good. We should look out for the weak and vulnerable and think about what we can do to help promote shared life under changed conditions.
In the next few months, Christians and churches will have great opportunities to work for common good. We should look out for the weak and vulnerable around us—that is part of building the common good. It is also important to think about what we can do to help promote shared life under changed conditions. That will take some creativity. With high levels of anxiety and the temptation to hunker down, some small steps might make a big difference.
I’ve heard some great stories of Christians and churches finding ways to connect to their neighbours and serve their communities. Some have set up neighbourhood Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Churches have been delivering groceries setting up frozen meal banks. Neighbours have been sharing music from a distance. People have been finding ways to help medical staff and others whose lives have become very complex. Praying for our community and our leaders is one way Christians are instructed to contribute to society (1 Tim 2:1-2).
Christians must be committed to the common good because God is. The Bible ends with a wonderful picture of a city populated by God’s people, secure in his protection. In the middle of the city the river of life is lined with the tree of life, the leaves of which heal the nations. Most importantly, God himself is present to bless his people and glorify them (Rev 21:9-22:5). That is what God will do in the fulfillment of all his work. In the meantime, we should do what we can for the good of our cities, towns, villages and nation.
First published in the Gospel, Society and Culture Committee Newsletter and available at http://gsandc.org.au/blog/