The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
2 Nights, 20 Candidates, 1 Commitment
More than 16 months out from the US presidential election, we've had the first big spectacle of the campaigns. 20 Democratic candidates, randomly divided into two groups -- equal in numbers but not in capabilities -- took to the airwaves in two evenings of debates. I watched all four hours of the sometimes fascinating, sometimes painful, extravaganza.
I found the debates to be illuminating, if not always enlightening. It was especially helpful to get a taste of the diverse personalities, probably more so than the sound-bite capsules of policy positions. (When does assertiveness on the crowded stage cross the line into rude, arrogant, and disrespectful?)
Out of the 20, there were a few who, it seemed to me, never should have been considered a viable candidate, and were totally out of their league. Several others soon will see the handwriting on the wall and drop out. And the debate clearly revealed a contingent of strong, informed, and extremely capable individuals who will make the winnowing process of the coming months very interesting, indeed.
Reporters and pundits are having a field day in efforts to define who "won" the debate. Key moments of the shows are being analyzed in minute detail to identify strengths and weaknesses. The implications of policy stances are being fleshed out. The 20 candidates, many of whom were essentially unknown to the general public, are now being considered as distinctive individuals. That's good. That's what the debate was supposed to do.
And today, I'm going to take a completely different approach. Rather than look at the distinctive details, I'm going to affirm a strong commonality among the amazingly diverse field of candidates.
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At the end of Thursday evening's contentious debate, I had a strong sense of how all 20 of these people fit under the very large umbrella of the Democratic party. There were abundant fights and disagreements, but they were family fights. Whatever the differences, the whole crowd held to some shared values.
The label that best seems to capture that area of consensus is "the common good." Whether discussing health care, economics, immigration, international relations or climate change, all of the speakers built on a presumption that the nation, and its government, have an obligation to work for the well-being of all.
Health care, for example, was frequently described as a human right, and broadly available care was seen as strengthening the community as a whole -- not only as an individual good. We're all better off when essential health services are present for all people.
That perspective meshes with one of the foundational ethical principles of eco-justice. Solidarity -- the awareness that "we're all in it together" -- has been named by many wise theologians and ethicists as an essential perspective for sustaining Earth community.
The common good is integral to the biblical theme of shalom, which is a communal vision of peace with justice. For my 4th of July musings in 2010, I drew on a favorite biblical passage, Zechariah 8, to identify qualities of that peace. Shalom, I wrote, is present in "a community where all needs are met, and where justice prevails. It is a hopeful and joyous vision, inclusive of age and gender, with sufficient food and shelter for all, social systems that meet the common good, and natural systems that are reliable and productive."
I continued, "I am especially aware of the fact that shalom is a quality of the community as a whole. It isn't about individual wealth or opportunity, personal fulfillment or salvation. Shalom is present when the whole community -- humans, livestock, and natural systems -- functions fairly and harmoniously. God's peace is found in collective well-being."
Underlying all of the talk in the debates this week, I heard a foundational presumption about the importance of the common good. There were enormous differences about how to get there, and about what, precisely, constitutes that common good, but the enticing vision of a society which is fair, even for "the least of these," stood out as a pervasive theme.
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I may have been primed to hear the emphasis on the common good, because I've recently been reminded of the opposing perspective.
Bill McKibben's latest book is "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?" I read it late this spring -- with a copy borrowed from the library, so I don't have the volume on my desk for quotations. It is a wide-ranging book, which looks beyond the immediate dangers of the climate crisis and ecological disruption. In one major section of the book, he explores the frightening influence of libertarian writer, Ayn Rand.
In an interview with Sierra Magazine, McKibben says, "I think Rand definitely exemplifies the sort of mindset that's governed our country in recent years." He speaks of his surprise in discovering "the number of important people from the Reagan era on forward who've said that their favorite book was Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. They're a literal who's who of cabinet officials and leading industrialists."
McKibben illustrated the hyper-individualist message in Rand's libertarian writings with a quote from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first."
As McKibben documents, the political right in the US, and in other countires, places a far greater emphasis on individuals than on the common good. The shared values that I heard throughout the Democratic debates stand in stark contrast to the dominant voices in the Republican party, which stress individual rights and freedoms.
This week's debates showcased the disagreements within one party about how to work for the common good. Over a year from now, when the two candidates from opposing parties finally meet in one-on-one debates, we will not find any of those shared assumptions. Rather, there will be conflict about whether the common good should be a concern of the government at all.
My theology and ethics, of course, hold the common good as a central mandate. We are all in it together, and we must build a society which is fair and compassionate for "the least of these" and for future generations.
It is still 16 months until the US presidential election. I earnestly hope that faith communities will be bold through this interminable campaign season in lifting up the theological vision of shalom, of peace with justice, and of the common good.
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