This article by Collegeville Institute director of the Rural Minnesota Fellows program Bernie Evans is the second in a series of essays on what it means to be a good citizen in this current election season. Over the next couple months, we will run new essays on this subject each Thursday. View more in this series here »
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will have welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)
During one of the most tumultuous periods in Near East history, the prophet Jeremiah sent this message to the leaders of Judah now exiled in Babylon. Make the best of your lives, he counseled. Build homes, plant gardens, have children and, above all, work for the welfare of the city where you are forced to live – for if it does well, you will do well.
Jeremiah’s message may have sounded as strange to the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century before Christ, as it does to Christians living in the United States today: your success depends on the success of the community in which you live. In a nation so politically divided and so unable to come together around common goals, it seems difficult to imagine that our individual success is tied to the advancement of the larger community. Are we not better off looking out for our own interests?
Your success depends on the success of the community in which you live.
Yet Jeremiah’s message may be the right one for us to consider as we navigate our own difficult times. We do not live in exile, but we are struggling through a terrible pandemic that has ended the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans. We also are experiencing enormous social unrest rooted in a long-delayed willingness to address our culture of racism. Jeremiah reminds us that our wellbeing as individuals, couples, or families, as well as our ability to resolve any problem, depends on the wellbeing of our community, state and nation.
Christian ethics presents Jeremiah’s message in the language of the common good, which all of us are called to promote. Simply stated, the common good refers to all those things that individuals and groups need if they are to live reasonably decent lives. It includes food, shelter, education, health care, safe living conditions, a healthy environment. It also includes community infrastructures like roads, transportation systems, a public health system, police and fire protection. In short, the common good includes everything we take for granted as necessary for a dignified life. As we move towards election 2020, promoting this common good should guide us in deciding how to vote. Three questions stand out.
- What are the needs of the community, state and nation?
- How can these needs be satisfied?
- Which candidates are likely to lead us there?
We may not always agree on the answers to any of these questions, and that is why we have election campaigns and public debates. But as we “seek the welfare of the city” through our votes, the Christian tradition reminds us of several basic principles to keep before us. One is that the common good applies to everyone. No segment of our population should be excluded, even though democracies tend to favor the interests of the majority. In the United States our history and current experience of racism should caution us against voting to keep things just as they are, especially if this means preserving the privileged status of white Americans.
The common good ethic further directs us to give particular attention to those who are poor and vulnerable. It does so because “the city” can only be as healthy and strong as its weakest members. As we prepare to vote in 2020 we should recognize that too many people in the United States are living on the margins of society—38 million in poverty, 28 million without health insurance, and more than half a million Americans counted as homeless. People of color are found in disproportionately high numbers among these groups, as they continue to be systematically marginalized by our culture of racism.
All of these represent some of the greatest needs within our nation. There are many ways to address these needs and each of us should follow the path that allows us to make best use of the gifts God has placed within us. But one way for all of us to address these challenges is by electing public servants who will lead us in bringing needed changes to our economy, to our health care system, to our immigration policies and laws, and to our nation’s structures and institutions that protect racism.
A common good focus in election 2020 opens to us the many issues needing attention. This approach also makes us less likely to become single-issue voters, and it discourages us from asking simplistically ‘what will this candidate do for me’? This approach invites us to ask which candidates will work to improve living conditions for persons with needs greater than our own. Most importantly, it leads us to “seek the welfare of the city” and to appreciate that we will do well when everyone does well.
This approach invites us to ask which candidates will work to improve living conditions for persons with needs greater than our own.