Christians and the Common Good, Charles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.
Summary: Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy.
The title of this book may be perplexing to some for different reasons. For some, their experience is one of Christians seeking their own good, or simply their own idea of the good, which smacks of privilege. For others, the perplexing thing may be the idea of a “common good”. In our current climate of polarized, indeed Balkanized politics, it seems that few people are talking about a “common good”–policies and community practices where both responsibility and benefit are shared by all constituents to a significant degree.
Charles Gutenson, in a book written during the debates on the Affordable Care Act proposes an approach by which Christians may advance proposals informed by their faith that genuinely advance the common good, not just their own. He argues that one gets there by reading the whole Bible to discover God’s intentions for how a people are to live together, not simply the few “government passages” (Romans 13 and Luke 20 in particular) that Christians often reference as the beginning and end of their political philosophy. He contends that this teaching is not to be woodenly applied in a context very different from the biblical one. And he proposes that the life and ministry of Jesus is the definitive expression of how the Triune God would have us live in imitation of him.
He follows these foundational claims with an extensive survey of scriptures from both the Old and New Testament concerning everything from Jubilee and gleaning laws to the continued protection of widows and orphans in the life of the church. A basic thread is a loving concern for the needy among us. It seemed to me that 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 was a particular “control text” for the approach he advocates:
“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’ ” (NIV)
He contends that it is not enough that the church act along these lines but that this is also a good principle to inform public policy. Often, he argues, private means are simply not sufficient to address the scope of public need, as important as private efforts are.
With this in mind, he thinks the following policies are in line with a biblically-informed concern for the common good: safety nets like unemployment, certain forms of welfare and Medicaid, a progressive (rather than regressive) tax structure, an honest reckoning with the issues of race and protections from racial discrimination, Social Security and Medicare safeguards to care for our elderly, minimum wages that provide a living wage, or absent that, tax breaks that recognize the benefits others enjoy by keeping wages low, earned income credits, access to health care, estate and inheritance taxes, bankruptcy laws, anti-monopoly laws, efforts to strengthen families, and addressing global poverty.
Clearly, Gutenson advocates what would be a “left of center” social policy and he admits as much. He takes a muted approach to the “culture war” issues of homosexuality and abortion. The strength of his case is the argument that a flourishing society seeks the flourishing of all, and not just some, of its people. It looks out not only for one’s own interests but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It recognizes the role that the public power of government may play when the private power of some interests gains benefits at the expense of others, especially those on the margins.
What troubles me is that while the author welcomes more conservative voices and recognizes that solutions to our pressing social problems will require a degree of collaboration absent at present, he is decidedly silent on some issues that I think require attention, such as the recognition of the deep injustice we commit against our children when we consistently ask the government to spend more for the services we want than we are willing to pay, leaving the debts to those who come after us. Also, redistribution of resources via taxation can help or hurt the poor. Why not for example provide tax incentives to companies who offer living rather than minimum wages? I’m troubled that some of these proposals go beyond emergency relief (such as unemployment benefits) to ongoing relief rather than economic opportunity fueled by economic development.
Nor does he say anything about fundamental electoral reform including re-districting reform and campaign finance reform. As it stands now, most elected officials in state and federal government do not have to be concerned about “the common good” because of the way their districts are drawn. And this further marginalizes people by race and economic status. The rich are basically able to buy their office, or that of those who protect their interests.
Where Gutenson’s voice is welcome is in its clarion call for Christians to pursue the common good, and to wrestle with the “whole counsel of God” on these matters to gain God’s heart for the common, and not just our own good. This can be helpful for thoughtful Christians wrestling with the role of Christians in public life, who want to go beyond proof texts and political pundits to constructive engagement.