Joan Chittister: An Uncommon Search for the Common Good

Sister Joan was undergoing surgery at the time that this lecture was to be delivered (July 1, 2012), and so the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell delivered Sister Joan’s words to the gathering at Chautauqua.

See the video below.


“A common good is a vision, a vision of public virtue which engages the individual citizen, guides the energies of the government, shapes the public system and points the public direction in all of its policies, in all its institutions and in all of its legislative intents,” Chittister wrote. “It is the answer to the question: What is it that we want for this country? What is it that we perceive to be good for everyone, and how should we go about getting it?”

Historically, when the world comprised smaller, more homogeneous societies, the concept of the common good was simpler to define. Since the Reformation, our world has become more diverse, and the idea that there could exist a singular definition for the “common good” seems impossible, Chittister wrote.

“Whose common good would be the common good?”

“In fact, which common good will you yourself have in mind this week? The one that is defined by majority vote? But then what about the minorities, the gays, the people of color, the women?” Chittister wrote.

Other definitions of the common good are based on bridging economic division or attaining the goals many advocacy groups fight for, Chittister wrote. Still other people believe the common good means creating a homogeneous society or taking the big ideas and aims of disparate groups and reducing them to ghosts of their original might so they are universally palatable.

Each of those conceptions of the common good has flaws, and each has been seen before.

“The truth is that all of those possibilities are in order and all of them exist in one place or another — even as we gather here — all of them claim some kind of public allegiance, and all of them have both succeeded and failed over time.” Chittister wrote.

Countless tyrants and monarchs have claimed to work for the common good for centuries. They have fallen.

“How can we possibly have a common good, where the good of the ruler comes before the good of the ruled?” Chittister wrote.

The only forms of governing power that truly respect and embrace the ideals of the common good are democratic, constitutional republics, Chittister said. With time, even the nations that forged their foundations on the precepts of working toward the common good have lost their way.

“Instead of a common good, we seem more inclined to talk about the general good, as if we were willing to let some people right out of it,” Chittister wrote.

“No doubt about it: The universal and age-old notion of the common good is an endangered species in these days,” she wrote.

The idea that we live in a world demarcated by hard and fast boundaries of religion, culture, language, geography, no longer exists. Developments in technology and media have created a sieve-like world where cultures mix and blend, Chittister wrote. It is no more evident than in the United States, a country fragmented by its multicultural identity that is struggling to be united.

Enhanced means of communication and transportation have further connected the world, while simultaneously highlighting the disparities that exist.

“People in the barrios in the Philippines, in tents in Port-au-Prince, on dung heaps in India, straw huts in Africa, watch street corner television and see our eight-lane highways choked with cars and hear us worry about 5 percent drops in the stock markets when their infants die in their arms,” Chittister wrote.

Theoretically, increased globalization was to turn into increased economic equality and peace among the world’s populations. That has not been the case. We have seen the horrors of a divided, yet technologically connected world: first in World War II, with the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, then in Vietnam, in instances of genocide and ethnic cleansing throughout the world, and most recently on Sept. 11, when a small group murdered more than 3,000 people.

“In response to that murderous act, in the country from which they sprang or by which they were harbored, we killed at least four times as many of their innocent as they had managed to kill of ours,” Chittister wrote. “These are not simply changes on the social landscape, these are issues that change our very understanding of ourselves. They changed the shape of our lives, they challenge the fabric of our souls, they test the very possibility of a common good.”

Human beings exist in a world that is increasingly connected through technology and economy, but despite the connectivity, we have been unable to develop the one thing that could end the barbarism the connection engenders: a shared perception of the common good, Chittister wrote.

To begin the process of developing a shared understanding of the common good, Chittister wrote that people should turn to one of the most universally religious codes: the beatitudes preached by Jesus Christ at the Sermon on the Mount.

“Now we must find a way for equal but different people to live together, to live together on this globe, in a world more united but at the same time more disparate than ever before in human history,” Chittister wrote. “Consider just for a minute, before the political dimensions of this week begin, what we have come to know as the spiritual dimensions of happiness: the eight great beatitudes of life.”

The first beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” That can be translated to mean that people should not live their lives perpetually seeking what they do not have. But in our time, in our country, the beatitude instructs us to work to understand what others need throughout the world and the excesses we have that we do not need.

“Surely our own common good must have something to do with seeing at the very least that our national goals do not make these other national situations worse,” she wrote.

“ ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ It is important that those living in the United States stop distancing themselves from those living lives in poverty,” Chittister wrote. “It consists of not allowing our own lives to deteriorate into a self-centered sickness of the soul, choked by national narcissism.”

“ ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the Earth.’ That beatitude calls on people across the world to be humble, to treat others of all different countries, religions cultures, geographic locations and economic means with respect and dignity,” Chittister wrote. “Mutual respect links people across borders, and is a security far beyond bombs.”

“ ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ When we use the sins of another to treat them as less than human, it turns our own errors into targets we wear for life,” Chittister wrote. The U.S. will see that the torture inflicted on foreign men who were collected in their homelands and held as prisoners will haunt the soul and identity of our country, she wrote.

“On what grounds will we castigate those who ply the same trade on American bodies to come? Is this our new common good?” Chittister wrote.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.” Today, that beatitude requires that our citizens and politicians take ownership of the decisions they make and the laws they create. The beatitude calls on people to end prejudice to champion human rights for every single human being no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation or age, she wrote.

“Then the America that brought freedom and justice for all to a city near you, to a country far away will rise again. A new Eden, a city on a hill, a light for the people,” she wrote. “Until then, we must each of us refuse to let go of standards that require an equalization of black and white prison sentences, of rich and poor housing standards, of minority and white healthcare, of inner city and white educational systems.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see God.” Today, that beatitude requires that people maintain their ideals throughout their lives and everything they do and in the choices they make. The beatitude means prioritizing the people and humanity of this country and forsaking the wasteful arguments of ineffective partisanship, Chittister wrote.

“They are politicians who do not want to spend the patrimony of the United States on becoming the Sparta of the modern world, armed to the teeth, brutal in soul, deeply, deeply in need of art and music, philosophy and culture,” Chittister wrote.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called sons of God.” The beatitude calls on us to promote a culture that is not focused on the maintenance of power, but the spread of peace. We must oppose war and promote cooperation, she wrote.

The final beatitude is: “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The beatitude tells us that we must defend justice and protect the humanity of the poor and the oppressed, no matter what we face in opposition.

To build a common good we must follow those principles and demonstrate the path that leads to the common good with our own humanity, our own lives. If we do not fashion a common good in this day in age, if we do not lead by example, a common good will never be created, Chittister wrote.

“You and I, we are responsible for bringing it, the only question is: Will we do our part of that process, or not?” Chittister wrote. “Listen carefully this week, and ask yourselves what kind of common good you are hearing. And then, dear, dear friends, for all our sakes, choose well. So that we all may be truly, fully, eternally happy, forever — a shining light, a city on a hill, a beacon of justice, truly a New Jerusalem, to whom all nations flock for light and hope and happiness.”

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