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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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The Common Good | Walking Humbly Amidst Deep Difference

As Christians, we’re called to join in God’s mission to see shalom fill his world. He invites us to seek the peace and prosperity of the places we’re in, helping everyone and everything around us flourish. In other words, we all have a duty to work towards ‘the common good’.

But that’s a lot easier said than done. It can feel like our world is constantly fragmenting into factions, in our personal lives as well as on the national stage. How can we counter these divisions and truly work for the good of all, not just the people we agree with?

That’s the question explored in this blog series. In four articles, four authors will have a conversation, responding to each other’s work and ‘triple listeningto wisdom from the word of God, the world, and one another. Together, they’ll give you ideas for how to live faithfully and distinctively – not as an embattled fringe, but as a ‘creative minority – right in the midst of the disagreements that plague everyday life.

The series accompanies our Wisdom Lab: The Common Good event, at which each of the authors will deliver a TED-style talk on  their topic.

We’ve already listened to what’s going on and imagined what should be. In this article, Dr Jenny Leith, lecturer at Westcott House, helps us create a response through spiritual practices and healing actions. Then, in the finale of the series, we’ll consider how to communicate the good news in such polarising times.

Sarah’s negotiation of deep difference

When we last saw Sarah, she had just come up with a promising way forward for the increasingly controversial event at her accountancy firm. After a vigorous discussion in the Christian Fellowship, and with rival positions threatening to harden, she unexpectedly found another scenario forming in her head. She remembered that in her economics degree there were two elective courses which sounded interesting: one was on Islamic finance, the other on something called ‘ecological economics’. She suggests contacting leaders of the firm’s Islamic Society and the Green Accountancy group and working together to lay on a series of on-site, after-hours conversations, open to all, on these and other perspectives. Someone nominated by each group would speak for 20 minutes, followed by a 5-minute response from someone representing another view, and then open discussion for half an hour. Then those able to could head to a coffee shop (not a pub, out of respect to Muslim colleagues) to carry on the conversation more informally and, perhaps, less guardedly, since they weren’t on the firm’s property. Perhaps conversations about personal faith might later emerge.

Warming to her theme, she suggests that the series could be called something like ‘Accountancy and the Common Good’. The key question would be how accountancy firms could better contribute to a prosperous, just, and ecologically responsible economy. Surely no one, not even the sceptical senior managers, could take exception to that?

Her proposal would allow a distinctive Christian perspective to get an airing, yet within a conversation on matters that everyone has a stake in – matters of the common good. By creating a platform for that distinctive perspective, such a proposal helps guard against the risk of ‘assimilation’ (as described by Matt Jolley at the start of this series). This doesn’t suggest that there’s one single view of what the common good looks like within accountancy, which everyone will agree one once it’s been explained. After all, on that assumption, a Christian angle might never come into view.

There’ll likely be areas of real agreement – certainly on the need for transparency and integrity in accountancy practices, hopefully on access for disabled employees and clients, maybe on the need for fair principles of staff remuneration (even if not on actual pay scales).

But there’ll definitely be genuine disagreement on other areas: how can interest on loans be categorised honestly while also allowing Muslims to respect the Islamic ban on usury? Do conventional accounting categories properly measure the environmental costs of business and, if not, what is to be done about that, given that we have the methods we have?

Christians may not come down on the same side on such issues, but by allowing a plurality of views to be expressed, a Christian voice can get a hearing amidst a shared search for the mutual flourishing of all stakeholders. That obviously requires offering an equal platform for other voices, but that is the only fair approach  in a plural context.

So, as well as resisting ‘assimilation’, this approach also allows Christians, and others, to be fully integrated into their work environment – to commit to shared professional and social goals and not be seen to be merely advancing their own agenda. Taking part in this shared conversation also allows Christians to listen to wisdom from the world. As we noted in the last piece, Christians in Sarah’s firm can confidently expect that their Muslim, green, and secular colleagues will have important insights of their own into how accountancy can promote the common good.1

Deep difference in our everyday lives

Zooming out from Sarah’s particular situation, we can recognise the presence of these kinds of differences and tensions throughout our everyday lives. We bump up against these differences not only in the workplace, but also in our neighbourhoods. For example, in discussions about what kinds of occasions we and our neighbours think deserve to be marked with a street party. We also encounter radically different understandings of what would make the world a better place whenever we are online. Whether a tweet is about access to abortion or about Paddington Bear having tea with the Queen, we are navigating competing pictures of what a good society looks like.

And, at times, these differences go beyond the level at play in Sarah’s situation where there is agreement amongst the members of the Christian fellowship that, in principle, evangelistic events are a good idea. As we will all know at first hand, there are deep disagreements amongst Christians, too, about which actions and forms of life are good, and about how the life of the church should be structured to allow for the pursuit of these contested goods. The nature of the common good is by no means a settled matter even amongst Christians: not in the life of the church, and not when it comes to wider society.

We can see, then, that the differences that we are talking about go beyond just differences of opinion or emphases of value. Often, we are grappling with fundamentally different conceptions of what the common good looks like, as well as how to get there.

So, how might Sarah’s response to her particular situation at work shed light on how to act in the spaces in which we negotiate difference in everyday life? How can we more fully become the type of people able to seek the common good, as Sarah did?

Cultivating a posture of humility

I think that Sarah’s navigation of disagreement displays a humility that is at the heart of seeking the common good. Why single out humility in this way? In short, because working for the common good  first of all requires us to recognise how  bad we are at understanding what is in the common good.. This is for two main reasons.

Firstly, we need to cultivate humility about our understanding of what the common good requires because of the simple fact that we are finite creatures. We can only ever see a situation from the particular position in which we stand, and we come to that position through a complex web of relations that have made us this particular person with this particular history. And that’s not a defect! We are meant to be finite in this way. But it does mean that we inevitably see only some of the factors that shape our vision and our desires.

The fact that I only have a limited grasp of my own interests, motives, and desires – let alone everyone else’s – means that I don’t fully know what it would take for anyone’s interests to be met. I can have the principles Jonathan Chaplin talked about in mind, but, concretely, I still don’t know what we are aiming at; I don’t know what flourishing looks like. Both in the church and the other communities to which we belong, this means exercising an ongoing

We need other people to help us see a fuller picture of the common good – we need to hear how things look from their particular vantage point.

Secondly, we need to cultivate humility because our sense of what is necessary for the common good will always be warped by our own sinfulness. The things we desire are often self-serving rather than oriented to serving the good of all. So, for example, I need to question whether my desirefor my local church to be awarded a grant by the council to provide a shelter for rough sleepers is really about this being the instituion best suited for the role or whether it might be more about wanting public recognition and praise for my insitution.

More than this, we are also prone to deceive ourselves about the reasons why we desire some particular course of action over others. We deceive ourselves, too, over why others desire a different course of action – and, all too often, disagreements harden and turn acrimonious because we are in denial about these deceptions. When I disagree with the claims and actions of others, I all too easily assume that the other person’s difference from me can only be a matter of ‘bad faith’. I assume to know their motives as well as mine, and so assume that I’m right and they’re wrong. Conveniently, this protects me from having to entertain the thought that I might actually have something to learn from their perspective.

Again, we need other people to cut through this deception and help us to see the good more clearly, as well as to see our own motivations more clearly.

Practising humility

The kind of humility we have been talking about reveals the incompleteness of my own existing perspective, the need for it to be brought into robust conversation with others, and the promise that I might discover my own good, as well as the good of others more deeply in the process. This involves paying attention, then, to who we are listening to; to the conversations we are part of; and to the people we are inviting be part of these conversations.

Who are we listening to?

We have seen that humbly seeking the common good means we need to be listening to voices from different perspectives to our own.

I’d invite you to begin by paying attention to the voices that come up most often in your social media feed: are they people who you instinctively agree with? Can you add other voices to your newsfeed that bring a different perspective – maybe even ones that feel a bit discomforting?

Or, for social media luddites like me, could you listen to a podcast with an interviewer who you respect, but whose instinctive judgements on what it the world needs are not your own? (Ezra Klein is one interviewer who regularly engages with those he respects but quite fundamentally disagrees with, and explores where common ground might lie in the disagreement.)

Or, for every three times you check the news on your newspaper of choice, also see how it is being reported by a newspaper from the other side of the political spectrum. If you’re interested in national politics, you might want to subscribe to something like The Week, which collects takes on the week’s news from both right and left.

In these, and other ways, humility leads us to expect to have our vision of the common good challenged and expanded through listening to those with whom we disagree.

Are we taking part in the conversation?

Humility also reveals that being part of the conversation is, in itself, an essential part of the common good coming into being. So, what conversations are you taking part in? Are there conversations you could join – perhaps in spaces where a Christian voice is just one amongst many?

If your church, workplace, or neighbourhood group want to contribute to change in your local area, you could get involved in a community-organised group like Citizens UK. In community organisations, lots of different instititutions from a local area (schools, mosques, churches, unions, residents associations, and so on) get together to talk about the things they want to change in their area. When they’ve found common ground, they then decide on the actions they’re going to take to get things changed. This might be talking to the local bus company about the urgent need to tackle Islamophobic abuse on public transport, or  the main catering company for schools in the area about the way their pricing structure makes it hard for poorer kids to eat nourishing meals.

If your workplace has unions – and you will probably be surprised by how many jobs have corresponding unions – consider joining one as a way of working together with others to make positive changes that allow for whole life flourishing for everyone. In conversations with your fellow union members, you will no doubt disagree at times about the best way to achieve your goals. For example, should you strike to get a better pension? Or should you accept the less than perfect pension increase you have been offered by your employer? Or is taking this dispute through the courts a wiser course of action?

In the midst of these diagreements, humility teaches us we should not be looking for resolutions that allow us to simply win an argument, or that leaves all sides intact. Rather, we will look for ways in which the disagreement may challenge us, change our perception of what we need and want – and we will leave space and time for that.

Who are we inviting to be part of the conversation?

Sarah’s instinct to invite a variety of groups to speak at the event shows a humble expectation that these groups will have something to say that is worth listening to. In the run up to an election, could your church host a hustings event? Maybe it could have a particular focus on the candidates talking about the way their policy platform flows out of their core beliefs and values?

In listening to the world beyond the church, we should expect this wisdom to reshape the church: an institution, after all, which is not immune from malformation through structural sin,as Jonathan Chaplin reminded us). The wisdom discerned in these conversations can allow Christians to unlock riches anew from their own Scripture and tradition. For example, listening to a Green Party candidate might lead congregation members to commit to studying Scripture together to discern how their habits as a church need to change to reduce their carbon footprint.

Conclusion

Jonathan Chaplin posed two incisive questions to ask of ourselves and our institutions:

  • ‘How do we/they need to be reformed to serve the common good better, even within the limits of what is possible before the final consummation when Christ will be in all in all?’
  • ‘What traces and degrees of reformation are possible in our own lives and in our institutions and what initial steps can we take to promote such reformation, however small?’

I’ve suggested that cultivating a posture of humility is at the heart of forming – and continually re-forming – us into the kind of people who are able to seek the common good. And this posture, of course, rests upon and feeds back into listening to God. As we are told by the prophet Micah:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

– Micah 6:8

Dr Jenny Leith
Lecturer in Christian Ethics, Westcott House


 

So far, we’ve listened to what’s going on in Sarah’s situation, imagined what should be going on as her story is located within the mission of God, and considered how she might create a new way forward, responding to conflict by seeking a truly common good. In part 4, we’ll explore she could communicate the good news of the Gospel with people who have very different worldviews.

 


 

[i] I’m particularly grateful to Jonathan for his input into what it might look like to create a faithful response in Sarah’s situation, as well as for enriching conversations over the past decade or so.

 


 

Selected Bibliography:

Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)

Romand Coles and Stanley Hauerwas, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (Wipf and Stock, 2008)

Anna Rowlands, Towards a Politics of Communion: Catholic Social Teaching in Dark Times (Bloomsbury, 2021)

Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (Bloomsbury, 2012)

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