Let me ask you a question. What’s more important, my personal rights or the common good?
We could put it in more specific terms. What’s more important: My right to bear arms or the safety of school children who are often the targets of mass shootings? My right to not wear a mask or the health of those around me? My right to wave a particular flag or the trauma such flag-waving creates in a whole segment of society?
What these Expressions Mean
Let me define what I mean by “personal rights” and “common good”.
“Personal rights” refers to the freedom to do what we want to do when we want to do it. It is the freedom to go where we want to go and say what we want to say. It is also the freedom not to do what others want us to do, not to go where others want us to go, and not to say what others want us to say.
“Common good” refers to a state of existence in which everyone’s needs, desires, hopes, and joys are met and provided for. To desire the common good means to desire that everyone has enough food, everyone has the shelter they need, everyone has a source of provision, and everyone has dignity and worth in the eyes of everyone else.
Personal Rights Matter
It sure seems like both of these are important, doesn’t it? My personal rights–my freedom–matters. When we force people to live where they don’t want to live, to work where they don’t want to work, to say what they don’t want to say, that’s wrong.
As human beings, we were created in God’s image, which is why personal rights are so important to us. God is utterly free and we were created to be free, too. We’re not fully who we were created to be if we aren’t able to live freely, move about freely, laugh and love freely (which is why both racism and the coronavirus are evil; the first is moral evil, the second is non-moral evil; the first makes us guilty, the second makes us miserable).
The Common Good Matters
At the same time, having been created in the image of God, we’ve been given responsibility to care for creation and to care for one another. Genesis 2:15 tells us that “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” We are stewards of the created order.
We are also stewards of one another. The story of Cain and Abel makes that clear. In Genesis 2:9-10 we read, “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brothers’ keeper?’ The LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’”
Was Cain his brother’s keeper? Yes! And we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That’s the point of that story (or at least one of the points).
It’s a Matter of Stewardship
Here’s the thing. The issue of personal rights and the common good is actually, I think, a stewardship issue.
We have been entrusted with the care of the creation and the care of one another. In other words, we are stewards of the earth and of one another. That makes us responsible for the common good.
Ok, but how much of the common good are we talking about? How much of the common good are we responsible for? The whole world? The U.S.? My neighborhood?
I think the answer to that is: We are responsible for the common good of that which has been entrusted to us.
- If you’re a parent, you’re called to steward the common good of your family.
- If you’re a business owner or leader, you’re called to steward the common good of your employees and subordinates.
- If you’re a pastor, you’re called to steward the common good of your church and neighborhood.
- If you’re a mayor, you’re called to steward the common good of your city.
- If you’re a president or prime minister, you’re called to steward the common good of your people (and if you lead a powerful country, I would also argue you are called to steward well the weaker countries that depend on your country for their well-being).
And what if you’re not a leader?
- If you’re an employee, you’re called to steward the common good your workplace and co-workers through your work and interactions.
- If you’re a student, you’re called to steward the common good of your learning environment by being an honest, hard-working, and respectful learner.
- If you live in a neighborhood, you’re called to steward the common good of your neighborhood by caring for the well-being of your neighbors.
We are all called to steward the common good, but what that looks like is different for each person.
Shalom is Broken When Either is Lost
I like to use the word “shalom” to talk about the state of existence for which we were created. Shalom refers to a comprehensive state of well-being that touches every aspect of life. When our personal right to live freely and abundantly is taken from us, our shalom is broken. When the creation is destroyed, shalom is broken. When our neighbors suffer, shalom is broken.
As human beings created in the image of God, we are called to join God in restoring shalom in the world.
This Requires Wisdom
Now, here’s the tricky part.
There are times when we have to choose one over the other. Sometimes restoring shalom means living into the fullness of our personal freedom. Sometimes, it might mean setting aside our personal freedom so that those who are suffering (e.g., from disease or unjust systems) can experience shalom in their lives.
Wisdom is needed to help us make these decisions (and wisdom usually comes with years of living and suffering).
The good news is that in the world God is calling us to—the new heavens and the new earth—there won’t be an either/or. We won’t have to choose between personal rights and the common good. They will all be available to us in all their fullness all the time.