Review of In Search of the Common Good, section 1, “Biblical Dimensions”

[1] This is an important and timely volume for several reasons. First, and most importantly, it addresses a question that is nothing less than urgent in our fractured and morally uncertain times: Is it possible to formulate a framework for moral thought, speech, and action that has as its goal the good of all? This question, of course, cannot be fruitfully posed without defining its terms-who are the “we” and the “all?” What is the common? What is the good? The essays, to varying degrees, do address these, as well. Second, the volume not only represents reflection on these questions, but is the result of living with them within a (relatively) diverse community and with the momentous and jarring events of the last several years as a backdrop. As the introduction notes, the group of biblical scholars, ethicists, and theologians brought together for this project met several times between the period just before the September 11 attacks to the beginning of the Iraq war. And that period includes, of course, intense domestic debates over homosexuality, abortion, economic justice (to name a few). Timely it certainly is. Finally, it provides an example of the value of bringing the different Christian disciplines together to focus on a single question; though it may lack the consistency and clarity of a monograph, the resulting mix of perspectives, both disciplinary and theological, produces a much more realistic and satisfying result-satisfying because it acknowledges that the issue does not admit of a single, clear answer, but must always be in process (I take it the title, In Search of the Common Good, means to convey just this idea).

[2] My specific charge is to review the section entitled “Biblical Dimensions,” which contains three essays: Patrick Miller explores the theme in relation to the Decalogue (“‘That It May Go Well with You’: The Commandments and the Common Good”); Jacqueline Lapsley considers Jonah’s reluctance to embrace God’s mercy toward the Ninevites (“‘When Mercy Seasons Justice’: Jonah and the Common Good”); and Victor Paul Furnish investigates whether Paul’s letters evince a concern beyond his communities of faith (“Uncommon Love and the Common Good: Christians as Citizens in the Letters of Paul”).

[3] On the face of it, it would seem obvious to begin the search for the common good, at least in Christian theological terms, with Scripture. My concern with devoting a discreet section of a collaborative project to the Biblical witness is that it can, ironically, lead to marginalizing Scripture, limiting its treatment to a “foundational” section, rather than integrating into the work as a whole. That is not completely avoided in this volume; although some of the other essays do engage Scripture substantively (Kirk-Duggan, Stackhouse, and Skillen, e.g.), it would have been nice to see more explicit interaction with the specifically biblical essays-especially since they each, in varying degrees, deal with one of the central questions of the volume: How does the “common good” as formulated with respect to the Christian tradition function in relation to the wider cultural context? The essays of Lapsley and Furnish have this question at the heart of their respective essays, and Miller’s clearly moves in that direction.

[4] Miller’s elegant and engaging essay is certainly a fitting opening; the Ten Commandments, in both form and substance, represent an attempt to formulate a common good that is foundational both for ancient Israel and later Western culture; Miller helps us see just how they function to bring this about in a way that is both important (and interesting) historically as well as relevant for contemporary reflection. For Miller, it is crucial to begin by observing that the Decalogue comes to us not as an abstract set of principles, but fully embedded in the story of Israel (see, e.g., p. 18). The Commandments encompass two interwoven relationships: Israel’s with its God, and that among the Israelites themselves. They are, that is, covenant stipulations; they both create and define the community that seeks a common good (18).

[5] One of Miller’s most significant and helpful observations-especially for our situation-is that the very form of the commandments fosters community and a sense of the common: though they do provide for implicit rights and goods for the individual, the real focus is rather on reciprocal responsibility. That is, the good is achieved (or sought) by setting as one’s goal the betterment of the other; it is “found in making sure-in one’s enjoyment of the good gifts, God’s good and ‘the work of your hands’-that others are not cut off from the good” (22).

[6] The substance of the commandments reinforce this function; they “mark out a sphere of moral space and action in behalf of the common good” (23). Miller takes us through the two “tables,” noting that their structure and movement tell us much about what they are attempting to foster. The first table is hardly abstract theology, but makes and exercises political, social, and economic claims. The Sabbath, for instance, in addition to marking worship of God, has an important humanitarian and socioeconomic function as well: it allows for rest for those who would have none if it were not structured into the system (25).

[7] The second table is more explicitly oriented toward the other, beginning, logically, with the family and working outward-that is, from one’s own family (“Honor your father and mother”), to the neighbor’s (adultery), the neighbor’s property and well-being, and finally to the thoughts and intentions that underlie actions in the wider community (coveting) (28-30). Miller notes that Jesus picks up on this last aspect-the role of the heart, of intentions, in the Sermon on the Mount; and he once again underscores the way in which these commandments orient each member of the community to the other’s needs: “[E]ach member is concerned for protecting the good of his neighbor(s) rather than being focused on securing her own good” (28).

[8] Miller then moves beyond the immediate context in Deuteronomy, asking first whether the Decalogue can function in relation to those who do not share its founding story. Miller answers with a qualified affirmative, both in terms of their form and their substance. It may be, he notes, that in form the commandments reflect a basic human need for some moral framework (30-32). Substantively, he finds in the tradition itself indications of a broader understanding of the common good: For example, the Commandments are presented even in the Bible constantly in need of adaptation and reinterpretation in changing contexts; a moral structure shared by other ancient cultures can at least be inferred; and, most importantly (if problematically), the association of the Decalogue with the natural law tradition (30-37).

[9] In the remaining two sections Miller suggests, first, that the iconic status of the Decalogue in Western culture may diminish their power to shape our moral discourse, either by fostering a kind of idolatry, or by trivializing the commandments. He concludes with some reflections on their “eschatological trajectory,” by which he means that, while they provide a moral framework and space for the present life, they also point beyond this context to the time when life will truly be as God intends it.

[10] In her treatment of the story of Jonah, Jacqueline Lapsley in a sense makes Miller’s conclusion her starting point: The story makes it clear God does not intend to restrict the common good to the community of Israel; the question now is whether Israel can handle this fact. Lapsley draws her evocative title from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, thus setting her interpretation in the context of the ever-vexing question of the relationship between God’s mercy and God’s justice. The story challenges our propensity to seek mercy for ourselves (and our community) on the one hand, while at the same time demanding justice for those outside; through engagement with Jonah’s story, “we find our own imaginations stretched to include even the most detested outsiders within the purview of God’s care, and thus within the common good” (43).

[11] Like many biblical narratives, the book of Jonah makes extensive use of irony to make its point; Lapsley observes, for instance, that Jonah would deny the Ninevites the very mercy without which he himself would perish, and on which he consciously, and confidently, relies-such as when he sleeps through the storm, and even requests to be thrown overboard (45). Another irony lies in the inversion of the created order Jonah’s situation represents: God gave humankind dominion over the fish of the sea, but here one of them swallows Jonah up. According to Lapsley, this mirrors Jonah’s inversion of the relationship between divine justice and mercy; as she puts it, “The narrow view of retributive justice that Jonah espouses is like a man inside a fish: it is inappropriate to the sovereignty of God over creation” (48). Moreover, Jonah’s attitude ignores God’s obvious desire that all of creation experience the good and flourish-not only humans, but other creatures as well.

[12] The most valuable aspect of Lapsley’s essay lies in her reflections on how God “seasons justice with mercy,” namely, by knowing and understanding the Ninevites in their particularity. That is, justice is not an abstract, objective principle, but must be applied in concrete situations, with respect to real people and-especially-with empathy for them. God knows the Ninevites; God has a “holistic understanding” of their evil deeds and moral confusion. And “God’s response of compassion…is not an act outside of justice, but an act that constitutes justice” (51). This compassion contrasts markedly with Jonah’s self-serving, parochial ethic.

[13] Lapsley argues, further, that the story attempts not only to point out this discrepancy, but to move its audience rhetorically to embrace and imitate God’s understanding of justice; the book “challenges God’s people (synagogue, church) to reimagine the boundaries of ‘common’ in the common good, by affirming that an emotional response of compassion to even detested outsiders is part of a commitment to justice and the common good” (55). And she concludes with some reflections on how this insight might impact our contemporary thought and action-for example, the abstract issue of foreign debt relief changes significantly when one comes to know and empathize with the particular contours of the nation/people involved (57).

[14] In the final essay in this section, Victor Paul Furnish explores a closely related question, but in light of an entirely different literary genre and historical situation: Paul’s letters to his early Christian communities. Unlike the book of Jonah, whose relatively inclusive message is fairly clear, Paul has often been accused of possessing a sectarian view of the church’s relation to the “outside world;” but Furnish seeks to show that the apostle actually “encouraged believers to be responsible members of society, concerned both for the well-being of their own community and for what was in the wider public interest” (58).

[15] Furnish first deals briefly with the question of the apocalyptic nature of the ethic(s) of both Jesus and Paul-that is, the question of whether they constitute an “end-time” ethic, and thus one that has little value beyond the first century. Such is hardly the case; in a more precise statement of his thesis, Furnish asserts that “Paul’s gospels concerns the uncommon love of God, through which the whole of creation is set free from its bondage to sin and death, and which faith receives as a gift, a claim, and a hope” (61). That is, God’s particular self-disclosure in Jesus has as its goal the establishment of a good that is indeed common to all creation. But rather than rendering irrelevant the question of how that good finds concrete expression in the present order-as might be inferred from many of Paul’s statements-Furnish finds ample evidence that Paul’s gospel included such interaction with the world that might promote a broader, common good.

[16] For example, Paul encourages his communities to live out their faith within the world, not to withdraw from it (1 Cor 5:10; 7:24); to “become all things to all people in order to save some” (1 Cor 9:22)-an act that explicitly engages one with the outside world; and, at some points, to “include all people within their circle of concern” (64). Furnish expands and supports these observations with some very helpful and insightful exegesis of key passages in Philippians, Galatians, and Romans.

[17] In Philippians, Furnish finds that many translations miss the political sense of Paul’s admonishment to “conduct yourselves as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27)-that is, Paul is referring to the Philippians behavior within Roman society. Most significant in this letter, though, is the famous passage in which Paul engenders the Philippians to consider “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,” etc. (4:8-9); Furnish suggests that this catalogue of Hellenistic virtues “serves to direct the congregation’s attention…to the broader, public setting in which moral choices have to be made and acted upon” (72). It reveals that, for Paul, the good as defined and sought after by the wider world overlaps in significant ways with the good as revealed in the gospel.

[18] Galatians also offers paranesis that directs the gaze of Paul’s converts beyond the confines of their community. Furnish calls our attention especially to 6:10: “Let us work for the good of all.” This “good,” he notes, is to be identified with the “love” to which Paul earlier (5:13) calls the Galatians; here the love shown them in Christ is to shape their actions in the public square. He quotes J. Louis Martyn approvingly, who maintains that Paul understands God to be “summoning his new creation onto the world scene by calling into existence the church that exists for the sake of ‘all'” (74-75).

[19] Most engaging, though, is Furnish’s treatment of Romans 12-13, in which he sees a fairly extensive section devoted to the Roman community life in the “everyday world.” The section begins with Paul’s injunction to “offer up your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (12:1); Furnish sees reflected here a remarkable sense of the believer’s place in this world. The body, he notes, “stands for the whole self…in its corporeality and creatureliness,” and thus what is called for here cannot be confined to sacred space and community, but “must be fulfilled…in the public sphere, the so-called secular world of the believers’ everyday lives” (76). God’s concern for the wider created order comes through here, as does the believers’ mandate to participate in that concern.

[20] By the time Furnish takes up the thorny passage on the governing authorities (13:1-7), the fruits of the larger interpretive framework (Chs. 12-13) become clear; that is, it is not an abstract reflection on “the nature of the state,” but concrete instructions for the community regarding responsible citizenship in their everyday lives. The ruling authorities, to the extent that they serve the good, were instituted by God, and regularly recognized the good performed by citizens-most likely the meaning behind receiving their “approval” (79). By invoking the idea of conscience (13:5), Paul (so Furnish) means “that fulfilling the duties of citizenship is a moral obligation” (80). Ultimately, the warrant for this is theological/Christological, but Furnish even sees Paul moving in the direction of providing “public reasons” (as opposed to those particular to Christian theology) for the conduct he is encouraging.

[21] In his conclusion, Furnish does not go so far as to say that the wider common good was a special preoccupation of Paul; but, as he very nicely puts it, “what the apostle declared about the uncommon love of God redemptively enacted in Jesus Christ nourishes a concern for the common good and opens the way for Christian participation in the public conversation about it” (83; my emphasis). There are, he notes, many tensions in Paul’s statements about this issue; but, to the extent that one can discern the outline in Paul of an approach to the church’s relation to the wider public good, Furnish suggests “critical engagement” as a description. By this he means that while Paul by no means advocated withdrawal from the world, he also recognized that uncritical engagement with this “present evil age” posed serious risks for the believer. As Furnish puts it, “This meant embracing whatever they discerned to be in accord with the will of God, rejecting whatever they believed was not, and seeking, as agents of God’s love, to ‘work for the good of all’ (Gal 6:10)” (86).

[22] There is much of value in these essays, not least the nice blend of perspectives on and approaches to Scripture; the authors sensitively weave together literary, historical, sociological, and tradition-historical dimensions, reflecting an appropriately thick view of Scripture’s voice(s) on this issue. Together, they make a strong case that, from the beginning, Israel’s-and, later, the church’s-moral thoughts and actions were to include the good of the world beyond the particular community in fundamental ways. This is an important insight; but I would also like to have seen more investigation of/reflection on the implications of the biblical view of the common good for the Christian community itself: What, fundamentally, is the good toward which the church ought to be striving? On what is it based? I recognize that there is no attempt here to be systematic or exhaustive (hence simply “Biblical Dimensions” of the common good); but I would love to have seen some treatment of the teachings of Jesus in this regard.

[23] Overall, though, these are very engaging and insightful essays, a fitting and inviting opening to this important conversation.