The Prophets: Clues into “The Common Good”

Lady Gaga: Prophetic Means, not prophetic message

There’s always a lens.  Your eye’s a lens, and if it gets tired, or old, or damaged, it can’t see what’s really there.  When that happens you get another lens.  Glasses bend the light and the distortion enables you to see clearly.  When I read through the prophets, I sometimes think that their way of communicating is a sort “light bending distortion” that’s intended to help people see more clearly.  Jeremiah after all, wears the same underwear for a multi-day hike, then buries it in a cave for a little while, and then retrieves it to use as a sermon illustration, saying, “do you see this underwear?  That’s how filthy you are in God’s eyes.”  Isaiah walks around naked.  Ezekiel lays on the ground in his front yard and plays with bricks for about a year before shaving his head and burning a bit of the hair, and casting another bit to the wind.  Exaggeration is a rhetorical tool.

We can embrace their means because we live in an age where communicators use exaggeration and caricature to capture our attention and imagination.  You’ve heard of Lady Gaga?  She brings prophetic means to a (in my opinion) not so prophetic message.  We’re so familiar with larger than life figures that the exaggeration of the prophets is easy for us to understand.

There’s another aspect of prophetic ministry though, that I believe is lost on us because of an aspect of our culture that so absent.  All prophets offered a two fold message of deconstruction and reconstruction.  “You’ve blown it and judgement is coming” is the deconstruction part where sins are exposed through this profound experiential education lessons (busted pottery – marrying prostitutes – you know the stuff).  Then there’s the construction part which reads “…but don’t worry, God will be faithful and rebuild the nation”Bad news-Good news.  That’s the way it works. Here’s roughly what we do with it:

“You need to hear the bad news that you’re a sinner” we say, and then we go on the Roman road, or the sermon on the mount, or some such place to prove that we’ve fallen short and missed the mark, which we have.  We continue, “but don’t worry!  You can pray today to receive Christ, and mercy will triumph over judgement and you’ll be saved from God’s wrath” which I also believe to be utterly true.  Then we try to close it out like this, “So how about accepting Christ as your personal savior, etc. etc.”

PERSONAL SAVIOR???   Where did that language come from?  I don’t recall Jesus ever calling himself that or preaching about how he came to be Peter’s, or James’, or Zacheus’ “personal savior”.  That language comes from Americana, from a culture obsessed with individual rights to life, liberty, owning assault rifles, aborting children as a means of sex selection, paying little or no taxes, creating one’s on personal sexual ethic, and dietary ethic, and work ethic, and preaching the glories of how personal responsibility should bring personal freedom, and personal bad choices should be penalized by people paying personal penalties.  It’s all very…um, personal.  Into such a culture this Jesus, who says, “If you were the only person in the world, I’d die for you” was created.  That might be true – but it misses the point almost entirely.

What an individualized culture has a hard time doing is thinking in a communitarian fashion.  When Isaiah predicts the coming of the Messiah it’s comforting to the people hearing his message, in spite of the fact the Messiah won’t be showing up for another 500-600 years.  Can you imagine speaking to people gathered after 9-11, or something worse, and saying, ‘Be Comforted!  Before five or six hundred years have passed, a leader will be elected who will have the wisdom and wherewithal to fix our dire situation’.  I’m curious:  Would you find such a message comforting?  I didn’t think so – me neither.

And yet Israel did find comfort in that message, because they didn’t view themselves as individual pods of private rights whose personal fate and well being were the only things in the universe that mattered.  They viewed themselves, as most people have for most of history, as part of something bigger.  They belonged to a tribe, a culture, a people group.  Because of this, they’d certainly lament their own personal loss, but the personal loss would be far less grievous than the collective loss, and promises that the whole would eventually thrive would be met with joy, even if the hearers didn’t live to see it in their lifetime.

God’s certainly FOR personal responsibility, and I could show you stories that show personal judgement for personal sin.  But there are many more stories about a collective suffering for someone’s sin (remember Achan) and the promise of a collective restoration being met with relief, though the relief was centuries yet to come.

The closest thing I can see to this in my small world comes from conversations I have with people in the military.  They fully get the concept that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, bigger than their lives.  They’re part of a solidarity.  They’ve a mission that transcends personal concerns or even personal opinions.  They also understand that another person’s irresponsibility might cost the lives of some people who were doing their jobs just fine.  Imagine that – being so linked together that there’s a sense of… wait for it:  common good – a sense that if you win, I win.  That if you lose, I lose.

Paul talked about this of course.  We talk about too.  I’m just not sure we really live it; nor am I sure what to do about it.  The reality is that we’re such a fragmented, individualized, customized, isolated people that I suspect most of us don’t know who our tribe really is, or that it’s a tribe that will continue because with the next promotion to Boston, or Baton Rouge, or whatever – there they go.

Though I’m merely musing here, and though there’s a lot don’t know about this subject, here’s what I do know to be true about people who are trying to live with a greater sense of community:

1. They know people who are different than them.

2. They hear the cries of the poor and respond more than they blame

3. They recognize that a culture of personal responsibility and a culture of empowerment and charity aren’t contradictory

What do you think?  Can churches help recover a sense of community?  Is a national common good a possibility?  How about a global common good?  I know such a common good’s coming, as spoken of by these prophets.  But if we’re the presence of the future, how can we help communitarian values grow in our families, churches, cities?

I welcome your thoughts…

 

 

 

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Mark E

    Great thoughts, Richard. I think that because we don’t have a 2nd person plural in English (other than “ya’ll” and “you’s guys”), we often miss the community targeted messages in our translations of the scriptures and over personalize them. The letter in Jeremiah 29 becomes a promise of God’s desire for me to have a happy life instead of God giving hints about his ultimate salvific plan for all his people.
    It’s important to remember that while the Bible does emphasize personal responsibility, we also have collective responsibility. It’s difficult to understand that many Israelites and all of Achan’s family had to die for his sin, but I think that cultures with a less self-centered view than ours understand it better than we do. The great news is that while we see that one person’s sin can cause problems for a whole tribe, we know that through Jesus, one person’s righteousness was enough to bring peace with God to every tribe and individual – talk about the common good.

  • B

    I tend to think part of the paradox of community spirit is that it derives from interaction between individuals in a personal way. It’s the dangerous and easy way to “love humanity” in general and often looks like loathing the people around me, whereas most people I know who really love individual people well (not just select individuals mind you), in the context of community, tend to have a hard time with “humanity” in general, recognizing its mess and brokenness (even though loving their community deeply. You can’t mourn something as broken if you don’t love it first). I think community starts by simply loving one other person well other than ourselves. And then another. That said I think there is a tremendous loss in becoming fragmented, most of us are more “independent” than any point in history. More people on the planet than ever, but more isolation than ever. Lewis’ Great Divorce paints it well. Pride is the death of us all. It might not be completely accurate, but the phrase “all poverty is relational” strikes a powerful chord here in the midst of great wealth and anemic community, so many still feel desperately empty. Unhealthy independence is just as bad (though different) as unhealthy dependence.
    I think the solution is to follow Christ’s example and personally enter into the pain and suffering of those near us, especially those unlike us. To identify with them in their shame, hurt, loss, mistakes, everything. Not that we just sympathize, or offer tokens of support, but fully enter into the mess of other people. And the beauty is that truly none of us is strong enough to bear our burdens alone, and we all have burdens. There is no burden that we CAN bear alone, BUT there is no burden that we CANNOT bear if it is shared. It’s messy, it’s hard, but it’s also the incarnational life we are called to and changes everything. We can’t fix people, and we can’t fix most problems (at least not immediately, and if we can that comes later) but we can BE with people and fully share their suffering (and suffering will happen if we spend time with people) AND their joys! The most powerful times in my life have been crying with those I love over loss or hurt or celebrating with them their joys and triumphs. THEIR pains and joys, not mine. And just as importantly allow them into my world. For many of us it is quite true to say that it is harder to receive than to give. Inviting and allowing another into my pain and shame is even more difficult and frightening, but it is also the per se other side of the coin. I think they go together or they don’t go at all.
    The other thing I believe this does is stretch our sense of suffering so we are less entitled. Suffering I think is somewhat relative, a child who is unjustly punished suffers I think just as greatly (subjectively) as a lawyer campaigning for justice who loses an important case to bribery. It seems like we experience the most extreme form of pain in the most difficult time we have known. Perhaps, if the worst thing we have known is the death of our cat, it will make us wail in torment for weeks. So should we seek out painful experiences and manufacture suffering? No! I think there is already plenty to go around, we need to step up and shoulder the burden of others’ pain so that we become stronger as well. When we enter specifically and relationally into the lives of those around us, I think we will find that community life takes on a life of its own. In Life Together Bonhoeffer suggests that “community cannot be created. It can only be received.” We have access to other people only through Christ, and when we die to ourselves and enter into the pain and lives of others (just as Jesus has done for us), we become the manifestation of Christ to them and the community life we are called to seems to magically appear like one of those cheesy photomosaics. But one that is alive, and moves, and has Christ at its head.

  • B

    I tend to think part of the paradox of community spirit is that it derives from interaction between individuals in a personal way. It’s a dangerous and easy way to “love humanity” in general and often looks like loathing the people around me, whereas most people I know who really love individual people well (not just select individuals mind you), in the context of community, tend to have a hard time with “humanity” in general, recognizing its mess and brokenness (even though loving their community deeply. You can’t mourn something as broken if you don’t love it first). I think community starts by simply loving one other person well other than ourselves. And then another. That said I think there is a tremendous loss in becoming fragmented, most of us are more “independent” than any point in history. More people on the planet than ever, but more isolation than ever. Lewis’ Great Divorce paints it well. Pride is the death of us all. It might not be completely accurate, but the phrase “all poverty is relational” strikes a powerful chord here in the midst of great wealth and anemic community, so many still feel desperately empty. Unhealthy independence is just as bad (though different) as unhealthy dependence.
    I think the solution is to follow Christ’s example and personally enter into the pain and suffering of those near us, especially those unlike us. To identify with them in their shame, hurt, loss, mistakes, everything. Not that we just sympathize, or offer tokens of support, but fully enter into the mess of other people. And the beauty is that truly none of us is strong enough to bear our burdens alone, and we all have burdens. There is no burden that we CAN bear alone, BUT there is no burden that we CANNOT bear if it is shared. It’s messy, it’s hard, but it’s also the incarnational life we are called to and changes everything. We can’t fix people, and we can’t fix most problems (at least not immediately, and if we can that comes later) but we can BE with people and fully share their suffering (and suffering will happen if we spend time with people) AND their joys! The most powerful times in my life have been crying with those I love over loss or hurt or celebrating with them their joys and triumphs. THEIR pains and joys, not mine. And just as importantly allow them into my world. For many of us it is quite true to say that it is harder to receive than to give. Inviting and allowing another into my pain and shame is even more difficult and frightening, but it is also the per se other side of the coin. I think they go together or they don’t go at all.
    The other thing I believe this does is stretch our sense of suffering so we are less entitled. Suffering I think is somewhat relative, a child who is unjustly punished suffers I think just as greatly (subjectively) as a lawyer campaigning for justice who loses an important case to bribery. It seems like we experience the most extreme form of pain in the most difficult time we have known. Perhaps, if the worst thing we have known is the death of our cat, it will make us wail in torment for weeks. So should we seek out painful experiences and manufacture suffering? No! I think there is already plenty to go around, we need to step up and shoulder the burden of others’ pain so that we become stronger as well. When we enter specifically and relationally into the lives of those around us, I think we will find that community life takes on a life of its own. In Life Together Bonhoeffer suggests that “community cannot be created. It can only be received.” We have access to other people only through Christ, and when we die to ourselves and enter into the pain and lives of others (just as Jesus has done for us), we become the manifestation of Christ to them and the community life we are called to seems to magically appear like one of those cheesy photomosaics. But one that is alive, and moves, and has Christ at its head.

  • sp

    was Matthew 10:34 meant for us “privately” or “collectively”? “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And what about John 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

    If these verses are a “state of our union”…then what do we seek with this idea of common-good? Is one of its goals peace? Perhaps, some sort of collectivist wrap-around? A desire to “end trouble”?

    We will have trouble, we will not have peace, and we will have swords…as Jesus has told us, no?

    Marx was keen on this idea of the “common good”, as he wrote in Letter to his Father, circa 1837:
    “History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy”

    …and he was happy to share the expense of gaining this common good with those he called “noble”. In the same book, he writes:
    “we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”

    Your blog sounds all sounds well and good…but take the thought to its n’th degree, and is this really the drum you want to be beating?

    • Richard Dahlstrom

      I’m not interested in beating the drum of Marxism in the least, any more than I’m interested in beating the drum of Capitalism. I’m interested in beating the drum of I Cor. 12:26, and Galatians 3:26,27, and James 2:1-4. Who is Marx? Who is Adam Smith? They are but pawns of a tired and oppressive world that overpromises and underdelivers. The same Bible that says, “if a man doesn’t work he shouldn’t eat” also says “and they held all things in common” – leaving the living out of this to each generation. But it’s this kingdom of God stuff, not our two prevailing systems, that we’re called to seek.

      • sp

        thanks Richard. While I’m not sure how the Gal 3 or James 2 references apply to the notion/conversation of “common good”, I can see how the 1 Cor 12 reference does. All are very good messages, of course. But I see the 1 Cor verse more of a “statement of fact” than a guideline to follow, or a manifesto to carry out.

        To your point: if you define this “common good” as verbiage to push forward the Kingdom of God…then by all means, let’s take this to it’s n’th degree already! (and, for the record, I consider myself a hypocrite in saying that, because I play my role relatively…poorly…in that regard. Ugh)

        But verbiage is important…which is why I was reminded of the likes of a Marx, as he referenced things that spoke of the “common good” fairly often. And while you say we’re not called to seek any particular prevailing system…this kind of verbiage is widely used as a framework/manifesto by at least one political party across our globe — something I imagine is not lost on you.

        Going back to the “kingdom of God stuff”, I don’t see verbiage of this “common good” in the Bible.

  • Justin

    Thanks for the thoughts Richard. I do make one observation. While we are called to live out our faith and worship to God through community and fellowship, this does not mean that our God is not a personal God. Jesus was very personable and called his followers personally (Matthew the Tax collector, the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, the Apostle Paul!). We do have a very personal Lord and Savior who calls us to be a member of His children and to be a part of His plan to redeem His creation back to Himself. Yes, we as Americans have a bent on individuality but I do not think that the idea that we have a personal Lord and Savior comes from this alone, I see it clearly in scripture.


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