Commonwealth is an unusual word in the modern world. Still used in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Massachusetts for the word “state,” it is a way of seeing life together, a political community founded for the common good.
I thought of this a while back while listening to an Israeli, a Palestinian and a Jordanian, each one committed to the recovery of a healthier ecology for the Jordan River which runs through the valley that is home for all three peoples.
That is literally a problem for them, with sewage dumped into the river from top to bottom, making it a surprisingly unhealthy ecosystem. But it is also a metaphor for their political life, which is what brought them to the Telos board meeting in the Commonwealth building the 1600 block of K St in Washington.
Though it was more happenstance than intentional, I kept thinking about the building’s name. Commonwealth is an English word from the 15th-century that was created to communicate that human life is a common life, that individual good cannot be finally found outside of the common good.
And that is a hard truth for us, autonomous as we are disposed to be. We will do what we want when we want it. But no one flourishes with that belief: families, neighborhoods, and societies don’t flourish because they can’t flourish, acting against the very grain of the universe.
Telos argues against that vision of the good life, insisting instead that it is only in an honest belief in a common good for Israel, will Israel flourish. Almost no one believes this in either the church or the world, insisting instead that, complex as it is, the Israelis are right because it is their land after all; or that the Palestinians are right because it is their land after all. To believe in a commonwealth seems historically impossible, politically incredible.
But both peoples have histories, both peoples have hopes. And like the Jordan River, there is a social ecology that runs through the valley and its surrounding hills that is in crisis in thousands of long-suffering ways, sometimes manifesting itself in horrific moments when we all cry out.
The longer I listened to the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian talk, the more I thought of the weighty words that make strange sense of this wounded world, “The creation groans, waiting….” in the epistle to the Romans.
Waiting for what? For the day of the Lord, when the groaning will all be done, because “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” Waiting for what? In this now-but-not-yet moment in history, for us to awaken to being who we should be where we are, to the vocation of being common grace for the common good.
The Jordan River Valley needs that, just as Jerusalem and Bethlehem need that, just as Paris needs that, just as Chicago and Colorado Springs need that, just as San Bernardino needs that– just as everyone everywhere needs that.
For more from Steve Garber, check out his Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture.