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American Selfishness vs.

the Common Good

Rick Rouse

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the Apostles' feet and it was distributed to each as any had need.”  (Acts 4:32-35) 

What’s Going On in America Today? 

The Seattle school district just announced that they are having to shut down one hundred and forty bus routes because drivers are not in compliance with the statewide mandate for all school employees to be vaccinated. A middle school teacher in Texas took off her mask and breathed in the face of one of her students; she has subsequently been put on leave. Governors are penalizing school districts that are trying to keep their children safe by requiring masks. Parents are becoming violent in their opposition to any mandates, claiming that their freedom of choice trumps any health concerns.  America today—both secular and religious—is a far cry from the church of the New Testament described in the passage above from Acts. We are a nation of individuals who seem to value our personal rights and liberty above all else, even to the detriment of our neighbor. Our culture of individualism has eclipsed our sense of the Common Good in favor of greed and self-centeredness. We certainly see evidence of this in the halls of Congress where political parties appear to be more concerned about maintaining power than they are about solving the nation’s ills.

Recently The Seattle Times reported that a family made their annual summer trip to the Grant County Fair. Grandma was vaccinated, mom, dad and their 8-year old daughter were not. None of them wore masks. The adults all came down withCovid-19; Grandma survived but the parents did not. Because of their stubborn need to putpersonal politics above the health of others, their little girl is now an orphan. And this tragic story is being repeated across the country.  By contrast, we were in Canada recently where mandates regarding the virus have not been politicized. Over 75% of Canadians are now fully vaccinated compared with 54% of all Americans. Proof of vaccination and masks are required to enter any bar or restaurant, and every one seems pleased to comply.   

What Happened to a More Perfect Union? 

We need to reclaim our Founders' vision for the nation: “E Pluribus Unum”—out of many one. In his new book, A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community, Adam Russell Taylor notes that the de facto motto of the United States was “out of many—one people” until 1956 when Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as the official motto. He writes: “This is a real loss, because at its best, the former served as a reminder that America’s strength does not derive from an assimilating uniformity but instead from the richness of authentic expressions of diversity…Our oneness is also not found in a single culture, language, or place of origin but rather in our shared ideals, values, and aspirations, as well as in our commitment to love the other as much as ourselves. (p.33) 

Our country is suffering from deep political, religious, and racial polarization. Rather than seeking common ground, people are more prone to denounce and demonize those who disagree with them. This is tearing apart families, congregations, and communities and may be sowing seeds for the dissolution of our democracy. We have witnessed the consequences of the words and actions of people in power who seek to divide us and encourage us to fear one another. As an example, the Insurrection of January 6th casts  a frightening shadow over our future as a country when those who don’t get their way seek to take control by violent and destructive means. Former President George W. Bush issued these remarks on the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 at a memorial service for the victims of Flight 93: “A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a class of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”*  We’ve seen how the controversial act of wearing a mask became yet another weapon in America’s culture wars and exposed how polarized we have become along partisan lines. This simple act of wearing a mask has tested our commitment to living the Golden Rule—and what it means to set aside selfish individualism in order to protect and love ones' neighbors. It appears we have failed in this civics test of advancing the common good. For only in a hyper-polarized climate could a public health commitment to protect ourselves and our neighbors be transformed into a partisan issue and a statement of personal freedom.  

From Toxic Polarization to Seeking the Common Good 

There is a way forward to a more civil and just society. Adam Russell Taylor suggests that it starts by recognizing that every person is made in the image of God and that everyone has worth. This helps us acknowledge our shared humanity. We need to look to the New Testament and Jesus’ call to love God and love the neighbor. There we also encounter St. Paul who taught that in Jesus there is no division, no toxic polarization—because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. (Galatians 3:38)  

The love of neighbor opens up a different way of thinking about the issues. When we are focused on the good of others we tend to be less selfish and self-centered. Organizations such as Braver Angels seek to help folks on both sides of the divide communicate in a respectful way and find a common purpose. We learn that what we share in common is far more important that what divides us. And that we are more than a collection of individuals, but rather we are one people united by a common love for community and country.  

The late General Colin Powell suggests we need to start thinking of America as family. “We have to stop screeching at each other, stop hurting each other, and instead start caring for, sacrificing for and sharing with each other…We cannot move forward if cynics and critics swoop down and pick apart anything that goes wrong, to a point where we lose sight of what is right, decent, and uniquely good about America.”  

What will it take for us to build a society where all persons belong? Where everyone matters? Who do we welcome? Who deserves a share in our prosperity as a nation? Can we see ourselves as a rich tapestry of diversity?  America will never fully thrive without choosing to become and live together as one people: “E Pluribus Unum.”  The believers in the Book of Acts offered us a powerful example of what it means to embrace the common good. 


*From an Editorial by Jamelle Bouie, The Seattle Times, Sept. 14, 2021.