TIME Religion

A Letter to Graduates: Whatever Happened to the Common Good?

When considering what's next after graduation, think of others

It’s that time of year, when eager graduates celebrate the fruit of their hard work and look forward to their first job or graduate school. The air is full of excitement of untapped potential and bright futures.

So to those graduates, I offer you a challenge: in the lives you choose to lead from this point forward, consider how to ensure a bright future for all—not just yourselves or your group.

Because the moral question for the society you’re about to enter is the spiritual battle between “I” and “We.” In culture the “me first” ethos dominates real concern for others. In economics, the metric of “short termism” trumps “stewardship.” In politics, winning replaces governing and instead of solutions, we prefer blame. In religion, private piety is preferred over sacrifice. It is a “selfie” culture, in which the camera is focused on us and our friends, ignoring the beauty of the world. Depending on someone else to take our picture isn’t even necessary anymore.

The spiritual term for these problems is, of course, is “selfishness”–a familiar human seduction and sin. The only redemption from it is to rise above ourselves for something greater.

Yet, almost every day, the news from Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood raises a very pointed question: Whatever happened to the common good?

Public polling shows that most of us believe our country is headed in the wrong direction. Many of us feel that our society’s major institutions have failed. Many feel politically and spiritually homeless in the raging battles between ideological extremes. And most of us would agree that the common good has become very uncommon.

Still, many of us are hungry for authenticity when we see it and desire something larger than our own self-interests—as the response to Pope Francis has demonstrated, from the religious and non-religious alike. As the Pontiff said during his visit to the Middle East: “The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good.”

Indeed, the ancient idea of “the common good” is a vision that helps us live our best values. For Christians, the common good comes from Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves—including “the least of these.” I know of no other social ethic that is as transformational as this one. But most of our faith traditions agree we must love our neighbor if we say we love God. Seeking the common good means that our treatment of the most vulnerable is the test of our society’s integrity. Promoting the common good is the best way to make sure that we are protecting the life and dignity of all God’s children.

Given the political inability to solve the real problems, given our inability, to focus on those who are most in jeopardy, and given how greed and self-interest have overtaken our markets and our politics, we must go deeper into our best values.

The public discussion we need about the common good concerns all the decisions we make in our personal and public lives. The common good may come last to places like Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood, but can turn history in different directions. And it begins with our own personal decisions–the way all social movements start.

And that is what I hope you will consider in your academic and professional careers: how to repair a society that has broken down in fundamental ways. A commitment to the common good is also the best way to find common ground with others–even those who disagree with us.

It’s in your power to lead us now, by urging a new ethic of civility between conservatives and liberals. Both personal and social responsibility are necessary for a world in which the common good is embraced.

It’s in your power now, to choose work and make decisions in those workplaces that restores trust in economic decision-making, mobility, and opportunity. It’s up to you make choices that will promote a “moral economy” by embracing values like human dignity, the common good, and stewardship. Let’s take on the big question about the role of government—how can it best serve the common good in partnership with other sectors?

It’s in your power now to seek the common good in the places we call home. How we live well with those closest to us will shape or undermine a common good culture. Whether religious or not, how can we learn to see our neighborhoods, our nation, and the world as our “parish” for which we are all responsible?

And that is my challenge to you. As you continue your education or embark on your career, consider the personal decisions you can make to seek the common good and promote our best values.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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