Our common life together: the public good

The twenty-five cent word for ‘the public good’ is commonweal. It seems to me that the commonweal is under threat. If the commonweal were a large piece of cloth (like those huge American flags you sometimes see at sports events) and we the people are standing at the edges of the cloth, trying to hold the flag off the ground while the cloth itself is tearing. The source of the tearing, emblematic of the commonweal under threat, is the topic of this essay as well as what a Christian answer to the problem might be.

On the healthy side, the commonweal is people taking care of each other. The commonweal is made up of people who believe unconventional processes produce positive outcomes. The commonweal supports people who work hard in the hope of bettering themselves. At its best, the commonweal is tolerant of different races, beliefs and behaviors.

At its best, the commonweal also contains people who express widely divergent opinions on serious issues of belief and behaviors. When the commonweal is working, we are accept each others’ failures. When the commonweal is working we are all part of a diffuse love relationship.

We live in a time of revolutionary change, mostly created by and with computers. Living in such a stressful environment is painful. It’s painful even for the people who are successful at using computer tools to promote themselves and their careers.

The radical change has crept up on us in an incremental fashion. There are computer chips running car engines, refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, all kinds of robotic manufacturing machines. This change didn’t happen all at once, but it has happened. The most amazingly powerful computer change has been in cellular phones. Cellular phones have gone from something laughingly called a ‘brick’ to smart phones. Computer addiction and smart phone addiction sound like urban legends but are none the less true.

Radical change is coming to us down the internet. There is sufficient evidence to believe that the internet is the radical change itself. And this has been a popular point of view. But recently, someone used a three dimensional printer to print a gun. Someone else used a three dimensional printer to print a bullet. I don’t know if the bullet worked, but the gun actually fired a bullet. The printer generated gun is a very poor gun. The amazing thing is this – the file set used to make the printer generated gun was downloaded over 100,000 times before the government shut down the site.

The printer-generated gun ends the discussion about the meaning of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Printer-generated guns are going to get better the same way computers have improved over the years. At the same time, three-dimensional printers are going to improve in a similar way. I’ve seen three-dimensional solutions for robots, mechanic’s tools and food. The possibilities are endless.

The government shut down the web sites that posted the three-dimensional gun and bullet, but it’s really naive to expect the government to control three-dimensional guns. The government ends up playing ‘Whac-A-Mole’ with new web sites and new three-dimensional gun files popping up all over the internet.

And so we react. We want something, perhaps we want almost anything, to be the same. But things continue to change. The most visionary thinkers repeatedly fail to understand where we will be in just ten years, much less in a generation.

People are reacting to radical change in violent ways. America has this fascination with guns. This facilitation is not helpful. I understand that a gun is the ultimate way of controlling another person’s behavior. The people in the gun culture don’t seem to be thinking beyond the fact that they will have that special kind of power over someone else.

If you think beyond the reality of “stop or I’ll shoot”, there are some nasty consequences. Even if the situation begs for the use of lethal force, when someone is dead the person holding the gun that caused the death becomes a different person. Those kinds of justifiable homicides are rare. What’s more common is accidental homicide. This is the ordinary gun owner who then accidentally shoots his family member or his neighbor.

Look at George Zimmerman. Even if George is found not guilty, not guilty is not the same as innocent. Beyond the ultimate loss of innocence is the fact that George’s life has changed forever. He has the kind of celebrity that no one would want.

Guns aren’t the solution to the kind of radical change our society is experiencing. Guns aren’t going to stop the evolution of three-dimensional printers or any of the other fundamental and radical changes going on in our society.

Besides the fact that the gun solution can’t practically effect the radical changes we see happening, the gun solution is a fear-based solution. Basically, it says “I can’t trust my neighbor and I may have to shoot him.” Fear-based solutions don’t have the depth needed to create a new future.

Of all the fear-based reactions to radical change, believing in an imminent apocalypse is the most unusual. A number of apocalyptic theories are present in today’s world. The zombie apocalypse is a light-hearted effort to portray the results of radical change in a way that we can see, understand and dismiss.

A large number of books and movies portray a science-fiction post-apocalyptic world. I don’t give the zombie apocalypse much credibility. I don’t think a zombie apocalypse is very possible. Some of the ideas presented in science-fiction, however, hold a frightening grain of truth. There could be a global viral infection that defies our best attempts to cure it. There could be a catastrophic asteroid impact. We could blow everyone up with nuclear bombs. Dr. Stephen Hawkins has been pushing the colonization of Mars because he believes the human race will do itself in. He makes good sense to me.

Among the several apocalyptic theories the religious apocalypse is to me one of the most interesting. The people who champion an apocalyptic point of view usually lack a historical perspective. They typically take up the Book of Revelations from the Christian New Testament and apply allegorical and numerological verses to the present time – basically the Book of Revelations is written in code. The Book of Revelations is written in code because a straightforward presentation of the political content of the Book of Revelations would have resulted in an increased persecution of Christians. Reputable biblical scholars have an explanation for the various coded sections of the Book of Revelations. But even these scholars will not commit to the idea that their interpretations are correct. There is no way to know what’s correct. The writer of the Book of Revelations didn’t provide a translation key for the coded sections.

A fundamentalist evangelist like Hal Lindsey has specific translations for all these coded sections. And surprise, surprise the translations Hal supplies are pointed to the present age instead of the first century Roman Empire. Hal uses the Book of Revelations to scare people to death. Hal has made a very nice living off his books and DVDs.

The problem with Hal’s approach, other than the misinterpretation of scripture is that every generation has produced a prophet or two in Hal’s mode. In St. Francis’ time there was a fellow named Joachim. In the mid 1800s there was a fellow named William Miller. All of these self-styled prophets pointed to explanations of the Book of Revelation found in their own time. Many such prophets even pick out specific dates when Jesus will return. Miller picked October 22, 1844. All these dates so far have come and gone.

The truth about the apocalypse is that we are living in a time when everything changes almost at once. Things certainly change faster than the normal person can absorb the change. The apocalypse promises an end to life as we know it. An end to life as we know it is happening as this is written.

In contemplating what a Christian response would be, I found myself asking what Jesus would do in the face of radical change. When Jesus was asked what the most important law in the Bible was, he answered with two commandments: “Love God,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27). The person asking the question then wanted to know, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30). The parable offers a very radical definition of who my neighbor is. There is no way to escape the description of a neighbor presented in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In all the back and forth about Trayvor Martin and George Zimmerman, the fact that George shot and killed his neighbor has been lost. I don’t believe that George set out to perform such an unchristian act. Our lives are full of unintended results. Sometimes the things we do produce unintended consequences. I’m very certain that George didn’t foresee that he might end up on trial for second degree murder.

St. Francis gave expression to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor” with his life. Once he entered his ministry, St. Francis spent every waking moment trying to be a better Christian by ministering to the common good. The product of that effort is clearly stated in a prayer attributed to St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Other scriptures are also relevant to understanding a Christian response to radical change. One scripture is from the Gospel of John (12:25). “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” These words are difficult. They speak of people being separated into righteous and unrighteous and no one wants to be lumped with the unrighteous. The fear-based responses to radical change are trying to hold on to life the way it is, but we continuously move forward into a new life. There is no salvation in trying to preserve things as they are. It’s best to honor what was and give thanks for it and move on.

Scripture also says perfect love casts out fear. From 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The path away from a fearful response to radical change is through love. Love your neighbor as yourself.

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One Response to Our common life together: the public good

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