Skip to site content

Too Often, Self-Interest Trumps Common Good

There are no great expectations that the U.N.-led Durban Climate Change Conference currently being held in South Africa will produce any significant outcomes.
Awareness of climate change has increased, but the will to act has not. We should note that churches around the world have been raising the alarm about climate change for decades – long before it became a bandwagon to jump on or off.

Acting on climate change requires a major change in the day-to-day behavior of individuals and nations.

The United Nations and its associated agencies were formed in the post-war period in a spirit of optimism that the nations of the world could act together for the common good of humanity.

The reality is that international conferences do well at gaining assent to general objectives like reducing poverty or increasing education – making statements about changing the world without any great commitment to changing themselves.

When it gets more specific, a narrowly defined national self-interest usually wins the day. This in spite of the fact that, in the case of climate change, it potentially threatens not just the common good of humanity but life on our planet.

Closer to home, the runaway remuneration of senior executives in some parts of the economy stands in stark contrast to financial constraints faced by most people. Work for them seems to be the means of piling up personal wealth with no wider social responsibility.

The suggestion that they might pay a proportionate amount of tax as a starting point to their contribution to the common good has been met with threats to leave the United Kingdom for tax havens that will let them keep their money for themselves. 

A BBC documentary, “WhenBankersWereGood,” has reminded us of those bankers of a former age who were uncomfortable with the vast riches they were building up and became spectacular philanthropists.

They took seriously Jesus’ injunction that much will be required from those who have been given much. Their resources were to be used for the common good. That tradition is not dead but seems to have been swamped by self-interest.

The danger with philanthropy is that it easily becomes paternalism. The rich and powerful decide what is good for people.

Even when they make a correct diagnosis of needs and the actions required to meet them, they may undermine the common good by making people recipients rather than participants.

Looking to the interests of others rather than our own is a challenge to every one of us. The common good is not just about money but is marked by all of the values of the kingdom of God.

The current problems of the Baptist Union of Great Britain present themselves in a financial guise.

The Baptist Times has reported on the challenges of running the organization, funding pensions and mutual support through Home Mission. It is only right that serious attention is being paid to how BUGB can balance the books and plan a financially sustainable future.

Assuming the Baptist family as a whole does not lack resources – financial, human and spiritual – do we need new ways of making those resources available to one another?

More fundamental, when locally we have such resources, do we prefer to keep them under our own control?

One of the strengths of the Baptist tradition has been holding together the responsibility of the gathered community to discern the mind of Christ alongside associating with other congregations – encouraging, enriching and supporting one another for the common good of God’s work.

We need to reinvigorate our sense of mutual responsibility and build on that.

The crises that confront us – nations, citizens and Baptists – can be framed in terms of the seeming impossibility of coming to agreements on appropriate structures, behavior and funding.

Perhaps the deeper crisis is that we are all turning away from a commitment to the common good.

This article appeared originally in TheBaptistTimes of Great Britain.