By Jeanette Arnquist
It seems to me that our ideas about God, who God is, how God is and what God expects from us form our ideas about how we ought to relate to each other.
If you are as old as I am, you probably first learned about a judging God who delighted in catching us doing something wrong (sinning) and was ready to send punishment either in the form of an immediate consequence or eternal damnation. My view of God, heaven and hell was, I believe, pretty much the mainstream Catholic view in the mid-1950s. God was an exacting and merciless accountant who dealt out blessings or grace as rewards for acts of prayer, fasting, sacrifice and good behavior. God could be bought off with sacraments. In fact, maybe God had to be bought off.
When bad things happened, it was punishment for having done something bad or maybe just having had evil thoughts. The whole point of my relationship with God was to try to get enough points to assure my own salvation.
Somewhere along the way over the past decades we have realized that the mainstream was overfished. Our God is generous, full of mercy and love. In fact, God is love. God loves each and every one of us and there is nothing we can do to change that. God loves us in our imperfections. God loves us as we are. And God wants us to love one another, as we are. (John 13: 34-35, John 15:12 Corinthians 16:14, 1 Peter 4:8 – and many more.)
If we believe that God relentlessly loves us, then it follows logically that God has created a world where there are enough resources so that all people will not merely survive, but thrive as individuals and together. And if we love one another, we will want to work to achieve such a world. We call this working for “Justice.”
If God really loves all of us, then the question is, why are some people living in unlivable conditions? Why are some nations poor and others rich? Why are so many people at risk for starvation, disease? Why?
The answer clearly is not that they are being punished by God. The answer is complicated and it involves greed and exploitation, war and corruption. Human action and inaction might not be the only causes, but they are usually factors.
This lack of fairness is what has led to the development of Catholic Social Teaching. If God is a God of love, then God wants us all to live out our fundamental dignity and fulfill our potential. This leads to the principle of the Common Good. If God is a God of love, then God’s dream is for us is to love our neighbors, our enemies and, indeed, everyone. Our mission in life is to be ambassadors of God’s love. And we put that into action by working for the Common Good.
The Common Good is usually defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1906). The Common Good is not the most good for the most people, nor is it equal distribution of wealth. It is based on the belief that there is a way for us to live together so that everyone can live and thrive.
Thinking about teams might help us to understand the Common Good. (Please don’t think about professional sports teams.) When a team is working well, all of the members work together to contribute to the goal. They each have different roles and different gifts to contribute to the effort. They help and support each other. They do not compete with each other. They do not denigrate each other. They put aside differences to work together.
We here on planet Earth are really one team, working to bring about a world where all can thrive. No one is excluded. Every human person is part of the team. Each person has gifts that can contribute to the Common Good.
As we begin Lent and are thinking about being dust or turning away from sin, let us realize that we cannot build up the Common Good alone. Let us “give up” excluding people who might believe differently, think differently or sin differently. We need each other; we need the whole team.
Jeanette Arnquist is a former Director of the Department of Life, Dignity & Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino. She is retired and living in Tucson, Arizona where she remains active in social concerns ministries.