The lecture below was given as the keynote address at the inaugural Together for the Common Good Conference in Liverpool, September 2013.

Six months ago I was involved in a conference in London. It was a little like this one, in that it gathered together a group of highly motivated, diverse people wanting to share insights from their work, as well as to seek confirmation of a wider, shared vision that was greater than the sum parts of their individual ventures.

The difference was that those attending that conference and running the workshop were school pupils aged between 8 and 18 from across London schools. It was a refreshing change for me to revert to being a pupil whilst these young people taught us about the common good. They did not use this phrase, but every word they said was entirely about that value and practice. They captured my attention – in fact the captured my imagination – in a way quite different to much talk about the common good that I tend to hear.

They began their workshop by setting us an unlikely task: we were not asked to discuss the problems of our neighbourhoods and start proposing solutions, or even to spend time getting to know each other – even though the day was about community organising. Instead, we were asked to write a poem. I confess that I was a little taken aback. Each line of the poem began with the phrase ‘I am……’.  We were given reflective prompts – some serious, some more humourous – to write each line, and together we adults slightly awkwardly constructed and then read our poems. The pupils were re-running for us the English lesson that had been their entry into community organising and thinking about the common good. Writing poetry may sound a curious way to motivate students from a fairly deprived community in North London to engage in shaping their communities. Not at all. Their teacher told us what she had learned: that the first step to motivating these students to act in their communities had been to stimulate their imaginations, to awaken a deeper sense of who they were; to discover something of their own mystery, dignity and humour.  Without giving back to them that which much of their life experience had often taken away, they would find it difficult to find the passion to act for change. And change their communities they have – sorting out dysfunctional school bus services, joining Living Wage campaigns and much else besides. I think their teacher had it right: the politics and practice of the common good begins with recognition and with imagination.

Rowan Williams talks about the imaginative force of art and religion as the two great examples of the ‘non-secular’:– what he means by this is that religion and art (poetry for those Brent pupils) communicates and awakens the value of being human in more than just functional terms. Religion and art exceed and challenge the secular, the vision of the common good although entirely practical and social does not start with a list of problems.

The beginning of all Christian social and political action is found outside of politics itself, in a place of deep imagination, in an ‘I am’ rather than an ‘I do..”

The tradition of CST from which I come, and which has long championed the idea of the Common Good, provides precisely such a stimulus to our imagination: we are often told that the common good is about neighbour love, of course it is, but it begins in some prior theological thinking: it begins with a recognition not of what I have to do, but of who I am as a created being: Thomas Aquinas tells us that our true common good from a Christian point of view is life in communion with God, and in order to prepare ourselves to share in that life of communion, we are given both in our nature and through grace the means to live a pale imitation of that life here and now. I am a person created in the image of the Triune God, created for relationship – in fact more than relationship, interdependence, with God and my neighbour. Our social and political life is part of the goodness of that creation. One of the gifts of the Catholic social tradition has been to value the best side of our political instincts as part of the goodness in which – and for which – we were made. Politics can never totally be a matter of despair for those who believe in the Common Good. However much politics may fail the Gospel, we cannot give in to a view of politics as only ever a dirty, squalid business. Politics is necessary because of both the best and the worst of that which we are capable.

At its root politics and faith are mutual expressions of the question: what life do we wish – or in our case are we called – to live together? What ‘non-secular’ faith gives to ‘secular’ politics is a vision of the very purpose of politics in the life of the common good. The beginning and end of politics then, is the common good – an integrated life together. What makes a Christian account of the common good distinct from the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is the biblical option for the poor, or as David Sheppard preferred, the ‘bias for the poor’. The common good is therefore measured by the well-being and participation of the least: and this is not just about material poverty. It is, as one Catholic economist points out, a multiplication sum and not a simple sum of addition. If the input of the least is zero, the sum total remains zero. Having boasted a little of the gift of CST, now to say clearly: this vision of the common good is of course not just Catholic – Catholics may have kept the particular language of the common good alive through its social teaching, but this is a shared Christian vision – for David Sheppard the resources for such thinking came through the worldview connected to urban mission, for Derek Worlock from CST.

American public theologian, Jim Wallis opens his most recent book on why evangelicals should care about the common good, with this statement:

It’s time to find a better vision of our life together. Politics is failing to solve the biggest problems our world now faces – and the disillusionment with elections and politicians has gone global. Politicians continue to focus on blame instead of solutions, winning instead of governing, ideology instead of civility…. But cynicism cannot be our response to failed politics. Instead we must go deeper[1].

The common good is an ancient idea, which belongs to us all, and whose time has urgently come. For him an evangelical account of the common good is rooted in Matthew 25 and the Good Samaritan – in the command to exercise neighbour love.

I want to suggest to you by way of a conversational ‘starter for ten’ just two initial reasons why we need this language: you will, I hope, add others to this list over the weekend …

The first reason why we need the language of the Common Good is that it seeks to be a way of speaking and acting that unites rather than divides. It is in its origins and essence a language of relationship. Some theologians have talked of the common good as a sort of grammar – a structure that enables a Christian way of speaking, thinking and acting together.

We are surrounded by divisive language and social practices of many kinds: the language of market, of political interests, even some of the language around rights and justice can become competitive and acquisitive. Very much of the political language that has been shaping our public conversations in austere times has been divisive rather than unitive: the deserving versus undeserving poor, strivers versus skivers. This kind of language comes to dominate our public spaces and fails to nurture our imagination, it fails to provide any nutrients for a life lived together. The common good is an integrating language which mirrors for Christians the nature of life in Christ. Because we are kin of Christ, we are kin of each other. The language of ‘kindness’ is connected to the language of kinship. Theologian Janet Soskice argues that we Christians have worn smooth our metaphors of kinship over the centuries, like a great marble staircase made smooth by use, we can glide over that language, we can lose our sense of being shocked and scandalised by what that kinship with Christ means for our worshipping life together and our political life together.

The second reason we need the language and practice of the common good is connected to the first – the common good speaks of human value rather than human function. It therefore provides a necessary challenge to all forms of public and private action which seek to reduce the human body and human relations to functions and interests, to costs and benefits.  It is a form of language that speaks of value, it contains words that help us speak publicly of suffering, pain and tragedy too. It also, I have learnt through the japes of community organising, has a wicked sense of humour. Speaking of human value and relationships makes the things that the market and state makes invisible, visible.

When Jenny asked me to speak she asked whether I would make common good thinking concrete by talking about a particular issue. I want to talk about immigration. There are many ways in which we will make the themes of the common good practical this weekend, you will have your own stories and experiences, where your imagination and passion is stirred towards the common good, I am talking about immigration here for two reasons: because it is my story of passion for the common good to share, and because talking about this example enables us to see just how challenging Christian thinking about the common good is for our politics.. So if immigration is not your common good passion – if yours is housing or debt, race or gender, wages or work, think with me as I speak about how this one example helps you think about common good politics, and perhaps think which example or area you’d use as an illustration.

Immigration is a hot political topic: for the last decade it has continued to poll in the top three political issues that voters tell the government they care about. In some areas of the country tensions between migrants and established communities are high. All of the main political parties have been told by the pollsters that they must do something to show that they are willing to safeguard British jobs, to reduce pressure on public services within communities, to deal with the perceived failures of multiculturalism and to show that they can deter people from seeking a life in the UK. There is an awkward public non-conversation happening right now about immigration – in which everyone is perceived to be talking about immigration but each seems to believe that no-one else really understands what they are trying to say. Want to raise questions about immigration and you are labelled racist, defend migration and you are privileged urban liberals without a clue. In the middle of the chatter are migrants themselves for whom the current system does not seem to work much either: report after report explores the inhumanity and inefficiency of the system they have to negotiate. It is a very complicated situation to make sense of, and one of the most challenging common good issues to get right.

I want to point out two basic things about the way that ‘the common good’ tends to be thought of in current public debate about immigration. Then I want to say something briefly about the ways that a Christian account of the common good turns those categories on their heads.  

I hope you will recognise these statements:

The fair, or moral purpose of immigration policy is to ensure that only migration that is in the British national interest – ie economic interest – should be allowed or encouraged. We need clear policies that offer a preferential option for British workers and which bring in the most highly qualified that we can recruit from abroad. We should take some refugees but not the levels we currently take.

Standing up for appropriate national self-interest means public policy should be such that it largely deters migration to the UK, especially amongst unskilled and low skilled economic workers and those seeking refugee status, we should also enforce removals on those here who cannot achieve clear legal status quickly. We need practical policies that enact this deterrence. (examples: ‘hostile environment’ working group, Go Home vans)

Christian ‘common good’ thinking about immigration does not begin or end with the category of ‘national interest’. It does not dismiss the idea of a national community, but it begins with questions of human value and it sets immigration within a wider Christian imagination and story – that story begins with a recognition of some basic parts of the biblical tradition a) a biblical command to honour the dignity of each person, to offer particular hospitality and care for the stranger, and to recognise our universal kinship through Christ beyond national borders. We might note the way in which migrants have a privileged role in faith communities: God sometimes instructs his faithful to become migrants – Abraham being our classic example, God often calls migrants to be prophets and truth tellers (like Ruth); and Christ himself comes amongst us as a kind of migrant. Migration is not first and foremost to be viewed as a problem in the Bible, (although for many it brings great suffering), and the first category of Christian thinking is not national interest, rather migration is seen as a basic feature of the human condition and indeed a metaphor for the life of faith itself. 

Such a Christian imagination might set the tone, but it doesn’t tell us how we resolve the very painful modern dilemmas – the conflict between different goods – that dealing with migration requires. At one level answering that question is a task that belongs to the whole community, but to help us think more practically about the common good and immigration, Catholic social teaching has built on that biblical background to propose some principles that can help bridge our scripture and our context, and they are rather different to the principles that seem to guide the policy conversation at the moment.

Firstly, the purpose of immigration policy must have the dignity of the human person at its heart. In a world of nation-states we all require the protection of some form of state, we can’t really exist for long without this. Political membership as a basic necessity, not a secondary luxury.[2] Secondly, where people are displaced from that membership by conflict, persecution, violence or hunger the person has an absolute right to seek sanctuary elsewhere.[3] Because political membership is so basic to all forms of economic and physical well-being when deciding who to let in or not, states should offer a priority to refugees over voluntary economic migrants.

Thirdly, CST believes that the common good is best served by placing a strong moral obligation on the most materially prosperous states to receive, protect and integrate the migrant – whether economic or refugee. The state may set some limits to how many people it receives, but it must have a fair process for making its decisions, balancing the resources that community has available to its own established population and the newly arriving migrants.

Fourthly, national borders and identities whilst important are a good only when they provide both an ordered and peaceful way of life and when they make possible hospitality to others, and the building of friendships between cultures and persons. And here government has an important mediating role, as do the institutions of church and society – maximising the hospitality we can offer without causing the unnecessary suffering of others requires governments and communities to establish just measures to integrate those who arrive and to notice and mitigate any unfair burden to communities or individuals.

Fifthly, migrants have cultural and social as well as political rights. They have a right to work, because work is basic to our dignity – and a right to some form of civic participation. Just like thinking on the Living Wage, the minimum conditions for survival include ways to participate in an established community and not just to survive.

Finally, in CST all rights being duties: migrants bear responsibilities as well as rights: to uphold lawfulness in the host community and to actively seek fullness of participation in its life: for here lies their own flourishing as well as the health of the common good. Human dignity. Justice. Reciprocity. The Common Good.

These principles have led the churches of all denominations to be at the forefront of challenges to:

  • Detention of children for immigration purposes
  • Unlimited detention of adults and the conditions endured by those in detention
  • Brutality of enforced removals
  • The right to work for those whose decisions take years
  • regularisation of undocumented migrants
  • to challenge the withdrawal of welfare from destitute asylees

Yet, the common good point is internal to our communities as well as external: Churches have been places that have provided a different kind of context for migrants: contexts which don’t check passports or papers, but offer a context of participation not only in prayer and worship but also in the social, cultural and political life of a congregation. Churches, mosques, Temples and synagogues have become for many migrants an alternative kind of civil society, offering a form of faith-citizenship to those denied either temporarily or permanently such privileges by the nation-state. This is a reminder that the common good is first and foremost something we witness through the vibrant, creative lives of our own communities.

I said that my example needn’t have been about immigration – we could have performed a similar analysis based on penal policy, or a living wage, how we relate labour to capital, the role of money, about youth unemployment or housing, food poverty or the environment. All these are common good questions that challenge our faith life, our politics and our economy at its core. Here we see sharply that our kinship language changes things. What a difference it makes to think first with the imagination of the common good rather than that of market or nation.

I’ve talked a lot about ‘the Church’ and Christian theology. But the common good cannot be contained only in talk of Christians relating to each other. It implies endless creative partnerships between individuals, institutions and associations who share something of this vision of a common life. No faith, no political party, no campaigning association can be or do the common good alone. The politics of the common good is plural and spacious. For this reason, I want to finish by saying something more personal about generous ways of living the common good: I started by telling you that I had been challenged and inspired by a group of London pupils. What I didn’t say was that the pupils running the workshops were from every different faith group, and none – from Muslim, Jewish, catholic, CofE and secular state schools. At the end of the conference something struck me deeply, enough to persuade me to abandon my carefully prepared pep talk for the closing session. For the first time I understood both the gift and the limitation of the Catholic education that I received about 40 miles from here in the 1980’s and early 90’s. During the Sheppard-Worlock years I was at a tough but decent Catholic comprehensive. The values of CST and especially a formation in a faith vision of the common good were central to what we were taught at school, Young Christian Workers, CAFOD and SVP were bread and butter of our parish life. Yet watching the interaction of the pupils from across London (Jewish, Muslim, secular, Catholic, Anglican) I understood that something vital had been missing from that 1980’s Catholic vision of the common good, something so obvious that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before: We did what we did towards ‘the common good’ largely on our own, perhaps with other Catholic schools or parishes every now and again, but never with our secular, Anglican or Jewish neighbours. It is fitting we are here in Liverpool because the closest thing in the 1980’s to what those London schools are doing now was happening here courtesy of David Sheppard and Derek Worlock. As faith communities we should be proud that we have kept alive a language, and institutional practice, of the common good through a period of very significant challenge to much implied in that vision of human society. But surely part of the challenge to the Churches and faith communities thirty years later is to look towards each other and outwards in new ways: the next generation of challenge is move us from the goods of our multiple civil societies towards quite new ways in which we can practice relationships of political, social and religious reciprocity and friendship together. Our children are learning how to be at the forefront of working together for the common good – they are challenging companies to pay a living wage, learning how to belong in their own streets, challenging their churches and mosques to talk about issues of the common good and to break down barriers between and within communities: how far are the rest of us willing to go with them?

© Anna Rowlands

Dr Anna Rowlands is the St. Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University. She teaches Political Theology, is Deputy Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies and the Founding Chair of the Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice. She has a chapter in our book of essays, Together for the Common Good: Towards a National Conversation.

  • [1] Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, Lion, 2013, Preface, xi.
  • [2] See Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi (The Love of Christ Towards Migrants), (Vatican City: Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, 2004)
  • [3] See Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World), 1965, n.65.