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The Damning Precarity of the “Common Good”

Tags: The Opinions, Common Good, Janice McRandal

‘What 1 Corinthians 12 insists is that we cannot give ourselves to the work of grace apart from giving ourselves to a community that gathers in defiance of the desire for authority and its associated virtues—decency, dignity, and honor.’

Christian use of the common good is usually traced to ancient Greek-city states, where the development of the public realm, the polis, ensured a relational model of citizenship was established. Only through the collective action of engaged citizens will a city achieve justice and safety. These ideas and ideals were rapidly instituted and theorized in the rise of Roman Empire, inspiring theological and political theories within civic discourse. In establishing communities across the Roman empire, and beyond, the early church also affirmed a relational model of mutual care, evoking language of participation, covenant, and communion.[1] For the Patristic fathers, the common good demanded an emphasis on the material, embodied realities of life. ‘Drawing from Matthew 25, they imagined the common good as the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, burying the dead. This is how we help one another upwards toward salvation’.[2] Augustine significantly develops a theological basis for affirming the case of the common good in The City of God, linking the good life to the betterment of society and showing how the church can live in tandem with the state towards such a goal.  Later, Thomas Aquinas would push beyond Augustine’s view of the state and argue that governments could and did participate in their own, independent work toward the common good.  Since these developments, the common good has been a driving theme in both the teaching of the church and western political philosophy. Indeed a major renewal occurred in the twentieth century, notably driven by the teaching of then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, and through the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  Throughout the history of the West, including the rise and fall of Christendom and modern colonizing dispossession, the question of the common good has animated both theological and political debate, often understood as a liberal instrument of “our” progression toward perfected society.

The ideal of moving toward a perfected social order points toward the numerous problems lurking within this concept. For some, the contemporary social complexity of a global world and the incommensurable differences in discourse and cultural memory present in many of our communities, makes a shared social imagination quite impossible. Other have recently shown how the idea of the common good is taken up by seemingly rivalrous political factions – right wing nationalistic and left-wing social movements – in more or less the same ways, forms of thought that often repeated in Christian theology[3], bringing into question how and if the concept of the common good can provide a vision that is indeed good.  However, even more troubling is the exclusive genealogy of what turns out to be a not very common social good at all.

When imagining the city, a social and public life, Greek philosophers had a particular common man in mind: the slaveholding patriarch. The idea of citizenship and participation in the city was not open to everyone, but rather the exclusive domain of free, Greek men. As the head of their households, they could participate in civic life – the common good denoted an ordering or society that was essentially devised to benefit them. It was never imagined that women and slaves would have equal access to the public or the ‘common’ benefits of the city. The Roman empire inherits this framework, as too the Christian church. And each, ordered around hierarchal concepts of authority. Women and slaves, the indigenous and disabled, the queer and the outcast, have, for the better part of western history, been the least and last to benefit from those ideals supported by the common good – a reality that continues in and through colonialism and modernity.  As Aboriginal theorist, Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes, ‘The white patriarchs who theorized about the social contract were primarily concerned with it being a means of agreement between white men to live together, make laws, and govern, (solely) incorporating white women into the polity as their subordinates though the marriage contract.’ [4] Hence discourse of and a toward a common good has become suspect in recent decades. As with the common, itself becoming undone, remade, perhaps irrevocably, after Ronald Reagan, from ‘the common into the corporate.’[5]

The Body of Christ: a Pauline experiment

In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, it was customary in political rhetoric to compare society, or the city, to a body with many different parts all working in common. Politicians often spoke of the upper classes as the head or belly of the city, while lower classes, such as manual laborers or slaves, were the hands and feet of society. Lower classes were also spoken of as the genitals of city “because the upper class imagined them to be as fecund as vermin.” The head and belly belong to the upper classes because they are centralized, organizing parts of the body. The head sits on top and directs the rest of the body, and the belly sits at the centre, digesting food and sending out the “gifts” of blood and nourishment to the other parts of the body, ensuring their gratitude and loyalty. Most of the surviving examples of the body metaphor from ancient political texts tend in a conservative direction, arguing in favor of a natural hierarchy of the city. The city functions best when everyone keeps to their “proper” and “natural” place within the social body.   

It is this context that allows us to see Paul’s appropriation of the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 as a deeply disruptive rhetorical gesture, one that turns the conservative argument for social harmony on its head. Like many of the politicians who came before him who used the metaphor, Paul is addressing a community in conflict, trying to persuade them toward unity and harmony. In the Corinthian community, the issue was how varying spiritual gifts or graces are associated with varying levels of spiritual authority. How is the spiritual body of believers to organize itself? Who is to be honored and obeyed? What gifts or graces are the best? Paul’s immediate concern in 1 Corinthians 12 is to show how speaking in tongues, even though an honorable gift to be desired, does not give one a higher rank or authority in the community. Rather, it is the “lower” members of the community that are to receive more honor than the “higher” members. How does Paul try to persuade his community of this?

Strikingly, and unlike other parts of the New Testament, Paul does not appeal to Christ as the head or belly of the believing community in order to resolve the conflict over spiritual authority. The issue is not who is in authority, and not even insisting on Christ as the only proper authority addresses the root of social conflict. The problem is the very structure of authority itself, or the desire that there be authority. What Paul does, one might say, is try to imagine the working of the social body without authority. His argument is that the grace at work in the believing community, the grace that gathers and upbuilds the community, unworks authority by arranging the social body around mutual care: “God has arranged the body this way, providing greater honor to the ‘inferior’ members so that there will be no conflict in the body, but the members will have identical care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25-26). There will be no conflict in the body because God has arranged the body in such a way as to disallow the very desire for authority. Rather than desiring authority, God gathers community by building up a desire for one another. The community of believers is the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27) not because Christ is its authority, but because it is a community where the desire of the members for each other undercuts any desire for authority. The sign of this undercutting is that the ‘inferior’ members, those parts of the body most unsuited for dignified authority—the genitals, the hands, the feet—are given the greatest honor, that is, the greatest attention and care. Christ’s body has no master organ, only its many members engaged in the work of mutual care.

Paul’s central gesture towards this unworking of authority is to picture the relation of the members of the body to each other as one of direct connection rather than mediated connection that first submits to the authority of the head or the belly. Rather than a digestive system or a circulatory system governed by the stomach or the heart, Paul lets us imagine being in common as the operation of a nervous system in which each part of the body has a direct sympathetic connection to every other part of the body.[6] “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Organized through its nervous system, the whole body is involved in the pain and pleasure of each of its parts. The head cannot ignore or be unaffected by the pain of a stubbed toe. Likewise, sexual pleasure, even though it often arises from the genitals, spreads and diffuses throughout the whole body. Moreover, the nervous system, more so than either the digestive or circulatory system is attuned and exposed to what is beyond its own system. It is set up to receive stimulus from the outside. The organ where this exposure exposes itself is that most spread out of all the organs, the skin. Skin has no authority within the body. It is what holds the body together as a site of exposed togetherness.

And for Paul, what makes the community of believers the body of Christ is that it is exposed to the touch or stimulus of the Holy Spirit who gives various “spiritual gifts” to the community—such as healing, teaching, prophesy, tongues, and their interpretation. We ought not, then, think of spiritual gifts or graces as capabilities given to individuals as their possession, just as it makes no sense to speak of the operation of an eye apart from the entire working of the body (1 Cor. 12:21). Spiritual gifts do not reside in the individual or form a boundary around the individual that we might call an “identity.” Rather, spiritual gifts flow through various members only in order to diffuse around the entire body for the sake of its edification. Only as flowing, as diffusing across the community are spiritual gifts active as the work of the Holy Spirit. And crucially, the discernment of spiritual gifts, the discernment of how one is to receive and pass on the grace of the Holy Spirit as a member of Christ’s body, must take place in relation to the codes of honor and decency, spoken and unspoken, that inevitably regulate any social gathering. To look for the operation of grace is to look for openings where mutual care undercuts the regulation of social life that works through hierarches of honor. Centrally, this means looking for and expecting gifts from members who are deemed “inferior.” Often, these are the most exposed members of the community, the most vulnerable to being shoved aside by the codes of honor that structure dignified social life. It is around and with them especially that we can cultivate a sensitivity to the touch of the Spirit.   

What 1 Corinthians 12 insists is that we cannot give ourselves to the work of grace apart from giving ourselves to a community that gathers in defiance of the desire for authority and its associated virtues—decency, dignity, and honor. The body of Christ is gathered by a foolishness (1 Cor. 1:20-25) where what is celebrated is not excellence and individuation, but the joy of a togetherness that exceeds understanding.

In wondering if there is any future for the common good, theologian Anna Rowlands turns to the language of ‘rupture and transgression through grace’ as the basis of a share social vision. The struggle to imagine and define and to live a common good is a fragile possibility, and Paul’s vision of the body challenges our ongoing and entire social orders. But as Rowland writes, ‘communities of love and justice are possible, but they are fragile, troubling to settled norms and [relying] of the gift of something beyond ourselves.[7] It is the grace of unworked authority.  

Written by Janice McRandal, Director of the cooperative.

[1] Anna Rowlands, Politics of The Common Good, 41.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For her excellent analysis, see Anna Rowlands.

[4]Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 155.

[5] Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre and Catherine Keller, ‘Introduction’, in Common Goods: Economy, Ecology, and Political Theology, 3

[6] Brian Brock develops this point in Wondrously Wounded.

[7] Rowlands

[i] Dale Martin, Biblical Truths: The Meaning of Scripture in the 21st Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 336.