Monday afternoon at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture, in the warmth of
the early July sun, hundreds of voices swelled past the lofty white
columns and up into the eaves of the Hall of Philosophy, singing a
prayer for Sister Joan Chittister, OSB.
The hymn and prayer came moments after Department of Religion
Director the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell finished delivering the speech
Chittister intended to give in person Monday afternoon, before an
emergency medical procedure waylaid her plans. In her speech, titled “An
Uncommon Search for the Common Good,” Chittister addressed this week’s
interfaith theme: “2012: What’s at Stake for the Common Good?”
“A common good is a vision, a vision of public virtue which engages
the individual citizen, guides the energies of the government, shapes
the public system and points the public direction in all of its
policies, in all its institutions and in all of its legislative
intents,” Chittister wrote. “It is the answer to the question: What is
it that we want for this country? What is it that we perceive to be good
for everyone, and how should we go about getting it?”
Historically, when the world comprised smaller, more homogeneous
societies, the concept of the common good was simpler to define. Since
the Reformation, our world has become more diverse, and the idea that
there could exist a singular definition for the “common good” seems
impossible, Chittister wrote.
“Whose common good would be the common good?”
“In fact, which common good will you yourself have in mind this week?
The one that is defined by majority vote? But then what about the
minorities, the gays, the people of color, the women?” Chittister wrote.
Other definitions of the common good are based on bridging economic
division or attaining the goals many advocacy groups fight for,
Chittister wrote. Still other people believe the common good means
creating a homogeneous society or taking the big ideas and aims of
disparate groups and reducing them to ghosts of their original might so
they are universally palatable.
Each of those conceptions of the common good has flaws, and each has been seen before.
“The truth is that all of those possibilities are in order and all of
them exist in one place or another — even as we gather here — all of
them claim some kind of public allegiance, and all of them have both
succeeded and failed over time.” Chittister wrote.
Countless tyrants and monarchs have claimed to work for the common good for centuries. They have fallen.
“How can we possibly have a common good, where the good of the ruler comes before the good of the ruled?” Chittister wrote.
The only forms of governing power that truly respect and embrace the
ideals of the common good are democratic, constitutional republics,
Chittister said. With time, even the nations that forged their
foundations on the precepts of working toward the common good have lost
“Instead of a common good, we seem more inclined to talk about the
general good, as if we were willing to let some people right out of it,”
“No doubt about it: The universal and age-old notion of the common good is an endangered species in these days,” she wrote.
The idea that we live in a world demarcated by hard and fast
boundaries of religion, culture, language, geography, no longer exists.
Developments in technology and media have created a sieve-like world
where cultures mix and blend, Chittister wrote. It is no more evident
than in the United States, a country fragmented by its multicultural
identity that is struggling to be united.
Enhanced means of communication and transportation have further
connected the world, while simultaneously highlighting the disparities
“People in the barrios in the Philippines, in tents in
Port-au-Prince, on dung heaps in India, straw huts in Africa, watch
street corner television and see our eight-lane highways choked with
cars and hear us worry about 5 percent drops in the stock markets when
their infants die in their arms,” Chittister wrote.
Theoretically, increased globalization was to turn into increased
economic equality and peace among the world’s populations. That has not
been the case. We have seen the horrors of a divided, yet
technologically connected world: first in World War II, with the
Holocaust and the atomic bomb, then in Vietnam, in instances of genocide
and ethnic cleansing throughout the world, and most recently on Sept.
11, when a small group murdered more than 3,000 people.
“In response to that murderous act, in the country from which they
sprang or by which they were harbored, we killed at least four times as
many of their innocent as they had managed to kill of ours,” Chittister
wrote. “These are not simply changes on the social landscape, these are
issues that change our very understanding of ourselves. They changed the
shape of our lives, they challenge the fabric of our souls, they test
the very possibility of a common good.”
Human beings exist in a world that is increasingly connected through
technology and economy, but despite the connectivity, we have been
unable to develop the one thing that could end the barbarism the
connection engenders: a shared perception of the common good, Chittister
To begin the process of developing a shared understanding of the
common good, Chittister wrote that people should turn to one of the most
universally religious codes: the beatitudes preached by Jesus Christ at
the Sermon on the Mount.
“Now we must find a way for equal but different people to live
together, to live together on this globe, in a world more united but at
the same time more disparate than ever before in human history,”
Chittister wrote. “Consider just for a minute, before the political
dimensions of this week begin, what we have come to know as the
spiritual dimensions of happiness: the eight great beatitudes of life.”
The first beatitude is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs
is the kingdom of God.” That can be translated to mean that people
should not live their lives perpetually seeking what they do not have.
But in our time, in our country, the beatitude instructs us to work to
understand what others need throughout the world and the excesses we
have that we do not need.
“Surely our own common good must have something to do with seeing at
the very least that our national goals do not make these other national
situations worse,” she wrote.
“ ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ It is
important that those living in the United States stop distancing
themselves from those living lives in poverty,” Chittister wrote. “It
consists of not allowing our own lives to deteriorate into a
self-centered sickness of the soul, choked by national narcissism.”
“ ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the Earth.’ That
beatitude calls on people across the world to be humble, to treat others
of all different countries, religions cultures, geographic locations
and economic means with respect and dignity,” Chittister wrote. “Mutual
respect links people across borders, and is a security far beyond
“ ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ When we
use the sins of another to treat them as less than human, it turns our
own errors into targets we wear for life,” Chittister wrote. The U.S.
will see that the torture inflicted on foreign men who were collected in
their homelands and held as prisoners will haunt the soul and identity
of our country, she wrote.
“On what grounds will we castigate those who ply the same trade on
American bodies to come? Is this our new common good?” Chittister wrote.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall
be satisfied.” Today, that beatitude requires that our citizens and
politicians take ownership of the decisions they make and the laws they
create. The beatitude calls on people to end prejudice to champion human
rights for every single human being no matter their race, gender,
sexual orientation or age, she wrote.
“Then the America that brought freedom and justice for all to a city
near you, to a country far away will rise again. A new Eden, a city on a
hill, a light for the people,” she wrote. “Until then, we must each of
us refuse to let go of standards that require an equalization of black
and white prison sentences, of rich and poor housing standards, of
minority and white healthcare, of inner city and white educational
“Blessed are the pure of heart, they shall see God.” Today, that
beatitude requires that people maintain their ideals throughout their
lives and everything they do and in the choices they make. The beatitude
means prioritizing the people and humanity of this country and
forsaking the wasteful arguments of ineffective partisanship, Chittister
“They are politicians who do not want to spend the patrimony of the
United States on becoming the Sparta of the modern world, armed to the
teeth, brutal in soul, deeply, deeply in need of art and music,
philosophy and culture,” Chittister wrote.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called sons of God.” The
beatitude calls on us to promote a culture that is not focused on the
maintenance of power, but the spread of peace. We must oppose war and
promote cooperation, she wrote.
The final beatitude is: “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for
justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The beatitude
tells us that we must defend justice and protect the humanity of the
poor and the oppressed, no matter what we face in opposition.
To build a common good we must follow those principles and
demonstrate the path that leads to the common good with our own
humanity, our own lives. If we do not fashion a common good in this day
in age, if we do not lead by example, a common good will never be
created, Chittister wrote.
“You and I, we are responsible for bringing it, the only question is:
Will we do our part of that process, or not?” Chittister wrote. “Listen
carefully this week, and ask yourselves what kind of common good you
are hearing. And then, dear, dear friends, for all our sakes, choose
well. So that we all may be truly, fully, eternally happy, forever — a
shining light, a city on a hill, a beacon of justice, truly a New
Jerusalem, to whom all nations flock for light and hope and happiness.”
Sister Joan Chittister
Joan Chittister is an internationally known writer and lecturer and the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality.
She currently serves as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, particularly in Israel and Palestine. She was an advisor for the groundbreaking report, A Woman’s Nation, led by Maria Shriver (2009) and was a member of the TED prize-sponsored Council of Sages, an interfaith group that developed a Charter for Compassion (2009) being promulgated worldwide with all faith organizations.
She was a keynote speaker at the Asia-Pacific Breakthrough: Women, Faith and Development Summit to End Global Poverty as well as the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia last December. She wrote the book Beyond Beijing: the next step for women, after attending the Fourth UN Conference of Women in Beijing (1995) and the book: Heart of Flesh: a feminist spirituality for men and women.