Common (adjective) 1. belonging equally to, or shared alike by, two or more
2. pertaining or belonging equally to an entire community, nation, or culture
3. joint; united --Random House Dictionary
Though we as a nation have caught our collective breath after the ugly political brawl in Washington over the debt-ceiling, don’t get too comfy just yet. Round II looms large, with a November 23rd deadline. By that day the 12 member bi-partisan Congressional Super Committee is supposed to agree upon a formula of spending cuts and tax increases to slice $1.2 trillion from the federal budget, or automatic cuts of the same amount will kick in. There’s even a Round III, as the 2012 Presidential campaign begins. Yes, THEY’RE BAAAAACK!
At the heart of this argument/fight/standoff is one basic question. What is the responsibility of individual citizens towards each other, in this community called the United States, and through this human made institution called “government”? You can ask that philosophical query in other ways. Who matters more: the individual or the collective? What matters more in civic life: rights or responsibilities? Is it government’s role to provide an unfettered environment for individual achievement and in doing so, benefit the whole? Is it government’s role to undertake and finance collective works to benefit the many? Should we tax more and cut less or cut more and tax less? When we do spend too much, who pays the bill?
All these question come down to one conundrum, what “in common” really means. After all politics is the coming together of people in common to determine what is best for the people. That’s what faith always seeks too: this noble ideal called “the common good” and the hope that we will work together to achieve the most good for the most people. Faith does add one caveat. Don’t ever forget the most vulnerable in all these calculations: the poor, the old, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. These are the ones who almost always have no lobbyists or folks in power to speak up for them.
I think this “common” debate, which will surely intensify in the year ahead, is a rich one. It gives Americans the opportunity to consider again just what it means to be “in common” with each other. That’s a perpetual discussion in our 235 year history. Asking just what “E Pluribus Unum” (“from many one”) stands for. Hearing again the preamble, “We the people”. Claiming a common nation to call home. And in 2012 struggling to come together and find a way to govern this amazing amalgam of 312 million folks. The stakes are enormous. Our future awaits. The world is watching. God is too, I think.
It’s a beautifully elegant and clear word, “common”. It’s prefix, “com” means “with” or “together”. It births many other profound words: community, comity (meaning civility), commitment, compassion, commonwealth, and complete. We already know how key the notion of “in common” is to life itself. What is a family, a church, a neighborhood, a town, a city, a world without such commonality, common ties, common hopes and dreams and interests?
So my one hope for all of us, as this national dialogue ensues, is that we will somehow come to reaffirm that in spite of all our civic fault lines, we are one. There’s got to be something more than politics, geography, religion, race, demography, education, language, culture or class to bind us together and keep us in common. We’re always quick to pay lip service to this cliché of national community in our pledges and patriotic hymns and flag pins, but do we really believe it? Are we the United States of America? Are we in common with our neighbor and the stranger? Or are we so far apart, that this commonality and the hope of unity elude us?
There are no quick or easy answers to these difficult communal questions. None of our present political leaders or the Presidential wannabes has arrived at a solution yet, all their claims aside. But maybe right now, we can thank God that we are having such a spirited and important debate. For it truly goes right to the heart of who we are and how we understand ourselves as a people.
How fitting as well that our discussion takes place in the shadow of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Remember that day? There was absolutely no doubt on that awe-ful September morning that we were one. Seems so long ago.
Will we be “in common”? I pray “Yes!” But this is not just up to you or me. It’s up to us, all of us, in common.