lenten journal: common good


I picked up David Whyte’s Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words to begin my morning reading. This time through, I am reading one word–that is, one essay about a word–a day. Each one is so rich that I think I could probably reread them for a week, but for now I’ll read one a day.

Today’s word was ambition. Here is part of what he had to say:

Ambition left to itself, like a Rupert Murdoch, always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies and, enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place.

If you need a more contemporary example than Murdoch, I point to the White House tweet on Monday that said the television ratings for Trump’s daily briefings were larger than those for The Bachelor finale. Tedious. Stories continue about FEMA fully supplying only the states whose governors have been nice to Trump. Larger and larger empires of control.

By contrast, we have friends who are in Spain and have been providing daily updates of what is going on there. Here is their update from this morning.

A third set of emergency economic measures was decreed by the government in its daily briefing today. Among them:

Starting today, freelancers, self-employed people, day laborers, migrant workers, domestic workers (house cleaners, for example), and gig workers in Spain will be treated like salaried workers for the purpose of receiving benefits they are not always entitled to. The payment of self- employment taxes is also deferred without interest charges until after the emergency ends.

Moreover, these workers will be able to get zero interest loans to pay their rent during the official confinement period. The loans will have a 6 –year repayment window. If they are unable to repay in 6, the loan will be restructured and 4 more years added to the repayment period. If after ten years they are still unable to repay the loan, the government will “eat” it.

Additionally, no one may be evicted during the emergency, and landlords may not raise rents. Small landlords who own only one or two rental units will not lose money: the government will compensate them, in part by dunning large real estate and development corporations.

Note: Spain has a Constitutional guarantee of “vivienda digna”–dignified housing. The government spokesperson made a point of reminding the citizenry of that commitment. She also said, “If we are requiring people to stay home, we need to be sure they have homes to stay in.”

“Patriotism,” said Vice-President Pablo Iglesias later in the briefing, “is defending the common good, and especially the most vulnerable.”

The other book I am reading Miguel De La Torre’s Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity, who points out:

The basic thesis of Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations is that individuals should be allowed and encouraged to pursue self-interests. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” By doing so, all society will benefit, says Smith. But for those who are Christians, the Gospels teach us to place the needs and interests of others before our own. Hence an internal contradiction and an irreconcilable difference exist between capitalism and Christianity.

I know capitalism and socialism are semantic bombshells. I want to move past isms. Watching the rich get richer in the “relief package” makes me realize–again–that we are not a society built to be capable of taking care of those who are most in need. We are driven, even defined, by our self-interest and individualism. (Oops. Another ism.) Spain can do what they are doing because they have a society built for it. They even have names for what they are doing, a vocabulary they can live into: vivienda digna–dignified housing. I am quite sure their system is not perfect, but it is compassionate. We have named social security and welfare as entitlements–without irony.

Our national obsession with wealth and progress has made us the richest empire in the world and yet we do not have a functioning health care system that can take care of everyone. We export food all over the world and yet the biggest crisis when we closed schools was how many children would go without food because school was the only place they knew they could get a meal.

On a human level, not all of those who own businesses do so out of self-interest. Many are committed to the common good as they seek to make a living. Palumbo’s Automotive here in Guilford bought gift cards from restaurants here in town and then advertised that they would give them to those who scheduled service for their automobiles. They also go get the cars, clean them, and return them so the customers do not have to go out. Ninth Street Bakery in Durham, North Carolina posted on their Facebook page that they would feed anyone who came by, regardless of how much they could pay. These and many others are folks whose broken hearts remind them that their vocation is people, not profit.

I wish our national experience with Covid-19 would bring a true rebellion; a profound change. But four hundred years of colonial and capitalistic ambition are not going to die easily. Perhaps we do better to notice those around us who are living their life’s vocation for the common good and support them. Be them. Start the revolution from the ground up.

Working for the common good is the only way through this thing. Through any thing.



  1. Another commentary that stirs my soul and makes me reflect on the many excesses in our society. Thank you, Milton.

  2. “Well I never been to Spain…”

    Will go one day, though. We need to write a song about vivienda digna, too.

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