Off the Bench: Aiming for the balance of the common good

Whatever became of the common good? Is it just that there are too many special interests and not enough shared responsibilities? Are efforts to achieve a balance being overwhelmed by entitlement, greed, and overriding self-interest? Balance is a goal that requires insight, understanding, sacrifice, and good judgment, qualities that often seem to be lacking among those charged with the responsibility to maintain social equilibrium.

Balance is an elusive objective due to the many variables that must be considered in governance, some more prominent than others but each with its own constituency demanding action, one constituency competing with another for attention and limited resources. Achieving balance in one sector often involves depriving another. A dynamic concept, balance requires constant monitoring and an awareness of the need for continuing adjustments.

Each special need impacts another. Protecting one group is viewed as encroaching upon the rights of another. Attention given to one is seen as ignoring another. Adding to the mix the inevitable self-interest of those in power further complicates the balancing act so necessary in maintaining a healthy democracy.

Cause and effect also play important roles in balancing efforts. Responding to a cause may obscure harmful effects not readily apparent at the time. Balance requires analysis of the impact of policy and the less apparent adverse consequences that may flow from what at the time appears to be a sensible response to a problem. For example, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and, closer to home, the “war on drugs,” all of which had adverse consequences well beyond the perceived benefits.

Police reform is a good thing as it applies to recruitment, training, and some practices, but it goes too far when it calls for defunding the police, discourages good candidates from applying, and affects morale to the point where officers stop making arrests. Achieving balance sometimes requires extreme measures as seen in the civil rights movement, but the effort more often responds to moderation, incremental progress, and trial and error rather than radical change. I remain skeptical of achieving lasting solutions. Making things better, more often than not, is the most we can hope for.

“Love thy neighbor” is the most radical command one can receive because in doing so we must give something of ourselves. How do we balance that? It is not easy, particularly knowing how weak and self-centered we tend to be. Is donating money enough? Is being kind and thoughtful enough? Is telling ourselves how generous and caring we are enough? No! First, we must come to grips with the question: Who is our neighbor?. The simple and correct answer is “everybody.” But how can I love everyone?

Beyond personal acts of kindness, there is a commitment to the common good. Supporting policies that advance social and economic justice. Understanding that not everyone had the benefits you have and which you did not merit. God does not love you more because he gave you much. He only expects more of you. He loves the poor, the displaced, the sick, and the imprisoned more because he gave them less. You are there to try to strike a balance by caring, by giving of yourself and your belongings to those less fortunate. It is in that way you show your love for your neighbor. He needs it more than you and you need to give it for in so doing you are giving it to God.

Human nature is obstinate.
It does not welcome change.
Particularly that which challenges,
Perceived interests and status.
It resists what is transformational.
The Civil War was such a change,
Slavery was abolished.
But remnants persist,
Even after 150 years.

It is not in victory we prevail.
For within each victory,
There are seeds of further strife.
It is in the striving we succeed.
Bending the “arc of history toward justice”
Is slow, gradual, and frustrating.
But, given human nature,
It may be all we can achieve.
The quest remains, now carry on!

– JWD