Common Grace, Common Ground, and the Common Good (Part 2)

Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) ignited a non-violent civil rights movement based on Jesus’s command to love your enemy. At least that’s what most people think. Jesus’s command, however, provided only half of the ethical basis for this world-changing peacemaking effort. King’s belief in the “image of God” (common grace) provided the other building block.

“For King, everybody was somebody because everybody was a child of God made in the image of God” (Martin Luther King Jr. and the Image of God p.28). King explains in his book, Strength to Love, “We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy (p. 45)."

The concept of the image of God provided MLK a natural bridge to engage those who hindered the cause of justice. He refused to villainize anyone. Common grace was not just some nice theological truth to believe, but rather a foundational ethical basis for engaging with the “other.” And MLK built his movement on that common ground.

Paul the apostle provides a great New Testament example of common grace and common ground, though he focused on evangelism rather than peacemaking:

"Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:22-23).'"

Paul points to the altar to an unknown God as common ground. Rather than attacking their religion, he recognized people’s longings for God within their religion. He found a point of contact.

"For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring (Acts 17:28).'"

"Even one of their own prophets has said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith (Titus 1:12-13)."

Paul courageously quotes Greek poets as a bridge to explaining the good news to the people of Athens. Paul quotes a Greek "prophet" to strengthen his ethical argument to the people of Crete. For Paul, all truth is God’s truth. Common grace gives us common ground.

But there is one more indispensable key to peacemaking: seeking the common good. For the first 35 years of my walk with Jesus, I never even heard, let alone used, the term “the common good!” Like many other evangelicals, I suffered from a huge blind spot in my theology and practice. I am embarrassed to say that my Christian faith was much more about words than it was about deeds.

Seeking the common good is another way of talking about doing justice and pursuing peace. It describes how personal faith intersects with public life. The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good describes it as seeking “to engage religious, ecnonomic, cultural and political institutions… to articulate and embody the love and justice of Jesus Christ for the well-being of God’s world.” 

God commands us to seek the common good of everyone.

"Seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare (shalom) you will have welfare (shalom) (Jeremiah 29:7)."

"You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14, 16)."

"In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12)."

"Always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people (1 Thessalonians 5:15)."

True followers of Christ are concerned about human flourishing for all. I love the way Miroslav Volf speaks about this in his book, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. “To be engaged in the world well, Christians will have to keep one thing at the forefront of their attention: the relationship between God and a vision of human flourishing (p. 54)."

Followers of Christ, however, should not just seek to obey these commands by themselves, but rather in partnership with the government, businesses, non-profit organizations, people of different faiths, and those with no faith at all. There are MANY areas where we can work together. We can cooperate without compromise (see Timothy Keller’s Generous Justice, chapter seven: “Doing Justice in the Public Square”). Seeking the common good in this way pleases God and multiplies our impact. It also enhances our witness. Good deeds lead to goodwill, which opens the door for the good news.

Common grace, common ground, and the common good are three indispensable keys for peacemakers that help us build bridges for peace, partner for human flourishing, and bear witness with authenticity!

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2 Comments

Marty Boller on February 18th, 2012 at 9:46am

GREAT STUFF. Finding the 'common good' is a lost art in our increasingly divided world. In our culture where reality TV, tough talk, and an independent spirit reigns, those who can, like MLK, find the 'common good' in all men & women are the 'blessed peacemakers' Jesus refers to in the first century.

David W. Shenk on February 17th, 2012 at 11:51pm

A very insightful essay. A couple further comments. It seems to me that Paul linked peacemaking with evangelism. Ephesians 2:11-22 or 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2 or Romans 12:9-21.

I occasionally ponder the shift in Paul's emphasis after his sermon in Athens. From there he goes to Corinth and writes that he determined to proclaim the centrality of Christ crucified. Is it posible that after the minimal response in Athens he came to a deeper realization that only Christ crucified and risen goes to the root of the matter -- only in the cross and resurrection to we meet the anecdote for sin.