I am going to end up at the stop sign above in a minute. But I am going to start by listening in as the elites have a belated chat about ethics.
Some academics are talking about the “meritocracy” — the idea that people rise and should rise to the optimum level of their value in the system. That is supposedly how things work in a capitalist democracy from being accepted to college to being promoted on the job.
What became of the common good?
The debate about whether meritocracy is a real thing (or moral if it is) mainly comes down to assessing what people think freedom means. Americans have a long infatuation with the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, just “doing your own thing” [Theme song] as long as you “do no harm.” But they are waking up to the reality that such freedom is directly related to the lack of solidarity in American society. It has occurred to many people (long about when the Capitol was being stormed, perhaps) that a society with no shared ideals or mutual affection isn’t the happy place they once assumed it would be. If people think freedom means independence at any cost rather than a sense of worth and connection that allows for self-determination, we are in trouble. And we are in trouble.
I was there for the cultural revolution of the 1960s that spawned identity politics. I decided to follow Jesus so I have endured the increasing hostility to religion since then. I became untraditional, so I had to note how I added to the general contempt for tradition. I’ve lamented the market deregulation that created a whole layer of entrepreneur cowboys and megarich predators (I admit learning a lot from them). All these factors, combined with Reagonomics (which beget Trumponomics), legitimated greed, widened inequality and encouraged Americans to forget their collective identity. And all this development was certainly a shot at Jesus, who had been tempering the godless instincts of the country all along.
So I am happy I ran into Marty Moss-Coane interviewing Michael J. Sandel about his new book: The Tyranny of Merit: What Became of the Common Good?. I always love it when elitists catch up with Jesus. The gist of the book is in his Ted Talk video below. But here it is in a few sentences.
We live in an age of winners and losers, where the odds are stacked in favor of the already fortunate. Stalled social mobility and entrenched inequality give the lie to the American credo that “you can make it if you try.” The consequence is a brew of anger and frustration that has fueled populist protest and extreme polarization, and led to deep distrust of both government and our fellow citizens–leaving us morally unprepared to face the profound challenges of our time.
If Sandel were speaking as a Jesus-follower his book would be great preaching. He’s focusing on truths which much of the church has forgotten along with much of the society. But these truths have been in the Bible all along.
You have value as yourself
You are not what you produce or whatever fame or notoriety you achieve. You are not worth what your bank account or economic rung on the long climb up the stratospheric ladder toward the 1% might imply.
My clients need to be instructed never to look up “celebrity worth” on Google. Otherwise they might find out that Mark Wahlberg is worth $300 million while they can’t afford a new phone. Moreso, they need a constant push to turn away from the voices in their heads that accuse them of being of no value. Christians, especially would do well to consider it a sin to feel unworthy of the Lord’s free gift of life and grace, as if Jesus were stupid to die for them.
You do your work for the common good
Dr. King famously said the refuse workers in Memphis were just as important as doctors in the prevention of disease. Our newly-named “essential workers” are not paid like they are essential but we are at least recognizing that the whole ship goes down if they don’t make it float. We all help build whatever there is, or we are in the process of tearing it down.
In the church, that must be one of the top ten pieces of truth that make us the salt of the earth. The gifts of the Spirit are given for the common good and every part of the body of Christ is indispensably worthwhile. We need each other.
You did not get where you are because you deserve it.
When we are all autonomous, we are each condemned to make it on our own. Many of my clients are so condemned. Their parents did not want to bother their uniqueness by influencing them too much or even parenting them. They come to me as free-range children. Or their parents made it plain that it was crucial that they live up to their potential and rise to the top like the cream of the crop they are: “You can make it if you just believe and keep trying.” Now they are failures or fakers to the core. How many TV ads tell us we need some shampoo or Cadillac because we deserve it? Most of us know that is not true, but we go with it anyway because that is common sense to Americans.
In the church many people let the elite run the place because that’s what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes they feel unworthy to speak — won’t talk to the pastor because “They are probably too busy.” Or they won’t get involved because it would take them too much time to be important and they can leave it to someone better suited. So even in the new, pluralistic, untraditional churches (like Circle of Hope) the idea of meritocracy organizes us and people feel the need to honor success.
I’m not saying there is no value in monitoring whether we meet our goals; I’m just saying we must not monitor them in service to shame or fear based on some strange sense born in the godless “economy.” Anything we might call success is a gift of God like everything else; and any goodness I enact is just a fraction of who I might become in Christ.
Our better angels
The other day I was nearly hit in the crosswalk while I was on the last leg of my please-get-me-out-of-the-house walk (I’ll be looking like Marky Mark in no time!). After I was not hit, it hit me. Abraham Lincoln has been quoted to death recently for a good reason. Just like Lincoln, Joe Biden is talking about the common good all the time. Barack Obama liked to talk about the rule of law. Donald Trump liked to talk about Donald Trump. But Biden is a breath of fresh air to me because he thinks Americans can build something together and take care of each other.
If Biden is wrong, that’s the right way to be wrong. He even has the Chinese talking about our mutual “better angels.” The reason you stop at the stop sign isn’t because the police are going to catch you if you don’t or because you need to dominate the intersection instead of those other losers. Stopping is always a nod to the common good right there in the middle. We all pass through it and leave it safe and sound — or wreck it (and squash me!). Stop signs assume people are decent enough to stop at them. I may run a few of them before I am done. But I dare not forget that such an act runs over the common good when I do.
The meritocracy, while being a sham in reality, has a thin layer of logic to it covering a core of self-condemnation waiting to be realized. The Apostle Paul realized the great merit he had achieved as a law-keeping Jew had no value; it was his partnership with Jesus that made him someone. Any merit we have will eternally start there. Any difference we make will start with acting out our common love in Christ for the common good.