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Crisis and the Common Good

In Search of the Common Good:
Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World.
By Jake Meador.
InterVarsity Press, pp. 200. $23.

Review by Jordan Hylden

In so many ways, the annus horribilis 2020 was an unveiling of deep and longstanding problems in the American social order. We have been through one crisis after another, revealing not underlying resilience but systemic unhealth.

In large part, what has been revealed is the fragility of a social order that maximizes economic capital at the expense of social capital, in its local and familial forms. We have become newly aware of deep inequities along old lines of race and class that cry out for justice; along with the increasingly obvious wounds we have inflicted upon the natural order, now literally ablaze. All in all, what has been revealed is what happens when a social order maximizes the freedom of the unbounded individual to live without the wise constraints and virtues that fit us for life together in families and communities, and place us as stewards within the natural world.

It is fair to say that we are in crisis. But to quote Karl Barth and Rahm Emanuel, one should “never let a good crisis go to waste.” What is needed now is serious and deep reflection on how we got to where we are, and how to begin reconstructing what has been lost.

Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World is one of the most insightful and thorough books I am aware of in service of this deep need. It was published just recently, and what strikes the reader now is how prescient and deep his book was.

Meador starts by describing the lamentably fractured and wounded state of American society, plagued as we are by rising “deaths of despair” (due to rising rates of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse); increasing economic hardship for the lower and middle classes alongside increasing riches for the few; sharp declines in the social capital that we have most often found in family, community life, and church; and increasing reports of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

Meador argues that all of this is connected at a deep level. It is, in a word, what happens when a social order no longer has what Augustine called “common objects of love,” other than the freedom of the individual. Instead of laboring together for a common good, we all are left to pursue our own private goods as individuals. Since we’re all on our own, those of us who fall behind have no one to rely on but ourselves. And since we have nothing larger than ourselves to work for and dedicate our lives to, we experience a loss of meaning in our work even as we find that our working hours crowd out everything else that might give our lives meaning.

Increasingly, we turn to the cheap thrills of distractions, entertainments, addictions, or political ideologies to give our lives the meaning and sense of belonging we lack. But these fail to fulfill us, and can often turn destructive and hateful as our desperation increases. Our hearts were made to love God and to love one another, and we find deep joy in fellowship with our Creator and our fellow creatures. When we place the love of self first, the “little platoons” of social life break down and we begin to experience the hell of being alone. That is where we have been headed as a social order for some time now, and it is why we increasingly feel desperate, lonesome, and vulnerable to any drug, charlatan, or ideology that offers us a moment’s solace.

Looking back now from the vantage point of post-2020 life, Meador’s book may not have said enough about how the absence of a common good makes us vulnerable to dangerous political ideologies and flim-flam artists who promise us the sense of meaning and belonging we lack. As a recent survey showed, over the past three years the willingness of Americans to use violence to achieve political goals has gone up from 8 to 33 percent. What Meador did see from the vantage point of 2019, however, is prescient enough.

Wisely, Meador’s proposal for social recovery doesn’t focus on public policies, political agendas, or teaching a more faithfully Christian worldview. Meador is not dismissive of such matters, but rightly recognizes that our common good deficit will not in the first place be solved that way. We face a deficit in our families, local communities, and churches, and the way forward must be a patient return to the practices that build them up.

Meador lifts up the practice of keeping Sabbath as crucial for renewing the common good of the church. Keeping Sabbath, he writes, reorients our relationship to time and the world of striving, making us recognize that all we have is a gift we receive from a gracious God. Keeping Sabbath teaches us to rely on God’s provision, not our own. Going to church sets us within the community of Christ, breaking us out of our individualism. There is no more powerful way to recognize that we are made for life together than by being placed in the midst of our brothers and sisters in Christ every Sunday, year in and year out.

Meador’s way of talking about renewing the common good of the family leans on what novelist Wendell Berry calls “the membership.” With Berry as a guide, Meador doesn’t fall into the trap of treating the family as something isolated from the wider community and the natural order. Instead, Meador presents the family as that which should connect us more deeply to both, as part of our membership in the household economy. “We see in the membership,” he writes, “a reminder that the world has an order to it, that we are part of that order, and that the order is far larger than we are.”

Whether married or celibate, Meador urges us to set aside the modernist view of family as mere private spaces of consumption, and embrace an older view of family that views it as a productive household economy embedded in the wider community, the passing on of life from one generation to the next, and stewardship of the natural world.

Finally, again taking a page from Berry, Meador urges us to renew our local communities by committing ourselves to good work done in our local economies, rather than engaging in forms of work and consumption that hollow out the local in favor of the abstract globalized economy. Such work, Meador argues, will be work that is not based in the mastery of abstract technique, but instead on developing excellence in a craft. His example — a delicious one! — is a barbeque pit master in South Carolina who has honed his craft over years in a labor of love. A chain restaurant might be more efficient, but when you eat there you could just as well be anyplace or noplace, and its economic returns are whisked out of the local community and into the hands of distant stockholders and executives. By contrast, there is only one Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, in Charleston, and it is part of what makes Charleston the magical and unique place it is.

Summing up, Meador’s vision is one that focuses on building back the solidarity of the various common goods of American life: families, local communities, and churches, in particular. Crucial to doing so, he argues, will be intentionally empowering and participating in the “little platoons” that are nearest to us, building back our depleted storehouses of social capital. Public and economic policy can indeed make a difference in this effort, as they can either continue to direct all of our capital (economic and social) to the global and the abstract, or can work to turn the tide back toward the local. Meador recommends a stronger doctrine of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty towards this end, and he is right to do so.

This will be the work of many years and many hands. That work will be done, if it will be done, most definitively by those who are deeply committed to the communities, families, and congregations where they are planted. For those committed to leading God’s church, Meador’s vision is deep wisdom for the hard work that lies ahead.


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