The Great Fire of London – 1666 (anon)
Before 1666 fire brigades were run the same way that we run insurance today. Houses that paid the monthly premium would be provided with fire engines in the unfortunate event that a fire should break out. Uninsured properties would be left to burn.
And then there was a fire. A big fire. The great fire of London. Suddenly it was obvious…if my house is covered by fire brigade insurance but the houses either side of mine, and physically attached to mine, are allowed to go up in flames, that’s not going to work out too well for any of us!
Suddenly it was recognized that a fire service is a common good. The folly of “self reliance” in an area that is a societal need was suddenly exposed. It was after 1666 that Britain’s fire service was municipalized.
There are many things our tax dollars can generate which are to our common good. I happen to think that I benefit from living in an educated society. I believe it is to my benefit to live in a healthy society. It is not too hard to imagine if a large number in my town become unwell or incapacitated and unable to work through some serious sickness that this might come to have an impact on me and my family. What benefits all benefits me.
It is by this logic that we have municipal, federal or socialised sewerage, transport infrastructure, education, and fire brigades. There are times when, through raising and spending tax revenue, society needs to lift together! This is society. Society requires of us and offers us to live in symbiosis. The only question is whether or not we will do it well.
In a society every member benefits from the specialisations within that society. I depend on others for engineering, medicine, education, technology etc. Allowing civil engineers to become experts at what they do, and medics to become experts at what they do is something of benefit to all. Furthermore it is obvious that the role in society of a man in his prime will be different to the role of a pregnant women; different to the role of a baby; different to the role of a grandmother; different to the role of a sick person. Are not all important and valuable? Doesn’t a society need to embrace all?
Society is all about symbiosis – a Greek word that simply means “life together.” Throughout the OT and NT is it not consistently stated that the measure of a society can be found in how the weakest and most vulnerable are treated?!
J.F.Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I fully appreciate the enterprising spirit that those words were meant to engender but what is “your country” if it is not “we the people”?!
What I mean is that by tax and national insurance we the people, each according to our ability, keep the country going when otherwise it could not. When we the people, through illness, accident or retrenchment (ie through no fault of our own) find ourselves unable, then the country keeps us going.
Through raising and spending tax revenue were are able to achieve together what we cannot achieve as individuals. That is the social contract and the benefit of a civilized society.
A friend of mine was asked at a dinner party – in LA I think it was – what he thought of the principle of a public health service. His answer was very simple. “Because we live in a society the fact is we wil always find ourselves taxed. The question is about what we are going to use those taxes for? If those taxes can be used to help rather than harm, that has to be to the good.” Simply put. However the response around the table was icy silence. His hosts were adherents to a different political view.
I have been amazed to note how many Christian believers – particularly in the U.S. – assert this other political view. I see it on a lot of FB profiles! It is called “Self-reliance” – which sounds kind of virtuous if you put it that way. However, the ethic of “self reliance” may seem fine to an employed person in their prime. But it is really a way of saying “I do not believe in society”, “I believe in me and my family. As for everyone else they can sink or swim” “I do not believe I owe anybody anything – and least of all to anyone who is elderly or sick.”
But we all owe. We owe our parents, our teachers, our engineers, our farmers, our doctors and nurses, our veterans, our sick and elderly. Language that divides society into so-called “leaners” and “lifters”- such as was recently invoked by Tony Abbott’s government in Australian public debate – demeans the elderly or sick, or those currently in need. It completely fails to recognize our interdependence. It ignores the simple fact that the changes and chances of life can take any person through different seasons – seasons in which they are the needy and other seasons in which they are the needed. Where would the moral sense be in calling defense force personnel “lifters” when they are in combat and “leaners” if they come home damaged or injured? And that is just one illustration of the changes and chances that any life can include.
For each one of us our respective place and contribution will shift – for most of us – many times through a lifetime. This is one of the reasons human beings are societal animals. We each need and depend on society. We each contribute in a multiplicity of ways. And we each owe one another!
Jesus came and brought teaching not for churches only…
In the final analysis Matthew 25 was not taught for practice within churches only. These are words that openly unpack the symbiosis by which we are to live together. The prophet Jeremiah taught us to pray for the places where we live “because your well-being and the well-being of all in your village/town/city/country are connected.” That’s a powerful insight. That is why I find value in the language of “Common Good.” For me it is an obvious and still powerful driver. For me it is something worth aspiring to – the good of a happy and healthy society.