The Common Good

March 5, 2010
Rabbi Sacks planting trees tu bishvat animated digging environment planting

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 5th March 2010

On Wednesday this week the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales issued a document called “Choosing the common good.” And it’s interesting, because at a time when our minds are focused on the general election, which can’t be far away, it speaks about the things that aren’t decided by elections, that can’t be legislated by governments, and yet they affect the very tone and texture of society and the quality of people’s lives.

Things like trust and compassion and generosity; the solidarity and courtesy we show as citizens; and the strength of our families and communities. These things are never decided by votes, and yet they make all the difference to the extent we feel supported by society or, to contrary, to which we feel vulnerable and alone.

It’s worth recalling that the word politics itself means two things, not one. There’s the sense in which we use it today, to describe parties, elections and who gets to form the next government, politics as the competition for power.

But there’s an older sense in which it has to do with the polis, the city, or what today we’d call society. And that’s less about competition than co-operation, less about power than about what holds us together through a sense of collective identity and shared fate. It’s what unites us regardless of the way we vote. It’s about the common good.

And that depends not just on governments but on us, all of us together. It lives in habits of the heart born in families, practiced in neighbourhoods, and renewed daily in unspectacular acts of kindness and help. If we lose these, no legislation in the world can put them back again.

That’s something Jews learned through the experience of living for almost 2,000 years as a minority often without civil rights. They survived through the sheer strength of their marriages, communities, welfare institutions, synagogues and schools. Even though they completely lacked political power, they had a polis in the second sense: a bond of belonging and mutual responsibility.

Religious communities and other groups do this all the time, without ever hitting the headlines: supporting families, building communities and speaking to the better angels of our nature. Politics works best when we remember the limits of politics. As Oliver Goldsmith put it: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!” The other part, the polis, is made by us daily every time we seek the common good.