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The Transformation of Power for the Common Good

By Mayor Lynn Ashbeck

“This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good…for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.”
–John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407)

“Can anything get done in Washington?”

This is a daily refrain in headlines, in 140-character messages on Twitter, and from cynical pundits on Sunday morning news shows. But the ‘closer to home’ question for us here in the Valley is, “Can anything really be done to solve our community’s daily issues…much less move the needle on our most intractable problems in this place we all call home, or are we stuck with what we have?”

That question represents an opportunity for us as civic and religious leaders and elected officials to concretely explore the relationship between transformation, power and the common good. It is in that exploration that we encounter the more common behaviors in practice in communities across the Valley that are in conflict with those, including transaction, authority, and self-interest.

Though the answers are complex, our most basic leadership questions remain simple ones: How do we get from transactions to transformation? From authority to power? From self-interest to the common good? And how is it that in our civic and community governance we often seem to mistake one for the other?

In search of the common good

The common good is an idea fascinates me and its illusiveness in our region is both perplexing and damaging.

For centuries, theological scholars have written extensively about the notions of the ‘common good,’ ‘shared narratives,’ and ‘community.’ And in the generations before us, it is likely that these concepts had a more universal understanding.

As hunter-gatherers, community was a group of people not tied to a permanent space. In agrarian societies, community became tied to land and its members were residents with shared history, traditions, narratives, and common goals for the future. Citizens of those communities came to have faith in their social order and participated in community events, planning, plantings, and conversations. And it was out of this agrarian tradition that our valley communities developed their general understanding of rules and regulations, described by Hauerwas as the “consensus about what is necessary to ensure societal peace and survival.” [i]

So from those agrarian roots, what has happened to our local sense of societal peace and shared vision for the future?

More than two decades ago now, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s MediaLab spoke about a new, different era of community enabled by technology. He said, “neighborhoods in the world of atoms are a physical space, but neighborhoods in the world of bits and bytes are communities of shared ideas and beliefs where residents are not tied to place, but live in all corners of the globe united by an idea.”[ii]

And throughout history, no matter the era, the type of community, or stage of development of a community, the notion of the common good seems intrinsically tied to community success.

Jesus sought a sense of wholeness for communities through grace and his teachings about individual action. Mahatma Gandhi wrote at length about the need for man to behave in a way that advances the common good.[iii] He spoke of citizenship as affording people rights (not entitlements) and a duty to serve (not an expectation to be served). The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King noted the importance of defining a common purpose and using power to achieve that shared goal.[iv]

But how do local leaders today–with the diversity, economic pressures, and continuing divides in our communities —more effectively translate the importance of a common purpose and a shared story to our local work and our local challenges?
Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes that “the great crisis among us is the crisis of the common good, the sense of community solidarity that binds all in a common destiny—haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor… [but] there are powerful forces among us to resist the common good.” [v] Sociologists, theological scholars, and others speak of the fragmentation in our communities and world today. In perhaps the time of the greatest connectivity of humankind made possible through technology, likely far beyond what MIT’s Negroponte imagined, people may be more isolated than ever. Peter Block describes the “essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole.” [vi]

People often ask me to define “the Clovis way of life.” It dawned on me during that conversation one day that maybe the underlying significance of that expression is the idea that Clovis is a place where most folks still believe in, strive for, and operate within the ‘common good.’ It is a place where, because of the actions of generations of leaders before me, today’s residents still believe their individual voice will be heard and respected within the loud and often crowded chambers of government.

Brown street signs vs. green: nearly all of our region’s intractable problems can’t tell the difference.

There is much to be said for individual community pride, accomplishments, identity, high expectations, standards of performance, and competent local government systems. In Clovis, we are fiercely proud of our heritage, our community, our parks and trails, our schools, and our public safety – all reflected in our brown street signs that distinguish our community from the green street signs of Fresno. AND, we also know that no matter how well we do…or how well any city does, for that matter…we live in a larger region and within a larger context.

For the first time in nearly 40 years (based on the best memory of folks around both the Fresno and Clovis City Halls), the Clovis City Council and the Fresno City Council have held two joint meetings in 2014 to begin conversations about things we have in common….issues of the common good, if you will. Water. Jobs. Trails and parks. The results of these conversations may not be seen this month or next year. But, we are confident that through these shared discussions the color of street signs will actually matter less than a strong water infrastructure, an eventual 200-mile trail system through the metro area, and shared commitments to job creation that go beyond the traditional ‘zero-sum’ views that have long thrived in this region.

The 2006 passage of Measure C, our County’s transportation sales tax, is another good example of starting first with shared interests rather than arguing over positions about roads, trails or bike lanes. Through that process, a diverse group of stakeholders crafted a Measure C spending plan that ultimately was passed by nearly 80% of Fresno County voters. Imagine our surprise to learn that both bicyclists and truckers shared an interest in good roadways…the first of many ‘unlikely’ alliances formed throughout the process.

In my experience, an intentional and clear focus on shared interests rather than on seemingly intractable positions is the only approach that has ever worked to create the actions that begin transforming a neighborhood, a community, a region.

During the three years I worked at Fresno State, I would pass by a car each morning in the parking lot with this bumper sticker: “We all do better when we all do better.”

It probably isn’t much more complicated than that.

The language of community transformation makes a big difference.

The words we choose in communication matter. They matter to us. They matter to those who hear them. They matter to those who repeat them and learn from them. They matter when they match our actions…and perhaps even more when they don’t. And sometimes our words mean something very different to those who hear them and those who have spoken them.

There is more complexity to community beyond place and people. Brueggemann builds a case for the “fundamental social polarity of the Bible.” [vii] Since the Bible provides the basis for our Christian community, it occurs to me that a similar list of social polarities is likely to also be present in our local communities. (See inset to the left)

Every difficult Planning Commission or City Council issue I have experienced over the last 25 years has had some complicated combination of those polarities at work at the same time in the same room on the same issue. They can make for great newspaper headlines, create treacherous waters to navigate, present challenging situations for citizens …and provide the perfect venue to change the language of the community and practice peacemaking.

Dixon notes that sometimes, when we communicate, “words get in our way.” [viii] Schrock-Shenk reminds us that “our speech is laden with all we have accumulated from our histories, families, churches, and neighborhoods.” [ix]

So, as we explore the questions of transformation and power, it strikes me that a good place to begin may be to consider the words we choose.

The viewpoints of theologian John Howard Yoder and former US Senator and Episcopal priest John Danforth provide valuable perspective on the use of language and its impact on either transforming…or building walls…in our communities. Yoder reflected in his 1997 book, For the Nations: Essays Public & Evangelical,[x] that, “Open, true communication in place of the fabrication and management of information is a prerequisite of social health. Truth-telling as moral ultimate is rooted in Gods’ own nature. …we again see the need for what Jesus meant when…he simplified and sanctified words: ‘Let yes be yes, and no, no.’”

Danforth reflected that, “If politics is the art of compromise, certainty is not really politics. Reconciliation depends on acknowledging that God’s truth is greater than our own, that we cannot reduce it to any political platform we create, no matter how committed we are to that platform, and that God’s truth is large enough to accommodate the opinions of all kinds of people even those with whom we strongly disagree.” [xi]

Danforth also notes that “Christianity does not give us an agenda for American politics. It does not provide policy positions that we can identify with certainty as being Christian. What it does offer is an approach, a way of thinking about and engaging in politics, that while not issue specific, is highly relevant for our ability to live together as one nation [or one community] despite our strongly held differences.” [xii] He offers the twelfth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans as guidance for how to behave in civic and community life.

In this age of politics, technology, and instant communication, the lessons from James 1:19 …“let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”…and Ecclesiastes 6:11…”the more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?’ ring particularly true.

Authority and power: nothing about those big chairs makes you any smarter.

I have often observed folks running for office who, on Monday, are just like the rest of us but on Wednesday, after winning on Election Day, seem to believe they instantly have become much wiser. In my experience, elected officials simply sit in bigger chairs but there is nothing about those chairs that makes you any smarter than you were the day before.

The power of elected leaders…and of civic, faith-based and community leaders…is really found in the simple definition of the word. “Power” is defined as the “ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something” as well as the notion of “delegated authority; authority granted to a person or persons in a particular office or capacity.”

So, when any level of self-interest overrides a leader’s commitment to the common good, the very nature of servant leadership and of power and authority within a community is subverted. Given the structure of our current system and the many influential special interests, financial drivers and social advantages available to today’s leaders, perhaps it is no wonder that so much self-interest is being served at the expense of the good of the larger community.

When I consider the lessons on the use of power that are found in the Bible, it occurs to me that ‘power’ is often used more as a verb…that Jesus’ power comes more from his actions than his words and the strength of his lessons comes from the continuity between his words and his actions.

So it is in that interpretation that I believe we can use power to transform our communities, not exert some temporary or artificial authority over them.

Consider this from Ephesians 3:20: Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us… or the words from Timothy 1:7: For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control…or, finally, from 1 Corinthians 4:20: For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.”

All of history’s great peacemakers, including Gandhi, King and Andre Trocme, a Christian minister who sheltered hundreds of men, women and children in occupied France during World War II, shared the belief that their power was simply in acting for the common good…NOT in talking about it. That confusion so often characterizes the community decision-making process, and we need that reminder today.

From conflict to peacemaking…from transaction to transformation

Is the absence the conflict the same as the presence of peace? Much is written on this distinction between ‘negative peace’ (the absence of conflict through some sort of transaction) and ‘positive peace’ (sustainable peace in a transformed system). Clearly, there is a fundamental difference.

We are sometimes quick to settle a neighborhood dispute on issues like noise or land use… often without addressing the underlying causes that created the situation in the first place. Several years ago, we were quick to reduce the Fresno County mental health budget by several million dollars by closing a crisis stabilization unit…only to spend nearly twice the “savings” to send our Fresno County patients to other counties for care. We have been quick to dislocate a Hmong community garden but slow to understand the cultural value of that garden or to find suitable alternatives in another part of town.

Lessons learned

One lesson came from my mother, who used to ask me. “If you didn’t have time to do something right the first time, what makes you think I would have time to do it over again?” Transformation takes time…something that we, as elected officials and all of us as leaders, seem to have little of these days. But we make a mistake to not consider the ‘time’ we invest in continuing to solve the same problems over and over again…when, if we had only transformed the issue or problem or conflict in the first place, we likely would be having a different conversation today. Insidiously, the inability to solve fundamental community problems reinforces the ideas held by many that government cannot really do anything. As citizens trust government less, our sense of community becomes broken, so pursuing transformation has to be an absolute priority.

Maybe the most powerful lesson I have learned in twenty-five years of civic engagement is that most of the prisms we have been working through in our Valley have failed to create sustainable, safe, healthy communities that are respectful of individuals and champions of the common good. Which means that there has never been a more crucial time for peacemakers and those committed to community transformation to do their work.

But I am also struck by the writings of Jim Wallis on this subject, and, in particular, his recent book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. [xiii] As I reflect on these more contemporary writings paired with the stories from some of history’s most profound peacemakers, there are great lessons for those of us in search of transformation, effective use of power and the common good. Here are a few that seem appropriate for us in our context.

Turn “our profession of faith into the practice of it” (Wallis). [xiv] Tin other words, we should talk less, act more.

Create communities where the voices of those who are ‘least, last, and lost’ can be heard. At many City Council meetings over the years, there has been a resident who is unsure of the protocol…uncomfortable with their voice over a microphone…afraid for the future of their property…scared of a new land use coming to their neighborhood…angry that they have not been ‘heard.’ Giving them a safe space for their voice to be heard is as important…maybe more important…than the eventual outcome on a particular agenda item.

Create a compelling vision for the future. And stay with it. It takes generations to build a community and a series of short-term transactions, not carefully thought through, to erode one.
Be clear on the whole vs. the parts…and the means vs. the ends. That old adage, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,” applies to our communities. Be clear on the outcome and the distinctions between the means vs. the ends. People can tell the difference. Don’t settle for a transaction when true transformation is needed, possible, and within reach.

Focus on shared interests. Our best opportunities for solutions, transformation and moving our communities ahead lie in the interests we share, not in the positions we are unwilling to give up.

Ask the right questions. It is easy to solve the ‘wrong’ problem, celebrate the accomplishment…then wonder why things do not improve.

Words matter. Choose them carefully.

Expect outcomes. Our region has come to measure progress as grants received rather than outcomes achieved. As leaders, ask about outcomes. Expect them. We have more programs for obese kids and healthier neighborhoods, for example, and more obese kids and unhealthy neighborhoods. What are we missing? What might happen if we all ‘rowed together’ around some of these seemingly intractable issues? That would be an effective use of power.

Work locally. That is certainly the foundation of Jesus’ life and his work.

Honor traditions. Communities have narratives. Learn them. Pass them on.

Begin. Now…and with intention.

Today, it seems that the conversation in our Valley communities has shifted from ‘what is community’ to ‘what’s happened to our community” as we confront issues like infrastructure, housing, crime, jobs, and gangs.

As leaders–with a renewed focus on transformation and the common good and serving all segments of our communities– we can change the language we use, the behaviors we respond with, and the course of our neighborhoods, our communities and our Valley. Let us begin now.

[i] Hauerwas, Stanley (1983). The Peaceable Kingdom. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

[ii] Negroponte, Nicholas (1996). Being Digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[iii] Gandhi, M.K. (1957). Gandhi: An Autobiography—the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Boston: Beacon Press.

[iv] King, Jr., Martin Luther. (1968). Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press.

[v] Brueggemann, Walter (2001). Peace. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.

[vi] Block, Peter (2009). Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

[vii] Brueggemann, Walter (2010). Journey to the Common Good. Lexington, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[viii] Dixon, Maria. “The Words Get In the Way: the Paradox of Reconciliation.” Liturgy, Vol. 23 (4): pp. 3 – 9, 2008.

[ix] Schrock-Shenk, C. and L. Ressler (1999). Making Peace with Conflict: Practical Skills for Conflict Transformation. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

[x] Yoder, John Howard (1997). For the Nations: Essays Public & Evangelical. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[xi] Danforth, John (2006). Faith and Politics. New York: Viking Penguin Books.

[xii] Danforth, John (2006). Faith and Politics. New York: Viking Penguin Books.

[xiii] Wallis, Jim (2013). On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

[xiv] Wallis, Jim (2013). On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

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