“Do either of you agree with the proposition that Mother Teresa is issuing hate speech?” That was the question Ted Cruz recently asked of Twitter and Facebook executives during an open hearing on the Senate floor. It’s an odd question to ask of a woman who dedicated her life to the service of the weak, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.
And yet, days earlier, Twitter had indeed taken down a quote from Mother Teresa for violating their terms and conditions. The tweet in question was to do with the victims of abortion: “Abortion is profoundly anti-women. Three quarters of its victims are women: Half the babies and all the mothers.”
It’s a popular axiom nowadays to insist that Christians wouldn’t have such a bad rap in the world if we were only more concerned with promoting “the common good” than with protecting our own self-interest. To be fair, I’ve made such arguments myself. In a recent lecture on cultural leadership, I referenced the best description of leadership of which I know: “Leadership does not begin with title or position,” Says Andy Crouch, “it begins the moment you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than your own.”
If Christians are called to lead—and make no mistake, we are—then we mustn’t become just another in a long list of self-interest groups. The love of Christ bids us to seek the wellbeing of others, even our enemies, before seeking our own. The classic line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is still worthy of deep reflection: “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
In short, I don’t question the idea that the church should be working toward the common good—again, it of course should—what I question is whether or not such works will spare us the ire of the watching world.
In a post-Christian world, the common good won’t seem so common. Take, for example, the life of William Wilberforce. His colleagues and friends viewed him as an obnoxious gadfly, someone intent on bringing economic and social harm upon them. They were right, of course. Wilberforce’s crusade to end the slave trade did indeed have adverse effects on his friends in the trade. Yet, he understood that the common good includes all God’s children, not just the vocal and powerful.
If there’s anything Modernity has taught us, it’s that the Christian understanding of the good can’t be fully realized apart from the Christian understanding of God. Those values we’d previously assumed to be universal and “self-evident,” it turns out, flow from a very specific worldview, one in which there is a God, revealed in Jesus the Nazarene, and man is made in His image.
Insofar as Modernity continues to distance itself from a classical, biblical anthropology, that which we call “the common good” will increasingly come to be seen as arcane, bigoted, and repressive. “When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are,” insists Alan Jacobs, “it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.” As the new vision of justice takes preeminence in our society, the old idea of good can only be vilified.
Mother Teresa used to insist that she was a tiny pencil in the hand of God, and that God was writing a love letter to the world with her life. It was a beautiful sentiment, but the silence offered by the executives of Facebook and Twitter suggest they didn’t get the message. Their silence, and all that it represents, is disheartening.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of a society that called evil good and good evil, who mistook darkness for light and light for darkness, who thought bitter was sweet and sweet was bitter. In such a time as that, in such a time as this, the common good will seem anything but common or good.
And yet, I don’t think Mother Teresa would’ve been as discouraged by the executive’s silence as I was. “The success of love is in the loving,” she used to say, “it is not in the result of loving. It is natural in love to want the best for the other person, but whether it turns out that way or not does not determine the value of what we have done.”