Is The American Dream A Christian Nightmare?
By Rev. Paul J. Bern
The American Dream has at its core an escape from the real world to build a personalized utopia, a custom-made fantasy island of sorts. When we were taught to pursue this dream when we were growing up, we were told that if we work hard and diligently enough, we’ll be able to make enough money to buy a house in the right neighborhood so our kids go to the right schools, and buy enough stuff so as to please ourselves and shut out the rest of the world. But the house and our neighborhood are not the only part of our island. Our cars give us the power to choose almost everything such as where our work, houses, churches, and friends can be. Our cars allow us to escape what we don’t like about the neighborhoods we must sometimes live in.
If that is not enough, our TVs and our Internet connections allow us to filter out whatever else could intrude on us. And it is not that we need help to filter out what is unpleasant. The media does that for us already – testified to by those who are from other countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Israel/Gaza. Our media protects us from the real life negative stories about what our country and corporations do to others. In lieu of the unpleasant truth, our media reports only that which does not interfere with our consumption of their sponsors’ products. And out of that small selection that is left from all of this filtering, we use the remote to choose shows based on how they make us feel. What a dumb life this is!
Greater Christianity sees this isolation by its secular fellow Americans as an affirmation of his own similarly withdrawn theology. For example, I rarely see any articles or postings that calls into question the extreme immorality of waging war. Rather, their articles, Christian books and TV shows are concerned with fine theological points, evangelical efforts, how to run church services, all about miracles real or imagined or engineered, and all the while oftentimes overemphasizing fund raising. But it is not just the articles that are printed in our literature that show how we distance ourselves, but we use our gospel of individual salvation to shut out what is disturbing. We so reduce our standing before God to the current state of our inner self and beliefs that we become hyper vigilant over ourselves while ignoring the needs of others. As a result, we become agitated and even panicked when the concerns of the world ask for our time. And it isn’t just the negativity of the news that disturbs us, it is its complexity. Since things are simple when we only have to care for ourselves, we prefer to pay as little attention as possible to others. The Bible says. “we have the mind of Christ”, but some Christians aren’t acting like it.
And when we do see and respond to the suffering of others, it is only to a chosen few fellow Christians or to those whom we cannot avoid. But such an approach to helping others goes against what the Bible teaches. Isaiah chapters 58 to 59 and Jeremiah 22:16 (“He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all went well. ‘Is that not what it means to know me’, says the Lord?”) closely tie helping those in need with having seen the light. Likewise, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats not only taught that those who helped others in need were the sheep who received eternal life, it also showed that those who neglected the needy were banished from heaven. He also demonstrated this latter principle in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In His parable of the rich man, who built extra barns to hold the excess of his harvest and told himself to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow he could die – well, sure enough, he did. He begged Lazarus from the fires of hell to give him just one drop of cool water, but Lazarus could not. Last in my list is the book of Proverbs, containing such tasty nuggets of wisdom such as, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (chapter 14, verse 31), and “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor, and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them” (chapter 22, verses 22-23).
But perhaps the most pathetic way that Christians remove themselves from the world is by blindly submitting to authority. It is not that Christians are not called to submit to those in authority – quite the contrary! But many of today’s Christians do so as a way of shielding themselves from the risks that come with confronting evil, such as intimidation due to possible bodily harm, rather than from punishment. Submission to authority, then, is sometimes practiced not in order to love God and others, but to secure for oneself the kind of world that is most comfortable, if not lovable. And so when evil prevails in either the private or public sector, this legitimate command to submit to the authorities is used to hide oneself, as Jonah tried to do, from the mandate to preach the Gospel. But not only are we negligent in our Christian duty when we fail to confront those who abuse their power, we also become complicit in their evil ways. And we do so in order to ride on the coattails of evil and power rather than risk any reprisal for challenging it.
Martin Luther King faced this very dilemma when he stood up to the legalized racism and racial hatred that was rampant in the American South. He wanted to honor and follow the commandment in Romans 13 that told him to submit to the authorities. At the same time, he knew that many authorities were enforcing unjust laws while allowing abuse and even terrorism. He could have submitted and just gone along with the status quo and he would have avoided making himself a target. But that would have been the coward’s way out! For if he was quiet, then others would continue to suffer horribly. So King concluded that he could meet both responsibilities by using respectful dissent and peaceful protest. When arrested, he made no effort to resist. He did not challenge the authority of the police, but he did challenge the validity of unjust laws and the society that profited from that authority.
Finally, there is still an even greater escape from our responsibilities to the world that many Christians use and I don’t mean belief in the Rapture, either. That theological withdrawal consists of relying solely on prayer to confront the sins of the status quo. It isn’t that prayer should be forsaken; I firmly believe that prayer is vitally important. But prayer without actions can be dead, especially when we pass over opportunities to speak out against evil or to render aid to someone in need. People like that behave that way to cover a whole host of emotions that are based on fear and apathy. While neglecting the suffering of others, we say to them that we care but our lack of actions show otherwise. There is no excuse in God’s sight to fail to defend those who are being oppressed when we are strong enough to do so. The apostle Paul wrote, “Faith without works is dead”, and it’s even more true today than when those words were written 2,000 years ago. Private acts of charity must be done in conjunction with preaching the Gospel. I aspire to the same by putting up this website.
There is a Biblical reason why the American Dream is so desirable to Christians. It is because we see the American Dream as the Garden of Eden restored and thus it’s our Christian duty to enjoy. In fact, some think that the purpose of God’s Word is to make Paradise accessible again, not understanding that we who call upon the name of the Lord are destined for a Paradise that will put the Garden of Eden to shame. Such Christians argue that basing one’s life on God’s Word is like following the right blueprints when constructing a building, and they have a point. The more we follow God’s Word, the more we can avoid the hazards of sin. But the big question becomes, did God give us His word to return us to the Garden or to help us through the wilderness? But before answering that question, we must understand why would Jesus commanded us to collect our treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and why the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us we are to look for a new home to come rather than a home here.
To believe that God’s Word tells us how to regain Paradise is inaccurate, to put it nicely. By the same token, the real attraction to the American Dream isn’t the opportunity to restore what was lost but to worship what can be found – the twin false gods of money and materialism. The American Dream is a monasticism with benefits. Its preachers assure us that we can be righteously selfish. The “prosperity gospel” is taught in churches like a canned sales pitch, and is gleefully and mistakenly received as truth by the gullible. It allows us to flee from what is unpleasant and distasteful in the world while enjoying its corruptible fruit. This makes America a trap for 21st century Christians. For when we try to take what we want instead of waiting on God, we become deaf and blind to both the world God wants us to share His love with, as well as our own depleted spiritual conditions.
My conclusion, then, is to reject materialism and the pursuit of economic gain! Jesus said, “One cannot serve two masters. He/she will either love one and despise the other, or cling to one while rejecting the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon (materialism)”. Choose today whom or what you will serve in life. You can either pursue wealth and material goods, or you can pursue a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and all that goes with it. There is so much more to choosing Christ than there is to choosing riches, which can be here one day and gone the next without warning. One cannot serve them both, since from the vantage point of the believer they are in opposite directions from each other. Our wealth and possessions die with us or are willed to others after we are gone, but Jesus Christ lives today, tomorrow, and forever! It is He and he alone that is the correct choice for us to make. Right now would be a perfectly good time to do this (for those readers who haven’t already done so). Simply pray within yourself to Jesus and ask Him to take charge of your life. It doesn’t matter how you surrender to him, just do it. He always does a great job anyway, so there is no point in resisting him. Ask Jesus now, he is waiting eagerly for you. And he loves you unconditionally.