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This Month's Scripture Verse:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is The American Dream A Christian's Nightmare?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a counter-intuitive interpretation of the monasticism of Martin Luther's days. Bonhoeffer saw it as an inconspicuous way of "loving the world"." This is puzzling for some because one does not normally think of leaving the world by entering a strict religious order as a way to enjoy the world. But our surprise here shows our blindness. Monastic life, during Luther's time, allowed monks to build the kind of world they could love rather than live their faith in the world that was. Thus Bonhoeffer saw Luther's leaving the monastery as the true not loving the world because by living in the world, Luther could then confront it rather than comply with.

When one looks at the American Dream, one must ask how much of Bonhoeffer's interpretation of monasticism applies. We must ask this because the American Dream has at its core an escaping from the real world to build a world that could be loved. Basically, the American Dream is a build-an-island--a fantasy island at that. Those of us who were taught to pursue this dream were told to live an isolated life for as long as possible. If we work hard enough to make enough money, we will be able 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 world.

But the house and our neighborhoods 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 we don't like about the neighborhoods we must visit.

If that is not enough, our TVs and our internet connections allow us 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. 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, as Herman's and Chomsky's book Manufacturing Consent states, 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.

The Christian sees this isolation by his secular fellow-American and raises his own theological hiding. For many conservative Christians have embraced theologies that further sequester them from others. For example, in my domination's magazine, I rarely see any articles that deal with current events no matter how many people are suffering. Rather, their articles are concerned with fine theological points, evangelical efforts, or how to run church services.

But it is not just the articles that are printed in our literature that show how we distance ourselves, 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 our own internal state. 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.

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 closely tie helping those in need with having seen the light. Likewise, Jesus's parable of the sheep and the goats not only taught that those who helped those in need were the sheep who received eternal life, it also showed that those who neglected the needy were banished from paradise. He also demonstrated this latter principle in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus and 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--and sure enough, he did. Last in our list but not in the Bible, Amos 6:1 pronounces judgment on those who live at ease in a land where there is a great deal of injustice.

But perhaps the most pathetic way that Christians remove themselves from the world is by 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 rather than from punishment. Thus, submission to authority is sometimes practiced not in order to love God and others, but to secure for oneself the kind of world that is most tolerable 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 when we fail to confront who abuse power, we become complicit in its evil ways. And we do so in order to ride in 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 legal racism and hatred that was rampant in the 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 and allowing abuse and 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 be 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 authority of the police; but he did challenge the validity of unjust laws and the society that enjoyed them.

Finally, there is still even a greater escape from our responsibilities to the world that many Christians use and I am not referring to belief in the rapture. That flight consists of relying solely on prayer to confront the sins of the status quo. It isn't that prayer should be forsaken. But prayer without the actions can be dead, especially when we passover opportunities to speak out.

What makes the last two reasons for not speaking out most despicable is that when using them, we use a veneer of righteousness and concern to cover our fear and apathy. While neglecting the suffering of others, we say to them that we care but our lack of actions show that it is only for ourselves. Some Christians will protest by pointing to individual acts of helping those in need or to mission trips taken to help those in need. But while such actions should be passionately embraced, they cannot excuse us from failing to defend those who are being oppressed. Private acts of charity must be done in conjunction with preaching the Gospel to power.

There is a Biblical reason why the American Dream is so desirable to Christians. It is because we see the American Dream as Paradise restored and thus our Christian duty to enjoy. In fact, some think that the purpose of God's Word is to make Paradise accessible again. 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 to look for a home to come rather than a home here.

To believe that God's Word tells us how to regain Paradise, even in part, is to believe a lie. The real attraction to the American Dream isn't the opportunity to restore what was lost but to worship what can be found--mammon. The American Dream is a monasticism with benefits. Its preachers assure us that we can be righteously selfish. It allows us flee from what is unpleasant and distasteful in the world while enjoying its corruptible fruit. This makes the American Dream a trap for the Christian. For when we try to take what we want, we become deaf and blind to both the world God wants us to share His love with as well as our own spiritual condition.

1 comment:

Siegfried said...

I enjoyed reading this, but could you please edit the text?
There are insidious implications of the belief that wealth is a sign of being blessed by God, because it follows that poverty and suffering are likewise ok with God. The attractions of wealth have led to an unfortunate partnership of Christians with the darkest forces of Mammon in our society.