The American Dream

Let’s talk about the American dream. Let’s talk about identity in America, because that’s where I live, so that’s my worldview. I grew up mostly in the states, so a lot of what I see and hear in scripture is informed by the fact that I am an American. One of the things that feeds into that is the idea of the American dream. That is, the way that Americans (including myself) are taught to envision “the good life” affects how we interpret scripture and envision Christianity.

Counted Among the Wealthy

We identify heavily in America with “the wealthy.” This is partly because there’s this idea of an American dream that you can be anything you want to be. You can become anything that you want to become. Where you start doesn’t matter. What matters is the work you put in, and the work you put in directly correlates with how far you can go. The only limitation is you, in the American dream.

Because of that American dream, we hold on to the possibility that we might someday be counted among the wealthy, among those we believe are the most successful in America. Because we see ourselves as potentially wealthy, and because we idolize wealth as success, we want to protect what we love most about the wealthy. We want to protect our future.

The American dream is an investment in our potential future. If we might someday be counted among the elite, then whatever we believe is the good life for the elite, that’s what we want to protect. So, we protect wealthy Americans. If we don’t protect them, then we might someday find ourselves in their shoes, unprotected. That’s a problem. Nobody wants to reach their potential, become successful, and then realize that they undermined themselves on the way there.

The American dream says, “You could be rich. You could be successful. You have potential, so protect that potential. Invest in the future,” and that manifests in protecting the wealthy elite.

Split Identities

Unfortunately, there’s an identity split when we buy into the American dream, because most of us aren’t rich. We become split between the fact that we’re not rich and the fact that we consider ourselves to potentially be rich. That is, we’re split between the reality of our present circumstances and our desired future. We want to live like the rich and protect the rich, because that’s our investment in the future for ourselves, but we’re not actually there yet.

Most of us also aren’t poor. According to Pew Research Center, just over 50% of American households were considered middle-income in 2016, and was the same in 2018. If you’re middle class, you’re not poor, and you’re also not rich, but we tend to draw a line in the sand not between lower-, middle-, and upper-income but between rich and poor. America is very good at closing off that gap and creating a dualistic conversation. Either you’re with the rich or you’re with the poor. We don’t deny that there’s a middle class. We simply don’t talk about it. We don’t want to talk about it, because to be middle class is to lose focus on our potential to be wealthy, and to be poor is to acknowledge that we are less than we could be. That’s what the American dream tells us.

In other words, it’s not that middle-income households don’t exist, but the American dream says our middle-income identity doesn’t matter as much as our potential, upper-income identity. That idea essentially erases middle-income from the conversation. Our identity is split between not being poor, not being rich, not being middle-income, and being an American with potential to be “successful” (i.e. wealthy).

Anti-Poor

When we act like middle-income identities aren’t important (i.e. when we make the conversation about rich and poor), middle-income citizens have to pick another group with which to identify. Are you rich, or are you poor? Obviously, the American dream says we want to be rich.

The closer we are in lifestyle to the poor, the more we demonize the poor in order to convince ourselves that we still have the potential to be rich, so we have this continuing identity crisis. Americans have an identity crisis. We want to be rich. We want to empathize with the rich. We want to live into our potential to be rich. We don’t want to be poor. We cut out the middle class. We deny middle class realities. We glorify the rich.

Then, you throw Christianity in there, and it mucks everything up. If the American dream wasn’t complicated enough, it gets more complicated when we have to figure out how to be part of it while still proclaiming Jesus.

Christianity and the American Dream

If you’re familiar with Biblical teachings about material wealth and the poor, you might be wondering how Christians could choose to identify most with the wealthy? Well, it’s not an accident. Our cultures are designed to remind us often about all the terrible things that poor people do and all of the wonderful things that more income can do.

Notice the language: “poor people” and “more income.” Politicians and outspoken Christian leaders, alike, often frame wealth as an object, which can be used however we desire, for good or for evil. Obviously, if we had “more income,” we’d use it for good, because we’re good people. The opposite of that, though, isn’t “less income.” It’s “poor people,” and if more income means more good, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that less income means less good. Less good means more bad, so poor people are predisposed to more bad and less good and are therefore a problem.

I hope you see all of the holes in that logic. This post is long enough without going into each one, but the point is that in order to identify with the wealthy, Christians have to convince ourselves that wealthy is somehow good, and part of how we do that is by convincing ourselves that poor is somehow bad. (This isn’t just Christians, but Christians have the added issue of dealing with Jesus’s morality and ethics.)

The pandemic has provided lots of good examples of this. Conversations about welfare often become about what “those people” will do with government assistance and how people will take advantage. Obviously, “people” means “poor people,” because those are the people who need government assistance. Rich people don’t take advantage of welfare, because they’re not on welfare. In the same way, unemployed people will take advantage of unemployment. No, not those people who were unemployed and then went back to work when things opened up. We mean those people who are still unemployed and are obviously taking advantage of continued unemployment benefits. Etc.

Luke’s Gospel

In Luke 4, we find Jesus returning to Nazareth, his hometown. He goes to the synagogue and reads the following from the scroll of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.”

Luke 4:18-20, NIV

This passage from Isaiah emphasizes the Gospel as a proclamation for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed, and this is what mucks up the American dream. The American dream is all about being the opposite of all of those things, so the American dream gets presented as part of the Gospel in many Christian circles, yet the Gospel isn’t for wealthy people. Luke’s Gospel is for the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed.

We say to ourselves, “I want to identify with the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed, because I want the Gospel to be for me. I want the good news of the proclamation we find in Luke.” Yet, we’ve bought into our identity with the rich so much in the American dream that we struggle to identify with the poor. We may even be complicit in demonizing the poor!

Our identity crisis is exacerbated by the fact that the Gospel is for the poor, but we’ve already demonized the poor in order to remind ourselves that we want to be rich. Our identity crisis is exacerbated by the fact that we see ourselves as identifying with the rich, and we want to identify with the rich, but that would mean we don’t find ourselves in the proclamation of Luke. We also wouldn’t find ourselves in Luke’s blessings, blessed are the poor. (Luke 6:20)

We struggle to find ourselves in the Gospel, yet we want to proclaim the Gospel. How can we proclaim a Gospel that’s for the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed when we keep telling ourselves that the good life is found in the wealthy, the powerful, and the authoritative? The Gospel seems to be at odds with the American dream, and we want to bring them together, so what we do is we say, “Well, the American dream is the fulfillment of the Gospel — that the poor stop being poor, that the prisoner is set free, that the oppressed comes out from under the thumb of authority, that the blind are healed. Once we reach that good life of being wealthy, having power in America, and being respected, then we have fulfilled the Gospel of bringing people out.” So, the rich can look around and say, “We’re blessed by God, because we’re rich,” and the poor get dehumanized again. “If you were blessed by God, then you would be with us, so if you want to be blessed by God, do as we tell you to do so you can be like us.”

The same thing happens with Luke’s blessing of the poor in Luke 6. It’s too challenging for it to be about actual poor people inheriting the kingdom, so we ignore Luke in favor of Matthew, who spiritualizes the blessing: blessed are the poor in spirit. Much easier pill to swallow. We can be both wealthy and poor in spirit! Perfect.

If you’re poor, the Gospel is still for you, but only so far as it instructs you to become like the wealthy. #AmericanDream #Merica

You see how it becomes a tool for manipulation? The rich, those who are in authority, those that are not oppressed, work to eliminate the middle class by creating this dualistic conversation. All of the talks and the debates are split into two groups: you and me, us and them, rich and poor. By talking this way, they play on our fear to keep us from recognizing who we are, acknowledging it, and participating in the Gospel proclamation of Luke.

Are You One of Us?

This is essentially the underlying question in abusive/toxic communities. People are pressured and shamed into conformity, and the “Christian American dream” is no different. Until we recognize that the question of “are you one of us” is not a Gospel question, we can’t truly respond to the Gospel invitation.

The rich and powerful say to the middle class, “You’re one of us,” and, by default, “You’re not one of them.” The poor say to the middle class, “You’re not one of us, because you identify with them.” The middle class refuses to acknowledge their own reality and has to choose between empathy for the rich or empathy for the poor.

James: Favoring the Rich

James is writing a letter to a community that is struggling with this very thing. James is written as a harsh rebuke to a community that favors the rich over the poor. Reading it that way can help us stop justifying the fact that we are catering to wealth over Gospel.

“Brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here is a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit on the floor at my feet,’ have you not discriminated amongst yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters, has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him. But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

James 2:1-7, NIV

James offers us this perspective: imagine we’re in the middle. We’re not poor, and we’re not rich. Imagine this is true, and imagine two people come into the worship service. Imagine there’s a rich person who comes in wearing fine clothing and gold rings. That’s not you; if we’re imagining somebody coming in like that, then obviously it’s not us. Otherwise, he would say, “When you walk in wearing fine clothes and gold rings…” We’re not the rich person. Then he says, “Also, another person comes in with filthy, old clothes.” That’s not us, either. Already, James is diverging from the American dream by asking us to be in the middle.

These two people walk in, and you show one favoritism by giving them the good seat, and the other one you tell to sit on the floor. In that scenario, God’s way of not showing favoritism is to exalt the poor. This is the part we cut out when we cut out the person in the middle. When we refuse to acknowledge that it’s not a dualistic scenario, we miss out on what he says here.

We say, “Well, there’s rich people, and there’s poor people, and I don’t show favoritism to either of them. It doesn’t matter how fine or how dirty your clothes are or whether you wear gold jewelry. I’m just going to treat you both the same.” We call that equality, but that’s not what James is talking about. He says that to “not show favoritism,” God has “chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

Wait a minute. Isn’t that favoritism toward the poor? No, it’s not favoritism. Favoritism is to make sure that the privileged continue in privilege without making concessions for the underprivileged. If there’s a rich person and a poor person and they walk into our congregation and we say, “Equality says that we’ll treat them both the same,” but the rich person has inherent privileges as a rich person and the poor person has inherent underprivilege as a poor person, then all we’ve done is deny the disparity between the two. We’ve let them continue with a disparity between them. The poor will still be poor. The rich will still be rich. Privilege will remain as is.

Instead, this is how God doesn’t show favoritism: the rich person already has wealth and everything that comes with that, so God exalts the poor person. God chooses the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom. It’s the same proclamation that Luke made. Jesus said, “I have been anointed to proclaim the good news to the poor, the blind, the prisoner, and the oppressed.” He didn’t come to proclaim the good news to the rich. In other words, it’s the sick who are in need of a physician. (Mark 2:17)

The rich have what they need. “Not showing favoritism” doesn’t mean mere equality; it means equity. It means exalting those who are underprivileged in order that they might stand side by side with those who are privileged. That’s precisely what James tells them, and then he goes a step further in verse six. He says that not only does God exalt the poor but it is in fact the rich who have exploited us. “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?”

By favoring the rich over the poor, we dishonor the poor, and we give ourselves over to the ones who James says are actually blaspheming the name of Jesus. When we cut out the middle perspective from the conversation, everyone is identified as either rich or poor, and James’s words don’t apply to any of us. James calls us to take the middle perspective so that we can more accurately assess whether we are favoring the rich over the poor.

The Gospel and the American Dream

I don’t think we can’t buy into the traditional American dream without falling into the trap of pretending that we are rich and not poor. The catch is that if we see ourselves as neither the very rich nor the very poor — a reality for most people in America — then we still have to accept the fact that we don’t find ourselves anywhere in that Luke proclamation of the Gospel. If I’m not the poor, the prisoner, the blind, or the oppressed and I’m also not the rich, then what do I do? Where do I fit into the Gospel?

The problem is that Americans work so hard to stay dualistic (e.g. rich and poor) about everything that we do and say that we don’t automatically identify with either James’s audience or Luke’s proclamation.

  • We want to be rich, because that’s the American dream, but we don’t want to be rebuked by James and scripture, and we don’t want to be left out of Luke’s proclamation.
  • We don’t want to be poor, because America says that’s failure, but we want to be rich in faith and exalted by God, and we want to be the target of Luke’s Gospel proclamation.

So, what do we do? Do we strive to be poor? Isn’t it good for us to try to have better resources so that we can care for the people we love? Do we justify being wealthy? Do we justify, that is, numbering among “the wealthy” and then cut ourselves out of the Gospel? What do we do?

James continues:

“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’

“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

“You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

“In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

James 2:12-26, NIV

“Faith and deeds” is the equalizer in James. James says this is what brings us together. This is what allows us to find ourselves anywhere on the spectrum from rich to poor and still find ourselves in Luke’s proclamation: we participate with God for the sake of the Gospel. If the Gospel is good news for the poor, sight for the blind, freedom for the prisoner and for the oppressed, then we participate in that. If the poor are exalted to inherit the kingdom, then we support them in doing so. We participate with the work of love that God is doing in our communities. We stop favoring the rich over the poor. We stop favoring the potential of the American dream over the realization of the Gospel, and we stop trying to join the two as though they’re one. We join with James to not be rich and not be poor. We participate in what James suggests: that Jesus exalts the poor, that we work to do the same, and that we stop showing favoritism to the rich.

Rebuking Wealthy Oppressors

James heavily rebukes wealthy oppressors in chapter five.

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

James 5:1-6, NIV

James is a harsh letter. There’s a lot of good things in here, but I think one of the reasons why James is so harsh is because he’s writing to a community where the poor are being completely exploited and oppressed by the rich, and instead of standing up and doing something about it — instead of people siding with Jesus in exalting the poor who are rich in faith and ready to inherit the kingdom — they buy into the “American dream.” They say, “I need to stand with the rich for the potential that I might someday be counted among them, because that is the successful, good life I dream of.”

James tells his audience not to be that way. If we are not poor and you are not rich, then we participate in the Gospel by participating in the mission of God among the poor and the prisoner and the blind and the oppressed.

Does This Mean We Can’t Be Rich?

Does this mean we can’t be rich? Some of you might be thinking that this just sounds like an argument from some pastor saying that if you’re poor, you should be glad that you’re poor, and you should try to stay there. If you’ve been part of those communities, you know that’s just as manipulative and damaging as any explicit exploitation of the poor.

James isn’t saying that we can’t be rich. Scripture doesn’t say that we can’t be rich, but scripture does point out that there’s a problem. The problem is that when we become rich, we tend to become fickle. We tend to forget our identity as brothers and sisters in Christ. We tend to forget our identity as part of the Luke proclamation. We tend to pull up our roots of the Gospel that was proclaimed to us and transplant them into the American dream of the good life and wealth, and as Jesus says, we can’t serve two masters. We can’t serve both God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24)

When we buy into the American dream, especially when we fulfill the American dream — when we realize it in our own lives — the temptation is to become fickle with our identity, to transplant our Gospel roots into the roots of mammon, and when that happens, we fail to see how we fit into God’s mission. Instead, we fuse the Gospel and the American dream together in a way so as to justify ourselves.

Are you rich right now? Stop worrying about your riches more than you worry about the poor, stop blaming the poor for being poor, and stop exploiting people so that you can maintain your wealth.

Are you poor right now? Be rich in faith, and understand that God has chosen you. You are not chosen to be poor, but God is going to exalt you, because the good news of Jesus is for you.

Are you not poor and not rich? Are you, like most Americans, somewhere in the middle? Stop playing into the exploitation of the rich. Stop deceiving yourself into thinking that the American dream is the good life. Start working to exalt the poor, and start being part of God’s shalom by your deeds, because if you claim to have faith in Jesus but your deeds exploit the poor and keep the oppressed oppressed, then you don’t really believe in the Gospel, at all.

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