Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The American Dream & Community

Does the American Dream hinder small group life? Does it stymie the experience of community and mission?

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French philosopher who traveled America in the 1800s to observe our culture in its early stages of development. He wrote, "[Americans] are extremely eager in the pursuit of immediate material pleasures and are always discontented with the position that they occupy. ... They think about nothing but ways of changing their lot and bettering it. ... One usually finds that the love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything that Americans do."

Translated into today's lingo, the American Dream is about having more money so that we can get more stuff.

If our natural reaction to this statement is something like "What's wrong with that?" then we need to look inside our hearts and see what's going on. Over the years, I've seen how Christian culture actually promotes this mindset. The activity of the Kingdom of God is measured by how much you are or are not "blessed." Of course, blessing gets translated as financial blessings, never mind the fact that the Beattitudes in both Matthew 5 and in Luke 7 do not in any way equate financial increase with the blessings of Jesus. If we are honest, it's hard to deny the reality that American prosperity has caused us to read the Bible through the lens of privilege, as if people of privilege have done something right in order to have all of this stuff. We are living the dream. And anything that stands in the way of that dream should be set aside.

On the other had, shouldn't we be asking if the American Dream is really a veiled nightmare. Has the American Dream so consumed us that we are being consumed by consumption. Has consumerism become an unconscious habit that it has created a way of life that we no longer call into question. And thereby it shapes our spirituality without our even knowing it. Might we be caught in a never-ending cycle of consumeristic spirituality?

Consumerism impacts debt, time and energy. Dept increases (See stats for yourself). The more stuff we have, the more time it takes to take care of it. And as we purchase more, the more energy we need to invest into what we own, usually coming in the form of mental energy. All of this contributes to increased stress. This stress leads us to try and fix things. We think that the problem is the debt, time, and energy. So we focus our efforts on fixing those issues so that we can 

To say that this does not impact our ability to live in community and join in with God's mission in the world is to ignore reality. We try to add small group life on top of this cycle, but we remain consumed by consumerism. We might even take a class on how to manage our money better or how to simplify and get rid of our stuff so that we have more time and energy. But if we focus on fixing debt, time and energy, we are feeding the cycle of consumerism. We are not addressing the lie that drives the system that we live in. Of course we need to have wisdom in our finances and we need to manage our time and energy well, but if we don't address the source of the pain, we are only taking pain-killers to manage it.

How do we change this? How do we chop away at the root of consumerism. According to Walter Brueggemenn, one key way is through practicing Sabbath. In comments on the Sabbath command in Exodus 20, he writes in his book Sabbath as Resistance, "There had been no Sabbath in Egypt, no work stoppage; no work stoppage for Pharaoh who worked day and night to stay atop the pyramid. There had been no work stoppage for slaves, because they had to gather straw during their time off; no work stoppage of anybody in the Egyptian system, because frantic productivity drove the entire system. An now YHWH nullifies the entire system of anxious production. ... The limit is set by the weekly work pause that breaks the production cycle. And those who participate in it break the anxiety cycle. They are invited to awareness that life does not consist in frantic production and consumption that reduces everyone else to threat and competitor. And as the work stoppage permits a waning of anxiety, so energy is redeployed to the neighborhood. The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is to counter anxious productivity with committed neighborliness. The latter practice does not produce so much; but it creates an environment of security and respect and dignity that redefines the human project" (27-28).

Practicing Sabbath is so much more than taking a day off so that we can go to church and do a lot of church activities. So many turn the Sabbath into spiritual anxiety whereby we are trying to produce something for God. And so many do this with their groups. Getting together in a small group becomes an anxious chore where we seek to make something happen.

Sabbath practice is about entering into the rest of God and making time for the gifts of each other. This is God's indirect way of undermining consumerism and the American Dream.

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