Every year around the 4th of July, Americans declare their patriotism, love, and support for “the greatest country in the world.” Because of the recent and ongoing strife in this country, from racism to pandemic, the narratives on social media varied last week as we celebrated the birth of this nation, but there were still an abundance of social media accounts in praise of this great nation. For years I have listened to people praise America for its greatness after they have spent time in other countries. As someone who has lived and spent a good amount of time in other countries, and as a Christian, I sometimes find myself struggling to see America as the greatest country in the world.
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not here to discredit America. I just want to be sure that I see the whole reality. As a Christian, there are most definitely benefits that come from the freedoms that exist in America. There is great blessing that comes from having religious freedom and the ability to openly worship God. In some sense, these freedoms have allowed the American church to flourish and grow throughout the years. At the same time, though, America, and all of its freedoms, present great challenges to the American church and the American Christian.
Having spent a significant amount of time living in other countries and cultures, I have learned some deep truths about what it means to be American. Culture is ingrained in us, whether or not we know it. To be American is to inherently think and function in a distinct way, a way that differs greatly from other cultures. I learned this lesson the hard way by witnessing just how deeply ingrained America is in my own bones when I was living in Italy. Where America has often been considered a melting pot of various cultures, Italy is a rather closed off country and very protective of their way of life.
One of the most difficult and ongoing issues I had during my time in Italy was centered around food. In America, I have options to choose from any time I think of eating. I often struggle to choose what to eat because there are so many options. Nevertheless, I am free to choose whatever I want to eat, whenever I want to eat, and however I want to eat it. This was not the case in Italy. My choices were pizza, pasta, or sandwiches (not from a variety of sandwich shops either). Not only were those the limited choices, but how and when you ate such choices mattered as well. Every day that I interacted with an Italian in Italy meant that I had a conversation about food. My friends always asked about what I ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I was often scolded for either not eating in general or not eating the right thing at the right time. As an American, this was a massive stress inducer and impingement of my freedoms, or at least this is how I wrestled with the issue.
It may seem silly, but I learned a great deal about what it means to be American because of this ongoing food struggle. It often made my blood boil to have someone tell me what I should be eating or fuss at me for not eating the suggested amount of pasta per day. In my mind, I was my own person and could choose to eat what and how I wanted. To Italians though, food is a way of life. Part of their identity was wrapped up in the idea of eating good food the right way. My identity was wrapped up in having everything my way. This mentality, this “I am free to do as I please” mentality, is what America has taught us.
Whether or not we realize it, American Christians are subject to the myth of the American dream. Just like the idea of freedom is ingrained in Americans, so too is the idea and way of life of the American dream. We are taught and groomed from a young age to pursue this dream as if it is the one and only way to live. The American dream tells us that we can achieve whatever we want to and that hard work is the way to that success. Since the writing of the U.S. Constitution, Americans have been in constant pursuit of “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This goal has often been accomplished at the expense of others and ourselves. This dream is a myth because it cannot truly be accomplished without someone remaining the underdog. If there is always an underdog, that means some Americans will never be able to achieve the dream.
The success of America has always been built upon the backs of the lowly. From slavery to harsh industrial labor conditions, nothing was ever truly achieved in this country without those at the bottom putting in the blood, sweat, and tears for the top guys to become richer. Yet, those at the bottom still fall subject to wanting to pursue the dream and reach the top. This drive and desire is ultimately what makes America continue as it has. Americans have never stopped pursuing bigger and better homes, nicer and faster cars, newer and shinier electronics, etc. The game never ends; it is inevitably a trap.
From a Biblical perspective, though, this trap is really a death sentence. The American dream is not only ingrained in the core of American identity, but it is also ingrained in our churches and Christian mentality. The American church often functions on the same upward pursuit as America in general. What happens when we compare this dream to the gospel, though? How does it stand up?
The American dream is about personal gain and upward mobility, yet the gospel is about the King of the universe humbling Himself to die on a cross for those that were against Him. The American dream says those on the bottom can rise to the top if they only try hard enough. The gospel says that those on top should work to raise up those on the bottom and that nothing can be done by their own might. The gospel is literally the opposite of the American dream. The American dream is about us. The gospel is about Jesus and others.
The narrative I was told growing up was to go to school and stay in school so that I could get a good job and make decent money. While nothing is inherently wrong with living responsibly, Americans tend to make this more about gain than responsible survival. We really stay in school and get good jobs so that decent money can be spent on better homes and nicer cars. Living in the right neighborhood and driving the right vehicle often equates to success, even for Christian Americans. We expend a great deal of effort and energy for worldly treasures. The gospel rejects this.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal”Matthew 6:20
America teaches us to make more money and hoard more money. Some of us will spend a lifetime living in debt to acquire more things; others of us will spend a lifetime saving large amounts of money that simply sit in accounts. The gospel has better plans for money than pleasure and security for a few.
“Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”Matthew 19:21
The American dream teaches us to work hard for ourselves and perhaps our inner circle of family. Families used to share one vehicle and one bathroom within the home. Today, every adult and teenager might have their own vehicle, and homes now have more bathrooms than humans in them. We want our own stuff, our own space, and our own way. The gospel reminds us that caring for each other is often what makes us better, and Jesus demonstrated this better than anyone else ever has or could.
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”John 15:13
The structure of land and property and neighborhoods in America give us the false reality that we actually own land and space and that what is mine is most definitely not yours. We cut grass to stop at property lines and every neighbor seems to know just where those lines are drawn. A nice fence around the house lets everyone know what the boundaries are to personal space where strangers and neighbors are not welcome. That white picket fence might look real nice, but it doesn’t communicate the gospel.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”Matthew 22:37
We sometimes have more clothes in our closets than we can wear in a year because the demand to keep up with fashion trends has us constantly purchasing the newest items so that we can look the best. For every overflowing closet, though, there are scores of people with only a few outfits to make it through the week and certainly are lacking adequate clothing for every season. We worked hard for those clothes and have the right to buy what we want, but Jesus would challenge this mentality.
“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise”Luke 3:11
We live under the false reality that we accomplish everything in life on our own. It feels good to work hard and then purchase a home or car that is all yours and was purchased with the money you worked for. We think we study hard to make good grades and receive diplomas. We think our own efforts have brought the promotion our way. We think being diligent in pursuit of the American dream is what allows us to achieve it, but nothing exists that does not come from the Lord to begin with.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”James 1:17
At its core, the American dream teaches us to be about ourselves yet to keep up with the neighbors. This way of thinking excludes us from each other. The American dream is inherently selfish in nature, but we have been trained to think that it is the correct and proper way to live in this country. We see it as responsibility, but where is the accountability for the American Christian?
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves”Philippians 2:3
Being American or living in America does not make us evil, but it does present some challenges to the American Christian that wants to pursue the Lord. In many ways, the American dream and the American way of life are in opposition to the gospel and its teachings. Christians need to hold themselves accountable to live out what they read and learn in the Bible. One of the most difficult aspects of being a Christian in America is the fact that our way of life is contrary to what we preach. This doesn’t mean that we should all be poor and have nothing, but we should keep ourselves in check according to God’s word and not social media. America may seem to be great because of the freedoms and comforts that we experience, but we would do well to be careful that those freedoms and comforts do not lead us away from the gospel. We should live for the gospel dream rather than the American dream.