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The American Dream vs. the Christian Purpose

Looking around our communities, many have lost ownership of things integral to their identity, homes, cars, jobs, pride. Americans don’t like to struggle; it doesn’t fit into the global role of American superiority. We pride ourselves on being a super power, a country of super people having super careers, owning super things, creating super gadgets. Americans adore super heroes. But what does all this superiority reveal about the moral fiber of our country?

Is the economic downturn a mirror that reflects the moral decline in our country?
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For many people, fulfillment of the American dream centers on ownership. Homes, cars, real estate—much of our security come from what we own. As the economic downturn churns on, many Americans are forced to reexamine their core values concerning wants versus needs. Looking around our communities, many have lost ownership of things integral to their identity, homes, cars, jobs, pride. Americans don’t like to struggle; it doesn’t fit into the global role of American superiority. We pride ourselves on being a super power, a country of super people having super careers, owning super things, creating super gadgets. Americans adore super heroes. But what does all this superiority reveal about the moral fiber of our country?

Is the economic downturn a mirror that reflects the moral decline in our country?

In his book, The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis states, “people … are yearning for a moral center to our public life and political discourse.” This may be true, but where do we build our moral center? Our parents, our friends, the media outlets we subject ourselves to, all of these seem to be have a greater impact on our society than biblical teachings.

The structure of American capitalism often extends beyond a profit margin building its core on greed. Can the same can be said of our personal spending habits?

Jeff Cook, in his book Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes, defines greed as “the desire to possess more than I need, because of fear or idolatry.” Fear and idolatry are seemingly two different things. It’s interesting how they are tied together here: Do we idolize money because we fear being without it? What is the moral standard behind the corporations that made bad loans to the masses, who felt they lacked ownership and wanted to own a home, buy a newer car, take an exotic vacation or got caught in the home upgrade frenzy?

As Americans, do we consider social responsibility in our spending habits, or just focus on personal freedom? As Christians, does our spending reflect God’s instruction? Wallis writes, “Too many people are still poor despite having jobs and working hard, which mock the American dream.” Should we as a society seek to place public interest over private or special interest?

Pastor James Pierce leads the Life Changers Christian Center in Lansing, Mich—a city that relies on state- and auto-related jobs for the bulk of their employment. Currently, Michigan is facing a 10 percent unemployment rate, one of the highest in the nation. As an inner-city church, Life Changers’ current focus is on “having a balanced life in terms of money and the things of God.” Pastor Pierce says, “I think a lot of people have it out of balance.”

During his 15 years of pastoral duties, Pierce has seen attendance rise during times of crisis, such as after 9/11. Pierce sees this same trend again. “When people feel there is a national crisis, they are more open to try to find solutions, and that is when the Church needs to step up and be that solution through Jesus Christ.”

“We have to change our philosophy for how we live, we have to cut back on some things and live within our means,” Pierce continues. “Money is not evil. I’m all for people prospering in life—it’s our trust in riches that becomes the issue.” Our connection with money cannot override our spiritual imperatives. God’s promises remain active. Ecclesiastes 2:26 states, “To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.”

Pastor Pierce says: “Sometimes it just takes a shaking of people’s conscious, which gives the Church an opportunity to share the love of Christ with our community. And if we don’t reach out to them, other groups will. Right now we live in a very uncertain time and our president, our Congress, everybody is talking like they are taking a chance and they don’t know what is going to happen. It’s human nature: People look for answers when things are uncertain.”

In Orlando, Fla., another state hit hard by the recession, associate pastor Brian Santos notices how the economic downturn has severely affected the family structure. In the past year, Santos has noticed how many people have been forced to take a cut in pay or take a position that makes less money. “A growing trend in our country is that families have had to face a father or mother having to work in another state and coming home on the weekends,” he says. “The standards of capitalism is not based on godly justice—it’s based on man’s standards, the moral filth of man’s standards.”

Santos ties his theory to Proverbs 29:4: “By justice a king gives country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” Santos sees the economic downturn as a product of greed. “We have allowed greed in business to have low standards to where you can have money lent to you on things that are not backed. Where do you draw the line between greed and prosperity?”

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Even though people may have not been directly affected by the economic downturn, it’s the thought of what could happen that brings anxiety.

Currently Santos’ church is focusing on the family structure. “The family structure needs to prosper during this time because that is all that you have to fall back on,” he says. The focus also needs to be on how to make wise decisions spiritually and financially for your family. “For example, should I leave and go work in another state or try to make it here—the decisions of what you are working for, is it your family or to keep all the things that you have.”

As Christians, how much of our self-image should we link to the American ideal of prosperity? Greed, says Santos, “is a motivation that stems from selfishness and leads to destruction.”

Santos thinks a great theme scripture for this era is Philippians 4:12-13: “I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him that gives me strength.” Santos observes that the Apostle Paul set the bar high—considering he wrote this while he was incarcerated. “That suffering is in the mix, even though we don’t like it,” he says.

Famous philosopher Dante saw greed as a “misdirected love.” “Greed prefers wealth to the growth of our soul,” Cook writes. A time of corporate suffering is an opportunity for us to point back to Christ’s suffering, to point at the present suffering of so many in the world, and to point toward an eternal future without suffering. Instead of contemplating what we’ve lost right now, it’s time to help our people consider what is gained in times of sorrow—community, solidarity, time for solitude, inspiration for innovation.

What are you teaching during this economic downturn? What do you think people most need to hear from their pastors and their churches right now?

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