The Gospel and The American Dream
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . .
– Jeremiah 29:4
Exile — which is the ongoing state of the Church today as it was for Israel then — presupposes that we are in Babylon, not Jerusalem. And one of the major mistakes the Church has made is expecting Babylon to act like Jerusalem, to be like Jerusalem, to even recognize Jerusalem as something ideal to be. We see this in the way Christians keep trying to convince non-Christians that America is really a Christian nation and needs to start acting like it again.
The reality is that we should not expect Babylon to start acting like Jerusalem. Our calling instead is to live like Jerusalem within Babylon. What does this look like? The prophetic words are helpful:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
– Jeremiah 29:5-6
First of all, does this give in any way the sense of “just passing through”? Does it look temporary?
Does this give the sense of living, as some say, like “the world is not our home”?
There is a sense in which the world is not our home, of course. But there’s a sense in which it is. When we say things like “This world is not my home,” we should not mean that this world is not the place God has called us to live out his kingdom. Here we are. Where else are we going to live? And in fact, the eschatological forecast of the new heavens and the new earth show us that this world is our home, albeit the transformed version of it that is coming.
When we say “This world is not my home” we ought to simply mean the way of the world that is passing away – the sinful system of the world, the corruption, the injustice.
Therefore: Suburbia may be your home, but consumerism should not be. And America may be your home, but nationalism should not be. Your house may be your home, but Christ should be your security. We ought at all times to remember that even the good gifts God gives us are not eternal.
On the flip side, if we think only in short-term ways, we may become careless. We begin to idolize convenience, comfort, living at the expense of others, as exploiters, users, thoughtlessly burning through resources. There is the idolatrous underside of the not-altogether-bad “American Dream.” Jeremiah 29 would seem to have some parallels to the idea of making something of one’s self, of building, investing, starting a family and plugging away at a career. But there is a stark difference between Jeremiah 29 and the way most Americans carry on about their Dream.
But God calls us to a better way. Not to be so earthly minded that we’re no heavenly good but also not to be so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good (let the reader understand).
We see it in what comes next:
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
– Jeremiah 29:7
Now here is something really unique! A Jerusalem that is for Babylon, a community centered on God that is for the flourishing of the community centered on itself. Here is, put in today’s applicational terms, “love your neighbor” on the ecclesiological scale. “If you want to prosper,” the Lord says, “you will seek the prospering of your neighbors.”
Now, there are two ways we typically go about our relationship with our neighbors:
1. First, we position ourselves as Consumers
We use the community for our comfort and convenience, for our own prosperity alone. The world exists to be used, consumed, profited from.
2. Or, alternatively, we position ourselves as Combatants
Enter the never-quite-dead culture war.
Why do we act like this? The text says it’s because we believe in lies:
For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.
– Jeremiah 29:8-9
False prophets lead us astray. We listen and believe lies from within the camp and lies from outside.
Lies from within sound like this:
“If we just had the right person in the White House…”
“If we just got the right laws in place…”
“If we just got prayer back in schools…”
Lies from without sound like this:
“Get more, be more, do more.”
“He who dies with the most toys wins.”
We buy into these lies and bring them into the camp and de-Christ our Christianity with them. Simply put, the world does not need more Combantants or Consumers. It needs Christians. It needs Christians who will commit to “living invested” in the Jeremiah 29 sense while doing essentially three things:
1. Exegete their communities.
When Paul entered Athens, he saw that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16). It is important to “interpret” our communities by understanding the motivations and appetites and wounds beneath the symptoms, the sins beneath the sins as it were. Identifying idols is important because it prevents us from falling sway to them ourselves — hello, suburbanites — and it helps us actually help people with solutions they need.
2. Love their communities.
You cannot love somebody and use them at the same time. When Christ saw the crowd of sinners around him, he did not turn up his nose in disgust, he did not put together a petition or a picket line. Instead, he saw them as lost sheep, hurt and harassed, and he had compassion.
To love our neighbors means sacrificially serving them, and it means doing so in primarily this way:
3. Proclaim Christ in their communities.
Christians exegete their communities, love their communities, and proclaim Christ in their communities.
We bear witness with our words and deeds to what we believe about this world, what we believe about this nation of ours. Some Christians believe in America so much that it is clear that is where their belief really lays: America. But it is Christ who is king, it is Christ who is God, it is Christ who is our only hope. And God’s plan for the world, America included, is to saturate every nook and cranny, every deep sea trench and every highest mountain peak with the radiance of his glory. Let that be our dream.
The forecast is breathtaking:
For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
– Jeremiah 29:10-14
Of course one of the most famous verses of Western Christianity is in that passage. It’s one we realize is for us and therefore make about us. But Jeremiah 29:11 is only about getting what you want if what you want is Christ.
The gospel is not incompatible with aspects of the American Dream, especially as it relates to providing for our families, seeking the good of our fellow citizens, providing jobs and therefore flourishing our neighbors. But the gospel is very much against the prevailing American Dream because the gospel seeks to galvanize our affections towards the only One worthy of them.
As we live invested in our communities, let us decrease that he may increase.