Sunday, May 30, 2004

What is the American Dream? (original version)

[This is a column I wrote about four years ago. It seems relevant today.]

Recently, my daughter's German pen pal, a fifteen year old named Sarah, wrote to her with an interesting question. "What," she asked, "is the American Dream?"

My daughter asked me to answer that question from my perspective. Here's part of what I wrote:

"Sarah: Today, when people talk about 'the American Dream,' it seems that they have the idea only of making lots of money and having possessions. But that isn't how I remember hearing the phrase used when I was growing up.

"I've done a little research recently, learning that the phrase was first used in the early part of the twentieth century. To the originator of the phrase and to me, the American Dream means two things. First, it means the dream of being free: free to worship as one wishes, free to speak one's mind and to effect what happens in government, free to choose the career path that seems best for us, free to get an education, free to marry who we wish to marry, and so on.

"But a second part of the American Dream is that our freedom is to be kept in tension with the responsibility that each of us bears to treat our neighbor with respect and consideration.

"Freedom within a community of caring. That's the American Dream.

"It's definitely true that the United States is flawed and there have been terrible things that have been done in this country. Slavery and the continued discrimination that African-Americans face here today is wrong. The mistreatment of Native Americans is a horrible blot on our country's history. During the Second World War, Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps for no reason, even as many of their sons were fighting and dying in the war. We are horribly materialistic and our wealth seems to make us insensitive to the needs of the poor within our own country and in the rest of the world. We've desecrated the environment.

"But when we're at our best, it's when we're living out the American Dream. We're letting each other enjoy the freedom this country was founded to bring and we're caring for each other.

"I think that the American Dream is best summarized by the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Written by Emma Lazarus, it says nothing about money or possessions:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
With silent lips, 'Give me your tired, your poor,
'Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
'The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
'Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me,
'I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'"

Obviously, Sarah's question was important to me. I'd very much like to see an end brought to our materialistic interpretation of the American Dream. I'd like to see it replaced by the dream of a society--and a world--in which every person is free to be all that God made them to be and where every person is committed to helping others fulfill that same destiny.

There is so much more to being human than how much stuff we possess. Time and again, I hear the penetrating question of Jesus Christ, "What does it profit them if they gain the whole, but lose...themselves?" We can have fat wallets and empty lives.

Through my forty-six years on this planet, I've come to believe that the only way we can have a society characterized by freedom within a community of caring is if all of us turn to Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh. Jesus gives us the right relationships with God and neighbor we all need just to live good lives on this earth, not to mention in eternity.

But, lest you think I feel bleak, know this: I wake up with enthusiasm each morning because I can't wait to share Jesus Christ with more people. Jesus can change this world one person at a time! And I'm out to let everybody know that.

I'm not perfect. Far from it! But when I turn my life to Jesus Christ, I find that He gives me the confidence and security I need to be who God made me to be. He also gives me the confidence and security to let others be who God made them to be.

The surest route to the real American Dream--freedom in a community of caring--is through Jesus Christ. I hope you'll join me in following Him.

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