Sunday, July 2, 2006
Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, 17-21
to think with you a few moments this morning on this holiday weekend about
1. We are an overly violent people in our homes, in our communities, and within the global community. We have an unnatural attachment to guns and missiles. This is an unfortunate part of our national history going back a long way which we need to face and repent of.
2. Racism is deeply enmeshed within our systems and our culture and our identity as a people. Racism was present in our national identity from the very beginning, and it is sometimes hard to see if we will ever recover and be healed and repent of our racism, so deeply is it engrained in our society.
We are irrationally invested
in prisons and jails and punishment. We think that putting people behind bars
or, God help us, executing them will make us safe
and secure. It has never worked before and it won’t work in the future, and
yet we seem to be unable to get out of this attachment and investment in prisons
and punishment. The latest expression of this is our inability, in spite of
everything we know and learn, to close
So there is much about our national identity that is problematic and even sinful that we need to repent of, but I want to say a word this morning about who we are that we should celebrate.
think we can celebrate and ought to celebrate about
America Dream is the belief that
engrained within our identity and culture is the belief that
The American Dream has been a society in which all people are created equal with opportunity for all and everyone. The American Dream is based on the idea that honest work should be honestly rewarded…that people ought to be able to benefit from the work that they do…that people who begin life as tenants can end their lives as owners if they choose to…that through hard work, education and self-improvement everyone ought to be able to have a stake within the society.
The American Dream is based on the assumption and commitment to freedom…that opportunity and rewards are not based on what people think or believe, not on our religious systems, not on our philosophies. Our success in life is not based on what we do in our personal lives, in the privacy of their own homes. It is based upon the assumption that people are rewarded for being honest, dependable, for being committed and loyal, for working, not for affiliation, or religion, or class or status. How you do and not who you know. That’s the American Dream.
Now, I do want to stop and say that we do need to distinguish between the American Dream and what I am tempted to call the American fantasy. There is also something that is part of our history and our identity that you might call the American fantasy. The American fantasy is a sort of a get-rich-quick kind of fantasy.
American fantasy in our history is demonstrated in the gold rushes. It is
demonstrated in the Russell Conwells preaching sermons
about Acres of Diamonds, suggesting that you can move from poverty to extreme
affluence in a short time. My favorite demonstration of the American fantasy
is Danny DeVito selling aluminum siding in
There is also something in our history that is the American fantasy that is not particularly helpful or healthy. But the American fantasy is not the American Dream. The American fantasy is about being lucky or about being able to con other people. The American Dream is about honesty, work, integrity and self-improvement. I believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans have invested ourselves in the American Dream, not the American fantasy.
We are a people who work hard. We are a people who believe that through hard work we can improve our lives and we can improve the lives of generations to come. I think this is a good thing about our identity and our heritage and who we are.
The American Dream is part of our national identity, but it is also part of many of our personal stories, of our own history. I think knowing who we are, it is a good thing to know where we have come from, who our ancestors were and how we got to be where we are.
couple of years ago Jane and I did a pilgrimage to a little village named
Penn invited these poor Germans to come to his colony,
Many of you could tell a similar story in your generation of people who left where they had been in order to come here because they were looking for the possibility of opportunity and because they believed in the American Dream – that if you came here and if you were honest and if you worked hard, you could improve your life.
those who were brought here on slave ships, the overwhelming majority after
slavery ended, opted not to leave, but to buy into the conviction that
Martin Luther King Jr., when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, said his dream was deeply rooted in the American Dream. The reason why Martin Luther King Jr.’s witness was so compelling to generations of Americans, and still is today, was because Martin Luther King Jr. was not asking us to become something we aren’t as a nation. He was asking us to live up to our own commitments, to our own values, to our own dream, to be who we say we are, to be who we are – the American Dream.
It is the American Dream that still draws people here today from all over the world, some of whom are part of our congregation here at Foundry. The American Dream draws people who come here willing and eager to work and to learn and to improve themselves and their lives and to improve the hopes and possibilities of generations to come.
futurist, Jeremy Rifkin, in his new book entitled The European Dream, says that the American Dream is at risk, that
the American Dream may be dying in our lifetime. In the late 1960’s, only forty
years ago, he says, the United States statistically was the most middle class
and egalitarian of all the developed nations. We had more people who were
part of the middle class than any other nation within the developed world. Now,
forty years later, he says, we rank 24th among all industrial
nations in income disparity. The gap between the rich and poor in America
today, forty years later than when we were the most egalitarian society in
the developed world, forty years later the gap between rich and poor is
greater in America among the industrial nations than only two other nations,
Russia and Mexico. They have worse statistics than we do. There is a larger
gap between rich and poor in
51 percent of Americans believe anymore in the American Dream, Rifkin says,
based on a Ford Foundation survey. One-third of all Americans say they don’t
believe in the American Dream at all. They don’t believe that it is possible
to improve your lives through honest, diligent, hard work and
“devastating,” Rifkin says, “because [the idea of the American Dream] is the
social glue that binds us together as a nation much more than Wall Street or
is a biblical principle about peoplehood and nationhood that we heard in the
Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy today. It is actually a more profound
principle and truth than you would see from just a casual reading of it. It
is called the law of the ger –
ger is the word in Hebrew that
means stranger or alien or outsider. This principle in Deuteronomy says this:
“You shall love the stranger, because you once were a ger, a stranger in the
The more profound principle behind that is this: a people or nation has an identity that emerges out of its own struggle and experience of redemption. A people or a nation’s identity is determined and shaped by the struggle that brought that people or nation into being. When a people lose the remembrance of the struggle that brought them into being, when they don’t remember their own history and where they came from and who they are as a result of that, when they begin treating others the way they once were treated, then a people or a nation loses their soul. That’s the principle of the ger, of the stranger or the alien. It’s not just that you ought to be nice to other people, but that if you forget who you once were, and begin treating other people the way that you were once treated, then you have lost the heart of who you are as a people. Then, you have lost your identity.
This is the deeper meaning of our national debates about immigration. It has obvious implications for the principle of the ger to this struggle over immigration. We are a nation of people who came here or who were brought here. We were all strangers. If we start treating new immigrants and strangers the way that we did not want to be treated, we have lost our soul.
there are also implications of this for other national struggles that we are
in the midst of. One is education. One of the most damning statistics Rifkin
offers is not just about the disparity between rich and poor, but about the
low levels of people who change their economic classes any more within
It is a failure of our education system because we have not figured out how to provide quality education for everyone. The quality of the education that children receive is still largely dependent upon the economic resources of the school district, the local community in which they happen to be living. Until we figure out how to have as high a quality of education for children in poor communities as affluent communities are able to offer their children, we are not going to be able to regain the American Dream in any realistic way. Education is in crisis, and we have not figured out how to share our resources so that everyone has opportunity.
This is also at the heart of the struggle of how to make the democratic process participatory again in our nation so that we really do give everyone, no matter what their financial resources are, a share, a stake in the political decision-making processes of our nation. This is at the heart of our struggle for campaign finance reform.
So, this weekend, this celebration of our nation’s beginning, I want to celebrate the American Dream. I want to pray that we as a people will reclaim it.
Because of our ministry that some of you do with the day laborers at 15th and P Streets and now with the day laborers at Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue who, by the way, are experiencing severe problems and harassment, because of this ministry, some of us have had the opportunity to stand with crowds of people on the lawn of the Capitol and in a march down 16th Street asking for immigration reform.
I want to say that I have never felt more American than when I have been standing with this community of people who embody more than anyone else I know the ideals of the American Dream: the desire through honest, hard work to contribute to the society and to receive the rewards that will allow them to better the lives of themselves and their families.
My gut sense is that these sisters and brothers whom we are debating as to whether we will allow inside our borders, I am becoming convinced that if we would open our hearts and our arms to them, that they might help us regain the American Dream. They might help us regain our own soul.