Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Can America Still Dream?

Sunday, July 2, 2006

 

 

Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, 17-21

 


Rev. Dean Snyder

 

I want to think with you a few moments this morning on this holiday weekend about America. There are faults deeply engrained in our American history and psyche that we can and should criticize. I want you to know that I am aware of this so that you do not think what I am going to say later is jingoistic. There are problems with our American identity. Let me name three quickly:

 

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.

 

3.                   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 Guantanamo.

 

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.

 

What I think we can celebrate and ought to celebrate about America is an aspect of our identity, a collection of ideas and sentiments and beliefs that can be capsulized in the term “the American Dream.”

 

The America Dream is the belief that America is a place where everybody ought to have the opportunity, through diligent and hard, honest work, to improve themselves and their condition and their lives and to improve the lives of generations to come.

 

Deeply engrained within our identity and culture is the belief that America is a place where people through hard work can make better lives for themselves.  The American Dream is based on the ideal that we are a land of opportunity. When America was born, most of the rest of the world was tied up in classism, under which your future was defined by the circumstances of your birth. Your future was defined by the class of your parents that you were born into. You could not expect during your lifetime to become anything other than what your parents had been. Heredity was your destiny.

 

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.

 

The 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 Baltimore in the movie, “Tin Men.” The American fantasy is the dot.com boom and bust, where we thought we would get rich quickly. The American fantasy is the lottery.

 

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.

 

A couple of years ago Jane and I did a pilgrimage to a little village named Herron-Salzbach in Germany. It is a little village in a part of Germany that in the 1700’s was called the Palitinate. It is the village that a man named George Schneider and his bride left in the early 1700’s. They left because there had been decade after decade of religious wars in the Palitinate where Catholics and Protestants had warred with each other, and then Protestants against Protestants. The area had been devastated and the infrastructure had been destroyed. People were poor and barely managed to survive.

 

William Penn invited these poor Germans to come to his colony, Pennsylvania. George Schneider and his wife were two of the many Germans who sailed in rafts down the Rhine River and made their way across the ocean and came to Pennsylvania. They found some land as hilly and rocky and hard to farm as the land they left. They settled there in the belief that there would be promise and opportunity and possibility here. And that is who I am.

 

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.

 

Even 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 America was a place where you could work as a free man or woman. America was a place where you could gain and improve your life as a result of your hard work, your energy, and your commitment and determination to improve yourself and improve your life.

 

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.

 

The 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 America today than any other developed nation other than Russia and Mexico.

 

Barely 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 self-improvement in America any more.

 

This is “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 Washington or even the U.S. Constitution.”

 

There 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 land of Egypt.” Deut. 10:19. You shall love the stranger, the alien, the outsider because you once were a stranger, an alien, an outsider in the land of Egypt.

 

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.

 

The United Methodist Church needs to remember this, too, but so does America. If we treat others the way we once were treated, if we forget the struggle that brought us into being as a nation, then we have lost our soul. When a third of Americans no longer feel that they can believe in the American Dream, we are in danger of losing our soul as a nation.

 

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.

 

But 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 America.

 

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.

 

 

 

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