Monday, September 29, 2008

Sermon: "The Future of the American Dream" (Delivered 9-28-08)

Last July, when I decided that I would preach a four part sermon series on the economy in the fall, I had an inkling of suspicion that the sermon series would be timely. I did not imagine the extent to which it would be timely. So, I find myself kicking myself for not planning a sermon series on winning the lottery or Tom Brady not having a knee injury… or world peace while we are at it.

To give you a little bit of a recap, this morning will be the third sermon in the series. At the end of August I preached about “Making It and Faking It in America” and talked about some of the conditions that created the “perfect storm” of financial trouble we are experiencing. Two weeks ago I preached on the “Economy of Fear,” a sermon in which I examined the powerful grip that fear so often has on and over our lives.

Given that I will spend this morning preaching on the economy, I’m sure many of you are curious to hear my perspective on bank failures and the proposed $700 billion dollar bailout of the banks. So many with much more fiscal wisdom than I have said so much, that anything that I could add would not add much, except to say that I think my comments two weeks ago on fear speak to this in some way. I quoted Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address where he said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and then described fear as paralyzing and unreasoning. Elsewhere in that sermon I said, “In social contexts, fear can lead a nation to place unlimited power in the hands of a tyrant or a strongman, to willingly suspend the rules of law and to turn away from the deepest principles it professes.”

The calls for the need to push ahead with the bailout with the utmost haste in order to prevent cataclysmic disaster are appeals to fear. Rhetorically, they are exactly the same as the calls for a preemptive war with Iraq, a war which, it was argued at the time required immediate action because the threat was imminent. Franklin Roosevelt called fear unreasoning. Drastic actions strike me as imprudent and it seems to me that our wisest course is to go slow, with a plan that is well thought out, well considered, and reasonable, rather than to forge ahead only to have our domestic decisions come to resemble our international ones.

But, rather than dwell on the immediate present, I want to consider the future of the American Dream. I want to look into my crystal ball of prophecy and prognostication and ask what the future holds.

One possibility is that we will elect a president with a last name somewhere in the middle of the alphabet and that this president will take office in January, wave a magic wand, and all our problems will immediately cease. This is highly unlikely.

Another possibility is that we will face hardship and struggle as a nation for several years but that eventually the economy will rebound. This is actually what seems most likely, but it raises questions. In the long run, will the tremendous chasm between rich and poor grow even wider, or will it narrow? Will the number of Americans living in poverty increase or decrease? Will the number of Americans without adequate health care grow, or will we move towards a solution to this crisis?

It seems most likely to me that after a period of a few years of choppy water and storms we will return to a country much the same, perhaps a little worse off than we are right now, but hopefully a little better, and probably some mixture of better and worse. While that seems most likely, it would make for a boring sermon. Instead, I want to cast a vision that is a lot more interesting.

I had an epiphany last summer as I joined a family in our congregation for dinner on a July night. This family lives in one of the more outlying suburban rings in Johnson County, in a newer housing development. During the delicious meal, the conversation turned serious and theological. They asked me, “Thom, do you have hope?” I swallowed hard. We had been discussing some of the problems on that endless list of somber and sobering problems that do exist in the world. I was surprised with how quickly I answered. “Yes, I do have hope,” I said. This answer had come from my lips before I even knew what I was going to say next. And then, what came next came from someplace, I know not from where. I continued, “The problems in the world are undeniable. But, I find myself gathering hope from the many small, un-newsworthy things that I encounter each and every day: miracles of new friendship, families eating together, moments of unexpected compassion and kindness, the wondering gaze and laugh of a child. Taking hope from all these little things may seem trite. It may seem like a bunch of sentimental nonsense. So, I would point to one other thing that gives me hope. We humans are superbly adaptable beings. And I think I do have faith in human adaptability, ingenuity, and creativity. I believe we are capable of surviving whatever tests lie ahead of us.”

Somewhere in the conversation that night I learned a simple, odd fact about the development where this family lived. Among the many, many things that the homeowner’s association in this housing development bans is the drying of laundry outside. You can’t clothespin your towel or your sheet or your tee shirt to a laundry line. If my mouth didn’t, my brain pronounced this stupid: Stupid that in the heat of the Kansas summer with the limitless sun above, this entire neighborhood would be forced to pay for natural gas or electricity to dry their laundry.

It was then that a vision began to grow inside of me. It was a vision of all of the families in this community coming together to meet out in the street, and bringing with them the copies of their homeowner’s association codes. These codes are then tossed these into a great bonfire while children roast marshmallows on spits hewn from the splinters of their un-neighborly fences.

It was a vision in which chicken coops are erected, violating the once obeyed regulations of this development. Lawnmowers are disassembled for their spare parts. Goats now do what once required gasoline. And goat droppings fertilize the soil of the great vegetable gardens now spanning those backyards.

Let me describe that life I envisioned. The adjustment to it will not be easy. The hours we may work at our usual jobs may actually decrease, but our workday will easily double. We may have a conventional job, but also a community job that will pay us not in cash, but in trade and barter.

I know what many of your community jobs will be. I went and perused the auction catalogues from years past. I know who the cooks will be. I know who will bake and who will brew and who will quilt and who will design the gardens and who will fix things. Some of you will create pottery, others poetry. And the writers and musicians and jugglers and storytellers will be needed as well. With a 14-16 hour workday, television sets will be useless. We will have no time to watch. The golf courses will be repossessed and turned into community gardens and cow pastures. Doctors returning home from their shift at the hospital will make rounds in the neighborhood. Industrial chemists will transform their basements into apothecary laboratories.

And perhaps none of this will come to pass, but it could. And, if it did people would find some way to survive. This picture that I am painting is far from utopian by the way. What would cause a situation like the one I’ve described to come to pass is a kind of apocalyptic economic shifting that would make 1929 seem tame. Such an event would leave the widest conceivable gap between the ultra-rich and the lowliest of the poor. And there will be 21st Century Robin Hoods. Pharmaceutical workers will post instructions on how to create the newest drugs on-line. Hackers will steal Wi-Fi signals and tap into the power grid. The black market will rival the free market.

History is not without stories like the vision I am projecting: While some forms of radical religion left England to come to the colonies in the form of Puritans, Pilgrims, and Quakers, England had many other radical religious groups that decided to stay including groups known as the Diggers and Levelers that aspired to take back the land from royalty. There was the French Revolution. But, we can also look to countries across the globe where the ultra-rich live alongside extreme poverty. I doubt few in this room would happily trade places with a Saudi Arabian prince or an African general in a country under military rule. I will admit to not knowing much about those lives, but it seems to me that if you owe your security to armed personnel on your payroll, rather than to the safety found in common prosperity, you are living a type of life that I would not like to live.

Am I saying this will happen? Probably not, but it could. And, it will probably happen in much smaller increments. People will put out laundry lines and supplement their diets with homegrown vegetables. People will seek out forms of entertainment and relaxation that are less costly. Many people will save $1,000 a year by turning off their cable, $600 by quitting the gym and going to the park instead. People will rediscover the meaning of luxury, a term that has lost its meaning as most people in our society use or consume multiple luxury products and services every single day. People will trade down in their habits of consumption. [The business book Trading Up by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske describes the rise of new luxury goods.]

In this vision, the public library will ascend and Borders, Barnes & Noble, Netflix, and Blockbuster will decline. The public square has disappeared from our landscape so we will reclaim it. In our metro area, the public square has been perverted by places like the Town Center Plaza, Zona Rosa, The Legends, and the Power & Light District. Those places are the antithesis of the public square (which is not to say they are not fun), but if you go there, make sure you bring your credit card.

Contrast this with a proper public square such as the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain where street musicians fill the air with delightful music, people set up tables for cards and chess, and you can bring your own picnic supper. You can have a grand evening at the Plaza Mayor without spending a euro. Perhaps, if you are feeling fat in the pocketbook you might purchase a gelato or some churros y chocolate.

I think this would take a lot of adjustment for many Americans who seem to equate having a good time with spending money. In this morning’s reading, the poem “Happiness” by Raymond Carver, the poet observes two boys delivering papers in the early morning light while he gazes out the window and sips a cup of coffee.

The poet observe the two boys whose happiness seems to be entirely in the moment, disconnected from even the earnings and spending power gained by their modest business. What will the man do after he finishes his coffee and the sun fully rises? Will he go off to work? Will he write poetry? Is he retired? The poem is silent. The final stanza of the poem declares, “Happiness. It comes on suddenly. / And goes beyond, really, / any early morning talk about it.” How many of us can really claim the same? Can we imagine a happiness that does not want or desire?

In the children’s book Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, Henry is a stand-in for Henry David Thoreau. I cannot tell you whether anything like this race to Fitchburg ever took place in history although I can tell you that it is easy to imagine Thoreau getting up and deciding to spend the day just walking to Fitchburg. I can also tell you of those immortal words from Walden where Thoreau writes, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us.” So, listen to the prophet of Concord:
“The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is […] an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour […] but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get our sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you.”
The Irishman of Thoreau’s day is the Mexican, the Filipino, and the Nigerian of today. But Thoreau is asking a bigger question: do the railroads serve us or do we serve them? Does our economic system serve us well or do we live to serve it? We can measure, with exacting certitude, the rising and falling of bank accounts, retirement portfolios, and debt. How shall we measure whether we are fair, whether we are moral, whether we add to the sum of justice and goodness and mercy in the world? Do we have a spiritual practice that helps us to create better relationships with others around us? I am describing an economy of faith. We will return to that topic in three weeks to close out this sermon series.

So, what is the future of the American dream? The meaning of the term, “American Dream,” is a loaded term. We have so often used it to describe a certain style of living, a certain amount of wealth, owning certain possessions, and taking vacations to certain places. And yet, I think of other dreams:

When John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” he was not dreaming of taking a cruise.

When Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream… It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” he was not speaking of a three car garage.

When the Hebrew prophet Joel announced, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions,” the visions and dreams were not about whose flock of sheep would be larger.

The time might come… the time might come to gather in the streets and roast marshmallows on spits hewn from un-neighborly fences. More likely, we will find smaller ways to cooperate, share, assist, and build community. But amidst these smaller ways we should not forget our bigger dreams or our larger visions.