Critiquing the American dream

In pub theology the other week, we talked about the American dream: what it was, whether it was inherently exploitative, and whether it has changed. According to Wikipedia, “The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about the danger of the American dream in Between the World and Me:

“When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you [my son].”

According to Coates, the American dream is inherently oppressive, as it causes us to focus primarily on our own personal good and escape from the reality around us, especially the role that race plays in hurting society.

Ryan Cooper, in “The American Dream is a Lie” concurs with Coates:

Coates connects this death [of the promising young man, Prince Jones], and the others much like it happening daily, directly to the American Dream. Gruesome human sacrifice is what undergirds the picket fences and ice cream socials of the “people who believe they are white.” . . .

[This] is not to deny the fact that many Americans enjoy considerable prosperity in this country. Many millions do float easily on the tide of America’s fantastic wealth. The lie is found in the universal application of the Dream, that America is a place where everyone can get a fair shot at a decent life. . .

The American Dream allows us whites to pretend that our relative affluence is the result of our own actions on a fair playing field. But it just ain’t so.”

 

Cooper’s article also contains an interesting and helpful quote by David Brooks where he points to the good that the American dream has given us:

“[A] dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility, and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past… It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. [The New York Times]

Brooks points us to the wonderful freedom and opportunity that has been present for many of us in (North) America, a freedom that has benefited many Christians, especially on account of the value placed on hard work and help for those in our network who are struggling. At the same time, it is important not to close our ears to Coates words, recognizing that, for many different reasons, the opportunities that each individual receives are not the same, and the hard work that we’ve put into things do not produce the same results. Furthermore, the focus on the individual and one’s own achievements has a degree of self-righteousness, selfishness and works righteousness is counter to the Christian teaching of loving one’s neighbour and the recognition that, as the Psalms often say, sometimes the wicked prosper.

Graduate students and the tax plan

Graduate (and professional) students are not particularly known for paying attention to news or politics. There just isn’t time and energy for that. Yet, the proposed tax plan has made a lot of graduate students pay attention, on account of the proposal to tax tuition waivers. For many students, this would increase the amount of taxes they pay by several thousand dollars, which causes a lot of anxiety among a population that does not generally have a lot of extra money.

Graduate students organized a walkout today to protest the tax plan. As NPR reported,

“Graduate students around the country walked out of their classes, office hours, and research labs to protest the House Republican tax plan Wednesday.

‘This plan is going to be disastrous for higher ed,’ said Jack Nicoludis, a Harvard graduate student in chemistry, who helped organize a protest on the campus. He said the bill would more than double his taxes’ . . . “

Lego Grad Student provides a helpful illustration of how significantly taxes would increase for many students. PhD Comics has also chimed in about the tax plan.

Irrelevant of your political leanings and/or your opinion of the proposed tax plan, please pray and advocate for those who are worried that they would be negatively affected by it and that creative solutions might be found so that the good research and innovation that is done by graduate students (and universities in general) might continue.

 

A prayer for our world

In light of everything that has happened in the last weeks, the following is a response from the leadership of the Christian Reformed Church:

Earlier this year, an estimated 20 million people were already living on the brink of starvation in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria. In August and September, hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria tore through the Caribbean and the United States, causing untold damage. As hurricane recovery began, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico killed more than 300 people and left 6,000 injured. Soon after, we heard about the plight of Rohingya refugees who were being massacred in Myanmar and were forced to flee for Bangladesh. And more recently, we were faced with news of a terrible attack on the streets of Edmonton, a horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, and raging wildfires in California.

These are just a handful of the hurts taking place in our world right now. There are also daily acts of racism and injustice, persecution of people because of their faith, and ongoing discrimination against people with disabilities.

Our hearts are heavy as we consider all of this suffering. The sheer scope and scale of need can overwhelm us and leave us feeling helpless to respond. Yet, even in times of immense darkness and suffering we are reminded that God is in control.

[Please] join us in a time of both lament and praise. We wish to express the heaviness on our hearts, to stand in solidarity with those who hurt, and to grieve and mourn for that which has been lost. We also celebrate that we serve a God who heals brokenness and despair, who hears our cries, and who has promised to heal our broken and hurting world.

Please pray.

Taken from https://www.crcna.org/news-and-views/council-delegates-urges-prayer-our-hurting-world

Responding to Charlottesville

Staying silent after the events this weekend in Charlottesville is not an option. At the same time, many graduate and professional students don’t know how to respond. Certainly most graduate students (Christian or not) would condemn racism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, and any other sort of hatred towards another person. Yet, responding well to a situation is hard: unfortunately, most graduate and professional students find it hard to find enough time both to research what actually happened and to participate in good events that truly speak against this hatred.

I, too, don’t know enough or understand enough about what happened in Charlottesville. I am thankful, however, that I am part of a wider church (Christian Reformed Church and beyond) that has others who have already written wise words in response.

Jul Medenblik, the president of Calvin Seminary, highlighted both how Calvin Seminary is a “diverse, international community [that] is a wonderful anticipation of the great multitude ‘from every nation, tribe, people, and language’ who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ (Rev. 7:9-10)” and that they take “seriously the call of Synod 1996 of the Christian Reformed Church ‘to witness publicly against racism, prejudice, and related unemployment, poverty, and injustices and in defense of all people as image bearers of God.'” Because of this, they/we “condemn all manifestations of nationalist racism and white supremacy, including recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.” An official statement of the Christian Reformed Church can be found here.

Chong, a former campus minister, has written a helpful and pointed article in the CRC’s monthly magazine, arguing that we are not only to denounce racism but also that we are to respond further by praying, examining ourselves and working.

Finally, to understand better the situation this past weekend, I suggest reading Brian McLaren’s first person account of his experience there (as clergy) where he also suggests next steps.