Friday, June 6, 2008

Is the "Good Life" an American Entitlement?

With the price of gasoline racing toward $4.00/gallon, and recent reports of oil prices reaching $150/barrel, many Americans are panicking. But why should we not panic when our increasingly stentorian media dutifully and daily stokes the fire of our impending economic doom? In the face of this increasing threat to our personal independence, some take the drastic measure of parking their cars and riding bicycles; others trade their Hummers for Rav-4s, or swap their Pathfinders for Priuses. For many Americans, our paradigm of entitlement is changing. It has to. Perhaps our perceived God-given, divinely sanctioned right to guzzle gasoline (and other resources) to our hearts content is not etched in eternal stone after all?

Theologian Jon Sobrino, in his prophetically powerful and incisive book Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity and Hope argues that residents of the First World can no longer operate under the assumption that "the good life" is their divinely sanctioned, eternally elected lot in life--their "manifest destiny." This assumption, he writes, has served to justify and sustain the remarkable disparity between those who have and those who don't along ethnic, national, social and geographical lines. The "blessing of God" stamp has been used by many in the West to set themselves over those existing, or rather subsisting, on the margins and in the periphery. The profits and comforts of the rich (first world) have come in part through the taxation of the poor (third world).

In this time of economic gloom and doom, it's wise for those of us residents of the Empire (read: United States) to re-examine our perceived sense of entitlement for "the good life." Perhaps we will have to give up our SUV's, pay a little more for bananas, and generally cut short our habitual profligacy. But maybe it won't be so bad to bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots, even if just for a season. In any case, it might give us a better sense of what heaven will be like.

I don't mean to minimize the struggle these difficult days mean for those living in the United States (or elsewhere in the West) who cannot pay their mortgage, cannot feed their children, and cannot fill their gas tanks to get to their jobs--or to find one.

But I don't think Sobrino's lesson is for them. It's for those of us who may have to loosen our grip a little on the American dream, in which reality is catching up to the fiction that life is meant to be easy and that no object of desire lies outside our reach. But reality can be hard for all of us to accept--especially for me. I like my Pathfinder.


Sports Dave said...

"generally cut short our habitual prolifigacy."

Nice line, boss.

A while back I was reading an essay that was a bit dated by an evangelical racial reconciler named Spencer Perkins. The premise of the essay was that the African-American church had a great deal of difficulty standing with mainstream '80s evangelical pro-lifers, because some of the same figures who were prominent in the '80s Moral Majority (Folwell, Dobson, etc.) were the same people who twenty years earlier had referred to Dr. King as a "communist". Perkins also noted that it was hard to stand on the same protest line as people who would start to move to the suburbs when "too many blacks moved into their neighborhood."

Like Sobrino, Fuller Seminary professor Mel Robeck and others, I think that there needs to be quite a bit of discussion in evangelical churches about the practices of poverty, simplicity, and reconciliation in everyday life. We need to carefully reflect not only on how we spend our money and how we help the needs of others, but also on how we incarnationally model racial and class reconciliation in our daily lives.

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Yeah, I liked that line too :)

Your comment is well-said. For all the emphasis evangelicals put on "application," it seems we should be well-suited for the job. But, in truth, we don't even know where to start. An earnest conversation--with those serving and living on the "margins"--might be a natural place to begin.

Silas said...

With the recent turn to the life and ministry of Jesus (particularly the eschatological teachings of the Sermon on the Mount) in reflections, Evangelical or not, on ethics and poverty, it become clear that the Christian life of discipleship (ethics) demands a radical re-membering of Christ's way, not simply a reordering of economic choices based on market pressures and finanical straining. Does Jesus' call to radical faithfulness to the Gospel (Matthew 10...) not demand a far more demanding change? IF we take Jesus (and the early Christain tradition, mystical and not) seriously, than the Good life is not simply riding your bike to work, or getting rid of your Pathfinder, all the way reminding yourself that you have it comparitively good. The Good life gets so radically redefinied by the Christological deconstruction of economics, that any reconstruction of the good life for the Christian disciple goes far beyond simply 'applying practices of poverty' or 'having conversations with marginalized people,'

Poverty is deeply eschatological. The poor get to experience the Futurity of God. If the Good life for the Christian is the life with God, in the Eternal Now, does that not demand that we abandon the life that is the American way? Does the Gospel call us to such a radical being-with-others that we must not only give up our Pathfinders but also our Paychecks?