Gain the world, lose your…

The easy and clever thing to say would be Seoul, since this blog is a commentary on the intersection of faith and life. It would be fitting too, since questions of immigration and assimilation for Christians involve an intersection of the issues of material prosperity and living faithfully as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

America is a country founded not on a national principle of ethnic solidarity, nor even of geographic commonality. It is founded on an ideology that can be definitively traced back the European Enlightenment. Men of great wealth, extensive property, and high idealism formulated a republic loosely connected to Christian ideas, but more firmly rooted in “liberty,” whatever that means. This is encapsulated in our Declaration of Independence which affirms that men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The expansion of the American ideal has taken more than two centuries, and can still be said to be a great unfinished experiment.

Beneath these lofty and idealistic sentiments however, lie another, baser reality which has been as fundamental to the formation of this nation, and which must be taken seriously by Christians who want to engage the culture that surrounds us. If America can be said to have any god, any national religion – it is the god of wealth. Almost every controversy, every major social and political realignment, from the Articles of Confederation to the Civil War to Civil Rights is intimately connected with a “pursuit of happiness” that has all too readily devolved into the pursuit of material and economic prosperity. It was not, contrary to what some people believe, any innate hatred of Africans that led to their enslavement by Europeans, nor was the conquest of indigenous peoples driven primarily by a messianic vision of manifest destiny. Rather both racism and manifest destiny were post facto ideologies developed to justify what is a much baser motive: greed. Free land and free labor were the foundations of the American prosperity we today enjoy. The accumulation of material good is the contemporary manifestation of that religion.

The church, not only in America, but throughout history, has contended with the very real god of Mammon . From the beginning, the apostle had to write warnings against the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself and against the association of material prosperity with God’s blessing. Ironically, I have hardly ever heard a sermon on I Timothy 6.9 about the snares that inevitably trap those who desire to be rich and who find themselves pierced through with “many sorrows.” It is perhaps too unpalatable a passage for those who have swam in these cultural waters for so long.

Part of the mythology of America is that immigrants have flocked here because it is the “land of opportunity.” Like all myths, this one is rooted in fact. America was and is a beacon of economic and even political opportunity. What is obscured in this myth is that in most cases the driving motivation has not been political, but economic, and that those who immigrated are often those with at least some means within their own countries of origin. The poorest cannot afford to escape and the wealthiest have no incentive to leave. So then the immigrants that have come to America often come with the social and cultural skills to “make it.”

What does this have to do with the gospel? If it is difficult to dethrone the god of Mammon for those of us who have been born here; it is even more difficult in the lives of those who came here to pursue Mammon’s fruit. Most contemporary immigrants do not come for the privilege of being better disciples or of worshipping God more freely than in their home countries. Indeed many do not come to worship of the living God until after they have immigrated. Immigrants come to make the best living possible for themselves and for their children.

The cost of that decision is paid not only by the parents who leave comfort and familiarity for what is all too often years of sacrifice. The cost is also paid by their children who are bequeathed an inheritance of a twilight ethnicity and an irrelevant gospel that seems utterly abstracted from the challenges they face day by day.

Reared by parents who prioritize material success over gospel adherence and assimilation for the sake of such prosperity over the value of culture, is it any wonder then that many 2nd generation find themselves also worshipping at the altar of Mammon while experiencing an existential and spiritual void that remains unmet by the culturally neutered gospel to which they’ve been exposed? How can they worship a god who is dis-incarnated – removed from their lives and experience, and irrelevant to their concerns? A Jesus who does not sympathize with the issues faced by latch-key kids with distant parents who demands academic success or at least the façade of social propriety seems less a mighty savior and more a Confucian tyrant dressed up in Western garb.

The Scylla of an irrelevant gospel is met on the other side by an equally ravenous Charybdis that threatens to shipwreck the faith and life of those who ply the waters of this existence. It is the monster of un-ethnicity, a ethnic reality that is affirmed in one place, declared unimportant in another, and altogether ignored in the church, which should be the one place where the totality of our humanity must be confronted and reformed in the image of Christ.

So then over and again the wealth obtained through great sacrifice and worthy effort often issues forth in the destruction of those things held most sacred by all cultures and particularly by Christians. Relationship with God through Christ becomes less important than relationship with “stuff” through VISA. The sharing of hearth and table, the places across which identity and culture are transmitted becomes less important than simply being “a person” distinguished only by the shape of ones eyes, the color of ones skin, and the brand name of the label of the designer purse. All else of history, legacy, story, and culture are sacrificed to Mammon. Gaining the world and losing what matters most.

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