Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. All men, all persons, are created equal. And the inalienable rights to which we are entitled are given to us by the Creator. These are four of the concepts that are intrinsic to our historical view of being American. It is the very nature of our existence to be free and forward-moving, to be seekers, and to include everyone in that freedom. We value life, according to the declaration, and liberty—or freedom—and the pursuit of happiness, which I have always taken to mean the pursuit of what fulfills each individual.
I’ve grown up in a time where the American Dream has come to refer to material gain. The pursuit of happiness has come to mean expanding one’s net worth in order to afford McMansions, SUVs, vacation homes and expensive wardrobes and furnishings. Too many people measure the dream that is America by the acquisition of wealth. And, honestly, even those of us who don’t have to admit that the rest of the world sees our country’s concept of freedom as meaning primarily freedom to take whatever we want, like spoiled children who have never been disciplined.
But my American dream still has those founding values at its core. And although I don’t always like the course my country may be taking as a whole, I do believe there is hope. Lots of people came to this country believing they could live a utopian dream. As Garrison Keillor said on A Prairie Home Companion the other night, we know we have a good thing, because people won’t stop trying to get in here!
Main Entry: uto•pia
Etymology: Utopia, imaginary and ideal country in Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More, from Greek ou not, no + topos place
1 : an imaginary and indefinitely remote place
2 often capitalized : a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions
3 : an impractical scheme for social improvement
I believe in that “often capitalized” definition of Utopia: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions. But I don’t believe that Utopia is going to come up and knock us on the head!! With all this freedom comes the responsibility to bring about the same freedom for others.
Now here’s a problem for Christians. There’s a historical attitude for some of us that this life is meant to be hard, but that’s okay because we’re going to be free in heaven someday. And while I am a believer in some kind of heaven, there is a trap in focusing so strongly on that view of our lives. It gives us an excuse to give up on the world and wait patiently to be invited into the New Jerusalem someday. Because surely the New Jerusalem is heaven, right?
Well, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think Jesus calls upon us to bring it about here and now. He didn’t tell the disciples to sit around praying and waiting for the end of the world. He sent them out to share the good news that God’s reign is near at hand. He told them to travel light; he told them not to worry about it when their message fell on deaf ears. Just keep moving and sharing the good news, he said. Some people are called to that still. But most of us are called to be in one place, and one of the most powerful ways we have to share the good news is to live out God’s commonwealth of love right here and now. We do it by caring for the hungry, the homeless, the lonely and the friendless. We do it by loving each other. We do it by speaking up in the face of injustice, as Jesus did. We do it by being first and foremost people of our faith, a living and active faith.
It’s not easy. It’s quite difficult, in fact. For in this country of political and religious freedom, we may find ourselves in disagreement with those closest to us. It wasn’t just true during the Civil War. The lines drawn between the red states and the blue states on the political map can be drawn between neighbors, friends and even members of our families. In my family, we were Baptist Republicans on mom’s side and Methodist Democrats on dad’s side. One grandmother gave her money to Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and the other grandmother was on the first board of Planned Parenthood in our community. They grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, knew the same people and even saw their children get married, but they had the freedom to be different and to interpret God’s calling in their lives very differently.
That’s where freedom gets hard. Your pursuit of happiness and mine may take very different roads. As a person of faith, I believe our pursuit of happiness is found in seeking after God’s will for our lives, knowing full well we are free to seek it or not. We’re each born with some quality to develop that will show us our destiny, some seed in our soul which is looking for the right circumstances to root and then to break through and blossom. God, who set Creation in motion, is waiting to see if we will seek Him. God, who made the sun and rain that nourish growing things, is waiting to see if we will turn our faces toward Her. The real utopia is not getting to a place of peace when we die, but making God’s peace manifest while we live, a peace that includes enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, a warm coat to wear, a good school and a steady job. In America, we have all the resources anyone could dream of for making it happen. What will we choose to do?