The Limits of Prosperity

Since its founding, the United States has been a nation committed to prosperity. At times, dreams of prosperity have inspired both large amounts of immigration to our country as well as mass migrations within our country. We have not been on a straight uphill climb of economic growth without setbacks and challenges, but the general direction of our economic output and standard of living has been up.

The “Greatest Generation” grew up in the Depression and went on to defeat the most powerful military threat since Napoleon and Genghis Khan. They came home to the most industrialized country in the world and, after a post-war recession, grew our collective prosperity in the 1950s and 60s.

Their children, the “Boomers,” were the beneficiaries of all that prosperity, but they wanted more — more freedom, more voice. Free love and anti-Vietnam conflict protests characterized the generation, but they went on to defeat the USSR, not through military action, but primarily through economic action. Our “prosperity engine” produced more revenue than the USSR and we were able to use it to modernize and grow our military, breaking the Soviet economy as they fell behind in the arms race.

Now, the Boomers’ children are still engaged in our country’s longest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have been unable to fundamentally change the political and cultural landscape to our favor. The Islamist world points to the United States as a “great Satan,” full of decadence and imperialism. This criticism is, at least in part, pointed toward our prosperity.

Even internal to our own country, we see doubts and counter-cultural shifts against the idea of unmitigated prosperity. Minimalism has become a growing trend as well as, to a lesser extent, freeganism. Both of these movements can be framed as reactions to our excessive prosperity as a culture. Our rampant consumerism, largely fueled by businesses seeking constant growth, has led to a complexity of technology and choices for all kinds of products and services, and yet many people today seem to desire greater simplicity in their lives — a reduction of choice.

As we have “conquered the world” in many regards in the 20th century, we lack a common enemy or cause to provide us the simplicity of a compelling, shared goal. Lacking this common goal, we are awash with fragmented causes, though the prevailing mood seems to be increasingly, “Just leave me alone and let me watch Netflix.”

This is the context we find ourselves in as a church. Too often we are seen as one more special interest cause in a sea of choices. We are not just another option for community involvement and self-actualization, though. We offer simplicity and a counter-prosperity hope. Water, wine, and bread are not merely symbolic, but possess power. To seek God and to be united with him is a life-consuming venture, one that brings simplicity, contentment, and rest.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)


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