Sin Killed the American Dream

The American dream is not dead for economic reasons alone.


The American Dream used to include thoughts of retirement, where one could live off the fruits of a lifetime of toil and enjoy family, friends, and maybe a bit of travel to see the world. Now, many of us have absolutely no thought of ever stopping, and will be in the workforce until no one will pay us anymore.

No doubt virtually all of us should be putting away more than we are, rather than spending everything we earn today, but is that really the complete answer? According to this article in the New York Times, no:

The standard prescription is that Americans should put more money aside in investments. The recommendation, however, glosses over a critical driver of unpreparedness: Wall Street is bleeding savers dry.

Complaining about Wall Street is far too easy. Wall Street is only able to do what it does because Washington, DC runs interference for them, in order to get those fat campaign contributions that keep them in Congressional clover.

We could legitimately say Wall Street is the pickpocket on the street, stealing through self-serving schemes and advice, but government is the boss back in the smoke-filled room taking his cut for protecting the local criminals, and keeping them out of jail.

How many bankers went to prison for the clear corruption and fraud in the mortgage debacle of 2008? How many from JPMorgan served time for selling counties and cities across the country on derivatives schemes that earned Wall Street billions, and left taxpayers on the hook for trillions?

[See also, “Most Americans Have No Savings.”]

What is the solution?

It’s absolutely fair to say that without government power many big banks would be out of business within ten years (maybe sooner)—they’re used to taking foolish risks that handsomely pay off for them, and getting bailed out by taxpayers when their games bite them. Kill the Federal Reserve and get Washington out of the marketplace (except in prosecuting fraud) and things would begin to balance.

But that, too, is not getting to the root of the problem.

Our Creator says that one of the two great commandments is to love our neighbors as we already love ourselves (Mark 12:31). We are instructed to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

If Wall Street and Washington followed those commands, imagine how different life would be.

I have always been captured by the comprehensive (and convicting) wisdom of those who wrote what is known as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms—statements of Christian belief and life, and questions to teach people God’s requirements.

Most all of us know the short phrasing of the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not steal.” But the authors of the catechism beautifully and hauntingly capture the fullness of all that those simple words demand of us:

141. What are the duties required in the eighth commandment?

The duties required in the eighth commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretiship [taking responsibility on behalf of another], or other like engagements; and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.

142. What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?

The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depredation; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.

I could write pages on these words—and spend time on many of the phrases, but let me focus on just one, at the end of question 141: “…to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.”

Again, imagine those in business and government were as concerned about the wellbeing of others as they are of their own, and that of their friends and family. That is our calling in this world, as creatures made in God’s image.

Who of us lives up to that? Not me. Not you. But that is the standard to which we are called–it’s required. So… what shall we do about our guilt in not obeying?

Uncomfortable considerations such as these make Christians profoundly grateful for the good news announced by God in Jesus Christ. Admittedly, absolutely no one in this fallen, sinful world lives up to God’s Laws. Not one.

But… God offers forgiveness despite our misdeeds.

God grants pardon even though we are far, far more guilty and wretched than we’ll ever fully understand. And it’s not through a simple wave of His hand—and dismissal of the charges—as if it’s no big deal; He did not waive the demands of His own Law. No, He Himself fulfilled those demands in Jesus.

Jesus lived a perfect life, and deserves everything. Our crimes against Heaven justly merit a death sentence. The Bible tells a story of a Creator Who responded to our rebellion by setting up a plethora of signs and symbols and ceremonies that would testify that He Himself was going to pay the price for our sin.

Jesus took the penalty we deserved—the death of the Cross, and gave us the Heaven that was His—eternal life with the Father.

That offer is held out whether you’re a Wall Street pirate, a Congressional Caesar, or… a hard-working citizen who appears from the outside as if he or she is a great asset to the community, but still fails to live up to the fullness of the commands to love, care for, and seek the good of our neighbors.

Yes, we need reform on Wall Street and in DC, but at root each and every one of us needs renewal in our own heart. Reform will never come, until each of us repents of our failings. Reform will not come in places of power and authority, until it comes in the people who inhabit those places.

Without such an awakening, the darkness will consume us all. Look at the “income inequality” in places like Nigeria (go ahead, Google it). That is what we have to look forward to, if an awakening does not come. Pray for it.

That reality is much more crucial than the looming difficulties we face in retirement.