The Myth of the American Dream

Adaptation of The Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield
Adapted from the Introduction

When I was young, it was so simple. I thought God was good. I thought God rewarded those who obeyed the rules. I thought my good news was accessible to everyone if only they had the ears to listen. I thought my country was a place where hard work was rewarded on a level playing field, no matter where you came from. Luckily, my life was complicated in beautiful ways that scraped at my very soul. I was plunged into a situation where I was confronted with my privilege and there was no way to wriggle out of it. Volunteering with, working with, and eventually living alongside people who had experienced forced migration help to shatter the unspoken norms I had built up in my mind—what I call the myth of the American Dream, but which can also be called empire or dominant culture ideology.

I slowly realized I did not have a worldview or an ethical framework that accounted for realities different from my own. I was unable to solve the problems of my new friends with my correct doctrine, a Protestant work ethic, and the belief that I was at the tail end of a long line of people who had perfected the art of getting everything right about how to be a human. While the bills and stories and heartbreaks piled up in the lives of people around me, I had to recognize that there were larger forces at play that negatively affected people in my own city, country, and the world—and these systems seemed to harm people in particular who were not White, middle-class evangelicals like me.

For many of us, our lives have been carefully designed to follow certain values: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, perhaps. When I started to meditate on Luke 4, on taking Jesus at his word that this is the work he came to do, my own unspoken values started to shimmer to the surface. I began by asking questions: What is the opposite of poor? Of captivity, blindness, oppression? As I meditated on this question, the answers surprised me. The answers, it turned out, were the defining values of my life, the ones I was perpetually striving for, all in the name of a “good” life.

Affluence, autonomy, safety, and power. Four concrete values that bled into each other and seeped into my bones, affecting the decisions I made every day, from the tiniest to the monumental. I feel drawn to pursue these values with little to no self-interrogation: of course, I want a good house in a good neighborhood, a stable job, the ability to provide for myself and my family, the best education possible for our kids, a life of ease and comfort, the ability to keep death and pain at bay, the opportunity to lead and to be at the top of the hierarchy, to be seen as an expert and accomplished, to take what I am owed by my virtue and hard work.

Fighting for, hoarding, colonizing, and grasping after each of these values was something so ingrained in me that I didn’t recognize how powerful these desires had become or how they had oriented me in the opposite direction to Jesus. And I do mean opposite: when people of privilege pursue affluence, autonomy, safety, and power above everything else, not only do they miss out on the liberating and restorative work of Jesus, but they participate in greater inequality, segregation, and suffering for the most marginalized people in their community. When people of means pursue what is best for them and their own in an unequal society, their actions inevitably harm the common good. People like myself end up disobeying the central commandment of Jesus—to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves—all in the name of pursuing a dream life for ourselves.

The myth of the American Dream comes in many forms, but its most basic iteration goes like this: anyone can make something of themselves if only they try hard enough. This myth is a double-edged sword. If the systems and structures that shape your world have worked for you, then you will believe this idea; it will strengthen your worldview and give you confidence that you’ve done something right, that you’re being rewarded for a job well done. And if other people experience it differently—say, if they are unable to find a job that pays a living wage or get access to education or secure a loan to buy a house—then something must be wrong with them, not the system. The myth of the American Dream not only baptizes the actions and desires of the privileged but also places the blame of inequality on those who are already disadvantaged, instead of turning the focus on changing the unjust systems.


Taken from The Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield. Copyright (c) 2020 by Danielle Mayfield. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. ivpress.com

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