The North American Life is Not the Abundant Life

July 21, 2022

“The quest for aliveness is the best thing about religion, I think. It’s what we’re hoping for when we pray. It’s why we gather, celebrate, eat, abstain, attend, practice, sing, and contemplate. When people say, ‘I’m spiritual,’ what they mean, I think, is simple: ‘I’m seeking aliveness’” (xv).

“We have created an economic system that is not only too big to fail; it is too big to control—and perhaps too big to understand as well. This system disproportionately benefits the most powerful and privileged 1 percent of the human species, bestowing upon them unprecedented comfort, security, and luxury. To do so, it destabilizes the climate, plunders the planet, and kills off other forms of life at unprecedented rates” (xvi).

“One of their greatest losses is democracy, as those at the top find clever ways to buy votes, turning elected governments into their puppets. Under these circumstances, you would think that at least those at the top would experience aliveness. But they don’t. They bend under constant anxiety and pressure to produce, earn, compete, maintain, protect, hoard, and consume more and more, faster and faster. They lose the connection and well-being that come from seeking the common good. This is not an economy of aliveness for anyone” (xvi).

“So, our world truly needs a global spiritual movement dedicated to aliveness. … it must be a movement, because by definition movements stir and focus grassroots human desire to bring change to institutions and the societies those institutions are intended to serve” (xvi).

––Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking

These four quotations belong together and can be responded to as one. I take “aliveness” to be what Jesus promised his followers when he reputedly stated, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). But the abundant life Jesus came to give humans was not an abundance of stuff, but an abundance of true identity, purpose, release and growth.[1] Whatever the North American lifestyle involves, for most of us, it doesn’t result in “abundance” or “aliveness,” but rather in insecurity, anxiety, moments of fulfilment but lack of real purpose and, often, a feeling of ongoing burden.

Interestingly, Qoheleth (i.e., Ecclesiastes) though living as an elite in his society stated, “I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business [NIV – what a heavy burden] that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 1:12-14). In our twenty-first century world, most of us North Americans are among the elite of the world. Yet all of our “things” and even our political freedom via “democracy” does not bring us solace, but rather anxiety and the fear that we might lose these things, even though they fail to satisfy our deepest desires.

McLaren wrote these words in 2014 (or before), yet they speak somewhat prophetically of exactly what we are experiencing throughout the world today: an economic system that disproportionately benefits (materially and financially) the most powerful and privileged, while “it destabilizes the climate, plunders the planet, and kills off other forms of life at unprecedented rates.” And so, the majority of us are suffering under a political system where those who “lead” have lost “the connection and well-being that come from seeking the common good” and thus lead us down the black hole of all-consuming individualism and self-interest, where we view all who “get in our way” as enemies. The populist leaders promise to return all of us to some fairy tale golden age of individual freedoms and comfort, yet their own entitlement makes their promise a hollow one, as they seek their own self-interests first and foremost.

The correction will not come through each of us asserting our own individual interests above and beyond those of our fellow humans, but rather as we reawaken a sense of community and thus seeking the common good again. Otherwise, we will continue to descend deeper into the black hole of all-consuming individualism and self-interest. Some of us may “get more” stuff by doing so, but we will not find “peace” and “rest for our souls.” The lifestyle demonstrated by Jesus is the one that pleases God because it results in the most “peace” for the most people. Life in this world will never be without struggles and challenges, but it doesn’t have to be an endless and useless spinning of our wheels, stuck in virtually one place, until we burn out, dying first spiritually, then physically.

What is needed is a grassroots movement of individuals who embrace the Jesus’ way, to the best of their ability, shining a light, in the darkness, on the “peace” that is possible as we individually and collectively seek the common good of all humanity. In my remaining years, that’s the “movement” of which I want to be a part. That is the only way that humanity will “be great again.”

In this context, I urge you read (or reread) the entirety of the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7.  As we grasp, embrace and strive to live out these principles, I believe we can make a difference.  

[1] See Matthew 11:28-30; John 14:27; 16:33, and so many more. The Greek word translated “peace” in the NT is often used to translate the Hebrew word “shalom” in the OT. “Shalom” does not so much refer to outward peace (in terms of circumstances) but rather inward peace or “well-being” and “health of mind”.

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