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Retelling the American 'Kingdom of God' Story

04/18/2012 03:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2012

"What's that I smell in the air? The American Dream!
Sweet as a new millionaire: the American Dream!
Pre-packed, ready-to-wear, the American Dream.
And best of all, it's for sale! The American Dream!"
(Boublil and Schonberg, Miss Saigon. 1989)

The American Dream is a common motif in an election year, a story line that encapsulates national history and future vision, a provocative thread that is adapted and heralded in candidates' speeches to suit political perspectives on social norms, economic theories, international policies, religious and secular ideals. Our national story of an American Dream is irrevocably intertwined with Christian imagery of the Kingdom of God, in part due to the early visions of European settlers who strove to establish the rule of God in the new world through civic institutions.

President Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February demonstrated the fine line between our religious and civic ideals, between our Kingdom of God and American Dream stories:

"[The Golden Rule] asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do -- to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.

While self-reliance and individual progress are arguably the face of the American Dream, simultaneously that dream is impossible without community. Thus the plot line of the American Dream shares two pivotal questions with the plot line of the Kingdom of God: "Who am I?" and "Who am I in relation to others?" Am I a self-made success? Has the community impacted my advancement or failure? Did God alone get me here? Does God have a commitment to the well-being of my neighbor? Do I?

The nation's belief in a particular retelling of the American Dream can win or lose an election for a presidential candidate and political party. How and whether the American Church is involved in shaping the American Dream story -- the American "Kingdom of God" story -- is noteworthy during the election season, given the related Dream and Kingdom plots. To be sure, religious heavyweights from James Dobson to the Catholic bishops are adding their voices and finances to the conversations on particular issues, but as a whole, the Church is not participating as a storyteller of the American Dream story in the way that Jesus was once a subversive narrator of the Kingdom of God story.

When Jesus got involved in retelling the Kingdom of God story, he wasn't starting from scratch. Just the phrase "Kingdom of God" alone evoked the entire story line of ancient Israel: not a solely spiritual story but a political history of the expectations of a nation and its God-appointed leaders. The Kingdom of God was a literary summation of Israel's hopes for God's works to rescue and sustain Israel. Jesus subverted the Kingdom of God plot as he retold it: announcing its imminent arrival, inviting tax collectors and prostitutes and children into the Kingdom community, and envisioning a Kingdom that was greater than one nation's redemption.

The American Church has been neglecting its role as a storyteller of the American Dream story, as a prophetic minstrel transforming the American "Kingdom of God" -- not merely opining from the right or the left on moral concerns, not remaining quiet in deference to the distinctions between church and state, but engaging and relating to the nation as a creative narrator with a commitment to observe, question, disrupt, and reshape the American Dream.