I hear this idea thrown around quite a bit — especially within Christian circles — and believe me, I get it. We have a lot to be thankful for in the Untied States. Our wealth, opportunity and social mobility save us from hunger, starvation and extreme poverty. Many Americans can afford nice homes. Many have access to a quality education and world-class healthcare. We are not plagued with diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS ravaging people all over the world.
While this is not true for everyone in the United States, when compared to the rest of the world, we are wealthy beyond measure and this provides us with a great deal of comfort and opportunity.
Americans should feel some gratitude. Thank God my entire family is healthy. None of us are malnourished. None have life-threatening diseases. Praise God that none have been trafficked into slavery. Should all of this translate into authentic expressions of gratitude? Yes. Does this mean that we are blessed? Maybe… but not so fast.
While I hear “blessing” thrown around to describe the good things in our lives, I struggle to pinpoint what this word actually means. What did God mean when he told Abraham that he would bless him, and that he would be a blessing to the nations? Did this imply wealth, security, comfort or good health? If this is truly what God was referring to, as many Christians in the United States seem to believe, it raises a couple of serious questions:
1) Does God’s blessing ever come at the expense of others?
I have benefitted from many amazing opportunities. I have studied in Egypt, lived in Nepal, backpacked in sub-Saharan Africa. I attended college. I have never known hunger. I work for an organization that values me.
I am tempted, but really struggle, to call these opportunities “blessings”. Do I still call it a blessing when I can realize that my opportunities today probably would never have happened without the forced removal and even genocide Native Americans? Is my economic status truly blessed when my country’s economy was founded on the backs of African slaves? Can I authentically thank God for my possessions when many of our favorite consumer goods — iPhones, Victoria’s Secret lingerie, IKEA furniture — are tied to corporations taking advantage of poor people?
I am a white, American, Protestant male living in twenty-first century at a time when U.S. military might, economic strength and soft power — while declining — still borders on hegemonic. Is this the kind of blessing God aimed at when making promises to Abraham? It troubles me that I still don’t have a good answer for this question.
2) Do I really want God’s blessing?
For even asking this question I probably deserve a sharp rebuke from those who have experienced real hell in this world: women trafficked for sex, children forced into the army, mothers and fathers who have seen their children die of hunger. Experiencing the world at its worst is not what I have in mind when question the idea of God’s blessing. May God save us all from this brokenness. Expressing real gratitude for avoiding these experiences is still in order.
What I am concerned about is the impact of such “blessing” on our souls and our communities.
Throughout my travels I have found poor people – people who are not “blessed” in the eyes of the world — to be the most hospitable, faith-filled, community-focused people I have ever met. Those who know suffering are often, more content, more connected to God and more connected to one another.
Meanwhile, in the United States we suffer from overwhelming greed, loneliness, disconnection, and lack any sense of contentment. Is this really the kind of blessing we seek?
All of this leads me to a few somewhat disturbing conclusions:
Maybe we aren’t blessed as we think we are, even in the wealthiest nation on earth. Maybe true blessing does not come from unending escalation in GDP. And while we can forcefully say it is no blessing to be trafficked into slavery, maybe it is also not a blessing to be born in the U.S. Maybe true blessing is summed up in this proverb:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.
(Proverbs 30:8-9, NIV 2010)