The Gospel Is Downwardly Mobile

Life is not a race and you are not behind.

Sam Bush / 9.1.22

It’s called the “land of opportunity” for a reason. The American Dream was built on the hope that someone could start out as a nobody and become a somebody, the belief that one is not defined by the class they were born into. In all our doe-eyed optimism of upward mobility, we forget one hard truth: what goes up must come down. “Families are always rising and falling in America” is how Nathaniel Hawthorne once put it. The novelist was well-acquainted with the mercurial nature of inherited wealth. A direct descendent of a prestigious judge, Hawthorne’s family fell from prominence to the point where he had to ask his uncle to help pay his way through college. Now, almost two centuries later, most of the American middle class can relate.

There is a popular narrative that this is the first generation of Americans that will be less well-off than their parents, a collective anxiety that was brought to light in Richard Cohen’s “The Ballad of Downward Mobilityin The Atlantic. According to Cohen, Gen-Xers are the most indebted generation than any other in history and that even those making more money than their parents are weighed down by the cost of living. For many, college can feel like high-stakes gambling with the astronomical ante of tuition and steady employment feeling like a luck of the draw. An affordability crisis has left younger generations with a general sense of despair. Cohen cleverly paints a picture of the American Dream dispersing into a chimera:

What is the American Dream? It’s a promise. The promise of doing better than your parents, who did better than theirs … America is the dream of endless growth, and without that growth, there is seemingly no dream. So you do what’s necessary to get through, and you give up the fantasy version of the dream … It was the hassle and hustle that finally made you arrive at the only question worth trying to answer: What do I really want?

While bemoaning the death of widespread upward mobility, Cohen sees the economic downturn as a chance to find more meaning in what we do. “Only by giving up the old dream can you find a new dream,” he writes, insisting that he feels no shame at failing to match the financial stability of his parents. 

I, for one, would be lying if I didn’t say I feel a tinge of guilt that I will earn less money than my father earned. Every time someone mentions the cost of private schools — a privilege I enjoyed that my children most likely will not — I feel what Neal Gabler once said of most Americans, that my quest for financial stability is less “fueled by a need to keep up with the Joneses, but for my children to keep up with the Jones’ children.” 

We often use our parents’ lives as a measuring stick for our own. Whether it’s the age we get married, buy a house, have children, or establish a career, we assess our own success as to whether or not it is on track with our parents’ timeline. As Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes sang a decade ago, “So now that I’m older / Than my mother and father / When they first had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” From an early age, we were told that it is our duty to leave the world better than we found it. But what happens when we fall behind the curve? 

First, it is always good to remember that God has a knack for interrupting whatever we think we deserve. Whether it’s a hard-working vineyard worker or a dutiful older son, Jesus’ parables are full of disappointed high-achievers. Whoever assumes that they have a good thing coming to them is often met with a splash of cold water. 

Furthermore, God’s righteous law has a way of changing the game entirely; not by adding points to either side, but by leveling the playing field. The Law does not compare us to our families. It compares us to God. And unless we can compare ourselves to God with an equal sign there is no hope. In the eyes of a perfect God, every generation has fallen short of what was expected of them.  

Jesus, however, was right on track with his heavenly Father. As far as righteousness went, he could go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with his dad. Everything the Father had accomplished, so had the Son. And yet, rather than considering himself equal he gave up his status so that we could be enough in the eyes of God. As Mary Poppins taught the children, enough is as good as a feast. 

Perhaps only then can we begin to understand that, as the poet Tanner Olson says, life is not a race and we are not behind. We may have dreamed up a finish line of achievement or significance but we have failed to notice that we have been running on a treadmill the entire time. Meanwhile, Jesus is hardly interested in speculating about our future. “Don’t worry about your children’s tuition,” he says. “The education system will worry about itself.” Whereas anxiety is focused on an unseeable future, grace stays clear-eyed in the present. The lilies of the field do not compare themselves with the lilies of yesteryear, but simply dress in their finest for today. 

Jesus is the exception to the rule that what goes up must come down. His divine condescension proves the opposite, in fact. Whatever goes down, he raises up. Whatever falls apart, he puts back together. As for families in America, yes, they will rise and they will fall, but one more thing remains constant: the downwardly mobile nature of love. 

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3 responses to “The Gospel Is Downwardly Mobile”

  1. Jane says:

    Really good Sam. Thank you

  2. […] also Sam Bush’s fantastic reflection on downward mobility from earlier this week. “Jesus is the exception to the rule that what goes up must come […]

  3. Gary says:

    Beautifully put!

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