Sunday, January 1, 2012

Searching for Jesus on Wall Street

So what do you make of the occupation of Wall Street by thousands of protestors in the last half of 2012, and the sympathetic rallies in many cities around the country, even around the world, including right here in Austin, Texas?

If you listen to some of the talking heads, this is an inchoate group of young people who could be working but aren’t and instead are breaking the laws and calling for an end to corporations, the very entities that might be able to provide them with jobs.

My sense is that we avoid engagement with the occupy movements at our peril. Yes, the issues are all over the map, but there are several central themes that can be teased out. Sadly, they’re themes that are central to Christian theology, themes that most of the church has been sitting on for years and has either been silent or contrarian.

At the center is the call for a transformation of values, a shift away from global capitalism and the power of multinational corporations toward the values of community, local economies and real democracy. It’s a radical shift that Dr. King described in a speech where he broke silence and denounced U.S. involvement in Vietnam. King said:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

The income inequalities that exist in our country, that are described in the occupy signs stating that “We are the 99%,” are at the highest levels since right before the Great Depression. Turn to almost any prophetic book in scripture, and it’s crystal clear that God is also concerned about inequality between rich and poor. Inequality quickly has quickly turned to injustice as those who have enormous fiscal resources have squandered their wealth on speculation, creating a veritable wasteland for everyone else.
If the Occupy movement has done nothing else, it’s brought the discussion of social and economic justice out of the closet into the open. It’s adopted values of nonviolence and hospitality and has sought peaceful relations with local authorities, surely values that are right out of the gospels.

Over the last few months, the list of what the occupiers are against has grown from moral outrage against the system to include: the funding of college education through student loans, unemployment, lack of healthcare, outsourcing labor overseas, abuse of police power, predatory banking and the sellout of government power to the highest bidders.

How has this happened? Harvey Cox, in what has turned out to be something of a prescient essay, named it: the market has become our God. That’s right—good, old-fashioned, Old Testament-style idolatry. The market has been worshipped as unassailable, which means that to criticize free market capitalism, to suggest that regulations on banks are necessary for example, has been seen by market defenders as sacrilege.

Lost in all of the back and forth is the notion that there is an economy given by God long before Wall Street, an acknowledgment that there is enough for everyone. Only when we return to some sense that we can all live out of the abundance that God has given us, will there be the moral will to take on the challenges of changing the structures that create such destructive inequalities.

I’m thankful for the Occupy movement, for the issues they’ve bravely raised and for their outrage at greed. What do you think? How should the church respond to the Occupy movement?


  1. Excellent points throughout! You ask--How should the church respond to the Occupy movement? It should return to its roots. It was, in a sense, the first Occupy movement.

  2. The other night, they finally de-camped the occupy movement from Austin. It's not as if the issues had gone away, but the city said it was a public safety issue. It was justified on the evening news as a money saver, since the 'public safety' bill was already over $800k. I don't believe that was the real reason.

    Kara and I have had many, many discussions and debates about Occupy. Our positions have moved back and forth over the months. But, most importantly, the Occupy movement actually fostered the conversation, both between us and around the family dinner table.

    I am very much part of the capitalist machine, and I have had to look at my role in that machine again and again. I have come to a point where I believe the following - if you strip out all the rhetoric and the not so useful stereotypes and over simplifications - markets are really made up of people. People trying to buy and sell things in order to make a living, in order to feed their family and yes, sometimes, in order to buy the latest stuff or thing that symbolizes they are better than others. To a great part, it's not the market that is the issue, it is how people conduct themselves inside it.

    Like any community, inside a marketplace there's a lot of variation, lots of good, and I like to think less bad. For my part, I always try to act in a way consistent with who I am and what I believe. There are always going to be those who do not chose to work this way, but it's like that in any club or company or even church. I think I can influence that at a personal level, with my normal optimistic, 'powered by faith' sort of attitude.

    But what I have more trouble with is the attitude of the 'mass market' that John points out. It amazes me that many of those those in the 99% so staunchly defend the 1%. It is as if attaining 1% status, so difficult to do in today's rich world, is of such paramount importance, that to speak of against it in any way would jinx or mark you as an 'unwanted'.

    In the 90's and through the last decade, marketers have prosecuted a phenomenon called 'mass affluence', simply that the affluent portion of the market had grown so large, that cheaper mass marketing techniques could be applied to it.

    My current theory is that marketing to the "next 30 or 40%" has been successful beyond it's wildest dreams. Not only has it made companies rich, it has replaced many of our life aspirations with a single aspiration - being part of the 1%. And if you want to be one of them, you had better not be critical.

    Thus, you bash the Occupy folks in conversation and are OK when the city uses force to evict them. Especially when you in a group of like-minded "1% aspirers". Because, really, you just want to have the life that is depicted in the ads or the website or the media. Or, if you are the City of Austin, you don't want to be the kind of place that is hostile to the 1%, you want to be a pleasant place for them, esp. around SXSW time.

    And that is the big challenge for all of us - if our values are truly being influenced by the values of marketing, then the spiritual world has a lot of work to do. That work, of course, starts with our selves.