Sunday, October 23, 2011

Thoughts on the movement to "Occupy Wall Street"

A lot has been written and spoken about the various “Occupy” movements that have sprung up first in the United States and then in other parts of the world. These protestors intrigue me. Part of me is drawn to them, while part of me is repulsed by them. I laugh at the irony of Americans protesting because they are economically disadvantaged, while all but the most disadvantaged Americans are still better off than most of the world's people. They speak of being part of the 99% when in fact on a global scale we as a nation are definitely part of the 1%. The protestors organize and promote their message using tools and means utterly unavailable to the masses of the world's poor. I also find that their lack of common message dilutes their impact. Others have noted this, some viewing it as a strength of the movement. But in the end, how much change can they affect if they don't even have a united goal?

Despite these misgivings and criticisms, I am still drawn to these protestors. I resonate with their cry against the system of capitalism that has developed in this country during my lifetime. I am not inherently anti-capitalist, as some would argue. (Nor would I accept the argument that being anti-capitalist makes me anti-American, as has also been implied.) But I definitely see serious problems in the current national and global economic structure. As I read in a recent article, this structure creates an “un-economy:” unfair, unsustainable and unstable, not to mention that it makes people unhappy (well, except for those who clearly benefit from it—and I would debate that even they are finding true happiness through the accumulation of wealth.) A system that fosters the accumulation of large amounts of wealth by a small elite cannot bring about a healthy society.

I was reminded this week of the revolutions that rocked the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Why did the Russian revolution occur in 1917? There were many factors, but the fact that the tsar and a small elite of the Russian nation had vast wealth (I've seen a small portion of it during my years in Russia and it was amazing) while the majority of the population lived in abject poverty certainly was a key element. I recognize that most Americans are far from that level of abject poverty. But our current system certainly works to assure that the wealthy continue to accumulate wealth while the majority struggle to improve their lives. I don't think the occupy movement will result in anything as drastic as a revolution, but it serves as a useful wake up call that things must change before they reach such a dire point.

I am most distressed by the opposition, even antagonism, that so many of my fellow believers express toward these protest movements. I think that many of my friends and acquaintances have substituted the American capitalistic dream for the message of the Gospel. They view these protestors as disrupting a healthy, stable society and reject them and their message because of this. (Often they forget as well that the right to protest is a fundamental right enshrined in the very Constitution they so adamantly support.) But the Scriptures are full of verses indicating God's passion for justice and his rejection of greed and the misuse of money and power. God calls us to care for those whom society has injured or destroyed. In some cases we can do this within the existing structure of society. But what if that very structure is causing more and more injury and destruction? Do we not as believers need to raise our voice in protest as well and call for changes that will bring greater justice, compassion and mercy? I've not heard any of my acquaintances go so far as to embrace the slogan “greed is good.” But neither have I heard enough of them speaking against it.

I'm not yet to the point where I am ready to go pitch my tent with the local occupiers. But my heart and mind are sympathetically listening to them and I am asking myself what I can do to build a more balanced, just, wholesome society, one in which God's shalom can be realized.

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