Saturday, October 8, 2011

Musing about Occupy Wall Street


In general, I am not a supporter of protests and demonstrations, preferring rational discourse that examines the facts and then draws a conclusion. However, rational discourse has little or no power to create emotional excitement or involvement. Furthermore, true rationality is a non-existent ideal. Perception, analysis, and judgment are neurological processes all influenced by emotion as well as logic.

Acknowledging my bias is an important preface to reflecting about the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York City and is now spreading to other U.S. cities. By all reports, the movement’s goals are ill defined. Indeed, terming the protests a movement uses a misnomer, because the protest has no formal structure or organization. From all appearances, the protest seems to be a spontaneous outpouring of anger over the nation’s economic malaise.

Some facts help put that anger in context:

·         During the last several decades, the “playing field” of the U.S. economy has tilted toward the rich, disadvantaging the middle class and the poor. Aided by legislation and government policy, the rich are getting richer (for an explanation of this, cf. Robert C. Lieberman, Why the Rich Are Getting Richer | Foreign Affairs).

·         Some corporations seek to take advantage of current issues to increase their profits. For example, Bank of America’s move to charge its debit cardholders a $5 per month fee in response to Congress limiting interbank transaction fees makes no sense (but much cents!). Processing a check costs a bank between $.33 and $1.67 more than processing a debit card transaction, i.e., a bank already earns a good profit when consumers use their debit cards instead of paper checks.

·         Government programs designed to aid underwater mortgagees have aided fewer than 50,000 people while millions face foreclosure. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac policies severely restrict the number of people the mortgage relief programs assist because the two government sponsored corporations that insure the preponderance of U.S. mortgages do not want to take losses on mortgages they have guaranteed.

·         Job creation is agonizingly slow, offering little hope to most unemployed persons. The longer a person remains unemployed, the more that person’s skills atrophy and the less employable the person becomes.

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourner’s, enumerated a list of Christian values and concerns that the Occupy Wall Street movement expresses in a recent post on the Huffington Post (Jim Wallis: Praying for Peace and Looking for Jesus at Occupy Wall Street, Oct. 6, 2011):

·         When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus.

·         When they stand with the hungry, they stand with Jesus.

·         When they stand for those without a job or a home, they stand with Jesus.

·         When they are peaceful, non-violent, and love their neighbors (even the ones they don't agree with and who don't agree with them), they are walking as Jesus walked.

·         When they talk about holding banks and corporations accountable, they sound like Jesus and the biblical prophets before him who all spoke about holding the wealthy and powerful accountable.

Then he offers some suggestions about what Christians can do to support the protest:

·         Pray for those out on the streets.

·         Think of ways that you or your church can be Jesus to them.

·         And do one of the things that church folks do best: Bring them a covered casserole!

·         Take your church potluck down to the occupations. Sit, eat, and talk with the protesters. Offer them the sacred gifts of hospitality, company, and friendship.

·         Or a hot cup of coffee.

·         Or send them a pizza. (Think of it as a peace-za.)

·         The Occupiers' desire for change and willingness to take action to do something about it should be an inspiration to us all.

·         It is for me that, even after 10 years of war, we can still act and pray for peace.

Wallis’ suggestions are worthwhile. However, his suggestions fail to address the systemic causes that led to the current protests. Loving one’s neighbor extends beyond care for particular individuals to include advocating structural remedies that establish a more just economic system. Any conception of justice that does not include distributive justice is incongruous with the gospel.

The Occupy Wall Street protest and its echoes in other locations are valuable because they bring attention to the crying need for a greater level of distributive justice in the United States. Laws and policies that level the playing field (e.g., a more progressive income tax, a stronger inheritance tax, quality post-secondary education for all, a social safety net to protect the well-being of children, etc.) are essential. These laws and policies do not eliminate the need for individuals to exercise individual initiative and accept responsibility for their own lives but will provide a better chance for everyone to flourish.

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