Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Occupy at one year


In September, the Occupy movement marked its first anniversary, an event that the major news media largely ignored. The Los Angeles Times was an exception, assessing the Occupy movement’s impact as difficult to describe (Andrew Tangel, “Occupy movement turns 1 year old, its effect still hard to define,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2012).

Occupy has given a voice to a deep but poorly focused stream of discontent in the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, the Occupy website boasts 226,000 followers on Facebook; the Occupy Wall Street site boasts 131,000 Facebook followers. Similarly, the original Wall Street protest quickly spread to numerous other cities, most at least temporarily hosting their own encampment of the discontented.

The discontented have diverse stories. A majority of them once bought into the economic system, but now feels disenfranchised and left behind by the wealthiest 1% who, even in the midst of economic hard times, continued to get richer. Some people never bought into (or were allowed to buy into) the economic system. This latter group includes an emerging permanent underclass in the US and UK multi-generational welfare families.

Nevertheless, the Occupy protesters are a highly visible and poignant reminder that our economic system is broken. Even as the number of billionaires increases and at least two Americans each own several times more land than is in the entirety of Rhode Island, so does the number of people increase whose finances are underwater because the size of their mortgage exceeds not only the value of their house but all of their financial assets.

The Occupy movement has also been clarion call to reform our economic system. Cutting taxes is not the answer. Government provides essential services that range from transport, schools, and first responders to managing international affairs, national defense, and providing a basic social safety net that ideally ensures care for the most vulnerable (the elderly, those needing medical care, the unemployed, children, etc.). Nor is continued national deficit financing the answer. Huge public debts in Greece and Italy significantly contribute to those nations’ financial struggles and warn against unlimited deficits.

Jesus did not prescribe an economic system. Various Christian ethicists, including one of my mentors, Phil Wogaman, have persuasively argued that a form of regulated capitalism is most compatible with Christian values. These Christian ethicists, like others who favor socialism, consistently emphasize God's preferential bias for the poor.

At a minimum, economic reform should include:

1.      A progressive tax structure, a fundamental element of fairness for the poor;

2.      Simplified regulations that keep the system fair and establish appropriate accountability, e.g., the US tax code unfairly shifts the tax burden to those unable to afford effective lobbyists while the code’s complexity discourages compliance;

3.      A balanced national budget that both provides essential services and protects the most vulnerable;

4.      Policies and programs that both encourage wealth formation and seek to bridge the growing chasm between rich and poor, e.g., where 100 years ago CEOs earned about 40 times more than their lowest paid employee today that difference was multiplied by 90 to CEOs earning360 times the lowest paid worker.

Within those broad ethical parameters, the actual shape of reform primarily becomes a series of economic and political. People of good conscience will disagree about the preferred changes, in substantial measure because the outcome of potential changes is highly uncertain. Thus, Christians committed to economic reform can constructively rally around these broad ethical prescriptions without insisting upon unanimity about details.

Disappointingly, the Occupy movement never gained enough volume or traction to become a mighty river of protest, one that might have propelled the US or UK to initiate needed economic reforms. Although Occupy became for a time a powerful set of braided streams, they were unruly and unstable ones, riven by internal debates over the priority of various issues and organizational questions that unnecessarily limited Occupy’s growth and influence. Today, the Occupy movement appears to be drying up.

Frustratingly, the broader Anglican Church and the Occupy movement never identified common ground for a unified witness with respect to economic reform. The convoluted and occasionally tense relationship between Anglicans and Occupy is apparent at both London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and New York’ Trinity Wall Street parish. In London, high profile clergy resignations and more recently Occupy protesters chaining themselves to the pulpit during an October evensong service highlight the conflict. In New York, tensions culminated in the widely publicized arrests of retired Bishop George Packard and others for trespassing on church property.

I don’t have enough facts to attempt to apportion responsibility for these problems among the various parties. To some extent, these problems certainly stem from Occupy’s own internal dynamics. But I also wonder whether the Church has consistently acted as Jesus would have done, whether the Church appropriately prioritizes standing with the discontent and financially vulnerable, and whether the Church attempts to draw too much of a Pharisaic line between spiritual/religious issues on the one hand and economic issues on the other.

Occupy’s message reminds me of Jesus telling the rich young man who wanted eternal life to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-25). All three gospel accounts of the incident report that Jesus concluded the interview by observing that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Francis of Assisi’s radical commitment to the poor was a helpful corrective, essential counterweight, and mission complement to the work that the Roman Catholic Church’s establishment, endowments, and institutions made possible. Initial conflict yielded to uneasy compromise and then to cherished coexistence in which the Franciscans – at their best – are living reminders of Jesus’ commitment to the poor and the power of voluntary poverty to be a catalyst for establishing God's kingdom on earth.

Many people still view the Church of England and The Episcopal Church as churches comprised of the wealthy, the powerful, and the elite. Both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Trinity Wall Street are arguably such bastions. Conversely, both churches’ prominence and wealth enable a breadth of mission that very few congregations could undertake.

Yet perhaps God has sent the Occupy movement, and its self-identified Christian participants, to be another Francis of Assisi, i.e., to call the Church to remember Jesus’ commitment to the poor, to use our wealth for the good of all, and, on our knees, to pass through the eye of the needle into the fullness of God's kingdom.

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