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Occupy Your Faith

Occupy Your Faith

This generation’s Civil Rights movement may have started on September 17, when several hundred demonstrators converged on New York’s Zucotti Square to Occupy Wall Street.  At first, they were ignored by the press, a mostly younger crowd of students, the unemployed, artists and activists.  But within weeks, headlines were filled with news of Occupy Portland and Boston, Occupy London and Mexico City, Occupy Montgomery, Alabama, and Little Rock, Arkansas.  Hundreds of communities in this country and around the world were filled with encampments of protestors claiming to represent the 99%, the disposables and the disenfranchised, the new underclass in a winner-take-all economy.

Suddenly, labor unions were lining up to endorse the movement.  The President announced that he shared the protestor’s frustration.  A majority of Americans told pollsters they agreed with the demonstrator’s aims, although no one was exactly sure what those aims might be.  They were high on decibels but low on specifics, as Gary Trudeau editorialized in the strip Doonesbury, where he pictured an angry crowd chanting, "What do we want?  Nothing!  When do we want it?  Now."

But if the Occupiers lacked concrete demands, they did have real complaints, pointing to the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society, taking their primary slogan from Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who reported in his 2010 book Freefall: America, Freemarkets and the Sinking of the World Economy that 1% of the U.S. population now controls 40% of the nation’s overall wealth.

To imagine what that statistic means, picture to yourself a parade of America citizens, children, women and men from all walks of life, marching ten abreast past a goal post that represents the American Dream.  Now suppose that each person’s height correlates to their net worth.  An individual of average height, say 5′ 8", would have $38,000 in savings, maybe a little equity in their home, a small nest egg, because that’s the median net wealth in this country.  Half the population owns more, and half owns less.  Half are taller, half are shorter.    

So the parade begins on January 1 and, with families lined up ten abreast, it will take a whole year for all 312 million of us to file past the goal line: rank by rank we come.  Only for the first three months, we don’t see anybody marching because a quarter of all Americans don’t own anything.  Rather, they’re in debt.  They owe on student loans, their mortgages are underwater, or they’re among the 52 million with no health insurance and have been forced into insolvency by medical bills.  These citizens have negative worth, and so negative height.  In our parade, they are invisible, as they often are in real life: the homeless and other destitute whom we often overlook.

But then, come spring, we notice a rustling in the soil and soon eyes and noses and entire heads  begin to appear, poking above the surface of the ground.  But it’s a race of little people, the kind we’d see in Gulliver’s travels to Lilliput.  And after the initial surprise of seeing these strange pygmies, we notice something else peculiar.  Most of them are women.  Many are black or hispanic, single mothers with children who are even smaller than their tiny parents.  Because the average net worth for black women in this country is just $5 (that’s right, five dollars!), these multitudes of women will be less than 1/100 of an inch tall.  You could hold a whole village in the palm of your hand!  That is, if you’re an average sized person.

If you are, then it’s summertime before any other normally proportioned folks start to appear.  For three months, the parade was subterranean, populated by people living on their credit cards, then for another three months you observed a line of midgets ever so slowly increasing in height—the folks on food stamps, the retail clerks and check out girls—until at last they begin to resemble you.  

But perhaps you’re not of normal height.  Maybe you personally own more than $38,000.  If you’re a professional, an information worker or civil servant, perhaps you’re even part of the top 20% of the relatively comfortable middle-class people who control 50% of the nation’s wealth.  Depending on just how much you earn and save, you could be 12 to 15 or even 50 feet tall.  Of course, your turn to march doesn’t come until sometime in October.  And it’s a happy Thanksgiving for you and your friends, lucky people people who still have to watch your money carefully and invest it wisely but actually have a cushion—maybe even enough to take a vacation or retire one day.  I know this place because I live there.  I’m a clergyman, my wife is a poverty lawyer.  Neither of us gets paid a fortune, but we’ve worked hard and have enough.  We’re fortunate, but still part of the 99%.

It’s in the last few hours where the parade gets interesting.  Because this is when we begin the glimpse the 1%, which generally describes people with assets of $9 million or more, titans, in other words, who are about as tall as the Empire State building.  They begin appearing on December 29, as we approach the end of this year long promenade, when we witness the long line of citizens who have slowly and steadily been increasing in height suddenly do a vertical take off.  These people are tall as the tallest skyscrapers.  Then, tall as mountains, like Everest, with their heads above the clouds.  And what about the Forbes 400, the richest 400 people in the country, who now own more than the poorest 150 million combined?  These are the hedge fund managers, the CEOs of major corporations.  In our hypothetical parade, these gargantuan figures would start appearing just 40 seconds before the stroke of midnight, and since you need a net worth of at least $1.3 billion to get on the Forbes list, each of them would be at least 38 miles tall, approaching the edge of outer space. There’s Oprah, and Ted Turner, each worth over $2 billion and both in low earth orbit!   These are individuals who inhabit a different plane than you and me—beyond the stratosphere!   

And of course these giants like Warren Buffet, who are a thousand miles in height, pay taxes at a lower rate than the miniscule minions toiling away down here in the muck.  And this is part of the reason why the Occupiers are mad.  They angry because hugely profitable corporations like GE and Boeing and Exxon Mobil get away with actually receiving money from the government rather than paying a dime into the U.S. Treasury.  They’re  sick and tired of a game that’s rigged in favor of the rich and powerful, so that some of the same people who ran the U.S. economy off the cliff are in the President’s inner circle advising him on financial policy.  That seems to be the way our system works.  Because whether we’re talking about the Securities Exchange Commission that’s supposed to police the stock market, or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that’s supposed to police atomic power, or the FDA that’s supposed to police the safety of our food and pharmaceuticals, you have a revolving door between industry and government where the fox winds up watching the hen house.  

The Occupiers are fed up with corporations that are treated like persons, with all the rights of the First Amendment, and with a Supreme Court that overrules modest campaign finance legislation to allow big business to flood electoral politics with hard cash, fully expecting a profitable return on their investment. They’re concerned that we appear to have lost government of the people, by the people and for the people, and instead have an oligarchy that caters to the interests of the economic elite.   

What else is on the
Occupier’s minds?  They’re thinking about a Congress that can find trillions of dollars for foreign wars and bank bailouts, but says we have to cut Medicare and Social Security and trim benefits for firefighters and teachers and raise tuition at public universities because there’s no money for higher education.  They’re thinking about a broken contract.  Because there used to be an unspoken but universally acknowledged agreement in the United States that if you worked hard, and played by the rules, and kept your nose clean, you could earn a living in this country, provide for the basics of shelter and clothing and not worry that you couldn’t feed your children or take them to a doctor if they got sick.  But that social contract has been violated.  More and more people, especially younger people, feel the opportunity for a decent life slipping from their grasp as they see society’s greatest rewards lavished not on  those who labor or add real value to the world, but to con artists and grifters who make their money selling exploding securities to pension funds and then placing side bets that the seniors get burned.  

Almost fifty years ago, in a speech delivered on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir."   It was a promise that all people, black as well as white, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Today, Dr. King might add that the United States has defaulted on that promissory note, not only for citizens of color, but for an entire generation which has received a bad check, a check marked "insufficent funds."    It’s not that the vaults of the U.S. Treasury are empty.  It’s not that there isn’t adequate wealth available to fund heath care or education or clean energy or any of the things we really need. The United States remains, by every measure, the richest nation in the world.  Rather, the check has bounced because our nation has become morally and spiritually bankrupt.  

Our poverty rate today is higher than it was in 1968 when Dr. KIng first conceived his Poor People’s March on Washington.  What a commentary on the progress we’ve made these past decades, as middle-class incomes have stagnated and the poor become more numerous.  That Poor People’s March was to be a great encampment, too, thousands of people converging on the capitol to erect a shanty town of tarps and tents and lean-tos, accompanied by mass arrests and boycotts, using all the non-violent weapons in the mass movement arsenal to bring fundamental economic change to America.  King’s occupation failed.  He himself was felled by an assassin’s bullet, while visiting Memphis to support a labor strike by the city’s sanitation workers, but his entire operation had already begun to founder, meeting increasing resistance as he turned his attention from ending Jim Crow to making economic as well as legal equality a reality for all Americans.  

What use is it to have the right to sit at a lunch counter, he used to ask, if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?  And today Occupiers are posing a similar question.  What good is it to have the right to vote, if you can’t afford to buy a politician?

Liberty and equality have always stood in tension in our nation.  And it was King’s last great crusade to bring greater balance to the scales of democracy, to weigh in on the side of dignity and opportunity for the masses.  This is now the goal, too, of the Occupy movement that has taken up King’s mantle.  Powerful forces are arrayed against them.  Police and fire hoses in Selma have given way to police and pepper spray in Zucotti Park.  Nothing will change without a struggle and without common sacrifice.  But who can doubt that change is needed, and who can doubt that it has to come from the bottom up?  As you contemplate that long line of Americans marching toward the goal post of their hopes and dreams, a comparative few a hundred miles tall and millions of others others just a fraction of an inch, you know it’s time for the little people to rise.