What Occupy Wall Street Can Teach Us About Justice
That justice is of the very essence of God is the clear, consistent message of Scripture. In one of my favorite examples, Psalm 146: 5-7, we are told that “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the needy.”
And yet it seems that when the church has acted as the Body of Christ in the world — the arms and legs of God — it has often been muddy and ambivalent about what justice is and how we go about it. While a century ago the social gospel led the church to address the moral ills of poverty by advocating for things like the income tax and social security, we more recently witnessed the growth of the “health and wealth gospel ” and those who believe that wealth is God’s blessing upon the worthy and poverty a sign of God’s disfavor. Where is any clear sense of justice in this?
While I was in New York last week, I made it a point to take the subway down to Wall Street and find Zuccotti Park, in order to be with Occupy Wall Street for a time. Directed to the cardboard mound, I chose an extra large pizza box (there were a lot of them) and got help to find a big marker. I made my sign: “I AM in the 1% PLEASE TAX ME!” (My great-great grandfather was a silent partner in the founding of Exxon and five generations later I continue to benefit from that wealth. This has been, for me, a responsibility I have worked to reconcile with my faith in Christ all my life.) I asked if I could join those with signs, standing on the low wall at the corner of Cedar and Broadway. They welcomed me.
Walter, a member of the actors’ union, stood on one side. On the other was Barry who was on his way from Maine to Tennessee and had come the day before from the Occupy Boston encampment. He planned to stay for a while before checking out the Occupy Nashville effort. We held our signs and engaged the people who came by with questions or comments.
People seemed to be intrigued with my sign, both among the Occupy Wall Street residents and the passers-by.
A sweet Zuccotti Park resident in her twenties approached me, saying that she was “mystified but also grateful” that a person self-identifying as among the 1% would join with those standing for the 99%.
I asked her, “Do I look like a person in the 1%?” She replied, “I don’t know.”
It struck me that this young woman did not have an image in her head of someone in the 1%. Or if she did, she didn’t want to insult me by comparing me to “them.” For me, it was an ominous sign that gives us a measure of the erosion of community between those in the 99% and those in the 1%. My sense from our conversation was that her surprise at my being there sprang from a presumption that a person in the 1% would not consider her or others in the 99% as persons with dignity and worth.
Our conversation raised, for me, a question that came up many times during my morning occupying Wall Street: “Who are the 1%?”
There is, of course, the simple answer that is related to income. With the help of Walter who had a calculator in his phone and a passer-by who said he was okay at math we came to agreement that the 1% are those who hold about 26% of our national wealth. If there are about 350 million Americans then 1% is about 3.5 million people, in contrast to the 46 million Americans now below the poverty line.
Another conversation I had that morning began to answer the question, “Who are the 1%,” from a different perspective – a more spiritual one.
A woman walking by approached me, saying that she worked near Wall Street and made it a practice to walk to Zuccotti Park every day. She confessed that she was also in the 1%. “Why are you seeking solidarity here?” she asked. After a pleasant conversation, we came to the conclusion that in the minds of many, the distinction between the 1% and the 99% is less economic and more about community, connection and compassion for the suffering experienced by so many right now.
From the point of view of those in need, it’s not that they simply resent those who are wealthy – there is a sense of injustice that is obvious when someone who can’t afford, yet needs, life-saving medical care, doesn’t get it. Especially when programs like Medicaid or Medicare are put first on the chopping block to avoid the “injustice” of the wealthy losing their 1% status. Seeking justice, here, is putting life first, over luxury.
The Dalai Lama says that the foundation for peace is love, empathy and compassion. These human qualities — empathy and compassion — aren’t just required of the 99% or just the 1% but by all 100% of us. When they are lacking anywhere, we jeopardize justice and peace in our country.
Another encounter that morning highlighted this point for me. A man, seeing my sign, eagerly told me to “give as much money as you want to the government.” He was against increasing taxes for the 1% and very much for those of the 1% who wanted to give more, to do it voluntarily. I tried to explain why this does not satisfy me: It leaves the decision to contribute to the public good to personal preferences.
As I told him, taxes exist because there is a shared value in contributing to our communal wellbeing. While government is as flawed as any human institution, it is the best instrument for doing the things needed for us all as a group like bridge maintenance, regulation of air safety, caring for those who can not be cared for by loved ones and making sure everyone is as healthy as possible. These are activities that require justice; that is, all of us contributing our fair share to being a good society. And that is accomplished by tax, not by charity.
In the end, I’m not sure he left sharing my point of view. He did, however, leave hearing my point of view, and I his. We were taking the time to have the kind of conversation about justice that Occupy Wall Street is sparking all over the country, and the world. This is a good thing, and a first step down the road to achieving justice.
One last thing I’ll share from my time in Zuccotti Park was a revelation of sorts. It was how justice is inherently social. Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors — to make sure everyone is okay – comes down to being just and doing justice. As long as we continue to qualify justice with the word “social,” we have forgotten exactly what it is, at its core, and need to learn it all over again. And as long as we forget what justice is, we will continue to fail at doing justice, as our American society is right now.
So from now on I will remind myself to stop saying “social justice” and just say, “justice.” I will strive to be just – to love my neighbors as Jesus demands. And my neighbors are 100% of people: All of us have dignity and worth.
I am grateful that the Occupiers across our country and around the world are so eager to teach the church and all of us about this essential quality of God, justice. In this difficult time for our country and, indeed, the world, 100% of us are needed to be God’s arms and legs to get us through to better days.
Reverend Janet Edwards