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What Occupy Wall Street Can Teach Us About Justice

11/4

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?

My sign from Occupy Wall Street

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.

Peace,

Reverend Janet Edwards


19 Responses
  • James Drake on November 11, 2011

    And what do you think the government will do with all that extra money?

    It will go to fund their Pork Projects and the Military Presence around the globe (which in real terms, including R&D, pensions, etc. takes half the money)

    The government has enough power.

    Far better to help charitable organizations.

  • Donna on November 12, 2011

    James, thank you for posting…I’ve been reluctant to do so. But since you have begun the thread, here are my thoughts (and I’m not an “Occupy” fan).

    1) This country is based on freedoms, not entitlement, as this Occupy movement seems to think, and those freedoms guarantee opportunity. If government-backed student loans put you through school, you have received a guaranteed opportunity that you otherwise would not have had.

    2) Was it corporate greed that caused this economic nightmare or was it the lust of thousands upon thousands wanting a home they could not afford, so the lenders dropped their standards to meet the demand?

    3) The push to equalize the burden and take more from the rich, to me, seems like a redistrubution of wealth, a step toward a single class, a step toward Communism, and I’m against that at all costs. There will be no freedoms, no guarantee of opportunity, once that shift takes place and we must guard against that.

    Note that I’m among the 99%, probably in the lowest 99%, but I believe in banks and capitalism and the freedoms this country guarantees.

    As for Biblical teaching about wealth, I defer to Jesus’ encounter with the rich man, whom he tells to sell everything he has. Jesus knew two things: money is power in this world, and, unless a wealthy person gives up that sense of security, they can never know the true power of God – what it’s like to rely on God to provide when a paycheck doesn’t cover necessities, when living with illness and pain become a habit because missing work means more doing without, and so on. I think Jesus knew that when a person gives up money and power, and the celebrity status and adoration of others that goes with it, that person trades their own security for God’s security.

    The “Occupy” protests, I think, are all about the money, and entitlement. As someone who suffered a major loss this year due to a fire in my apartment building, I ask: what would you do if you lost everything? God provided for me through the kindness of a friend and strangers, not the seminary, not any church I’ve ever attended, not my well-to-do “friends,” not my “face book friends,” but strangers.

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on November 12, 2011

    Dear James and Donna,

    Thank you both for sharing your perspectives on my reflection, on government and on Occupy Wall Street! There are ways in which I agree and disagree with both of you.

    For me, the most important consideration you highlight is one that is at the heart of the differences in our country that have not been this sharp since the Civil War. This crucial difference concerns exactly what government is and is not.

    For me, government is us. It is an institutional structure created by us to fulfill certain needed functions that help us live together as a society. This is somewhat different from what government is in Scripture where it is the apparatus supporting the king who represents God or supporting the people who represent the dominant empire. Nowhere in Scripture, as far as I can see (correct me if you see something I don’t), is there government established by the people for the purpose of sustaining the public welfare. That’s what I understand our government to be.

    I certainly understand that there are other views on what government is in our country. I understand that many see government’s sole purpose to be protecting our individual freedoms. For me, what that fails to acknowledge is the way in which we inevitably depend upon one another as we make our way in life, as you point out, Donna.

    We must reform government when it is corrupt or misdirected, as you suggest, James. We can argue about the desirable limits on government. What we can not do is live together without any government. The unrelenting corrosive attack on government that has been sustained for at least 30 years has led many to that kind of conclusion, from what I see.

    There is much more that can be said. For me, the most important thing is that government is us, is me and you, and is meant to promote our common welfare with all the consequences that flow from that.

    I look forward to your further thoughts. Peace, Janet

  • Donna on November 15, 2011

    Hi Janet,

    I agree with your definition of government – it is us, reflects us, because we make it what it is. As much as it may feel that we serve it, government is in our service.

    We are all guaranteed the right to free speech but with that right comes the obligation to create change by using the current system or proposing to change it given the structure we have: voting, legislation, grass roots efforts to carry voices to those we elect to represent us.

    Certainly protest draws attention to problems, but I’m having a hard time seeing what the problems are. If they are as I noted above, these are not logically arrived at. The student loan program is one way this country provides everyone an opportunity for higher education. Adding an encumbrance to the 1% will not solve anything (agree with James here) and far more good is done via philanthropy. What is defined as today’s corporate greed is really a recurrence of the market crash in 1929. Then, as now, the fault rests with supply and demand – and all parties looking to get the most they can. Protests can draw attention to the problem, but it hardly seems necessary given the moment-by-moment attention the situation brings to itself.

    I guess I just don’t see the present economic trouble as an injustice along the same lines as the inequity GLBT people suffer and racial injustice. That’s where the outcry should be.

    Maybe growing up gay has made me a rugged individualist.

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on November 17, 2011

    Dear Donna,

    I am very grateful for your sharing of how you see things and the questions you have regarding Occupy Wall Street. You are helping us all deepen our understanding.

    I want to share a few thoughts that come to my mind as I read your words.

    Occupy Wall Street has chosen to try to make change outside what you call the “current system.” My sense is that this arises from disappoint in and distrust of both the electoral system and the legislative process right now. We are witnessing what happens when the democratic process fall apart so much that discouraged people try to find another way to express themselves.

    I do not see taxing the 1% at a higher rate to be an “encumbrance” though I can see how those in the 1% might see it that way. For me, it is contributing one’s fair share to the common welfare. As I see it, it s fair for those who have more to give more in taxes for the good that government does for us all.

    That we have such a hard time seeing the good that government does–people talk so much more about pork and waste–is another facet of the break down in the functioning of government. I do not share your faith in philanthropy. I think food stamps does much more to keep hunger at bay than church food pantries. I am glad there are both and I am willing to pay my taxes to support food stamps just as much as to bring my cans to church.

    I would like to hear more from you about how supply and demand is the root of the Great Depression and our Great Recession. What I see is the integral connection between the manufacturing/services economy and the “money” economy (finance, if you will). Finance is necessary to grease the wheels of the “real” economy where most people work. After boom and bust cycles becoming more and more severe as the world industrialized, we learned that laissez faire capitalism brings disaster unless it is regulated (another valuable government function). We forgot this in the 90’s when the boom was fueled by deregulation. Finance overreached again and came to the brink of sinking the whole economy as happened in the 20’s. This is how I see it. I would love to hear more about how you see it.

    There is more that could be said but that is enough to be getting on with.

    I hope this stirs you and others to write again.

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on November 17, 2011

    Hi Janet,

    I think if I went through a discussion of boom/bust cycles and periods of no-regulation, deregulation, and insufficient regulation, we’d find that we have same view(s) on government and economy. Whether buying stocks on margin or buying homes on variable rate loans, there is always the underlying premise of consumer demand and market supply, and the risk involved to the financial sector. This is the lesson we fail to learn. My point is that if OWS is against “corporate greed” it must also be logically against “citizen greed.” That is not the case.

    I don’t know the actual numbers, but if a tax dollar is broken down in x% – administrative costs, x% defense, x% foreign aid, and so on, any extra tax on the wealthy will be broken out the same way, diluting the effect it will have. Philanthropy at least allows the wealthy to direct funds where they are most needed. Again, using contrived numbers, $100K of one wealthy person’s “proposed new tax” would have less effect on the food stamp program than would $100K given directly to a local food bank. Philanthropy is controlled in that way and can rise and fall as needed. A tax, I would hazard, is forever.

    Perhaps what it’s time for is a type of tailored tax contribution, where tax-payers can direct where percentages of their taxes go: education, defense, social programs, arts. If not for the 99%, then for the 1%.

    I don’t wholeheartedly share your view of a “breakdown” in the current system. Rather, I think there is a disinterest in it because it cannot produce immediate results. For example, I’m still irritated that voting machines don’t provide a hard-copy receipt, but I’ve not done anything about it, and in some ways would prefer the nightmare of hanging chads as opposed to a little black box that can be carrying an intangible line of code capable of changing my input. I feel strongly enough about it to say that I’m angry about it – how can citizens really know what happens when they use their right to vote? Was even one election “fixed” in this way?

    OWS is a show of anger, but at what? The overall dysfunction of government? Or is it just a revival of the age-old enmity between the haves and have-nots?

    If it’s the former, protest energy is better spent acting within the system. If it’s the latter, I’m one of the 99% who doesn’t share that love-hate relationship for wealth (love for the hope of someday attaining greater wealth, hate for the reality that it doesn’t happen for everyone). Economic disparity is always going to be, but I would prefer it within Capitalist country that I know guarantees opportunity.
    OWS doesn’t seem to have that outlook.

    It’s probably also good to say here that I don’t presume you personally to be “against” giving for the greater good. Everything you do has that motive. You are, I think, a reason to believe that while it may be difficult for a wealthy person to “get into heaven” it is not impossible, because you strive to model your life and heart after the goodness of Christ.

    With grace (I hope),

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on November 20, 2011

    Dear Donna,

    Thank you once more for your forthright comments. I have needed time to absorb them and choose how best to respond.

    One of the special qualities–both endearing and frustrating–of the Occupy Wall Street movement is their principle of not creating a platform. This means I do not presume to speak for OWS or to say what they want. I only speak for myself.

    It is important for me to repeat one thing I tried to say at the start: the paying of tax is one way we participate in our social fabric. For me, part of paying tax is accepting that I may be paying for things I am not particularly interested in (as a pacifist, it is a concern for me how much of my tax dollars go to military spending, for example). Nevertheless, I accept what the representative of our whole body politic have decided to fund through government tax and pay what the law requires of me.

    Philanthropy as practiced among us is also a human enterprise. It is as subject to human sin including self-interest and greed as every other human endeavor. It also preserves individual choice which has its place. I would say that state tax has as important a place in society as charity and a different place because, as I say, through it we participate with others in what I am calling our social fabric.

    I see the disinterest in government you speak of as another symptom of the breakdown of our social fabric around government rather than a cause of it. I would see the cause to be the concerted effort of the powerful to weaken structures like democratic government that are there to equalize power. And that clarifies for me, actually, one large thing Occupy Wall Street is clearly trying to exemplify and stand up for: democracy.

    Again, there is more that could be said. I hope this provokes your further word.

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on November 22, 2011

    Hi Janet,

    Don’t know if you got to see this NYT article today…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/us/politics/disgust-but-no-surprise-at-supercommittee-failure.html?ref=politics

    It reminded me of this discussion.

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on November 27, 2011

    Dear Donna,

    Thanks for sharing this article with us–the failure of the Super Committee does seem to be evidence of our system failing in a fundamental way.

    During my morning occupying Wall Street I told one of those living in the park that they were giving birth to something and none of us, not even the occupiers, knew exactly what that would be. In some ways this is a very hopeful thing because what may come from them will be different from what is now and is failing before our eyes.

    We both found this to be a hopeful thing. I wonder if you do?

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on September 11, 2012

    Funny that I remembered this thread almost a year ago now… I guess I would say at this point in time that our government is failing terribly, and that when I look at the things that have happened over the past few years, wow, we are headed straight for a communist state. But not if I can help it. I’m going Republican and won’t be back.

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on September 12, 2012

    Dear Donna,

    I stand completely with you on judging that our government is failing terribly, as I did on Sunday with a woman I met while canvassing for President Obama. Like you, she intends to vote Republican this year.

    I say to you, as I did to her, that where I expect we differ is in our assessment of the roots of this failure and thus our answer to how to get back to effective governance in our country. I expect we agree that a communist state with full state control of every aspect of life (my understanding of communism) is not our idea of effective government. It is not mine.

    But it is very hard for me to see how we are, as you say, “headed straight to a communist state.” You would really need to walk me through how you mean that and show me where that is happening.

    I think the economic meltdown in 2008 is proof that government regulation of the finance industry is as desirable as government regulation of food and bridges. This kind of government activity on behalf of all of us is needed in our complex society. Is it perfect–no. Can it always be improved or reformed–yes. There is a very long distance between communism and the balance of societal institutions like business and government which is the end of the road toward good government I desire.

    As always I am grateful for your contribution to this conversation and hope you respond.

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on September 13, 2012

    Honestly, Janet, I wouldn’t know where to begin! GM Plants in China? The DNC voting no on the inclusion of “God” and “Jerusalem”? Remarks like Biden’s “They want to put you all back in chains…”? I’ve always been a conservative Democrat, just left of the line, but in my quest to become a more educated voter, I have been shocked by even the above, let alone the financial crisis this country is in.

    Maybe I’ve changed, but I think the DNC has changed, too, and is now far too far to the left.

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on September 16, 2012

    Dear Donna,

    I really appreciate your comments here because your perspective is so far from mine.

    I read the essay by Prof. Hendrickson. It drove home for me the realization that one person’s needful regulation by government for the common good is another person’s state control threatening the tyranny of communism.

    This election does present a stark choice between these points of view to the electorate. I hope the billions of dollars of campaign ads and the voter ID laws fail to stop the voters giving us some clarity on which perspective serves our country best into the future.

    Peace be with you, Donna, Janet

  • Donna on September 19, 2012

    Hi Janet,

    You are right, our views are very far apart these days. I believe in voter id, but moreso I believe there is still not enough being done to secure the voting process. Interestingly, I read today that there is a bill in congress that will allow those 1% who wish to pay more taxes to do so when they file. We shall see if it passes, and if it does, who will give generously to the government (deductible of course). I never wanted to be a gay Republican, but that is who I am, and I’m happy with that.

    Best,

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on September 21, 2012

    Dear Donna,

    Please correct me if I am wrong but it does not sound to me like you are happy as a Republican.

    Donna, my understanding is that there has been only one voter fraud case in my life time in PA so I need you to explain what threatens the security of our voting process. What I see threatening the right to vote is requirement of an ID that is difficult and expensive for many to get, creating, in effect, a poll tax, settled to be against our Constitution.

    With regard to the bill you mention on a voluntary payment beyond one’s taxs, my objection to that is the way it turns one’s fair share of contributing to sustaining our commonwealth into a charitable gift. Government and charities are both needed institutions of a civil society but they are not the same things. To me, mixing the two is a step toward undermining both.

    I am interested in your response. Peace, Janet

  • Donna on September 21, 2012

    Janet, I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and it’s because I’m able to do the work required to make such a decision. Most, but not all, of my beliefs fall within the Republican agenda, not the religious right, but the Republican agenda. The Democratic Party has moved way too far left for my liking. If I can make a parallel, you are far more liberal than the PC(USA) and moreso align with the UCC or MCC, but you stay where you are for your own reasons (you know what they are) which I assume to be mostly because you believe in the Presbyterian Way. Well, the Democratic Party no longer offers, in my mind, the American Way, but a socialist way. We are headed toward complete government dependence even as the government is plainly incapable of handling the social programs it already administers.

    As for voting, a software based system from one supplier, without a system of hard copy receipts neither for the district nor the voter is extremely fallible. There may be only one case of fraud that you are aware of, but that’s the point with a software based system: no one would ever be aware of a problem.

    As far as ID for voting? Citizenship provides the right to vote, and every citizen has a social security card with a person’s signature on it. Showing a photo id along with it is hardly taxing. Heck, to go to a new pharmacy, or get a job, or even buy bus tickets with a card, I’ve had to show two forms of id, one a photo id. As the law currently is, it is wasteful to make people get a new form of id when they already have a social security card. If they don’t have a social security card, then they likely shouldn’t be voting.

    Re: the last, the proposed bill allows for designating a donation directly on the tax form, where there is already a line to donate to the presidential election. So, it’s okay to donate to an election but not to the government for purposes of reducing the deficit? I’d rather the latter and restrict election campaign donations individual and corporate altogether. Let it be a fixed federal budget line item that reimburses the costs incurred by the winning candidate.

    Other than that my friend, I am happy. I’m generally not the “overjoyed” kind, you know that, but I am happy.

    Are you? The question I have for you is: do you see any connection in the decline of the church in society to the increased role of the government in people’s lives? I do. Where once great hospitals and schools were sponsored by great churches/denominations, universities and governments have stepped in… so very far from Paine’s idea of Americans coming together naturally out of care for one another (not political force) and creating a common good.

    Best,

    Donna

  • Janet Edwards on September 24, 2012

    Dear Donna,

    Deepest thanks for your thorough response to my questions.

    With regard to the details in your comments, these further points come to my mind. Software problems in electronic voting is, indeed, a serious concern but vote ID requirements do not address them at all.

    ID’s are required in the instances you mention because fraud has actually been a real problem whereas there is no evidence of such with regard to voting which also is a constitutionally protected right while the other things you mention are not. What may not be taxing to you is taxing for eligible voters like the gentleman I met while registering voters at the bus stop outside the Giant Eagle grocery store who has voted for 60 years and does not have a driver’s license or passport.

    I did not think I would go on so long here.

    The larger question that you highlight is the role of government which I understand you see to be on a dangerous path to socialism. Why? Keynes, the economist has proved to be right: when economies shrink the government must step in, when economies grow the government can step back, replenish its coffers, getting ready for the next recession. This is the way advanced economies work as government participates with private enterprise to sustain our common welfare. Government has only been doing its constitutional job, in my view.

    I need to know what you see as socialism and why it is so bad and so inevitable. I know you will do a good job of explaining.

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on September 24, 2012

    Hi Janet,

    I agree that fraud can happen on both ends of the voting process (before and after): in id, and in vote processing now done mostly by software. It’s not my point that one influences the other, if you that’s what you are thinking. I believe in s photo voter id requirement, because I don’t see it as a hardship. A state photo id (similar to a license) is free. The gentleman you mention here is likely able to go to a place close by to get one – AAA, state messenger service, or DMV photo station. If one cares to vote, one will get the proper id which ensures that right belongs to him/her and that no one else can use it for themselves.

    To answer your question about socialism, I defer to the article posted above and its examples.

    Best,

    Donna


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