Monday, November 21, 2011

Occupy the Bible

The LORD rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples.
The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?
says the Lord GOD of hosts.
Isaiah 3:13-15

There are lots of things wrong with “Occupy Wall Street.” As a social vision, Anarchism, even Pacifist Anarchism (even Christian Pacifist Anarchism) has its limits.

Phil Wogaman describes the oddly na├»ve combination of pessimism and optimism found in anarchistic movements as “utter pessimism about any redeeming possibilities withn the present forms of social organization combined with stupendous optimssm about the goodness that will simply blossom forth, unaided, after the present social organization is smashed.” The OWS message seems to be that if we can get rid of the oppressive collusion of business and government, then “the people” can create a society ruled by consensus and everyone can live in peace and harmony.

On the other hand, the Occupy movement has done some important things. In his Sunday column, called “Occupy the Agenda,” Nicholas Kristof reports that use of the words “income inequality” quintupled in news reports after the protests began. That is no small achievement. For more than three decades, the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer (relatively), and no one has seemed to care. Now, at least people are talking about it.

The top one percent of Americans have more net wealth than the bottom ninety percent. That doesn’t seem possible, but it is true. We have been redistributing wealth from the bottom to the top at an alarming rate.

I think this is what Isaiah meant when he said that “the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” And this is what he called, “grinding the face of the poor.”

Kristof reports on a new study by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University. In their study they asked Americans how they believed wealth should be distributed across income groups. Respondents thought that the richest 20% should control about one third of the wealth, and the poorest 20% should have about one-tenth.

Most people are surprised to learn that the richest 20% of Americans actually possess more than 80% of the nation’s wealth, and the poorest 20% own one-tenth of a percent. Again, the real numbers are hard to believe.

Wealth is power. The concentration of wealth has led to a concentration of power, and those who have wealth use their influence to keep on the government on their side. In a recent speech the former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, James M. Stone, said that before the economic collapse of 2008, congressional leaders knew that the banks needed to be more closely controlled. And he asked rhetorically, “So why was this not done?” One obvious part of the answer, he said, is that “both political parties rely heavily on campaign contributions from the financial sector.”

The Bible is relentless in opposing oppression and zealous in advocating for the poor. It sees an implicit injustice in a growing gap between rich and poor. But it does not give us a political program. That is up to us.

The Occupy movement has brought critical biblical issues into mainstream conversation, and for that we can be grateful.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis!