In recent weeks, the Occupy Wall Street protests have drawn attention to the issue of economic disparities in America. Those facts seem particularly significant here in the poorest big city in America. Do too few have too much money and power? What values are at issue here and how should we process these protests?
Was it John Calvin who pointed out how the one who objects to the opulence of dabbing one’s mouth with a fine cloth napkin—when a simpler, courser cloth will do—will inevitably be outdone by the one who won’t utilize a napkin at all? But who should care so much whether one uses a dinner napkin made of Egyptian cotton or burlap or paper, or uses a tiny moist towelette, or goes at their meal sans napkin? The ascetic diner makes no fundamentally better decision than the fine diner. And it is quite possible that the ascetic diner is entirely more preoccupied with his choice of the burlap napkin, such that he can’t enjoy the meal before him for continuing to cast an incredulous glance across the street at the fine diner. (Whose enjoyment of his meal is obviously because he is arrogantly unconcerned for the poor and needy?)
To me, the Occupy Wall Street protestors have this preoccupied feel. I’m sure there are exceptions to the whole, but one wonders if anyone taken to the streets in New York, Oakland, or Atlanta can actually enjoy the life they have right before them for denigrating the lives of that villainously opulent 1%. What!? All true Americans wipe their mouths with their sleeves?
The Occupy Wall Street folk seem to be channeling Inspector Javert’s (Les Miserables) pursuit of Jean Valjean. According to Javert’s Procrustean logic, there are only two kinds of people in the world: the criminal and law-abiding. Valjean is simply criminal and his wealth therefore does nothing noble. If this is how it is now, everyone in America with money should start praying Psalm 23 at dinnertime: “ ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…my cup overflows’—but we’re keeping the crystal in the cabinet, God, lest we be misunderstood.”
I am not naïve. I know the protestors have salient points to make, and urgently. There still is spectacular greed and graft in the echelons of finance in our country. Many are hurting financially now because of it. I can’t throw my own quarters, dimes, and nickels as far as I used to. Opportunities to get ahead are harder to come by and people feel they’re falling further behind. There are no Rip Van Winkles just now awakening to economic disparities in America, of course. We know such disparities have been around since Washington Irving’s story was first published almost two hundred years ago. But the game seems more rigged, or at least the populace seems more cynical. Much has been mismanaged and misappropriated with seemingly little accountability. Retirees in my own church have suffered from corporate collapses.
The frustration is palpable, and frustration must have an outlet for expression. I do not deny the protestors this. We all share in the frustration to varying degrees, and the right to protest from one’s frustrations is as vaunted an American right and tradition as the freedom to pursue one’s happiness materially. Both have coexisted in our country like no other, and our rule of law is to hold both in check—so protestors should be arrested when they disobey disperse orders and executives should be arrested when they disobey disbursement regulations.
And let’s not misunderstand the biblical approach on this: the Bible opposes the love of money, not the earning of it. You can love money and not have it; you can have money and not love it. God knows every heart and the motivations therein. It is flatly inaccurate to say Jesus “preached against the rich.” He preached in the hearing of those who used their riches and power to exclude people from God’s kingdom; He warned Pharisees and Publicans both to repent of their pride and not put their hope in their possessions, for nothing buys nor earns the favor of God. That is given by grace via mercy.
My overall point here is that greed and graft can be found in the hearts of the have-nots as well. For much of our history, Americans have simultaneously admired and envied the family in the house on the hill. We praise them when they descend from the hill to finance the town’s new park, then despise them for re-ascending there to throw exclusive parties. I grew up in a rural community with a few such families. One of those families attended our small church. Their fortune was from the cattle business. They lived in a big house, drove newer cars, and their pretty daughter with a sweet personality wore the newest styles. For that she was disdained by a couple of girls in our youth group who lived down the hill on the same road she lived on, but in trailers. She didn’t have a greed problem. They did.
The ball to keep the eye upon is not rich people. They are not the problem. I thank God for many wealthy people in Memphis who leverage their influence and deploy their wealth generously to improve lives they don’t have to care about but do, and deeply. Would that all people of wealth did likewise! The ball to keep the eye upon is greed and graft. But beware: this ball may be found under your own arm, on your own home court. It doesn’t always roll up the hill, or down Wall Street.