13 October 2011


  My favorite "occupy" image so far has also been 
  seen by others here in our town.

  Russia Today coverage; my first thought was of USA
  coverage of Strategy 31 arrests.
The "Occupy Wall Street" campaign and its sister actions around the USA have been featured on Russian television news several times recently, and have even come up in Institute conversations. I've avoided saying much here, since the inevitable comparisons with Strategy 31 and similar actions here are touchy and not exactly flattering for either country. One student asked me whether it was true that the "American Autumn" was a continuation of the "Arab Spring"--and was something like this possible in Russia, too? It's my strong policy neither to pour cold water nor to fan flames here, so I stayed very neutral, but I find it absolutely fascinating that the subject came up.

Today at our institute we were celebrating librarian Elena Marksovna's birthday, and I mentioned a photo I'd seen of a librarian holding a sign at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration. It turned out that others had seen the same photo. But the very fact that stable-looking middle-class people are taking part in this "Occupy" campaign reminded me of one of the most prominent features of commentaries I've seen about these activities: sociological analyses of the participants, sometimes with the undisguised message that "they are not normal people like you and me." They have too many marginal people; they don't have enough marginal people; they're supposedly only white and middle class; they're disaffected spoiled children. Whatever the category, they're not worth paying attention to--and that is always a lazy way to critique a movement.

Another theme of "Occupy" commentary concerns the imperfections of the message. This relatively thoughtful commentary in Christianity Today points out, reasonably enough, that "Like most protests, the Occupy Wall Street folks are better at identifying something that is wrong than identifying a way forward that is right." But Bruce Wydick's comments make some extrapolations about the protesters and their motivations that deserve a courteous challenge:
  • "The protests are centered on Wall Street because they target political corruption in the finance industry. But the world of finance is very complex." Wydick explains:
    As a graduate student at Berkeley, I was a teaching assistant for Christina Romer, a macroeconomist who arguably understands economic recessions better than anyone on the planet. She and Larry Summers, another brilliant economist, spent two grueling years as President Obama's chief economic advisors, trying to untangle the mess. Bottom line to protestors: If Christina struggles with it, you don't understand it.
    Although I'm sure he's right, I absolutely resist the possible implication that you must not protest what you don't completely understand. In fact, one of the reasons people on both the left and the right are upset, at least intuitively, is (I believe) that markets, governments, and private elites have become so complex and enmeshed that nobody can understand them; nobody has any realistic handle on any sort of mechanical solution. What's needed is a top-order values response--a reassertion of ethical values that gives a proper place to elemental justice.
  • "In such a climate it may be more strategic to focus on the common anger than on specificities." That may be true in some sense, but I think it is unjustifiably cynical. Some people in the movements seem to be very specific in their focus. This is what they see: the accelerating and relatively unregulated concentration of wealth in the hands of a few just after the country as a whole has bailed out the financial industry, and just as a stubborn, perverse resistance to the very idea of paying a bit more in taxes to benefit the most vulnerable is for the first time in many generations becoming political orthodoxy. Is this not a specific enough reason to be upset?

    Furthermore, I don't see that anger--while certainly present--is the predominant mood. I also don't agree that, as Wydick claims, "The protestors would like to see the financiers thrown in jail." Reasonable regulations with real teeth are badly needed, but I don't see retroactive vindictiveness as a theme in these protests. It seems far more important to challenge the cultish assumption that super-rich financiers are their own best regulators than to slap around any individual who operated within the pathetically inadequate regulatory climate of the recent past.
  • Bruce Wydick's most important points are absolutely on target:
    ...Even if the protestors don't understand much about financial economics, they have a clear sense that something is wrong. That something, however, lies deeper than the behavior of a relative handful of Wall Street moguls. That something, I believe, is a sense of material entitlement that has crept into the American psyche. This sense of material entitlement has infected our personal choices, our politics, and our financial system.

    The crisis has spiritual roots. Jesus warns his followers, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15, NIV). But a syncretistic form of Christianity has emerged in our country, a syncretism that mingles genuine New Testament Christianity with the consumer materialism of the American Dream.

    This spirit of entitlement in America also lies at the root of our national debt problem, a crisis exacerbated by the housing and finance meltdowns.
    Amen! But just as a lack of academic expertise is not a disqualification to protest, neither is not having every single one of our spiritual ducks in a row. Wydick, however, believes that the "Occupy" movement is captive to this same entitlement mentality:
    In this spirit, Occupy Wall Street protest signs seek to ignite a revolution of the 99 percent against the (richest) 1 percent, who are responsible for our troubles. Christians of course are forbidden from supporting this kind of worldview. The dissipation that exists in our country, unfortunately, has not been confined to 1 percent of the population. Christianity teaches us that all of us stand as imperfect, self-absorbed, broken people, each of us a contributor to the problems of the world in our own, creative way.

    Political action has often served in our country as a lazy shortcut around the harder work of evangelization. If we are unconvincing in changing people's thinking, we attempt to control their behavior through the political process.
    But how do we know that the "Occupy" protesters are totally acting from a self-righteous us/them mentality? Maybe many of them far more self-reflective than commentators give them credit for--in fact, maybe some of them are as insightful as we observers are! Should "imperfect, self-absorbed, broken people" whose eyes have been opened to grievous abuses all just stay home, stick to their churches and Bible studies, leaving the economy to "experts" and waiting for Christian celebrities to come up with the next big evangelization gimmick? (In all fairness, Wydick isn't saying this, either!!) I'd much rather see thousands of Christians following the example of Micah Bales and deliberately creating a Christian witness within the movement. "Political action" vs "the harder work of evangelization" is a false dichotomy.
The people of the "Occupy" movements are diverse; none of the stereotypes (villainous, marginal, or heroic) can fairly summarize them. The same is true of those who stay home and don't participate, and those who continue to go to their daily jobs on Wall Street. All of them are made in the Image of God and are dearly loved by God. I hope and pray that all of them hear this wonderful message and are empowered to think about its ethical implications. Christians helping to occupy Wall Street and K Street and everywhere else touched by this movement can help this prayer become reality.

More comments on Bruce Wydick's column on the "Occupy" movement.

The Common English Bible: Look up the verses you cherish most--or know the most about. How does this translation measure up?

Another event I'd like to participate in: Christ at the Checkpoint.

Two ZDNet takes on Google engineer Steve Yegge's Google+ "we don't get platforms" rant: Larry Dignan and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

Another treat from Open Culture: Marshall McLuhan on "the stupidest debate in the history of debating," Ford vs Carter, 1976.

Friday PS: "Briton navigates the rough without paying bribes." David Simons says, "Most of the corruption in Russia is actually a myth." (Note: Moscow Times stories eventually go into the paywall archive.)

Guy Forsyth goes back to Denmark, gives us a fresh version of "Mona."


Bill Samuel said...

I mostly like the Common English Bible, but there are places where I don't like what they did. I'm handicapped here in that I don't know Biblical languages at all, so I can't really determine whether my sense of a passage is more faithful than that of the CEB.

I notice in the Beatitudes, the Blesseds become the Happys. That seems to me to be a significant difference in meaning. Blessed makes more sense to me, but I'm no Biblical scholar.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Bill. I'm still mostly reading The Message as my daily dose, which for almost all purposes suits me well, with one problem: Jesus comes across something like a well-rehearsed retreat leader.

Jeremy Mott said...

On Bibles I'm way behind: I use the RSV and the NAB (Roman Catholic) Bible. I don't know any Biblical languages either. I think it's a little late for me to learn.

I was greatly amused by the photo of the protesting librarian. My youngest sister, my neice, and my daughter are all librarians. (I have some library training as well, though I never worked in the field.) I know many other Quaker librarians----not as numerous as Quaker teachers, but still a whole lot of them. My cousin (not a Friend) is a dealer in rare books.
Is there something genetic about all this, I wonder? Only my daughter, as far as I know, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Occuppy Protests, which have now reached this far corner of southwest Virginia.
Jeremy Mott
P.S. Many songs of Bob Dylan's are back on youtube now, for the first time in years. If you want to make your own copies, do so now before they are taken down again.
Sat sapientium verbum.