You can’t watch TV, read the newspaper, or go anywhere right now without hearing about Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a movement which began on September 17 with a few dozen protesters who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Claiming to be the 99 percent of Americans who “will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent,” the protesters object to low tax rates for the wealthy, obscene corporate profits, a widening inequality of income, continuing high unemployment, and a government which protects the wealthy and is not functioning for the common good.
Occupy Wall Street has spread to dozens of cities in the U.S., including Grand Rapids, Lansing, Saginaw, and Detroit. Parents for OWS organized a Family Sleepover last Friday night in NYC’s Zuccotti Park, where 500 parents and children experienced arts and crafts, a children’s sing along, a pizza party, and bedtime stories. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 10% of the overall mainstream news coverage during the week of Oct. 11 was about Occupy Wall Street, and it has only increased in the last week.
- According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income disparity in the United States has increased 40% in the past 30 years. Despite the official end in 2009 of the longest and severest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the nation’s poverty rate in 2010 rose to a 17 year high, with more than 46 million people (15.1% of the population) living in poverty and 49.9 million living without health insurance.
- 20% of all children now live in poverty, and the poverty line for a family of 4 is $22,350. If you can house, feed, and clothe your family on that amount of money, let me know.
- Latest census figures indicate that the mean income in the U.S. is back to the 1996 level.
- 30 years ago CEO’s made 30 times the salary of an average worker. By contrast, the average CEO today make 300 times more than an average worker.
- Economists at Northeastern University have calculated that corporate profits represented 88 percent of the growth in real national income between the 2nd quarter of 2009 and the 4th quarter of 2010. During the same period wages and salaries accounted for just over 1 percent of our national income.
I do not begrudge the rich their money or appropriate variations in salaries. We live in the land of opportunity, still priding ourselves that anyone can succeed through hard work and ambition. Yet why is it that so many young adults cannot even find their first job let alone buy a house and raise a family? Why have family members and friends remained unemployed for 3 or more years when they are highly capable and desperate to work?
What is wrong here? How did executive compensation balloon out of control? Why has corporate income not led to more jobs and financial security for the 14 million unemployed Americans? Has capitalism run amok? Are our youth being robbed of the opportunities their parents and grandparents had? When too few have too much, and too many have too little, is it any wonder that Americans are angry, disillusioned, and fed up?
I freely confess that I do not understand the intricacies of economics. I do not comprehend why it is morally acceptable or good business practice for CEO’s to make 300 times more than their employees. I don’t get why our government can cut low income housing and preserve tax cuts for vacation homes. Nor can I fathom how a member of our House of Representatives could say in a Sept. 19 interview on MSNBC that if he had to pay the proposed millionaires tax, he would only have $600,000 left after taxes; and after he fed his family, there would only be maybe $400,000 left to invest in his business. You do the math.
What I do understand is God’s economy because it’s all through the Bible. In the Jewish law the poor were to be treated equitably. Gleaning laws focused on the widow, fatherless, stranger, and destitute. During the Sabbatical year debts were to be canceled, and Jubilee provided release for Hebrews who had become servants through poverty. Moreover, the Hebrews were enjoined to tithe, to set aside for God the first tenth of their crops or income. The Hebrew prophets also proclaimed a common litany. God’s people would be judged harshly for their lack of generosity and compassion for the poor, widows, aliens, and helpless in their midst.
Jesus was born poor, lived poor, and died poor, but he was not afraid to engage the powers of the day. He talked about money than anything else, challenged greed of any kind, warned against defining ourselves in terms of the things we have, and insisted on reversing the world order so that the first would be last the last would be first.
- “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.” Luke 12:15
- “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 6:24
- “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” Matthew 23:25
Occupy Wall Street is not an overtly religious movement, which prompts me to ask, “Where are the prophets?” Why isn’t the church leading the way? Why aren’t our preachers and laity engaging the issues of the day by speaking out against corporate excesses, oppression of the poor, and neglect of the vulnerable? Who is going to name the truth about ourselves, make us squirm, and challenge us to live within our means, share our wealth, and reach out to the poor.
But be careful. Prophets are not always the ones we’d expect. Consider Rick Steves, who is a Travel TV host, publisher, activist, and faithful Lutheran. In late August Steves announced that he was making a $1 million donation to the Edmonds, Washington Center for the Arts. The donations equal what Rick Steves has saved in taxes since Congress approved tax cuts beginning in 2001.
Steves said, “Over the last decade my tax burden has decreased even as public funding for important local programs and institutions has been decimated – a trend I find alarming… It’s my hope to inspire other caring high-income people to step up and fill those funding gaps … and to speak out on the wisdom of rolling back the tax cuts for our wealthy.” Rick Steves is a prophet.
Warren Buffett, the third-richest man in the world, spoke in June at a $4,600 a seat fundraising dinner for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Buffet criticized our US tax system for giving unnecessary and unfair tax breaks to the rich, saying that he was taxed at the rate of 17.7% of the $46 million that he earned last year, while his $60,000 a year secretary was taxed at a 30% rate. “The 400 of us (here) pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for that matter. If you’re in the luckiest 1 per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.” Warren Buffett is a prophet.
Last week I was able to hear Jim Wallis, evangelical Christian author, activist, and founder of Sojourners magazine, remind a Grand Rapids gathering that all budgets are moral documents and that it is possible to model a just economy in our government as well as in the church. The gross inequality right now between the rich and poor ultimately promotes instability, undermines individual and communal wellbeing, hinders economic growth, and inhibits sustainability. Citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, Wallis said, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.” Jim Wallis is a prophet.
Now is the time when most of our churches are looking ahead to 2012 by preparing their budgets and seeking commitments of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness from parishioners. I can’t think of any verse which better states our call as followers of Jesus Christ to be good stewards of all that we have been given, “From everyone to whom much is given is much required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Luke 12:48
Don’t miss the chance to be a prophet this fall, for the church is at its best when we prophetically demonstrate the purity and simplicity of God’s economy by giving freely as a joyful response to God’s love for us. We are prophets when:
- The tithe becomes our standard of giving, and each person strives toward the goal of giving 10% of what God has given them back to God
- Those blessed with wealth understand that more is required of them and gladly support the church as well as offer lead gifts for new ministries and capital projects
- We dispense with splashy campaigns complete with guilt-tripping and arm-twisting because giving is natural and is done cheerfully and without compulsion
- Money is never used as a weapon or a source of power
- Poor and rich kneel side by side at the same communion rail, pray to the same God, offer their gifts in service, and receive the same sacrament of grace
Where are the prophets? They occupy the mission field, Bible studies, and pews as well as Wall Street. They are rich and poor, churched and unchurched, leaders and followers, protesters and protectors. They are all those who witness to the world that there is another way to live, give, care, and share. Could God be calling you to be a prophet?