This essay was originally posted on the Middle Collegiate Church Economic Justice Facebook page (my church). It was inspired by a blog post on OWS by our senior minister, the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis.
General Assembly, Zuccotti Park, Sept. 30, 2011
Zuccotti Park, October 2, 2011
OWS is Dr. King’s Unfinished Business.
I remember Jacqui saying a couple years ago that we need to have an honest conversation about money. That conversation was about giving. Now you could say the Creator is acting through the Occupy Wall Street movement to tell us it’s time to have another even more difficult and more honest conversation about money. This time, as Jacqui points out, it’s about class. As someone who has been part of the movement for economic justice for many years, my feeling is, “hooray! It’s about time!”
As Jacqui says, this is not about naming, blaming or shaming individuals. But it is about having the courage to make the fundamental systemic changes we need to make to move towards what Jacqui calls God’s economy. These are not small changes. It is great that Middle members generously give clothes and food to people who need it. This is important work. It is God’s work. But God asks us to do more. Much more.
Even a cursory look at the data will tell you that this country has been experiencing a rapidly widening gulf between the haves and have-nots for the last 30 years. And 30 years ago there was already a gulf– a gulf between the haves and have-nots that has existed as long as this country has. It goes back as far as colonialism and slavery and the industrial revolution. And all these historic events have to be seen through the lens of the particular form of capitalism that dominates our economy.
OWS labor solidarity rally, Oct. 5, 2011
Lots of people believe that there will always be poor people, and there’s really not much we can do about economic injustice. While the first part of that truism may be true, the second is most definitely false. There may always be poor people, but there is plenty we can do to create more economic justice, to move closer to the kind of economy that God wants for us. I believe God is weeping with joy as this Occupy Wall Street movement unfolds. God is not neutral about class any more than God is neutral about race or gender or sexual identity. God wants racial equality. God wants gender equality. God wants LGBTI equality. And God wants economic equality.
I’m sure that makes some people uncomfortable. God’s will always does, especially when equality requires people of faith with unjust privileges to give some up. I imagine someone asking, “but I earned my money, how is that an unjust privilege?” The answer is found in the parable that Jacqui paraphrased from Matthew 20:1-16, in which workers who were hired early in the morning to work in the vineyard got the same pay as those who came at the end of the day. Another way to relate the message of this teaching is “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”
Occupy Wall Street People’s Library
OWS Good Neighbor Policy
OWS labor table
One of the most eloquent human vehicles for this message, in my view, was our beloved Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many people are not aware that Dr. King began to focus more on economic justice than any other issues during the last years of his life. In 1966 he began working in low income neighborhoods in Chicago and other northern cities to address economic inequality and injustice, and in 1968 when he was killed, he was working on organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, bringing together poor and moderate income people of all races in an attempt to win an “economic bill of rights.”
His words ring truer today than they did 43 years ago. I would go so far as to say the struggle for economic justice, the struggle we see now manifested in the Occupy Wall Street movement, is Dr. King’s last and biggest piece of unfinished business. It is business an assassin’s bullet left us to complete for him.
In a speech called Beyond Vietnam– A Time to Break the Silence, which Dr. King gave on April 4, 1967, he said,
On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” . . . America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.
In August 1967, Dr. King developed this theme further in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, called Where Do We Go From Here? Here is an excerpt:
. . . I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” These are words that must be said.
Now, don’t think you have me in a bind today. I’m not talking about communism. What I’m talking about is far beyond communism… What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.
And if you will let me be a preacher just a little bit. One day, one night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn’t do. . . He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic: that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.” In other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.”
A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!
And on March 31, 1968, less than a week before he died in Memphis, where he went to support the city’s striking garbage workers in their struggle for economic justice, he left no doubt about where this nation must go, in a speech called Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution:
This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. . . The real question is whether we have the will.
In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. . .
We read one day, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.
We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible…
One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.
It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.” That’s the question facing America today.
And that’s still the question facing America today. Dr. King last asked the question in 1968. Since April 4 of that year, the question has hung in the air, unanswered. The Occupy Wall Street movement demands that we answer it.