Though national attention towards the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be declining, the issues it raised are still being discussed, debated, and circulated throughout the web, especially within social media. So while the article I’ll be dissecting is a couple of months old, its argument remains relevant.
Titled “A Christian Response to OWS,” this piece purports to represent a distinctively Christian take on the protests, which are largely seen as emerging from the secular left. By my experience, the movement has attracted people of varying religions and different degrees of piety, with only the Christian Right appearing to be absent. Therefore, I find this perspective intriguing, since it implies some sort of un-Christian aspect of OWS. What could that be?
For decades now “The American Dream” has been promoted as the latest form of success: a college education, high-paying job, big house, fancy cars, etc., all under the slogan “You can have it all.” For many of those decades it appeared that success was for anyone who wanted it, whether they applied themselves or not. Increased credit card debt, homeownership for those who couldn’t afford it, more and more government entitlement programs, promotion of self-worth and entitlement to the “good things in life,” all whitewashed the underlying destructive path America was on. In 2008 it all came tumbling down. The failures became apparent.
When failure hits, a scapegoat is needed. Surely it was because those rich people on Wall Street stole this dream and wanted it only for themselves. Now we have Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protestors demanding that the riches of the “haves” be taken and distributed to the “have-nots.”
How should a Christian respond to all of this? Are the protestors right, and should we support them? Or does God call us in a different direction?
The entire argument of this article is based on flawed premises, namely an oversimplification of the movement and its aims.
For starters, the protests are directed not only at Wall Street bankers, but at the politicians who collude with them. It’s a backlash against a system that is seen as out of touch with the average person and beholden only to well-monied interests. The demonstrations were initially directed at Wall Street only because it was the most egregious example of this problem: many financial institutions had contributed to this economic mess, were bailed out with taxpayer money, and have more-or-less continued with business as usual. It’s an objection against the system as a whole, not just a small clique of rich people. Besides, hundreds of inspired gatherings took place throughout the country, and many of them have been centered on local government centers, universities, and public squares. It isn’t just about Wall Street, which was just the starting point.
Nor was it simply a matter of demanding the wealth of the “haves.” Are there protestors who support some form of wealth redistribution? Certainly. But the concerns go beyond taking money from the rich and giving it to the rest. Any social movement of this nature is going to have a wide-range of proposed solutions and demands, especially if it is spontaneous and grassroots. The problem isn’t just socioeconomic, but political. Protesters want politicians to stop working mostly for the interests of corporations. They want powerful companies to stop influencing policymaking. They want the financiers and bankers who played a role in our recession to be held accountable, and want those industries to be reformed and better regulated. They’re responding to the stagnation of wage and the growth in income inequality. It’s about making the system work for the people.
Granted there is plenty here to debate and argue about – is the system really that broken? How do we go about changing it? And so on. Such arguments are great and crucial. But we should recognize the actual demands and concerns rather then explain them away as crude scaepgoating. I’m sure that characterization applies to some people, but certainly not all. I doubt the majority of Americans who sympathize with these demands are merely being envious.
So where does the Christian perspective come into play? The author derives his answer from the writings of a theologian named Eric Metaxas, who in turn takes it upon himself to describe what God’s take of success is and how it relates to the protests.
Eric Metaxas points us to how God defines success. He tells us how Bonhoeffer came to realize that “God was not interested in success, but in obedience. If one obeyed God and was willing to suffer defeat and whatever else came one’s way, God would show a kind of success that the world couldn’t imagine.”
God is telling us that success is not based on what car we drive, or size of house we live in, or even how much wealth we have accumulated over our lives. It is based, rather, on our obedience to His Word and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
He shows us this through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Jesus was always obedient to His Father’s commands. By the world’s standards Jesus was a failure and should be ignored, but through His obedience He attained the ultimate success and now sits at the right hand of the Father.
First of all, I’m not quite sure how someone can claim to truly understand what God’s interests or intentions are. A being that is frequently touted as “working in mysterious ways” or having some vaguely-defined plan for us doesn’t seem like he’d be easy to speak on behalf of. Subsequently, many different Christians develop wildly different ideas about what the Bible really teaches or what God really has in mind for us. Yet none of them have any more evidence on the matter than the other, drawing from the same contradicting Bible or from the writings of past theologians (who are in turn interpreting the same book in their own way, or presenting their own unproven postulations as the right ones).
Some people used the Bible to lend support to slavery and the subjugation of women, and others used the same book to justify ending both. How can we glean any clear or reliable answer to our worldly problems from a book that has validated conflicting ideas? How does anyone really know what God is telling us? He seems to tell different people different things. Which one of them do we believe, and based on what evidence or credibility?
Secondly, I’m question how obedience comes into play here. So obedience to Christ is the key to solving these social justice issues? Socioeconomic inequality isn’t problematic if we remain unquestionably loyal to God? Does this mean we shouldn’t address issues like poverty and homelessness because, in the end, all that matters is that we submit to God? That seems to be the proposed solution.
As Christians we should value obedience to Jesus over any worldly success. We should also recognize that every good thing we have comes from God, and not for our sole benefit but so that we can use it all to glorify Him.
Which leads me to my final point. What the protestors are promoting is what the Bible would call covetousness. There really isn’t any such thing as “haves” and “have-nots.” We all are “haves.” If you read the parable of the talents, you will notice two things. First, each servant was given a different amount, not equally divided, and commanded to manage what they were given. God is not showing favorites. He gives us all different amounts of wealth, intelligence, creativity, and so forth, and commands us to manage what He has given us to His glory, not for our worldly success.
We also see that when the master returned and asked for an accounting from each, he didn’t take from the two that were successful and give to the one that was lazy. Rather, he condemned the lazy one for not doing anything. He then took away the talents the lazy one had and gave it to the two that had much, and said: “For whoever has will be given more and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:29-30)
It’s covetous to demand that our political system not be skewed to benefit the wealthy and well-connected? Then again, that assessment is based on the faulty premises I noted before.
Relying on biblical parables or quotes isn’t very reliable. Everyone can find something somewhere in the Bible that supports their political views. I can find lines in the Bible that also seem to support a more egalitarian system, including a famous statement by Jesus that appears to condemn wealthy people. Of course I’m sure many Christians will dispute these interpretations and say that they are being read wrong or out of context. But the fact that this divinely inspired text can yield so many opposing and vague notions makes it invalid as a source for guidance. How does anything get resolved if you’re each deferring to the same infallible authority?
What I find most noxious, however, is this support of obedience, where the solution is to stop your complaining and submit to God’s will. It’s one thing to argue that the protesters are wrong about their assessment, or are addressing the issues the wrong way. It’s another to suggest that demanding socioeconomic justice and opportunity in and of itself is somehow deviant from Christianity. Not only is Christian identity and values highly subjective and variable, but the ethical and logical implications of such a mentality are disturbing.
Does it mean that the poor should just accept their lot in life and not bother trying to progress? For what purpose would God make some people fabulously wealthy and other people – most people – abjectly poor? For “His glory?” What does that even mean? Where is the glory in people living in a state of agony and humiliation? God could’ve made the universe in whatever way he wanted – glory could just as well be living in utopian world where the notion of boredom simply doesn’t exist. Why set it up this way?
Furthermore, I’m sure this sort of thinking is easy for a wealthy or middle-class person to accept (not that they’re the only ones to). God ordained their prosperity; the highest authority imaginable is backing them up. If that doesn’t sometimes lead to self-entitlement, I don’t know what will. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being rich, and the writer made it clear that God isn’t showing favorites in arbitrarily granting different people a different quality of life. But many humans will inevitably reach the conclusion that the wealthy are indeed favored, for why else would God make them that way? They may use this logic to justify greed and selfishness. Indeed, this is where the odious prosperity gospel emerges from.
To be fair, I can see how this might help poorer people feel better about their situation psychologically. It gives them a sense of hope, something to help them get by, which partly explains why some of the poorest countries in the world are among the most devout.
But the attitude outlined in this article also seems to promote an almost nihilistic approach to the human condition. Don’t bother trying to address the social, political, and environmental ills that threaten humanity – just trust in God and everything will be okay. Ignore worldly affairs and continue believing until the day you die. How can we work to better our world if most people believe that its affairs don’t even matter?
Let none of us Christians be found, when Jesus returns, to be like the lazy one, not applying what we have been given. Let us not be among those who are demanding that we be given what God has given others. Instead let us be found content with what God has given us, actively obeying His Word and multiplying our talents for His glory.
There’s the kicker: “when Jesus returns” – e.g. when the world ends in a violent apocalypse, billions of nonbelievers are casted into hell, and the faithful who remain obedient are raptured into heaven. Setting aside the sadism or cognitive dissonance in looking forward to this horrific event, this goes a long way to explaining why our society is so backward in so many areas. Why fix the world if it’s slated to come to an end anyway, as nearly half of all Americans believe? It’s better to just keep to your faith and wait for the time to come. What could matter more than salvation?
To be clear, I understand that not all Christians believe this. Plenty of them support social justice, donate to charitable causes, and work to better the lives of their fellow humans in a variety of ways. For all I know, the author of this post is no different in this regard. But deference to an invisible and vaguely defined authority is dangerous.
There’s a difference between countering the OWS movement on a philosophical level, and claiming that their very concerns are invalid because we shouldn’t care about those issues in the first place. It’s hard to say if the argument would change if the author properly understood the protests to begin with. But that’s all I have to go by, and in any case, what he argues is hardly unique or limited to this particular event.
Even if encouraging apathy towards social justice issues isn’t the intention, it seems a likely result. A lot of people will look at arguments like this and develop a negligent or dismissive attitude towards real human problems. Telling people that the most powerful being in the universe demands nothing more than subservience to him is detrimental and illogical. We can’t even agree on the nature of God or what he really intends for us, much less on whether or not he exists.
All we can agree on, and all that we know for certain, is that we have this one planet to share and a range of problems to address. We should work together to solve them, and discuss and debate the issues on our own terms. Accepting the unjust and miserable circumstances of the human condition is gambling away the only life we have based on one of the many conflicting claims of various religious authorities.
We should govern our societies based on what we can know and observe for certain – human suffering is bad, systemic inequality is problematic, and the erosion of political representation is detrimental. We should figure out rational and empirically validated ways to approach these issues, and argue them on those down-to-Earth terms. That’s all we have to go by, as such evidence is universally available, rather than limited to one faith tradition or another.