Spiritual Reflections on "Occupy Wall Street"

Thursday morning, I chose to join more than five hundred people who gathered here in Dallas for “Occupy Dallas.” This is the local incarnation of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that has been much in the news the past few weeks. More than 500 people gathered in Pike Park, and marched through downtown.

I want to say from the start that I understand how some do not like this movement. Others find it counterproductive. Such a movement, being from the “ground up,” of is also likely to be messy. I understand that.

Inside the movement, there are likely to be folks I don’t much agree with, in terms of values, tactics, goals, and faith. I understand that.

And what I would say is: we should not just understand these things. We should expect them.

But since I chose to stand and be counted in this march on Thursday, I felt I owed my congregation, and perhaps the greater community, some reasons as to why I chose to go. This is what follows…
(You can hear an audio version here)
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Two media sources have been extremely helpful to me in “naming” why I chose to get involved. One is today’s column by Frida Ghitis, who writes for the Miami Herald. The other is from the radio program, “This American Life.”

Frida Ghitis’ column today, titled “From Steve Jobs to Wall Street,” points out that while the “Occupy Wall Street” protests appear to be angry at the wealthy, they are clearly not angry at all wealthy people. She says:

“You never hear anyone complain that Steve Jobs became a multi-billionaire. That tells us something important about what motivates the protests growing on Wall Street…
The anger of demonstrators is not the result of envy or of politically-motivated hostility against the rich. Instead, it is the understandable expression of frustration with a system that has richly rewarded people who, quite simply, do not deserve it.
(underlining added)

I was such a fan of Steve Jobs. I am still quite sad over his death. Jobs started building computers in a garage. More than once in his life, he had to reinvent himself and start all over again. At one point he was even fired from Apple, the company he founded. He lost fortunes. He made them.

Time after time, decade after decade, Wall Street-types slammed his vision, devalued Apple’s stock, and generally told investors and the public that Apple would never make it. Year after year, we who believed in Apple were warned that the company was about to become extinct. I can no longer recall how many times I’ve heard that.

And I know it’s hard to remember that now. Much has changed. But as a long-time Apple fan? Trust me, we remember.

So, while it’s great to see Jobs revered as a visionary, and lauded for his wealth, it’s important to remember that his path was a challenging and risky one. People loved Steve Jobs because he had a passion for creative ways to use technology.

Frida Ghitis say this about Jobs and successful people like him:

“The American system rewards risk-taking, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Americans, unlike Europeans, don’t object to a system in which people can get rich — even extremely rich — if they make great contributions to society. In the United States, people tend to not hate the rich because they believe one day they might join their ranks. If you invent the iPhone, the iPad, become a billionaire. No problem.”

But! She points out, there is an important covenant that Americans have with each other and with our economic system The covenant says that, yes, you can become extremely wealthy…but you must also be willing to take the risks and pay the price for your mistakes.

And as she reminds us:

“Incredibly, in 2008, despite hundreds of billions in taxpayers’ bailouts and trillions in losses for investors…Wall Street firms paid $18 billion in bonuses…The average bonus in the largest firms topped $265,000. In 2010, the average bonus for all firms was $128,000. That’s on top of salary, options, and other perks.”

This, friends, gets coupled with an attitude about those bonuses, an attitude from Wall Street itself that seems to say to all of us: “just be quiet and let us run things….let us give the bonuses we want to give…we know what we’re doing…and we deserve it.”

Which brings me to the second media source that inspired me to get involved with “Occupy Wall Street.” It was a podcast from the radio show “This American Life” last year, and it was about Wall Street’s reaction to the economic bailout. It was entitled “Crybabies.” (If the audio doesn’t play the first time, try clicking again…)

As the name suggests, the piece notes that Wall Street-types seem particularly “sensitive” these days. The piece tells the story of Stephen Schwarzman, a Wall Street tycoon who famously said that raising the tax rate on corporations would be “like Hitler invading Poland.”

Yeah, right.

Adam Davidson, a correspondent for Planet Money says that, far from being unique, Schwarzman’s view seems to be the norm among both TOP Wall Street financiers and even mid-level folks too:

“Pretty much every big bank that you can name– with the possible exception of maybe JPMorgan Chase– would not exist today. It would have failed, if it wasn’t for the government.”
“it still seems to me that it would be appropriate for folks on Wall Street to say publicly, and to really have inside of their souls, the fact that their businesses failed….And instead, I cannot think of a single thing I’ve heard in the media, or that I have directly heard, that expresses any gratitude…”

Friends, that is what’s at the heart of the current frustration at Wall Street. It’s feeling that much has been given to them, and they are still ungrateful, completely and totally ungrateful for that fact that all of us saved them. Yes, we also saved the economy too, but we also saved their specific companies and jobs!!

Adam Davidson notes:

“I can’t think of a time that someone said my bank, that I run, would not exist today. It failed because we took actions that led to our investors and our lenders having no faith in us. But the government stepped in, and because of that, we are making more money than we’ve ever made before.”

THAT is why people are angry.

The wealthy in our country continue to get more wealthy. The middle class is shrinking quickly. The ranks of the poor are exploding. Many many people, including some reading this, are still looking for work, working jobs not the career they hope to have, or are very worried about their financial future. It’s a very very challenging time out there.

 Our era is feeling more more and more like the early 1900s, when the disparity between rich and poor was also quite great and when people also felt helpless.

And, interestingly? In that era too, there were protests, and anger, against Wall Street.
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So, what does our faith say about these things?
Why would a person of faith like me support “Occupy Wall Street?

After all, the most important thing you can hear from me is not a political diatribe, or even an economic one, but spiritual counsel and a challenge to live according to the morality that Jesus sets forth.

Speaking of that, it’s always fascinating how many things people think are in the Bible that aren’t really in the Bible.

A few years back, somebody at the courthouse came in to see Dennise to ask her about a Bible passage. Bless their hearts, people just assume that because she’s married to a minister she’ll be able to know, and interpret, everything in the Bible. As if somebody could come to me and ask me to recite the Texas Family Code.

Anyway, this person came to Dennise and said, “Hey, Judge, where is that passage in the Bible that says ‘Give a man to fish, feed him today. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime?”

Dennise paused for a moment, and said, “Um, that’s not in the Bible…”

But this person was absolutely unconvinced, and looked at Dennise with eyes full of pity, that seemed to say, “Oh, you poor dear…you don’t even know the Bible…”

The woman asked Dennise, “Can you call Eric and ask him?”

Dennise said, “No, it isn’t in the Bible…”

I’m pretty sure this person spent the rest of the day on Google, trying to find where in the Bible this phrase is.

But I’ll tell you what IS in the Bible: The feeding of the five thousand.

Jesus and his disciples are surrounded by five thousand hungry people. They only have two fish and few loaves of bread. But! Some of Jesus’ disciples are actual fishermen.

So, this could be the perfect time for Jesus to pull out a fishing lesson. It would be the perfect time for:  “Teach these folks to fish so that they may be fed for a lifetime…”

But instead, when the disciples say: “Should we send them home?”
Jesus says: “No, YOU give them something to eat.”

So, to Wall Street, and to all of us, I would say that this is what Jesus has to teach us:

The world will always say: “Don’t get involved, hoard what you have.”
Jesus will always say, “Give of what you have. It doesn’t belong to you anyway. It belongs to God.”

That’s at the heart of what’s missing in society today; an acknowledgment that all we have is God’s gift anyway. We work hard not so we can get some financial reward, but because hard work itself is a reward. Steve Jobs became insanely rich, but he cared more about making products that people loved, and pushing the world of technology. He took incredible risks, and he paid incredible price.

I often hear the word “entitlement” used to describe government programs. But I would suggest to you that the greatest sense of “entitlement” we see today is among the Wall Street wealthy. (called the “One Percent” by the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd….) They seem to feel the most “entitled” to take, take, take from our society and to not give back.

You can argue scripture all day with people, and you can argue taxes and government programs all day with them. But one thing you cannot argue is my all-time favorite scripture for talking with a wealthy person:

“To whom much is given, much is required…”

That is in the Bible.

I like the New International Version translation even better:

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Much will be DEMANDED.

You see, this is the spiritual truth of God. God would say to us, “by all means, go about making money. By all means, go about creating jobs. But! Understand that God’s sense of justice and fairness says that if you accumulate more than your neighbor, then more will be required of you. Giving back will be required of you.”

Which leads me to the parable of the wedding feast. A King, clearly among the top one percent in his society, has a son who is getting married. So, he decides to throw a great feast. He sends his slaves as messengers, out all across the land to invite the other wealthy one percent folks to join him for a great party.

But, surprisingly, they don’t come. Some make jokes about it. Some go back to their farms to work. Others even mistreat the slave-messengers and kill them.

The King becomes enraged. Eventually, he decides that he will not longer mess with these wealthy friends of his, but instead, he will fill his wedding party with other people instead. He asks his remaining slaves to go out to the main street. Just wander down the street, he tells them, and see who is there.

And along the way, they round up anybody who just happens to be standing around. The text says “both good and bad” people. Just ANYBODY. And when it is time for the feast, the hall is filled with guests.

The Gospel of Luke tells this same story, only the King is more specific about who he wants to be invited. The King tells his slaves to: ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
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If you want to understand what’s fueling the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, then you’ve got to understand that average people in our society feel as if the wealthy are getting more than their fair share, not giving back, and and are ungrateful for how we have all helped them.

From a perspective of faith, reading the Gospel of Christ, I absolutely agree with this. This movement, whatever comes of it, seeks to call them to account.

And whether we join it or just watch it, whether we are among the wealthy, or those still yearning of a job, it’s important to remember that Jesus believes in a world where those who have been given much are required to give much. That is Jesus’ sense of fairness.

And all would do well to remember that Jesus believes in a world where, if wedding guests are ungrateful for what they have been given, Jesus will simply invite the poor, the cripple and the lame to join him instead.

(As always, if you like this post, then “like it”  or “share it” on Facebook by clicking the box below, or send it to your friends…so others can see too…and leave a comment…EF)

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

15 thoughts on “Spiritual Reflections on "Occupy Wall Street"

  1. First off, thank you for joining Occupy Dallas. We need more people of faith there!Second, thank you for your comments that it is not about the rich vs. the poor, not about class envy (or any other kind of envy), and not even an "us vs. them" mentality.One of the factors in my decision to join Occupy Dallas was the story of local Dallas businessman Jeff Baron, who was stripped of his house, all his belongings, and and his right to employment in an effort to forbid him to hire a lawyer to defend himself in court. Jeff was a self-made millionaire who was taken in by a crook. He has never lost a court case, and cannot get a jury trial. His millions did not protect him, and if the big boys are out to get someone, Jeff's case makes it clear that no-one will be safe.I am a person of faith, and I support Occupy Dallas.

  2. Thanks, progressivist. Unfortunately, I continue to hear many many stories of folks who have lost their houses. In fact, I marched with a friend who was among the first victims of the Countrywide fiasco.I hope more people of faith continue to show up and show their support as well.

  3. It was the government who forced the banks to make bad loans in the first place Through the Community Reinvestment Act, so why should they get down on their knees to thank them for bailing them out.

  4. Dear Anonymous:While this is widely held in certain circles, it doesn't seem to be born out by the facts: http://mediamatters.org/research/200809300012"Several conservatives in the media have recently blamed the Community Reinvestment Act for the current financial crisis — when, in fact, the CRA does not apply to institutions making the vast majority of troubled loans underlying the crisis. It applies only to depository institutions, such as banks and savings and loan associations. Experts have estimated that 80 percent of high-priced subprime loans were offered by financial institutions that are not subject to the CRA."The CRA did not "force" Wall Street to create the whole scheme of mortgaged backed securities, it did not force Wall Street to create credit default swaps, it did not force Wall Street to over-value billions in assets on the books of banks…and last but not least, it did not force Wall Street types to take extravagant bonuses once the crisis had begun.While the CRA is a convenient scapegoat, the problems go far deeper than its reach, right into the heart of people who allowed their greed to outstrip the interests of "the people."

  5. Brilliant, Eric. You really summed up everything that I've been feeling, and everything I believe about this movement. Alan Grayson put it perfectly the other night on The Rachel Maddow Show: “Herman Cain’s solution is ‘get a job,’” he noted, but with 24 million people out of a job, it wasn’t so easy. “What people want is solutions to their problems, and what is either side offering?” With that in mind, and with no other response, Grayson argued, “they’re doing the one last human thing left: they’re going somewhere.”That's it. This the culmination of years of frustration, of white hot fury over unfair labor practices (e.g., hiring people as contractors for YEARS and never hiring them), of depression, of listening to politicians drone on and on as Corporate America repeatedly violated (and continues to violate) the poor and the Middle Class.

  6. This sounds good and all until we realize that making demands on Wall Street is rooted in the premise that Man is provider of one's needs-hence the demand of other folks' stuff. Why are we not encouraging charity instead. Maybe "Praying for Wall Street" would be a better idea.

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