The Occupy Movement

I’ve been intending to write about the Occupy Movement for a while. I have two conflicting reactions to it, both largely driven by my theological and ethical framework, that have been alternately competing for attention. On the one hand, I’m not a believer in the trickle-down effect. I think Jesus was fairly clear in his call to the rich to give up their wealth for the good of the Kingdom, which is an equitable Kingdom. I definitely think that the corporate capitalist system is out of control and is in need of some kind of moderation. A small percentage – no, I won’t say the 1% for reasons I’ll state below – are definitely living off of exploiting many others. As followers of a God of distributive justice, we should be working to create that justice ourselves. On the surface, this is what the Occupy Movement is aiming toward, so in that I want to join them.On the other hand, I can’t really get behind the movement either. Particularly the “we are the 99%” phrase bugs me. I’m not sure how they calculated that ratio – I imagine they didn’t calculate it but just went with what sounds good. Obviously at the very least they’re only considering their own nation for their calculations. If you want to take the whole world into consideration, probably half of that 99% are in the richest 5% of the world. One stat I am always reminded of is that 8% of the world owns a computer. I bet the vast majority of the people occupying their streets own a computer. Kinda dilutes their point, doesn’t it?

Ok, but false marketing aside, I have a deeper objection. Rex Murphy in the National Post called the Occupy Movement “capitalism’s spoiled children” and I’m somewhat inclined to agree. Yes, it’s true that they are significantly poorer than the President of that big American bank that they use. That’s not just, and I think God disagrees with that inequality, too. But they’re also richer than most of the world. Many are not complaining about the difference between surviving and not, although particularly in the US when there are issues like medical bills involved, some of them do have that legitimate complaint. But the majority of them are still living somewhat comfortably and want more. They’re not typically petitioning to raise money to keep people in real need alive. They’re petitioning for more for themselves. No, they’re not equal to the big business CEO, and there should be equality there too. But it also seems a bit selfish to me that they complain that the rich CEO doesn’t give them more and then hold onto what they have instead of giving it to those in much greater need, to whom they are the 1%. There are lots of exceptions, of course, but to me this is the main reason that I don’t think this movement as a whole is really doing anything and won’t really do anything. It’s operating on the same principle as the people they’re objecting to: “I deserve more”.

That gets me to another point: I’m simply not convinced that the Occupy movements are accomplishing anything. I haven’t heard of any corporation suddenly having a change of heart. I haven’t heard of any governments deciding that they need to enforce any significant new regulations. Why? Because people are complaining but they’re not actually changing anything either. We’re talking about issues of money. If you want to change something on an issue related to money, you need to speak with your money. It doesn’t do any good to protest on the street, then pick up dinner from the international fast food joint on the way home. Which are the corporations going to pay more attention to: what you say or what you do? If you want to change things, buy some fresh vegetables from the local farmer instead. Maybe that means cutting back on how many channels you have on your TV or how many toys your kids have. But if you want to change things, you need to actually make some sacrifices, not just protest (which I’m not saying is bad, to be clear, just incomplete and ineffective on its own). So far I haven’t gotten any sense that the Occupiers are actually willing to do that. This leaves me generally willing to echo Rex’s claim that many (not all) are simply capitalism’s spoiled children: complaining that they aren’t getting what they think they deserve (and maybe they have a point), but unwilling to really do anything substantial about it.

If you want to change the world, Occupiers, go change it. It starts with you. Not with them, whoever the them is. See inequality in the world? Give to someone less fortunate. Buy from somebody who needs it instead of adding another few dollars to the bank accounts of the people you’re protesting. Buy less Christmas presents this year and give the money to a charity. Make your coffee at home instead of spending thousands of dollars a year at Starbuck’s. We can always complain that it is the fault of those other people that our world is unequal, and then we ignore how much we are contributing to that inequality because we have successfully cleared our conscience by blaming it on someone else. But the rich wouldn’t be rich if they didn’t have people buying into their sales pitches. The rich wouldn’t be rich if we stopped thinking that we personally always need more, even if it means ignoring millions in far more desperate need.

I said in my reasoning in favour of Occupy that Jesus was pretty clear in calling the rich to give up their wealth. Exactly. So those of you rich by the world’s standards (most of North America), give up your wealth. Notice that Jesus never called his followers to go protest the rich to force them to give up their wealth. He just said to those that follow him that part of living his Kingdom is to give up your wealth. Whether or not that other person should be giving up their wealth, what we do know as a Christian is that we should be using ours for the Kingdom.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.