Culture At Large

Occupy Wall Street and economic justice

Dan Vander Plaats

As I walked through a Chicago park three weeks ago, I poked fun at the small entourage of protesters, slightly outpacing us, making a relatively unintelligible comment on greed and corporate corruption.

Now I find out I was making fun of what’s become a global movement. Occupy Wall Street, which began as an unorganized amalgam of frustrated citizens, few of whom shared a common voice, has grown into a veritable grass-roots movement. While the group’s message has been splintered by competing interests, their loudest complaint surrounds the corporate bailouts of large financial institutions and the continuing success of Wall Street financiers (the very people perceived to be at fault for much of the economic challenge facing the United States).

The recent passing of Fred Shuttlesworth, a contemporary and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., makes the movement even more poignant. Shuttlesworth was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, instrumental not only in the Civil Rights efforts of the 1960s, but also the birthplace of the Poor People’s Campaign.

The Poor People’s Campaign began during an SCLC retreat in 1967, when King told his friends and aides that their focus should turn to pressing Congress into passing an Economic Bill of Rights for America’s poor, seeking guarantees for housing and against unemployment, among other "moral imperatives." In seeking economic justice, King, Shuttlesworth and the rest of SCLC may be considered precursors to the men and women who make up Occupy Wall Street.

Because the Poor People’s Campaign and the Occupy movement are both borne of a desire for economic justice, I find myself wondering what that term means for Christians. Where is there inequity? Why is it wrong, or why is it acceptable? What does economic injustice look like? What would Christ-based justice look like?

Over the last several days, the Occupy movement has been joined by unions, celebrities, college students and left-wing ideologues, transforming a largely apolitical rally into a decidedly political one. This is unfortunate for the movement, because their voice has now become another cry for something that sounds a lot like socialism.

I don’t care for or about socialism, but I do care about justice. When the Bible says you reap what you sow, it’s speaking about a lot more than getting paid for your work. Many of the people who joined with Occupy Wall Street are losing their homes, and banks won’t loosen up funds for debt re-financing, all while the movement decries how the “privileged few” on Wall Street seem to rake in six-figure bonus after bonus. If we are all called to reap what we sow, what does that mean for the Wall Street trader, the bank president and the homebuilder who fell victim to the housing market crash?

In the midst of the talking head noise seeking to put a label on a movement, a label that allows us to either affirm or deny our agreement with their cause, perhaps we should instead be asking the same questions that drove Shuttlesworth and others with the SCLC: what does economic justice look like and how can it be achieved?

(Photo courtesy of David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Money, Economics, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Social Trends, History, Justice, North America