While you were protesting…

Luke 19:10 offers an interesting perspective on the word “occupy” because this is where Jesus tells the parable of the talents.  A master hands over some money to various servants and tells them to “occupy” (King James) until he returns.  Then, of course, some do that well, and bring the master a return on his investment, and others, not so much.

Occupy“: to fill or take up space.  The word can mean many things I suppose, and there’s a sense to which the occupy movement is giving us a literal fulfillment of that definition as it appears that nearly every city in the nation presently has an occupy movement, the practical effects of which are to fill some public (or private) space, with people protesting the state of things, especially in increasing disparity of wealth.  Things have gotten nasty recently, at least here in Seattle, and there are signs that the movement is running into a brick wall.

That might be a shame at one level, because there are so many fundamental flaws that remain in our country.  Last week’s cover story of Time magazine shared the realities that we live in an increasingly inequitable country.  Whereas in the 1970’s corporate executives earned about 40 times as much as the lowest paid worker, in the present that ratio has increased to 400 and is still climbing.  Money is flowing out of the middle and into the wealthy few, the 1% as the occupiers like to say.  In believing that this is a profound problem, I stand in solidarity with them.  In believing that sitting in a public park and holding a sign is the best use of theirs, or anyone’s time – well, I’m not so certain.

While the occupy movement has been unfolding over the past weeks, I’m thinking about people I’ve encountered in my pastoral work who are occupied in very different ways:

1. I did a film shoot yesterday for an upcoming sermon series entitled “Every Square Inch” about a Christian’s calling to be a blessing to our world by living into our vocation, and living right in the thick of our culture.  I visited a teacher who is part of our congregation and she’s filling her days, her life, with 6 year-old children.  She’s busy teaching them to be civil, curious, hard working, bold, relational.  She’s doing it with such grace and skill that I, watching from the back of the classroom was in awe – not only of her skill, but of the realization that what she’s doing is being replicated hundreds of thousands of times every day by people who are investing in the future by teaching children well.  She’s already occupied.

2. Several people in my congregation are battling illness.  Their battles with cancer have, of course, turned their world upside down, changing the price tags on everything.  Two of things whose value elevates in such times are one’s faith and one’s friends.  Thankfully, these folks are rich on both counts.  They have friends who are praying, bringing meals, sitting with them through treatments, and just sitting with them period.  They’re occupied.

3. An artist friend of mine will release her book on drawing this weekend.  It’s an important work that shows why we, as a culture, desperately need to learn how to stop and pay closer to attention to the real world because we’re so bombarded and overloaded with images that we’ve basically stopped paying attention.  This numbness, though, can be arrested, she says, if we’ll slow down and pay attention.  She’s throwing a party for her book, and I’m looking forward to celebrating.  She’s occupied.

I could go on – people applying for work, fighting fires, performing surgery, overcoming addictions by working on their stuff, sitting with sick children in the emergency room, stopping to converse with a homeless person, volunteering in shelters, making music, building houses, starting businesses.  Four scientists will be answering questions tomorrow night about science and faith because I’m doing a sermon series on that subject in my church.  This is time out of their already very full lives.  They’re all occupied too.

All I’m saying, and it’s so obvious as to nearly not need saying at all, is that nobody is “the other 99%”. Those 99ers are, millions of them  (in fact the majority of them), living very full lives – blessing the world through their vocations and living within their means, serving the poor and marginalized, and giving generously from their middle class incomes.   They’ve no time to carry a sign.

Others of the 99ers desperately need a meaningful life, but the government’s not going to fill the void in their soul, and until that’s fixed, nothing much else will matter.  The news flash, again so obvious that hardly bears repeating, is that this anger over inequity is a song that’s been replayed endlessly throughout history.  When the music dies down though, sometimes after bloodbaths and revolutions, what Jesus said is still true.

Do we need to fix our desperately broken political system?  Of course.  And we also need a way out of our present angst and mess that isn’t tied to simply more shopping as the panacea, a subject about which I’ll write next week.

But know this – it’s the stuff that isn’t on the news that give me hope. People living into their calling, working on the marriages, blessing their children and aging parents, being faithful friends when they’re needed.  And this, at least in my little corner of the world, is happening everywhere I look, every time I open my eyes.

People are occupying, even without raising a protest sign, because their hands, and lives, are already full.  May their tribe increase.

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  • Ken

    Amen to the this, Richard. The “occupy wherever” folks don’t seem to have any real occupations, instead just a basic covetous attitude for stuff they haven’t earned, have no rights to and most certainly don’t deserve. They don’t seem to have anything to offer but complaints. Praise be to those that are actually in the battle occupying themselves with worthwhile endeavors.

  • Dana Scharfenberg

    Thank you for sharing how people are “occupying” in positive and productive ways. I live in the middle and though I do not understand the root of why our country is experiencing an increased divergence between the rich and poor, I do agree it is a problem. However, it would be more helpful and productive if the people involved with the occupy movement collaborated to create lasting change in the system. To work on laws that prevent the rich from getting richer in unethical ways. Like Nancy Pelosi’s insider trading (saw on 60 Minutes) or halt exorbitant salaries. http://www.learnvest.com/living-frugally/current-events/why-was-nancy-pelosi-accused-of-insider-trading-773/

  • Megan

    Ken, I do not believe that the “occupy wherever” folks are covetous for stuff they haven’t earned. They object to a rigged system that is inherently unfair.
    I pay more taxes than Exxon and Bank of America combined — by a lot. I bet you do too. Exxon gets billions in subsidies and Bank of America got trillions in “bailouts”. Meanwhile, 1 in 6 children in this country are food insecure which means they go to bed hungry at least once a month. It is wrong that any person go hungry in this wealthy nation. It is wrong that any person die for lack of health care coverage in this wealthy nation. It is wrong that anyone working full time be poor. The “occupiers” are speaking truth to power.
    Speaking truth to power is a “worthwhile endeavor”. Years of letter writing and voting haven’t gotten the attention of politicians who put corporations before constituents. Maybe we should thank those who are “occupying” for bringing attention to the problems.

  • Ken

    Dana hit on the real issue here. I will tag onto his train of thought…

  • Ken

    I believe you have hit the issue more squarely on the head, Dana. Our greatest challenge is to shape a society where the government and the big corporations do not collude together to become ever bigger. The drum beat that we are becoming a socialist nation is a very real, but stealthy, threat. No we aren’t doing so by violent revolution as the USSR or China and others did to the extreme of full communism. Nor are we more directly shaping ourselves as socialists as Europe did following WWII for which their bill is now coming due. We have opted to be conned by those in power to believe we can have hope that in this “wealthy nation” as Megan titled us, our government will be filled with unearthly leaders who will truly look out for the poor, the widow and the orphan. No they would never line their own pockets with power and increasing wealth and benefits at the expense of those in need. Somehow they will fairly redistribute the wealth of this nation and do what God has clearly asked His Church to do. The saddest fact here is that these mega corporations have seldom broken any laws. They do what they do not just within the legal system of our country but with the blessing and coordination of the those writing the laws. The bailouts that we were told were meant to help homeowners, provide jobs, etc. did not. Where did those trillions of dollars go? To pay off those debts that placed those in power in their positions of power. It is an endless cycle that has repeated itself throughout human history. The fantasy that because we are the “wealthiest nation” therefore we can or will do what’s right is just that, a fantasy. This world is still governed by fallen people.

    What I believe is most needed is for our country to wake up and realize we have very nearly lost this nation of freedom created two centuries ago. In the noise of demanding security, rights and fairness we have forgotten that our founders wrote the constitution to protect us from an all powerful government that is all too eager to promise just those things at the exclusion of freedom. Should we continue down this road I see the day when we stand amid thunderous applause while freedom dies. (Acknowledgement to Senator Amidala in Star Wars for the best line in the entire series as the Imperial Senate granted “emergency powers” to their new Emperor.) Perhaps the loss of freedom and even a shift to full persecution is precisely what the Church in America needs to reignite true Faith. Perhaps if we all come to have equality (as in very little at all) we will then begin to work together without the government of man to shape a society that lives for others without force as our Creator intended.

  • Megan

    You and Dana do hit the nail on the head. I just took issue with your assumption that “occupiers” are covetous for things they didn’t earn or work for.

    I totally agree with Richard that we must do positive things to make our communities and country better. And I agree that the church (as in the people who are the church) should play a major role in this. And no, I don’t believe that our government will suddenly become staffed by good and honest and noble and charitable people who won’t be corrupted by power. I do, however, believe it is our responsibility to hold those we elect to account. And it is reasonable for us to expect our leaders to implement policies and laws that better reflect constiuents’ values.

    There are many positive ways to “occupy” or just say no to corporate domination, including those positive things outlined by Richard. Growing some of your own food, shopping locally, going to farmer’s markets, volunteering in multiple ways in your community (tutoring, serving food, repairing houses. . . . ), car-pooling, sharing tools, getting out of debt, shopping at thrift stores, tithing.

    But nothing is an “either or”. You can be engaged in “positive” actions and still speak out. That is the example of Christ. Sometimes he spoke and acted sternly — kicking money changers out of the temple type thing. Many times he did very “positive” actions like healing the sick and feeding people. Just as our Savior used multiple strategies, so should we, His followers.

  • Ken

    To single out an issue from the occupy movement that illustrates the covetous nature let’s take relief from repaying college loans. The most basic question is why relief from repaying them? Didn’t they know the terms when they took out the loan? This an excellent example of what is going sideways in America. We begin with the notion that a college education is a right and necessity for everyone and move from there to believing that it should be “free”. The problem here begins with what are actually rights and necessities and goes crazy when it then concludes it should be free. There is no free. [Not in education, not in health care, feeding and housing the poor, running a light rail system, fighting wars, financing retirement, etc.] Someone must pay for everything. The problem becomes people exerting “rights” like they have been handed down from God and that society must then fulfill. What “rights” does God actually give mankind? I don’t recall Him giving me a guarantee of health, wealth and happiness. Oh wait, He did say come and die! Guess we can claim that right. We have our thinking so mixed up that we can’t even properly frame the issues or questions that need asking. America is imploding of its own wealth and excess. It is further imploding by those that haven’t earned any right to the wealth and excess demanding a piece of the action. All the while the wealth of this nation will continue to flow to an ever narrowing few at the top playing to the “rights” the masses demand. In the end the 99% most probably will obtain equality but it will be at a very low level and we realize we gave up our freedom to arrive there together. Yippee.

    For myself, I pray we continue to hold onto to our freedom to serve God as He calls us, occupying the proper values and making the best choices we can to give our lives away instead of looking to see what’s ours and keeping a tally of who has more and why that’s just not right.

  • Megan

    Rather than seeing the existence of poverty as a moral blight on society and a reflection of our turning away from God’s vision of Shalom for all creation, such public policies imply a moral inferiority among the working poor, unemployed persons, and financially-strapped senior citizens.

    The President needs to stand more forthrightly with the poor and vulnerable, and frankly increase support for the “least of these.” Sadly, fiscal conservatives can think of no better moral argument for their position than “it’s my money.” Stewardship surely pertains to governmental tax policy, budget allocations, and debt reduction. We need to spend wisely and effectively. But, biblical stewardship reminds us that our money is ultimately not our own; and that how we use it is a moral issue. Biblical stewardship challenges us to see our well-being as relational, not individualistic, and asks each person to place a high priority on the well-being of her or his community.

  • Paul


    Well said. I’ve been thinking about “Occupy” and despite their best intentions, what a huge loss of time and resources it is. I was recently on a business trip to Vancouver, BC and was actually shocked to see an “Occupy” there. What was hysterical to me was how many bohemian individuals there were,how few truly working middle class, and how many if them there didn’t really know what “Occupy” was about except that it was anti-establishment. It dawned on me that while it’s been succsessful at creating awareness, it has been a huge, if not epic failure in it’s message, focus, objectives and call to action. Everyone in “Occupy” has a different definition of what they are there to protest. Everyone else, not attending, who, as you so elequently put, are out doing the work. It’s not that I can’t get behind fixing the gross over payment of corporate executives, or the rediculousness of the bailout and subsequent lack of accountability, because I can. It’s that “Occupy” is a waste of time and a burdon to the hard working tax payer. Here’s my message to “Occupy”…. Want to create awareness and foster change but tired of the voting system not having impact? Follow One.org’s example and setup a well designed organization with clear goals, a clear message, a well oiled campaign, funding voluntarily provided by the 99%, with a clear call to action for your supporters (how can they help the movement) and our government leaders (once you have their attention, what’s the specific action or issue you expect them to change). Right now you are just noise and we (the 99%) are busy doing what you obviously aren’t.