Am I Part of the 99% or the 1%? (Scattered Thoughts on #OccupyWallStreet and Global Poverty)

For the past several weeks, many of us who believe that the economic values of the United States are broken, have watched Occupy Wall Street on the news with awe.  There’s something about a nonviolent protest that gets any coffee-drinkin’ progressive excited about “stickin’ it to the man.” This prophetic display reminds many of us of the subversive Jesus who exposed the dehumanizing systems of the world – whether through overturning the unjust tables of the Temple or being executed by Rome for claiming Kingship over-against the Empire.  I’m convinced that the Occupy Movement correctly asserts that the distribution of financial power lacks morality. In the United States, the ratio of 99 to 1 makes an appropriate point: something’s gotta change.

Interestingly, Jesus speaks of a shepherd who has 99 remaining sheep when 1 wanders off:

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? Matthew 18.12

This begs a question: What are we to do with the “one that wandered off?” Could it be that in our day, this “1” might represent the rich of Wall Street?  In other words, the 99 find solidarity together, but this “1” sheep believes that if it goes away on its own, away from the community, that greener pastures might be found.  It seems that many on Wall Street, the 1%, have indeed found the “green” that they were looking for and are getting fat because of it.

Notice (I realize I’m being a bit metaphorical with the text here) that the Shepherd is not satisfied to let this single sheep (1%) go its own way.  The Shepherd relentlessly seeks to restore the wandering sheep back to the community to which it belongs. A question that could be asked of the Occupy Movement is: In what ways will this movement move beyond demonizing the “ones” with power and move toward reconciling love? This isn’t to say that the Occupiers motives should be scrutinized, as I see the movement as a legitimate call for equality… a movement that disrupts the norm by overturning tables.  But, for Christians, justice that doesn’t lead to reconciliation is only half complete.

There remains yet a second concern, even as one who endorses the overall purposes of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  The more I reflect on the 99 versus 1 mantra, the more I wonder how the 1% is being defined. As a friend recently prayed in church: “May we see that although we may be among the 99% in America, we are still the 1% compared to the rest of the world.”  This thought won’t leave my mind as I reflect on these facts:

  • One billion people in the world do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred liters of water a day.
  • Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under age five dies of hunger, while Americans throw away 14 percent of the food we purchase.
  • More than half of the world lives on less than two dollars a day, while the average American teenager spends nearly $150 a week.
  • Forty percent of people in the world lack basic sanitation, while forty-nine million diapers are used and thrown away in America every day.
  • 1.6 billion people in the world have no electricity.
  • Nearly one hundred million children are denied basic education.
  • One in seven children worldwide (158 million) has to go to work every day just to survive.
  • Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half of the world does on all goods.[1]

In the United States, I’m among the 99%, and choose to stand with my sisters and brothers of Occupy Wall Street who struggle to make it each and every day. All the while the 1% are slaves to a system that brings out the worst in many people, greed perpetuated by apathy.

Yet, in the larger scheme of things, I’m not the 99%, I’m the “1.” What I have is a product of a consumerism that too often captures my imagination and continues a system of injustice for the true 99% – the impoverished throughout the globe.  In many ways, I’m the 1% and need the caring Shepherd to reconcile me back to the global flock. Jim Wallis reflects this tension brilliantly:

Tomorrow, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be more than $1.259 trillion.
Tomorrow, almost 14 million Americans will still be unemployed.
Tomorrow, the homes of more than 2,500 new U.S. families will enter foreclosure.
Tomorrow, one in seven U.S. households still won’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Tomorrow, one in four American children under the age of six will still be living below the poverty line.
Tomorrow, three billion people around the globe will still be living on less than $2.50 a day.
Tomorrow, 400 million children will still lack access to clean water.
Tomorrow, 300 children under the age of five will die in the Horn of Africa because of famine.

My hope is that we American Christians recognize both our “99-percent-ness” at home and our privileged place as “1-percenters” in light of the poverty throughout the rest of the world. Only with these two in tension will the Kingdom truly come “on earth as in heaven.”


[1] Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Zondervan, 2008), pp. 122-123

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  • Of course most of us are in the mythical “99%” by defintion. The issue is that the “Occupy Wall Street” folks do not by and large represent those of us in the 99%. They don’t speak for me nor do they speak for most people who make up the 99% of Americans who are not in the top 1%. The idea that any group, whether Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party or either political party can claim to speak for that wide a swath of America is either silly or delusional (or both). When you stick with general disenchantment and class envy it is easy to get people to nod in agreement but when you start to dig down into the proposed solutions, such as they are, and find things like universal debt forgivenenss (which would eliminate anyone buying a house or a car ever again) or income redistribution, the agreement starts to dissipate.

    • David

      Can you actually cite someone recommending universal debt forgiveness?

      To me that sounds like a boogie man that people have set up to discredit progressives in general in order to prevent reasonable solutions from happening.

      • Tucker M Russell

        There is a petition floating around facebook advocating for government relief of student loan debt.  Which isn’t quite “universal debt forgiveness”.  This may be what he was referring to. 

        • Well it is hard to pin down what exactly the OWS people want but I have seen several semi-official postings from people claiming to speak for the OWS protestors that in fact are advocating for the forgiveness of all debt, including mortgages, student loans, soverign debt, etc.

          • You mean sorta like the primitive society we read about in Deuteronomy 15:1-11?

      • David, “progressives” are doing a fine job discrediting themselves without any help.

      • There was one guy somewhere who advocated for this on his blog (I saw it, but I can’t remember the URL), but he made it very clear that it was his own idea and that he didn’t speak for the whole OWS movement. Of course, Fox and the rest paid no attention to that disclaimer, and instead talked up this one blog post as if it represented the “official” OWS demands.

  • Kurt, I really appreciate your thoughts and really enjoy your blog.

    As a supporter of Occupy Wall Street (or at least sympathizer) at what point should Christians be having conversations about these issues being the necessary by-products of a capitalist way of life? It seems like any time this gets brought up with my friends the response is “Well what’s a better solution!?” but in light of the damage capitalism as a way of life does to particular lands and peoples, don’t we have to at least begin those conversations as a community?

    The way I understand it, a lot of the problems OWS has identified are simply a part of the neo-liberalism air we all breath which is why solutions like “tax the wealthy more” simply won’t work until we think about a total transformation of the way that we live.

  • Thanks for the sensitive way in which you handle this tension. In recent weeks, it seems the fact that the poor in America are better off than the poor in the rest of the world has been used as a way to dismiss the plight of the poor in America by those who fear the political influence Occupy Wall Street could ultimately wield over the next year. 

    Ultimately, this politicizes the problem of poverty: One side ignores the domestic poor because they “don’t have it so bad,” and the other winds up ignoring the international poor because they fear acknowledging them could be seen as conceding too much ground.

  • Kurt, I enjoy reading your blog but I thought I’d throw in my 2 cents here. It is easy to blame the rich but I want to point out that the government bailing out the rich thieves is not capitalism. Building an imperial empire with frivolous military spending is not a display of free market capitalism. The problems we are in today is not because of the rich in wall street but it is because of a failed state. This is why I don’t understand why the capitol isn’t being occupied. The 1% is the federal higher ups controlling the course of our country. And both Republicans and Democrats are to blame.  

  • JM

    Good post, Kurt. Though as I said in my last blog I don’t think the turning over of the tables in the temple had anything to do with Jesus critiquing economic practices.

  • Brianhaley311

    But, for Christians, justice that doesn’t lead to reconciliation is only half complete.    I love this Kurt. Thanks for sharing this brother.

  • Tucker M Russell

    I agree completely. 

    At my church we used a discussion guide which also drew on this parable of the one lost sheep.  It rhetorically posed the question, “What would the shepherd do if 99 of the sheep were lost”, and then described the state of poverty and debt as a state of lost-ness.  In the course of the conversation I pointed to Matthew 19, the rich young ruler who wished to enter into eternal life.  Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give everything to the poor, and he went away grieving. 

    To be sure, it is the 1% who is lost, in the same way the rich young ruler was lost.  But when people are lost, we do not hate and vilify them.  We seek them out and work for their reconciliation. OWS must not devolve into visceral hatred for the wealthy.  It must stay focused on simply advocating for justice and fairness, for the 99% to have a fair shake.  And in doing so, hoping that the 1% will find freedom from enslavement to mammon. 

    • @3eb5ab61432db8dda7c1d7aeb9f26264:disqus … this comment is why you’re my friend 🙂 [ok, a bit more than that I suppose, ahah].  Thanks for your thoughts bro!

  • Wow, what a great perspective to take. One of my favorite, and least favorite things is when someone helps me see that I am actually part of the very problem I am fighting against. Excellent use of the lost sheep parable.

  • Anonymous

    Delusional person that I am, I am hoping for Wall Street execs and OWS protesters to have a meal, a conversation, and a movement towards generous love toward one another. 

  • Absolutely brilliant perspective, Kurt. It’s not “either/or” but “both/and” and amen. Thanks for a great article.

    • @EmergingMummy:disqus … thanks for your kind response and for coming by the blog!

  • Brilliant. I’m in the UK and have been watching with interest, now with our own occupation, on church ground, in London ever more so (interesting to see the possible tensions going on there). 

    I, at times, have looked on and wondered where I genuinely sit in the grand scheme of things. And I think you are right it’s a case of both, within the bottom majority within the developed, western world but within the top minority within the world over all. It is humbling to remember this!

  • Excellent comments, Kurt.  Your reminder that we are most assuredly in the 1% (actually, probably closer to the 0.1%) vis-a-vis the rest of the world is absolutely true, and we don’t stop to think enough about what that means or what we should do about it.

    I do think that the very fact that many American Christians so loudly defend our capitalist system (and so contemptuously blast the Occupiers) means that we need a reality check on God’s economics, which is what I tried to do in last week’s WJOW (Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street)?.  While I do not endorse the occupiers completely, I do think the Bible makes clear that the economics of American wealth run pretty much against God’s intentions.

  • Martintroyer

    This entire blog is in that rarified category of “I wish I’d a thought of that.” Love the Biblical analogy of how the 1% are wandering away from the rest of us for greener pastures. And love the call to hold both; but to do so without guilt, but rather hope.
    Thanks for a challenging read.

    • @1cbbd7e59e33ce0b6b3ae7c6b1934b87:disqus … thanks!

  • I like some of the ideas and conclusions here.  I don’t want to get on the “sticking it to the man” bandwagon though for a couple reasons.  It comes across as a sense of envy or greed and I don’t think that’s healthy or Biblical for me to have that attitude — especially if I’m not going to protest those attitudes in someone else.  Maybe it’s not your personal intention, but a lot of envy is probably in a lot of protesters right now.   So just putting that idea out so everyone can draw some introspective thought on it.

    But, I’m also not wanting to generalize that just because someone who has a sense of wealth is a stingy and greedy person.  There are plenty of people in that demographic who are truly big givers that pour out their hearts and money for the good things.  I see and expect that most middle class people aren’t giving a whole lot to good causes either.

    It’s always astonishing (maybe it isn’t, but…) to hear comments like, “seventy percent of the people that attend the church didn’t give a single dollar last year”.  And it’s statistics, but still, it’s not in error by 100% … so people are generally looking out for themselves, their cell phone plans, their vacation funds and their new computers & cars before they’re looking out for other people.

    It’s not just the 1%… and your points about the global thing are good to consider as well.

  • Good thoughts Kurt. I appreciate that you were able to point out the disparity in wealth between Americans and the global poor while also still affirming the OWS movement. I’ve encountered too many others who think that this insight is somehow an excuse to stop calling out Wall Street on the injustices of the system they have created. What such an argument misses is that the same system that creates gross disparities of wealth between the 1% and the 99% in America, also creates the even more extreme disparities of wealth between Americans in general and the global poor. Therefore, by protesting this unjust system, we are not only standing up on our own behalf, we are also standing in solidarity with those others as well. For this to benefit all of us, however, we will have to be careful not to settle for a few limited concessions designed to placate our anger, since such concessions would likely benefit only middle-class Americans while leaving the system itself in place. We need to carry on with these protests until we achieve deeper and more thorough changes to the system itself. That will be good news not just for the 99% in America, but for the 99% everywhere.

    • @facebook-510502408:disqus … I couldn’t agree with your comment more.  My only thing to add is that I’d like to hear global justice concerns in more of the Occupy rhetoric.  Its implicit… I wish folks would make it explicit.  Again, thanks for your comments and this great thought… Peace.

  • Great post, Kurt. I found myself saying “Yes! Exactly!” a number of times throughout the reading. It hits on a lot of great points. Thanks for writing.

  • yes!  there is a global tension here, and we the 99% are both being exploited by wall street  and willing participants in a consumer culture that thrives on the exploitation of others.  let not our hearts be hardened, and let us work for justice everywhere.

  • Ryan H.

    Thanks for engaging in this conversation. At the beginning of the #OWS movement, I found an deafening silence by Christian leaders and Christians. It’s possible that we were scratching our heads to respond. But slowly we’re seeing voices and actions. I think Rev. Simmons from @ the Episcopal Trinity Church on Wall Street expressing the heart of Jesus. He writes: “The protesters represent one end of a larger spectrum, intentionally exposed, and like St. Francis, they are choosing extreme action to make a point. They are the injured knee with torn ligaments that is screaming in unbearable, inarticulate pain. The knee doesn’t know how to fix its tear, but it knows how to draw attention to a problem that affects the whole. They have drawn attention by the means they have.”  ( Your metaphor with the 99 and 1 sheep in an interesting connection. However, issues of faith and economic inequality cannot be easily aligned. It is the economic system that has marginalized a growing number of our neighbors and those suffering throughout the world. How do Christians engage in the economic and political systems which extract resources from the bottom 99% of the population and enrich those comfortably at the top?   

  • It’s funny how easy it is to demonize or pity the rich, then turn that on ourselves. 

    Thanks for writing.