What I Wish I Had Said at the Occupy Wall Street Protest

What I Wish I Had Said at the Occupy Wall Street Protest June 2, 2013

Redemption does not come so easily,
for no one can ever pay enough
to live forever
and never see the grave.

A couple of years ago, as I was walking through the financial district of New York, I encountered a large, boisterous group of people who had camped out in Zuccotti Park. Unintentionally, I had stumbled upon the Occupy Wall Street protest. Placards, banners, and chants announced, “We are the 99%.” They decried what they considered to be the injustice of the 1%, the wealthiest Americans, many of whom worked on Wall Street.

As I observed the protest, all of a sudden a reporter stuck a microphone in my face. A TV cameraman filmed as I was asked, “What do you think of this protest?” I said something about being glad to live in a land where people are free to express their views openly. I doubt what I said was incendiary enough to make the six o’clock news, however.

In retrospect, I wish I had remembered Psalm 49. You see, this psalm speaks directly to those who resent the power and privilege of the wealthy. It offers unexpected comfort: Even the rich “cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God” (49:7). Indeed, “no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave.”

I wonder what would have happened if I had said to that television reporter, “Oh well. I don’t worry much about the 1%. They’re going to die, just like everyone else.” I might have made the evening news if I had paraphrased Psalm 49: “Those rich folk on Wall Street, they will die, just like these protesters. Just like you and me, in fact.”

Psalm 49 should not be used to defend injustice or to suggest that it’s fine to be rich and unconcerned about the suffering of the poor (see Micah 6:1-16; James 5:1-6). There is plenty in Scripture that calls us to care for the poor (for example, Isa. 58:1-14). But, the fact that we all will die puts life in perspective. It can help us break free from the bondage of resenting those who have what we do not. It reminds us that true life is not to be found in the accumulation of goods, but in using what we have been given for good. As we read in 1 Timothy 6:17-19:

“Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life.”

“That they may experience true life,” the life that really is life. Such life is to be found, not in riches, not in resentment, but in Jesus Christ, and in living each day for his purposes.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How do you respond to Psalm 49? Do you find this Psalm encouraging? Scary? A downer? How might the fact that everyone dies—including you and me—make a positive difference in the way we live today?

PRAYER: Gracious God, thank you for the reminder of that which I’d rather forget. When I remember that I will die, I once again entrust to you all that I am. May I live each day for you and your purposes.

I also thank you, dear Lord, for delivering me from death through Jesus Christ. Thank you for the abundant life you have given me, which I am beginning to experience now. May I experience this life today in all that I do.

To you be the glory! Amen.

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This devotional comes from The High Calling: Everyday Conversations about Work, Life, and God (www.thehighcalling.org). You can read my Daily Reflections there, or sign up to have them sent to your email inbox each day. This website contains lots of encouragement for people who are trying to live out their faith in the workplace. The High Calling, along with Laity Lodge, is part of Foundations for Laity Renewal.

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  • James Christopher Owen

    I think a point has been missed here. This entire entry is predicated on the assumption that the Occupy movement is principally inspired by and exists for the purpose of expressing resentment. The Wall Street robber barons and their sycophants and political lapdogs have certainly tried to depict it thus.

    Put simply: that’s wrong and so is this response. Once again, we hear a faint echo of the narrative that this is a bunch of lazy poors screeching enviously at those who have by dint of honest industry enriched themselves. What really happened is that a barony of wealthy people slipped free of oversight and funded a con game with America’s money. When the ship foundered, it nearly sank the US economy. The captains and crews walked away with bonus money and left the victims holding the bag. None have been prosecuted for their criminal malfeasance, but little people get evicted from homes because, well, they failed to meet THEIR obligations and consequences must ensue.

    Occupy is about exposing the double standard of laissez-faire capitalism for the poor and welfare for the super-wealthy.

    I’ll see your Psalm 49 and raise you a Deut 16:19-20 (NRSV)

    19 You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause
    of those who are in the right. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall
    pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God
    is giving you.

    Or Amos 5:12 (NRSV)

    For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins–you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

  • Public Citzen

    Spoken just like a white-privileged, male-privileged, middle-to upper-middle class privileged theologian who’s had utterly no lived experience of being poor or working class. Oh–I suppose now you’ll be praying for me to be released from the bondage of resenting the fact that I wasn’t born a man, even as you’re praying for the Occupy people to be released from their bondage of resentment against Wall Street plutocrats. While you’re thanking God for the abundant life you’ve been Divinely given, perhaps you could benefit from reflecting on the extent to which your supposed Blessings from God are actually the benefits you accrue from a system that automatically bestows privilege and power and position on you for no other reason than the fact that you were lucky enough to be born male, and white, and middle class. You’re full of fluffy theological drivel that seems disconnected from the suffering of the working class majority in the U.S. I’m sure it’s nice to enjoy the view “from above” in your plush and pleasant Hill Country setting. Save your theology for the leisure class; the rest of us need something more substantial.

  • doctorchrysallis

    This blog site asks: “Would you like to receive a Daily Reflection like this one in
    your email inbox each morning”? ABSOLUTELY NOT. As a seminary professor of 33 years, I want to see less of this brand of theology, not more. By the way, I’m a born again Christian, a progressive evangelical, and a feminist scholar who holds a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Princeton.

    The theological attitude which informs this article represents a throwback and setback of at least several decades worth of theological insights generated by scholars of color and scholars from working class backgrounds who’ve entered the ranks of theological education and started publishing theology grounded in social locations which differ from the dominant status quo, a position which Mark D. Roberts obviously occupies. To say that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protestors merely resent “the power and privilege of the wealthy” and can be healed of their resentment is an irresponsible, reductionistic caricature of the OWS movement.

    Mr. Roberts, you seem to unaware of the impact of your particular social location on how you interpret contemporary events such as the Occupy movement, and how you reflect theologically and biblically. While sociological research indicates that the OWS movement was dominated by people of white privilege, and while I myself have certain critiques of the movement, nevertheless your comments mock and caricature the very legitimate and profound issues which OWS helped raise into public consciousness. Not once but twice you talk about the movement as though it amounted to little more than ill-grounded resentment against the power and privilege of wealthy Wall Street elites who own and run our country today, and as though all that the OWS protestors really want is to be able to accumulate more material possessions. You seem to have no idea whatsoever as to what it’s like to be a member of an oppressed, disenfranchised group in U.S. society. I grew up in a poor working class family—and have experienced deep seated classism as well as sexism.

    Classism and sexism alike are forms of oppression which have to do with lack of power and privilege and say-so in institutions that daily shape the lives of ordinary
    families. Apparently you’ve not experienced oppression, or else you wouldn’t have the nerve to mock resistance and protest against Wall Street and Empire, and reduce it to mere “resentment” and jealousy of wealthy elites. How dare you. The biblical notion of justice has fundamentally to do with the equitable distribution of power in society, and of resources needed for human flourishing. Wall Street has grabbed far too much, leaving ordinary working-class families with far too little. You yourself can afford to be glib and facile about power and position and privilege because society automatically grants this to you simply because of your social location; simply by dint and happenstance of your birth.

    Frankly, Mr. Roberts, the Church, the seminary, and our wider society need less theology like yours, which is unaware, unconscious, and uncritical of your own manifold forms of privilege: white, male, Western, middle- to upper-middle class. You speak for a small privileged fraction of people, and no doubt get high praises from the privileged people who orbit around you. But your form of theological and biblical reflection is inappropriate and irrelevant to a huge swath of church and society.

    This particular piece is a prime example of how scripture gets used (abused) by members of the dominant status quo in ways that gloss over, maintain, and reproduce inequitable status quo arrangements, instead of being used as a resource that helps illumine, critique, and reduce the egregious gaps of power and privilege that prevail in our society.

    Rather than appealing to scripture in ways that might help oppressed people generate conviction and courage to hold Wall Street elites accountable, in this article the protestors are instead tacitly chastised, and told that scripture will heal them of their “resentment,” as though they are the sinners, rather than the sinned against.

    My job as a seminary professor and pastor is not to tell oppressed people that
    what they actually are suffering from is resentment against the power and privilege of wealthy elites, and not to worry, since scripture says God can heal them of such resentment.

    My job is to help church members—in solidarity with persons and groups out in our wider society, especially those who are working class—to embrace their public baptismal vocation and call to hold wealthy elites of Wall Street accountable to the common good. In short, Mr. Roberts, your white male class-privileged theology is dangerous to the working-class majority of this country, especially impoverished single mothers and people of color, with whom I choose to stand in solidarity. Instead of telling grassroots people to get over their resentment, those of us who promote faith-based community organizing use their legitimate, righteous anger as a key source of insight into what’s wrong, and a key source of energy to set things right, and reduce the injustice.

    Jesus organized grassroots people who were being oppressed by the elites of “Wall Street’ and Empire in his own day and time. He absolutely did not tell them to go get healed of their resentment. If anyone stands in need of healing, it’s precisely you and male scholars like you who need to be healed of your willful ignorance of people who are suffering not from resentment but from actual oppression. You need to be healed of the egregious blind spots that despoil your theology, turning it into ideology that keeps people oppressed under the guise of the Gospel. This is insidious.

    If readers of this blog want any substantial theological reflection on the OWS movement, I recommend the following two books:

    Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-Lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012); and Susan B. Thistlethwaite, Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power (Astor & Blue Editions LLC, 2013).

  • Kevin

    I am a bit troubled by the fact that you referenced no verses from Scripture, and instead simply bashed the author. Now I’m not decided either way, whether Jesus would have joined this movement or not, which is why I came searching for opinions, but I can at least point out Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2: both say, in different words, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” Surely a bank is a human institution, and so according to scripture we must be subject to it. Now that does not mean that we ignore the people who have suffered as a result of banks, for we are also told to give to the poor. It seems that not partaking in OWS and instead increase giving to our churches seems the correct path according to scripture. I of course recognize that you have much more formal training in theology than I do, so I am curious to hear your thoughts.