A Gentle Word to OWS

A Gentle Word to OWS November 1, 2011

[NOTE: Updated Below]

Love is a weapon that cuts without wounding, and ennobles the one who wields it; it is a sword that heals.

Dr. Martin Luther King

I’ve been watching with interest the Occupy protests (at Wall Street and elsewhere) and I must say I’m extremely gratified at their success. They have succeeded in changing the subject from “we must cut the deficit immediately and at all costs!!11!” (which is economic idiocy – the short-term problem is a lack of demand; the long term problem is debt) to “what are we going to do about unemployment and robber-baron-era-like levels of wealth inequality?”

Finally, the national conversation is beginning to be about inequality and its beneficiaries: an unaccountable, reckless and arrogant oligarchy — the injustice and danger of which I’ve been pointing out ever since I first showed up here at Vox Nova, both as a commenter and later when I became a contributor — which is the root cause of the financial and economic crisis consuming the West.

My greatest wish is that at some point, the OWS folks will leaven their movement with an ingredient that is essential to truly heal our economic and social problems: agape love.

King again:

The Greek language uses three words for love. It talks about eros. Eros is a sort of aesthetic love. It has come to us to be a sort of romantic love and it stands with all of its beauty. But when we speak of loving those who oppose us we’re not talking about eros. The Greek language talks about philia and this is a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends. This is a vital, valuable love. But when we talk of loving those who oppose you and those who seek to defeat you we are not talking about eros or philia. The Greek language comes out with another word and it is agape. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. Theologians would say it is the love of God operating in the human heart. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you come to love on this level you begin to love men not because they are likeable, not because they do things that attract us, but because God loves them and here we love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. It is the type of love that stands at the center of the movement that we are trying to carry on in the Southland—agape.

The cause of the economic crisis is the consequence of the dominance a group of people whose hearts have been distorted by greed and avarice. In their efforts to stand as plutocratic gods above their brothers and sisters, they move to the most exclusive neighborhoods they can find. They have thrown aside the bonds that bind them to the rest of us; they have refused to allow their consciences to be troubled by the thousands of their newly-impoverished brothers and sisters who now have formed tent cities.

If prodigal Wall Street could walk with truly open hearts among their estranged brethren in those cities of cloth and nylon, their hearts would be broken. Not by the deprivation and primitive material circumstances, but by the realization that the residents have infinitely more riches than the Wall Streeters do: the residents of those tent cities now realize and enjoy the fundamental mutuality that is the very essence of being children of God. They are brothers and sisters, and share what they have with one another not by writing a check, but by making room at their camp stove for a stranger who has it worse than them.

I have known people in my personal life who “came from money” – some have been generous and warm-hearted to a fault, of course, but a story I keep hearing is of entire families where whole generations of children sit and wait for someone to die so that they could come into their money. I hear of such circumstances and feel both revulsion at the spiritual desolation that represents, and also a metaphysical dread at a society that considers that as unremarkable as the fact that millions of its children live in poverty.

Those two phenomena are related, I believe. They are both symptoms of greed – and not just at a personal level, but deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society as a whole.

King, again:

And he is able to love those persons that he even finds it difficult to like for he begins to look beneath the surface and he discovers that that individual who may be brutal toward him and who may be prejudiced was taught that way—was a child of his culture. At times his school taught him that way. At times his church taught him that way. At times his family taught him that way. And the thing to do is to change the structure and the evil system, so that he can grow and develop as a mature individual devoid of prejudice. And this is the kind of understanding goodwill that the nonviolent resister can follow if he is true to the love ethic. And so he can rise to the point of being able to look into the face of his most violent opponent and say in substance, do to us what you will and we will still love you. We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. And do to us what you will, and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And so throw us in jail, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators and violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom but we will not only win freedom for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience, that we will win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory. This is the meaning of the nonviolent creed. This is the meaning of the nonviolent ethic.

The greed of the oligarchy is morally and socially corrosive, and we of humble economic circumstances are as guilty of tolerating it as the oligarchs are of perpetrating it.

The goal must be reconciliation and healing, not humiliation and dominance. We must not become what we abhor.

[UPDATE]

It appears that some members of Occupy Oakland perpetrated acts of violence against property, and the persons of police officers, last night and early this morning. This is precisely the wrong thing for the Occupy protesters to be doing, both morally and strategically. If force is used against the protestors, they should respond with peaceful resistance, and appeal to the consciences of the perpetrators of violence; to raise your fist is to lose the moral force of your movement, until that fist is lowered again.

I do hear that this situation is being addressed internally by Occupy Oakland. I pray that they may firmly put aside retaliation and despair, and wield the devastating weapons of joyful hope and non-violent love.

"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

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  • Dan

    They have thrown aside the bonds that bind them to the rest of us; they have refused to allow their consciences to be troubled by the thousands of their newly-impoverished brothers and sisters who now have formed tent cities.

    This isn’t the problem. The problem is that they believe in their heart of hearts that anyone who isn’t wealthy in a free market isn’t deserving of being wealthy, and they reap what they sow. They walk through the tent-cities with disdain at the people who can’t bootstrap themselves to pull themselves out of their situation. Stop looking for a job and go create one yourself. Oh and take a shower while you’re at it.

    To them, handouts are enablers for laziness. It would violate their conscience to show them charity because that endorses what they perceive to be the great vice of the general public.

    The problem is wholly the fact that they are out of touch with reality; estranged from their brethren and the reality of the misfortunes and responsibilities that cause someone to be dependent on the charity of others. Hard to start a business when you’ve been injured at the workplace and can’t walk without pain. Not so easy to risk capital on a new venture when your kids need that to buy lunch at school, or even for those more well off – for your children’s college fund.

    The opportunity to create wealth comes from privilege. This is the lesson they have forgotten.

    • brettsalkeld

      I’m a hard worker, but it’s hard to look back and not see that almost every penny I’ve made in my life is somehow traceable to dumb luck. My friend’s dad owned a company; I knew someone with an ‘in’ to a crazy union gig; my hometown went through an insane property appreciation because China can’t get enough potash; my wife got offered a job at a party where the host had just lost his receptionist, etc. etc.

      Now it’s entirely possible that someone other than me might not have taken full advantage of all this luck (heck, I probably haven’t either), but it’s just as possible that someone just as industrious and foresighted as me had a string of bad luck where I had good.

      There but for the grace of God . . .

      • Dan

        but it’s just as possible that someone just as industrious and foresighted as me had a string of bad luck where I had good.

        Amen. I have met people whose stories of perpetual misfortune would bring anyone to their knees. In spite of everything they experience, they soldier on with a heart that says “thanks be to God”. Very humbling. Puts a lot in perspective.

      • Paul DuBois

        It amazes me that when something bad happens we wonder what we did to deserve this bad luck, but when good fortune comes our way few question that we a merely getting what we deserve. There is no doubt in my mind I have not gotten what I deserve in life, and I am extremely greatful for that.

    • The problem is wholly the fact that they are out of touch with reality; estranged from their brethren and the reality of the misfortunes and responsibilities that cause someone to be dependent on the charity of others.

      It is truly a tragedy, in the literary sense of that word.

  • Rodak

    @Matt Talbot — That is beautifully said. Thank you, very much.

  • It’s good to bring up MLK on All Saints Day. If we were ever to become less parochial, he would be among the first for canonization. Your post is at the heart of the social and economic disparities.

    I was struck by your observance that the greedy are actually estranged from ‘the fundamental mutuality that is the essence of the children of God’. So very true. Ultimately, this greed is rooted in a dreaded fear of powerlessness and nakedness (far more than avarice).

    I am always struck by the witness of St. Francis who in the public square undressed himself and returned his clothing to his father rather than be obliged to a system that he knew was corrupt and a negation of the gospel. I take from your post an awareness that ‘monetary demands’ alone are not a sufficient catalyst for true reform. If the gospel is be a force in the reconciliation between 1 and 99 then we need witness like MLK and Francis who understand that violence is anathema and agape is the true balm.

  • “They are both symptoms of greed – and not just at a personal level, but deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society as a whole.”

    I would suggest that it’s deeply ingrained in human nature as a whole, and not in our society in particular. And, for that matter, in people of every economic bracket, and not the higher economic brackets in particular. If the rich and the poor changed places, I’m quite certain you would find the former poor every bit as greedy as the current rich.

    • Agellius – while greed is as universal as any other sin, the wounds of separation I describe is far more profound in the United States that in any other country in our economic peer group. The US has less class mobility, a greater share of its citizens in poverty, a greater degree of wealth concentration at the top, and a greater share of its citizens incarcerated, than any other rich country in the world. This is a place that almost literally worships money.

      • Since we agree that greed, like any other sin, is universal, perhaps the differences between our country and others may be explained by other causes. Of which surely there are endless possibilities.

      • Paul DuBois

        Greed is indeed a universal sin, as is theft and the tendency to violence. There are not large segments of our population that live by the motto “theft is good.” People of good will tend to condemn the other sins, but many people who would consider themselves religious upright people consider greed a good thing that greases the wheels of the economy. Those of us who recognize it as a sin should always point out its evils and the need to eliminate it from society just as we would with adultery, murder or any other sin that tears at the fabric of society.

  • Mark Gordon

    Last night’s events in Oakland are troubling. Dorothy Day famously would not countenance even the symbolic destruction of property, and split with the Berrigans and others on that point. That same absolute rejection of violence in any form ought to be the stance of the OWS movement, especially in Oakland, where it appears a line has now been crossed.

    • Agreed, Mark. Violence is the antithesis to what Dr. King worked for, in that it destroys community rather than enabling it.

    • This is a good place to repeat myself from a comment above…If the gospel is be a force in the reconciliation between 1 and 99 then we need witness like MLK and Francis who understand that violence is anathema and agape is the true balm.

      • Mark Gordon

        I missed that. Well said, sign of the Tau.

    • Thales

      Occupy DC didn’t look so good the other night. The movement loses credibility with that kind of thing.

      • Kurt

        I think its 15 minutes are over for the campers. The next stage is to take it beyond this element. The victory over Bank of America was outstanding, but it is time to leave Moses in the campground and move on to Jericho.

  • Paul writes, “Those of us who recognize [greed] as a sin should always point out its evils and the need to eliminate it from society just as we would with adultery, murder or any other sin that tears at the fabric of society.”

    I certainly agree.