I usually avoid politics here. I tend to the conservative side of things, but I have enough of a populist in me to keep things at least a little interesting. But politics is not the ruling passion of my life, and I prefer to talk about things here that are more important. (Did I really just say that? Something’s more important than politics?)
But the passion of my young friend David Wheeler, and the words of Christian and social justice advocate Jeremy John at Glass Dimly, have given me pause and set me to thinking about what’s been going on with the Occupy protests.
By personal history and inclination, I should be looking the protesters with something akin to ridicule and aversion. But I'm not. I see what's partially inspiring it -- people feeling betrayed by those who are (in theory) supposed to govern wisely for common good. I also see some of what Peggy Noonan talked about yesterday in The Wall Street Journal – it’s a protest, but it’s something else, to, a “be-in” but also a wave, “an expression of American discontent, and others will follow.” (Her column is behind the WSJ firewall, or else I’d link to it.)
They are more of us, of all political persuasions, who share similar convictions. We’re not going to occupy a park. We’re going to stay polite and not scream at TV cameras. We’re not going to throw things or spray paint on police cars. But we hear Herman Cain say the first thing to do is junk the tax code, and we think someone finally gets it. The system is broken.
This discontent behind the Occupy protestors is the same impulse drove millions into the arms of the Tea Party -- and forced the Republican Party elite to pay attention, at least for a time, before it tried to start using it for its own interests. Fortunately, the elite’s still having problems keeping the Tea Party crowd under control, and that’s a good thing. If the Occupy protests can do that to the Democratic elite, then that’s a good thing, too.
I see all the groups and factions trying to affix themselves to the Occupy protests -- the SEIU, what used to be called ACORN, groups making anti-Semitic comments, elements of the White House, Nancy Pelosi, movie stars who've done very well, thank you very much, by the system they love to bash -- and I step back. Way back. If that’s what it becomes, it will at best morph into a faction of the hard-core left, and its influence will be limited to the left-side of the Democratic Party (I know some people think there’s only one wing of the Democratic Party, but diversity exists there, too.)
Because history’s not a subject especially popular to be taught or learn in schools, we don’t see that movements like this (and the Tea Party) have happened before. It wasn’t for nothing that Mark Twain more than 100 years ago called Judas Iscariot a “premature congressman.” William Jennings Bryan rode the Populist movement, angry at the control of economic life by the railroads and other big moneyed interests, almost to the White House. These movements have effects, and often positive effects, and they are important.
But I know how all this works, too. We can have a President rail against the millionaires and billionaires, but it’s going to be people like me who pay all the taxes the President wants to raise. There are simply not enough millionaires and billionaires. We all forget that the so-called Alternative Minimum Tax was designed to catch those millionaires and billionaires who didn’t pay any taxes, and now it’s snared a very large part of the middle class.
This raging against the rich is a nasty impulse. Why people get mad at Bill Gates, who’s created wealth and jobs and value, and not at Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd – who’ve had a direct hand in fashioning the current economic disaster – is a mystery, and likely one with a political explanation.
Something needs to be done.
I wouldn’t ask the question like the bracelet does (“WWJD?”), but I do have to ask, what is my responsibility here as a Christian?
I can’t see Jesus advocating a violent overthrow of the government or whipping up people into a frenzy. I can’t see him calling for free college tuition (yes, that’s one of the Occupy Wall Street demands). I can’t see him using the protests to further the narrow aims of a labor union or to promote organic food (both have happened).
But I can see Jesus walking with and ministering to the unemployed, and the people whose lives have been wrecked because of the housing collapse, the banking bailout, the carmaker bailout, and all that stimulus money that somehow ended up in the wrong places, and all that green energy money that ended up in the coffers of a bankrupt solar power company.
And I can see Jesus shocking his disciples and everyone else by having dinner with the chairman of Goldman Sachs. He did something just like that, in fact; he tended to go where the sinners were, where the need for saving was greatest.
I can see Jesus overturning the moneychangers' tables - because the moneychangers acted with the approval of the spiritual leaders to defraud the people. That scene outside the temple was more about the people running the temple than it was about the moneychangers, and they got the lesson he intended them to get. Of course, they killed him for it, too.
Jesus was no stranger to confrontation. He used strong language. He called people’s hands.
But he also knew that the first line of battle was the heart, and that’s what had to be changed first.
Until that happens, nothing else will last.