American Spring

October 11, 2011 § 12 Comments

One of the goals of my research and writing on Quakers and capitalism is to bring historical perspective to a call for a living testimony on economic justice. The movement that began as Occupy Wall Street has spread to other cities around the country and may, I hope, become a truly national movement, the beginning of an American Spring that, like the Arab Spring that has brought regime change to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, will bring regime change to America. The regime that needs changing here in the U.S. is the dominion of corporate interests and the interests of the very wealthy over the interests of the rest of us.

The press has made much of the apparent incoherence of the Occupy movement and its lack of clearly defined goals. However, as Walter Bruegemann has said (I think it was him; it might have been Dorothy Soelle), prophecy begins as lamentation. The first step in prophetic movement toward justice is recognizing and naming your suffering. That’s the stage the Occupy movement is in right now, it seems to me.

However, in what I see so far, a clear thread does run through their rather chaotic and scattershot message: the hijacking of our economics, our democracy and political culture, our social culture and social welfare, our food and water supplies, our media—and our minds, really—by the 1% of Americans that own 50% of our wealth. We are the 99%. Jesus would have named this condition Mammon—greed, ill-gotten wealth, the oppressive interests of the rich.

The American Spring represents a historic opportunity for the Religious Society of Friends to join the conversation, to develop for ourselves for the first time, really, a clearly articulated set of goals toward economic justice and to bring our witness to the movement. Where do we Quakers stand? What do we have to offer? How are we led by the Holy Spirit to testify to truth?

This is one of those areas where having your Quaker roots firmly planted in Christian scripture really pays off (though not, sadly, traditional Christian theology). Economic justice was the very heart of Jesus’ mission. The synoptic gospels offer enough planks in the platform of the kingdom of God to build a movement on, or to base your testimony upon. Jesus’ foundation for what I like to call the commonwealth of God is incredibly rich. It is both radical and practical. It is concrete, coherent and comprehensive. It speaks truth to power and it speaks to a very large percentage of American society from a position of authority that they already acknowledge as important if not supreme—Christian faith. It speaks directly to the plight of the poor and to the dissolving middle class and to the segments of right wing politics and policy that favor big money over little people. It speaks to those who distort the gospel and would bring evangelical economics into government. (See Chris Lehman’s cover story in the October issue of Harper’s titled “Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the GOP.”) And it speaks directly to the central issue of our current crisis: debt, debt relief and, especially, home foreclosure.

Meanwhile, without this scriptural foundation, liberal Friends are left (so far) with preaching that there is that of God in everyone and adapting generalities from the testimony of equality into the economic sphere—not bad as far as it goes. We could also recover the writings of George Fox that speak directly to economic justice, or Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor, or the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order published by London Yearly Meeting in 1918, though these earlier Quaker manifestos would bring us back to the Christian gospel again.

So we are not totally bereft, even if we do not employ Christian scripture and the planks in the platform of the commonwealth of God that Jesus lived and taught, though I believe it would be a shame to leave these aside. Virtually all of our other testimonies, not just the testimony of equality, translate in some way to the economic sphere. And the incipient divine-spark theology implicitly understood by Friends in the belief that there is that of God in everyone holds promise. We just need to develop it further and demonstrate how it reflects the guidance we are receiving from the Spirit.

For that is the true meaning of ‘testimony’ for Friends: not that we have an outward set of principles that we try to uphold in our individual and corporate lives, but that these are the ways in which the Light has transformed our inner lives, not just as a historical legacy, but today, right now, in each of us. These are the outward ways in which God is leading us inwardly to testify to God’s truth.

In subsequent posts I want to develop these two strands of tradition further—Jesus’ teachings on economic life and the potential implicit in our liberal ‘theology’ and our current testimonies. And I want to begin exploring their implications for action in this potentially historic time. And I hope my readers will join in this conversation. And I plan to visit some of the Occupy groups in my area to see what they really are up to, rather than rely on reports in the media, and to explore how Friends might contribute.

What if Friends all over the country did the same?

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§ 12 Responses to American Spring

  • pat says:

    I a religious agnostic and a quaker am as involved as I can be with occupy. I do not need to follow any leader to know that our economic situation is not just. I follow my inner light and it tells me to be active and do what I can to serve the occupy movement.

  • emily says:

    Mitigating poverty means having less poverty, which can mean having no grinding poverty.
    Jesus argued to mitigate poverty.
    The Old Testament prophets argued to mitigate poverty.
    Buddha argued to mitigate poverty.
    Mohammed argued to mitigate poverty.
    You argue to mitigate poverty
    How does what you want differ from the New Testament prophets, or Buddha, or Jesus?

  • Steven — Last week, at Bible explorations at Pendle Hill, I read a midrash about the golden calf… This evening, I hope to facilitate an exploration of some of the minor prophets —

    Thanks for the thoughts, Friend.

  • emily says:

    I recently heard Juliet Schor talk on her new book, Plenitude (also titled True Wealth: how and why millions of Americans are creating a time-rich, ecologically-light, small-scale, high-satisfaction economy). Schor focuses both on income inequality and an American culture of dissatisfaction with having just enough. She does not discuss policy in her book, specifically because sees that just the mention of policy is enough to get some to shut the book, and that I think makes it even more useful in seeing what can be done without taking on the political aspects of our economic problems, which can be tremendously divisive. Schor said she had discussed many of her premises with conservatives, who agreed with her, and with Occupy Wall Street protestors, who were already putting her principles into place.
    The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is now recommending that we all make a “compassionate consumption pledge” (uusc.org/cccpledge) to examine every purchase one makes for its potential harm to other individuals and to the environment. I took it, and it does make one stop and think a little more often.
    I also think we should–though I don’t know how–learn how to help the rich restrain themselves, given that their wealth tends to make useless their own ability to rein themselves in.
    Because all the great prophets–not just Jesus but Buddha, Isaiah, Mohammed–taught income equality, this is an issue which cuts across all ideologies.
    The BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, and WNYC, the New York NPR affiliate have all had great coverage; the BBC has a great quiz on different statements of the Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Street (hard to tell apart), and the Monitor an excellent article on how Occupy Wall Street doesn’t cater to easy coverage by mainstream media. I do think that the lack of a specific agenda by Wall Street Occupiers is a question for many of us, and so I appreciated hearing discussions in On the Media on how their lack of agenda was actually a source of their strength. What I have personally seen at the New York Occupy Wall Street has been both edifying, and not so edifying (like the signs saying “in Somalia they don’t pay income taxes”, a source of great hilarity among some French tourists). I also see disobedience of the law as totally counterproductive here, as I’ve heard it used as fodder for those who choose to see the Occupiers as just a bunch of spoiled anarchists; it also has turned off many otherwise sympathetic, and I wish those leaders who feel compelled to break the law would read leftist Saul Alinsky’s advice to leftists, that we think more often about how to best convey our messages rather than doing what feels good.

    • mkivel says:

      I disagree that various prophets taught income equality, Emily. Insisting that the basic needs of the materially impoverished be mitigated is not the same as income equality. I would say that living simply as Friends have advised for centuries, whatever that means for an individual or a society, is likely to reduce the prevalent materialism which seems to underlie many of the issues the Occupy communities are raising.

      That the Occupy communities witness has been the focus of so much public and private vitriol suggests to me that they are Publishers of Truth as were the first Quakers, even if some of their tactics and thoughts do not point to communion with the Inner Light….thoughts?

      • Emily says:

        You’re right, Mkviel, income equality is a statistical term, something no preacher would orate on.
        What those prophets I have read have preached, however, was the creation of a world in which there was no poverty; this goes far beyond simply “mitigating poverty.” There are mentions of “there will always be poverty,” but there are as many mentions of “God will bring up the impoverished.”
        Running through the old testament is the message that those with wealth create poverty, and that it is the duty of the wealthy to share and stop stealing, a sharing going far beyond simply charity, or “mitigating” poverty. Amos and Isaiah both felt the wealthy should be severely punished. Overall, Iwould argue that the Hebrew prophets preached for building a world in which:
        One makes restitution for what one steals: Exodus 22, Leviticus 19:13;
        One does not covet too much: Deuteronomy 5:21;
        All are honest in business: Deuteronomy 23:19-20;
        All who are willing to work have work: Leviticus 25:35-38; Deuteronomy 24:18-20;
        The rich do not oppress the poor: Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Amos 5:10-12;
        Those with wealth who do oppress the poor are punished: 2 Kings 25; Jeremiah 2:29, 5:26-28, 6:6; Habakkuk 2:1-6, Isaiah 3:14-15, 26:5;
        All are continually working to create this world without poverty, where no one is left in need: Micah 4:4; Isaiah 41:17, 54:11; Deuteronomy 15:4, 26:9; 1 Samuel 2:6-8; Ezekiel 18.

        Mohammed preached for a continual circulation of wealth. Buddha and Jesus preached very similar ideas of communities of wealth sharing.
        I have never read a great religious leader who preached that the wealthy were only obliged to provide charity–those this doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Could you point me to those prophets who preached simply the mitigation of the effects of poverty?
        Thanks.

      • mkivel says:

        I’d say that all the teaching you cite is in mitigation of material poverty – again the poor will always be with us…punishing a wrong doer is not redressing poverty it merely warns folks who may be about to sin there is retribution….

        There is also poverty of values and feeling for one’s neighbor which is addressed in the 19th chapter of Leviticus and elsewhere…if all is from the hand of God, and by all I mean all as it says in Isaiah 45:7, then is not material lack also by necessity of God? And if so, wherefore and why? Thoughts?

      • forrest curo says:

        [responding to later comments]

        There are many things that God ordains… that are not strictly tolerable past whatever point they’ve served their purpose. Jesus went about curing such conditions.

        Riches/poverty is a social condition that produces a great deal of cluelesseness and suffering. People desire what’s called “riches”, and so some of them necessarily achieve it. As a result of the sheer quantity of goods & services tied up in those people and their wants, other people suffer crippling shortages of essential needs. This is ordained of God until people come to realize how it works in practice– and stop desiring “riches” at other peoples’ expense.

        Money can buy one just about any private “good”– but not a humane, peaceful society to live in.

        The Torah says: “If you follow these laws, there will be no poor among you.” Jesus’ amendment of this is highly ironic, ie “You aren’t following them, are you?”

        There’s nothing particularly subtle about any of this… except when people are seeking loopholes in it.

      • forrest curo says:

        …And there do exist advantages of poverty, as mkivel implies:

        Being poor does not make one a better person. A relatively rich person told me once, “I used to hope that poor people would turn out to be the Good Guys, but I saw they were just playing the same games for smaller stakes.” [I would say ‘larger stakes’, if you consider that a serious loss to a poor person is more likely to be actually life-threatening.]

        It’s analogous to hitch-hiking vs buying a plane ticket. After enough of having to depend on other people and “chance” events for your needs, one can come to recognize that we really don’t live by our own powers and resources.

        After enough ravens have fed Elijah enough times… he can start to see the patterns in their food services. And come to know where his meals are really coming from.

        Or as a poorer friend put it: “Years of hardship and suffering have left me with an invincible faith… in Something.”

        But wouldn’t we rather have this come more easily?

  • mkivel says:

    Having watched Occupy communities rise up and evolve on Facebook over the last few weeks, I was struck by the leading that as much as Occupy is an opportunity for clearing among the Friends community, there is also an opening for Friends to show by example that a community can come together and gather to resolve issues and move forward….

  • forrest curo says:

    There was a small but significant-minority Quaker turnout here for the kickoff of the San Diego occupation. Mostly for the march, a few of us for the overnight. (With all the excitement, those of us who stayed had no hope of sleeping, just lying around happily listening to all the live music and lively conversations all around us.) Anne & I had a “W.P.A. now!” sign, which we needed to explain to several people (but not to the history prof who joined the conversation. We are all wondering why our “Democratic” political leaders haven’t seen fit to introduce this obvious, necessary policy!)

    Michael Hudson’s talk (on why “demands” would inevitably fall short of the needed systemic change ) may be a helpful resource for anyone too “learned and wise” to see where simple justice lies in this…

  • This is great, Steven. Thank you for connecting these dots and calling us to an alive, prophetic faith. I look forward to the future posts and discussion on this.

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