Another World is Possible: Biblical Visions

When I meet somebody new, one of the first things they inquire about is what I do for a living. When I tell them (I’m a clergyperson), I almost always find myself deep in conversation about religion. They haven’t been to church in a long time, they will tell me right off the bat, and then proceed to defensively list the reasons why. They tell me why the Bible is wrong about certain things, or how Jesus never really existed, or they want my opinions on fasting, the efficacy of prayer, or other spiritual concerns they are having.

What nobody ever says is, “So you’re religious, what do you think about how Wall Street should be regulated?” They never ask if I think the Bible justifies wars of aggression or what my faith teaches me about the morality of greed, violence, and social inequity and what I might therefore think about the financial industry, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or health care reform, poverty or immigration. None of these, to the modern mind, are religious questions. Religion, in our modern day and time, is concerned only with spiritual matters. These are defined as private and relegated to the sphere of private opinion.

The separation of church and state in the United States does not mean that citizens cannot be shaped by their faith traditions. Nor does it mean that citizens will not be motivated by their faith to be involved in the civic life of their community and nation. This is not simply true of those people of faith concerned with denying reproductive rights or marriage equality, but includes progressive, liberal and other folks as well. War is a moral issue. So is poverty. “Values voters” include those of us concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable people in our society, those who want to protect our environment, those who advocate for equality.

As the progressive evangelical pastor Jim Wallis says, “Faith is always personal, but not private.” There are public consequences to faith, and people of faith have played essential roles in forming social change movements, including the anti-slavery and temperance movements, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Communities of faith are often at the center of local anti-poverty and hunger projects, reaching out into the community in a variety of ways to serve the needs of others.

The ancient world did not divide these up into separate spheres, and indeed saw no division between religious practice and civic society, spirituality and the public sphere, religion and the economic order. It was all of a piece. This is one of the reasons I look to ancient sources of wisdom, including Earth-centered and biblical traditions, which encourage a more holistic view of faith and practice. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of explicit ways in which the most marginal in society are to be protected, ways in which the most needy are to receive their just share of common resources

Here’s my take on the biblical witness.

The biblical narrative is one of a God who redeems a people, who rescues them from oppression. God leads a people, his people, out of slavery, inviting them into an adventure of moving outside the land of slave masters, of kings and emperors, beyond the land of kingdoms and empires. God delivers them out of oppression and into the Promised Land, promising them something better than they have known, a life of abundance in a land that flows with milk and honey. Out of the nations of the world, God forms a new kind of people, a holy nation that will be a guiding light to other peoples.

God makes an agreement with this people, a covenant. God is to be their only king and the Torah, God’s instructions, is to be the guidebook, the manual, to their common life. God instructs his people not only in how he is to be properly worshipped, and other “religious” matters. Much of the Torah is about the social order for this new society, including trade and farming and debt. God cares as much about his people’s material wellbeing as he does their spiritual wholeness. One could honor God, and the covenant with God, through how one treated one’s workers, how one collected a loan or negotiated a debt, how one harvested one’s field in a way that allows the poor to glean from it, how one was honest in business dealings, or how one treated foreigners, widows, orphans. These actions, among many others, were ways of being faithful to God.

The formative event for the ancient Hebrews was the exodus from slavery in Egypt. This liberation story informs the covenant God makes with them, and they with each other. Never again will they be enslaved, and no worker in their social order will be indentured forever. The covenant calls for periodic release of slaves and indentured workers, redistribution of property and cancellation of debts. In some sense, ancient Israel was to be an alternative to the imperial economies, such as the one in Egypt, which relied on domination, expropriation and war. The Hebrew nation was meant to be countercultural, distinct from the nations around it by its practices of freedom, social equity, mutual support and cooperation.

The covenant was enforced through a series of blessings and curses. God will bless the people if they carry out these instructions and abide by the covenant, and God will curse them if they do not. In the 27th and 28th chapters of Deuteronomy, we read a full list of blessings and curses: “Cursed is the man who moves his neighbor’s boundary stone! Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow! Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by not carrying them out!” (27: 17, 19, 26) Abiding by God’s covenant ensures a blessing on one’s barn and kneading trough, one’s crops and livestock.

“The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.” (28:12)

The Israelites established themselves in the hill country of Palestine. Theirs was a commonwealth of federated agricultural communities. Prophet-leaders, or judges, such as Samuel, interpreted the will of God for the people. The Israelites established themselves as distinct from the nations of the world, including not merely the peculiar holiness codes and dietary laws or the practice of circumcision, but also by not being governed by kings or warlords. God claims leadership of this people who are not to have kings the way other nations have. God is their only king.

Soon enough, however, the Israelites want to be like the other nations. They betray God’s desire for them to be a nation set apart, a nation unlike others in which God alone was ruler. The Israelites want a human king, a king they could see and revere. So they demand of Samuel a king.

“Samuel, do everything they want you to do. I am really the one they have rejected as their king. Ever since the day I rescued my people from Egypt, they have turned from me to worship idols. Now they are turning away from you. Do everything they ask, but warn them and tell them how a king will treat them.” (1 Samuel 8:7-8 CEV)

The people are told what it would mean to have a king: a king would make them his slaves and soldiers, servants of his palaces and of his wars. God reminds them of the things that kings do, with their invasions and war mongering, their domination and conquests, their empire building and centralizing of power, their taxation and military drafts. They want a king anyway. They abandon the vocation they have of being unlike other nations, of being a people ruled by God alone.

What follows is a succession of kings, from Saul to David to Solomon, a long line of kings, some of them good some of them not so good. Wars with the surrounding peoples are fought, a capital city is built and the wandering Ark of the Covenant, representing the presence of God, is installed in an elaborate temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. A priesthood is established and ceremonies of sacrifice take place in the temple.

And yet God’s dream for his people, for his world, his creation, is not forgotten. God does not abandon his vision and plan. God makes sure that for every king, there is a prophet. For every national ruler, there is somebody who reminds the king and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with him. The Hebrew prophets are the counterpoint to the Hebrew kings and lords, God’s way of countering and questioning the habits of nations, conquerors, and empires. The prophetic voice reminds the people of their covenant with God: God will bless, prosper and defend the nation if the people create a society of justice, righteousness and abundance. God withdraws his blessing in the absence of justice. The prophets are constantly calling the people back to faithfulness with God. Come back to the Lord, they say, and do what he wants us to do. Sacrifices and elaborate ceremonies are not what God desires. God desires justice, mercy and intimacy with his people.

The Hebrew prophets were the critics on the margins, the thorn in the side of every ruler. They proclaim justice and a redeemed world of peace and plenty. They pull wild stunts, display signs and wonders, engage in guerrilla theatre. They provoke the status quo. They interrupt business as usual. They call on the people to be unlike other nations—to abandon the ways of war and empire, to abandon unfairness, exploitation, and greed. They call to mind the covenant with God, recalling God’s vision.

Jesus of Nazareth appears as one in line with the Hebrew prophets. Jesus’ basic message is to change one’s thinking, one’s consciousness, for the direct rule of God was arriving and taking place here and now (“repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”) In line with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus was calling the people back to being ruled by God and God alone. In line with the Hebrew prophets, he reminded the rulers and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with God, although, Jesus’s followers universalized this message for all peoples. Jesus was promoting a way of thinking about God and being in relation with God outside the official sacrificial system controlled by the religious elite, the Temple elite that was collaborating with the Roman Empire.  This was an unauthorized, unmediated relationship with God. One’s relationship with others was similarly re-imagined. The lines that divide people can be traversed, boundaries that separate people can be crossed – national, ethnic, sexual, religious – these are false divisions that keep people from seeing “that of God” in their neighbor. The change in how one orders one’s thinking and one’s relationships (shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice) revolutionizes the social order, the political order.

The metaphors that Jesus used for this transformation, the changed relationships with God and neighbor, were political. He did not talk about the family of God, nor did he talk about the school of God. He talked about the kingdom of God. Having a direct, unmediated, intimate relationship with the living God and the resulting transformations of daily life put oneself in the kingdom of God, God’s order and rule. The titles that Jesus was associated with – messiah, Christ, son of God, savior, lord – are political titles. The language his followers used – kingdom, gospel, assembly (“church”) – were all taken from the Hebrew and Roman political lexicon. This is political language. And it is clear from the gospels that Jesus was proclaiming a new order, a different kingdom, a counter-realm of peace, mutuality, cooperation, justice. My kingdom, Jesus tells the Roman governor, is unlike the world’s kingdoms. If it were like them, my followers would have violently opposed my arrest. (John 18:36) My kingdom is not worldly, not armed, not violent.

Jesus was renewing the covenant of God and the covenantal relationship with neighbor. He reminded his listeners of God’s blessings and curses, reminded them of God’s liberating power to bring them out of slavery and into a life of abundance. His listeners suffered a number of Roman military conquests, and were increasingly taxed and indebted. Not only were they responsible for paying a tithe to the collaborationist Temple elite, and the Roman tribute as well, in Jesus’ lifetime, Galileans also needed to fund the Herod who was now located in their region. They were exhausting their reserves, borrowing from the wealthy at high interest rates, and increasingly at risk for having their property seized or foreclosed upon. Jesus’ blessings and curses speak to the desperate economic circumstances of his listeners and followers. His blessings and curses evoke those in the Torah, and were meant to bring his listeners into line with the original covenant.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20-26)

Much of what Jesus said and did was around what people do with their resources. Many of Jesus’ parables as well as stories about him involve debt and talents, wage earners and unfair bosses and vineyard laborers, taxes and coins, bread and credit. The prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray petitions for sufficient food and cancellation of debts. He taught first and foremost that all that we have ultimately belongs to God. God is the Creator and we simply stewards of God’s creation. The person who believes that they have created or earned their own wealth displaces God as lord of all. Jesus also teaches that our resources are to be used for the benefit of all, for the common good. He consistently privileges the needy—those who are marginal; he calls us to look to such persons when deciding how to best use our resources. Will our actions increase the livelihood of the least of these? Will our actions help or harm the least of these?

The covenant to which Jesus called his listeners back is one of fundamental concern for the neighbor, for the wellbeing of the entire community, the entire household of God. They are to ensure, as acts of faith, that all have access to the resources needed for an abundant life, and that all fully participate in the life of the community.

It is particularly exasperating to me how much of the political force of the biblical vision of economic justice and peace has been drained of its power by the religious status quo. This is particularly true of Jesus, who was especially confrontational toward the powers that be (one did not get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for anything less). His teachings and actions have been so spiritualized their actual, full-bodied meaning in his cultural and historical context are almost lost. I hope that all who take the Bible seriously (if not literally) are able to read and hear the voice within its pages that calls for the re-ordering of our communal household to embody the divine care and concern for the most needy and vulnerable, that describes a vision of the world redeemed—the world at peace with all peoples living in security and plenty, that calls for a social order marked by mutuality, cooperation, justice, and that sings a joyful song of a new day in which the hungry are filled with good things and rulers are brought down from their thrones. May that day come soon!

Move Your Money From Wall Street to Main Street

A campaign on Facebook and elsewhere has designated November 5, 2011 as “Bank Transfer Day.” Ordinary people are being invited to divest from the Wall Street banks and move their money into local banks and credit unions. The 1% of the US population that controls more than a third of the nation’s wealth will wake up on November 6 and know just how powerful the 99% can be if we act together.

I recently moved my money from one of the big banks to a local one. It’s easy to do:

  • Open a new account in your local bank or credit union
  • Order cheques and a debit card for your new account
  • If you have direct deposit at work (or anywhere else) have your employer redirect your deposit to the new bank. If you pay bills automatically, make sure these all have your new information. Make sure these have all been switched before closing the old account (it can sometimes take a few pay cycles).
  • Transfer your money to your new account
  • Close the old account, following the procedures of that bank. Don’t just withdraw your money and leave the account open—they will charge you fees for an inactive account, fees for a low balance, fees for just about anything they can think of!

Find a local bank or credit union near you at the Web site of the Move Your Money project. You may want to tell the person at your old bank that assists you why you will no longer be their customer. If there is a segment on their form (there was with mine) for the reason you are closing the account, insist that they fill it out. Better yet, write a letter to the branch manager letting them know that you withdrew your money and why.

Why should you move your money?

  • better rates and fewer fees
  • more personal service
  • keep money in your local community
  • increase local economic development—and help create more jobs.
  • take a stand in a system that is unfair, raising your voice for economic justice

There was a public outcry after the Bank of America announced it would start charging its customers $5 a month to get access to their own money using a debit card. It seems that the bigger a bank is, the more fees it charges you!

My community bank charges almost no fees. If I get charged an ATM fee, I get it refunded at the end of the month. More and more community banks and credit unions offer ATM surcharge-free networks. On average, community banks and credit unions charge less in fees. I also found the highest interest on my deposits at my local bank and a local credit union. The tellers and even managers at the branches of my community bank all know me by name, know my profession, and ask about my work when they see me. Local banks and credit unions have higher customer satisfaction ratings than the too big to fail banks

The largest five banks held 13% of US deposits in 1994; today they hold 38%. Because these banks were considered “too big to fail,” they got bailed out using taxpayer money, but never became any more accountable to taxpayers after they crashed the economy and sent many taxpayers into the unemployment lines. The reason they were propped up was supposedly to ensure the flow of money. They continue to use ordinary people’s deposits for risky trade investments, not loans to small businesses, which are the engine of the economy. Local banks and credit unions, on the other hand, do a disproportionate amount of lending to small business owners.

The big Wall Street banks will probably continue to use your deposits for risky, unregulated investments. This is precisely how they crashed the economy in 2008. No bank should be “too big to fail.” If the government continues refusing to break up the big bank monopoly, a united front of ordinary people can achieve a similar effect by withdrawing our money from them.

MOVE YOUR MONEY ON OR BEFORE NOVEMBER 5… Guy Fawkes Day!

How You Can Support Occupy Wall Street

There are many ways that you can support the growing Occupy Wall Street movement:

JOIN IT. Visit an occupation site near you. There are currently more than 200 in the United States alone. In Boston come down to Dewey Square, outside of South Station in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Talk to the people who are there. Stay for a General Assembly. Make a sign and carry it. Participate in a protest march (these are frequently announced on the Web site beforehand; check back often). Bring a tent and stay awhile.

START AN OCCUPATION. Figure out what resources you need, learning from what other Occupy groups have done.  Gather together friends, family, co-workers, and members of your faith community, labor union or school. Reach out to existing anti-poverty and economic justice groups active in your area. Choose a space. Bring a sleeping bag and/or tent. Call the press. Create a Web site.

Instead of occupying a public square, how about organizing a picket line (outside a Bank of America location, say, or a federal building). How about a rally? How about a vigil? What could your theme be, and could there be costumes, theatre and music?

PROVIDE MATERIAL, MORAL & SPIRITUAL SUPPORT. Many of the Occupy groups have Web sites. Check them out for what they need in terms of supplies. Some of these sites also make it possible to send financial contributions either on line or to a mailbox. Be generous. Check with the group what they need vis-à-vis food. Many Occupy groups have set up kitchen tents, so check in there. Visit and stay awhile, encouraging the protesters who are sleeping there with your positivity. Remind them of the support they have among many ordinary people in the US and around the world. Pray for the protesters, and if possible include them in the “prayers of the people” in your faith community. Hold them in the Light.

TAKE ACTION ON THE ISSUES. Marching, protesting, and camping out in public squares are not for everybody, and that’s okay. Even if it is okay, here are some other things you can do to support this broad-based social change movement:

  • MOVE YOUR MONEY. Withdraw your support of Citi, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. You can close all of your accounts with these banks and transfer your money to a local bank or credit union. The too-big-to-fail banks are more interested in continuing the risky (and still unregulated) practices (using your money!) that led to the economic crash. Local banks and credit unions do disproportionately more lending to local small businesses, did not engage in these risky practices, do not give their CEOs millions in bonuses, and have fewer fees. Divest from Wall Street and invest in Main Street!
  • CALL YOUR STATE’S ATTORNEY GENERAL. There is mounting proof that the big banks falsified documents, encouraged bad loans, and lied to investors–illegal actions that led to the housing collapse, costing the world economy $7.7 trillion and causing the Great Recession. Now five of these banks—JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Ally Bank—want immunity from prosecution in return for a settlement of just $20 billion. President Obama will give this to his Wall Street cronies, a slap on the wrist and nothing more. This amount is a fraction of what the banks cost American investors and homeowners. But this deal relies on the agreement of state attorneys general. The New York, Minnesota and Nevada attorneys general, are not going along and are conducting their own investigations. Encourage your state’s attorney general not to accept this deal and to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley can be reached at (617) 727-2200.
  • BRING THE PUSH TO AMEND THE CONSTITUTION TO YOUR COMMUNITY. Help reverse the Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court, which enshrined the “personhood” of corporations and granted them First Amendment rights of free speech. This has sealed excessive corporate influence over our democracy, allowing corporations and unions to flood political candidates with unseen and unlimited financial contributions.
  • CALL AND WRITE YOUR LEGISLATORS. QUESTION POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Who is paying for their election campaign? What are their budget priorities—endless war or Medicare? Will they reinstate Glass-Steagall? Will they give the Securities Exchange Commission more regulatory powers? Do they support the overturn of Citizens United? Will they pass the Fair Elections Now Act? Will they protect social programs from budget cuts? What do they think of Occupy Wall Street?
  • SCREEN THE ACADEMY-AWARD™ WINNING DOCUMENTARY “INSIDE JOB” IN YOUR HOME AND COMMUNITY AND DISCUSS IT. Most public libraries have the DVD. What will your audience do about what you have seen, heard and learned? What actions will you take together?

HELP THIS MOVEMENT EVOLVE. The Occupy Wall Street movement is weeks old. Yet in weeks, it has galvanized older social change campaigns and altered the political discourse nationally. What matters most to you about this changing climate? What do you hope for? Be sure to articulate this, and your own reasons for joining or sympathizing with the movement. Talk, write, blog, preach, teach and/or sing about what is important to you. In so doing, you are helping shape the discourse about both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the issues.

SHARE YOUR STORY. Are you struggling to make ends meet? Are you on an ever-running treadmill of overwork just to keep your head above water financially? Do you have a family member in the armed forces deployed overseas? Are you a returning veteran? Are you being foreclosed on? Have you lost your retirement savings? Do you have thousands of dollars in student or other debt? Will you go bankrupt paying or trying to pay medical bills? The Occupy Wall Street and We Are The 99% movement has broken the silence for many people—sharing their stories publicly for the first time. What is happening to you is not a sign of your failure; the whole system is failing. By telling your story, speaking frankly and openly about your situation, you are giving permission to others to do likewise.

And in so doing, helping the 99% find itself and its voice.

Resurrection City: MLK and Occupy Wall Street

Today in Washington DC, the new memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated in a ceremony and his legacy heralded with speeches and parades. At the same time, Occupy DC and Stop the Machine marched against corporate and financial malfeasance, social inequities and war. Walking in the warm sun, we approached the Washington Monument chanting Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Main Street! Occupy everywhere and never give it back! as other marchers, demanding jobs and racial justice converged with us to mutual cheers and together we merged into the crowds already gathered around a stage by the monument.

It was a heartwarming celebration of Dr. King’s legacy.

In the last months of his life, Dr. King publicly connected the dots between racism, economic injustice, and war. In the months leading up to his assassination in April 1968, Dr King was increasingly critical of the war in Viet Nam, speaking publicly against the war for the first time in 1967. He was moving steadily toward a more radical critique in the truest sense of the word: getting to the root of social evils, which King began to see as unequal economic power.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation invited Dr. King to give the annual Massey Lectures, which were broadcast in November and December 1967. In his lectures (published in book form as The Trumpet of Conscience), King explained his newfound outspokenness against the war; he saw funding for anti-poverty programs being diverted to a military build-up in Viet Nam. He said: “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continues to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube.” Dr King continued: “And so I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such.” The war in Viet Nam, King went on to say, “was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the population… I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

“The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”

Dr. King concluded the CBC broadcast by describing what was to become the Poor People’s Campaign, an undertaking of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Poor People’s Campaign was envisioned as being the largest, most extensive civil disobedience operation yet seen. King referred to this economic justice movement as the second phase of the civil rights movement. Using the nonviolent direct action tactics that characterized the first phase, Dr. King wanted to focus the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty. In the same way that the movement had drawn attention to racial injustice and forced the hand of legislators and politicians, King sought to evoke a citizen’s movement for an economic bill of rights, which included a thirty million dollar anti-poverty package, a commitment to full employment, and increased construction of low-cost housing.

The Poor People’s Campaign was going to bring a “multiracial army of poor people” to Washington DC to build–guess what?–a tent city on the Mall and paralyze the nation’s capital with acts of civil disobedience until the federal government redirected funds from the war in Viet Nam to this effort to abolish poverty. To his fellow members of the SCLC, King described this upcoming movement as a “question of restructuring the whole of the American economy.” He called for the nationalization of certain industries. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters,” King said in a trip to Mississippi in February 1968, “but now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.”

This deliberately mulitcultural coalition would bring together not only poor people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, but all of those citizens who were dreaming of a new society, all Americans who envisioned a more just and equitable social order. It would be the culmination and fulfillment of the social change that the civil rights movement, the first phase, had begun.

Dr. King was of course assassinated in April 1968, while helping to lead a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He didn’t live to see the Poor People’s Campaign, which went ahead despite his murder. Demonstrators arrived in Washington DC in May 1968 and were housed in tents and shacks which they called Resurrection City. Without King’s charismatic leadership, however, and because so many legislators were and indeed President Johnson was so alienated by King’s criticism of the war, and because it was suddenly overshadowed by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Poor People’s Campaign packed up in June 1968 without much success.

It was more comfortable, for most Americans, to decry injustices in the Southern states. Looking more closely at poverty and economic justice in their own backyard was more difficult, more demanding, more costly and most would rather look the other way. Dr. King’s economic justice campaign did not galvanize them in the same way. King increasingly came under fire from former allies as well as critics for his outspokenness against the war, for going beyond civil rights to create more far reaching social change.

The Poor People’s Campaign has largely faded from the historical memory and is the most overlooked aspect of Dr. King’s legacy. Today, with the Occupy DC and Stop the Machine tent cities camped in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, respectively, it felt like Dr. King’s vision for a campaign to end economic injustice had been resurrected. I somehow felt that the work to which Dr. King was devoting himself in the last months of his life was coming alive. This was precisely the kind of movement he was building when he was murdered. It has become easy to pay lip service to the hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honor him with statues, memorials and a national holiday. An important part of his living legacy, however, is in the Resurrection Cities of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Why I’m Protesting

Preachers frequently give their listeners the sermons that they themselves need to hear. I recently preached a sermon on the power of nonviolence and the courage of being a true practitioner of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, or soul-force. I said: Would I camp out in Tahrir Square? How about Wall Street? There are moments in our lives when the question of what we are living for becomes more urgent.

I am living such a moment in my life today. I have been watching with interest the growing protests on Wall Street, and have been going down to Boston’s financial district to show my support for Occupy Boston (where I was especially pleased that the Peace Abby loaned the protesters a statue of Mahatma Gandhi for their encampment). I have been studying and thinking about economic justice, and watched the online gurgling before the gush of protests burst out. Occupy Wall Street was suggested by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters on its Web site in July, and before that, a group calling itself Stop the Machine was organizing a broad-based coalition to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in a Tahrir Square-like protest. This group committed itself to arriving en masse in Washington on the tenth anniversary of the US war in Afghanistan (October 6) if we still had troops in that country on that date. They were making the connection between the military-industrial complex, corporate influence on policy makers, social inequities at home and the seemingly never-ending wars overseas. As a passing thought, it occurred to me I could go to Washington DC and participate.

This historic moment now presses me with its urgency. I ask myself what I am willing to do. How am I going to live my convictions about justice, equity and compassion? Would I stop cursing at the newscast and actually get off of the couch and do something? The dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit are urging me to get up.

The courage of the young people in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston ignited something in me, something between nostalgia and hope—nostalgia (when I was a youth, I camped out on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, protesting nuclear armaments and cruise missile testing in Canada) as homesickness for my own youth, and hope that a movement toward positive change was actually happening. Hope should not be the exclusive domain of the young, I decided, and cynicism is the logic of the chronically complacent.

I’ve written letters and made phone calls. I’ve given my time and treasure. I have attempted to be a witness, in the pulpit, to my faith and hope. The time has come for me to take my witness to the street. Protest movements (though not the be-all and end-all of social change) have their place, and I believe I have a place in this one.

I am joining the protests because we are shoveling our national treasure into the burning furnaces of endless war. At Occupy Boston, they chanted: Want to fix the deficit? Stop the wars! Tax the rich! The billions of dollars we are spending annually on warfare could be building schools and paying teachers, rebuilding infrastructure and creating jobs. Our armed forces and their families (mostly middle and working class folks) are disproportionately making sacrifices for these wars, and the middle class is paying for them. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and tax loopholes for corporations have insured that the financial cost of the wars is being borne by middle class Americans. This does not seem fair to me. I am joining the protests because I want the so-called Bush-era tax cuts (they are now actually the Obama tax cuts) for the wealthy to be repealed.  I am joining the protests because I think sacrifices must be borne more fairly, the loopholes should be closed, and hiding funds offshore should be prohibited. I am joining the protests because I personally paid more taxes than General Electric did last year.

I am joining the protests because I want the Wall Street financiers who broke the law to be investigated and prosecuted. They helped cause the 2008 financial crisis and are not being held accountable while millions of middle and working class Americans are suffering because of their misdeeds. The protesters cry: They got bailed out; we got sold out! I called Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (at 617-727-2200) and asked her to refuse any settlement deal that would give big banks wide immunity from investigation and prosecution. And I think more pressure needs to be brought to bear, especially on the Obama administration, made up as it is of many former barons of Wall Street. I am joining the protests because I think this kind of revolving door between industry and government is detrimental to public policy and the rule of law. I believe steps need to be taken to limit the influence of lobbyists and industry insiders in writing legislation.  I believe the right of former government regulators to work for the corporations or industries they once regulated needs to be curtailed.

I am joining the protests because I believe the Glass-Steagall regulations need to be reinstated. I believe the Securities Exchange Commission should be given stricter regulatory powers. I think the Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court needs to be overturned—and I want to support the efforts that have begun to introduce a Constitutional amendment, as cumbersome as that is, to reverse this decision that gave corporations and unions the status of personhood and granted them First Amendment rights of free speech, opening the floodgates of unrestricted spending on political campaigns by these “persons.” I am joining the protests because I want to see campaign finance reform, including the passage of the Fair Elections Now Act.

For good measure, I believe the Consumer Protection Bureau should be strengthened, and compassionate aid should be provided for foreclosed homeowners that were victims of predatory lending. I would like to see basic financial literacy taught to people from across the class strata so that all citizens are equipped to make good choices about mortgages, credit card debt and managing household finances. I believe the “circle of protection” around social programs (including Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security) needs to be reinforced in all discussions of government spending, and that US Senator John Kerry and other members of the US Congress “Super Committee” need to be told so in no uncertain terms. Housing, health care and higher education are becoming less affordable to more people—both because of spiraling costs and depressed wages. I am joining the protests because the growing social inequities in US society are deeply disturbing to me and I think are detrimental to the health of our democracy.

I know the protesters have been criticized for not having demands, and for being incoherent (though I’m not sure “demands” are what they are about). But when I think about the issues that have brought them out onto the public squares of America, I see a tangle of interconnected issues—a corporate and military-industrial-complex stranglehold on government pushing us into expensive wars that are unduly being paid for by middle and working class Americans—who are being actively and increasingly impoverished—and, fired by an engine of unlimited growth, devouring our finite planet, rendering it uninhabitable. I can only speak for myself and for what motivates me, and I hope I have articulated here a sense of what—for me—these protests are all about, as multifaceted as it is. And why I feel compelled to put my voice and my body onto the public square in support of what I see as basic issues of fairness.

I am in Washington DC for several days participating in the Freedom Plaza protest. I don’t expect everybody who reads this to agree with me or join me. I think we can have a robust conversation about these issues—that is what Occupy Wall Street is about. How do you answer the question: How are we to be together as a nation and society, with fairness, prosperity and democracy the markers of our common life? I am answering the Inward Light in my actions in what I understand to be the best way I can.

One percent of the population of the United States controls upwards of a third of the country’s wealth and have a disproportionate influence on public policy and the exercise of the rule of law. The protesters insist: We are the 99% and this seems to me like the vital call of the democratic spirit.

They cry out: We are the 99%! And we are too big to fail!