Of the many things one might find noteworthy about the Occupy movement, there’s no missing its speed of spread. Just one month after a group of people who were fed up enough with the current situation writ large in America to gather, chant, wave placards, talk to the press, and sleep outside, similar efforts had been organized in over 1,300 cities and communities around the world. My favorite photo thus far has been of Diane McEachern, of Bethel, Alaska, and her three dogs, all four of them staring soberly at the camera on a frosted morning, and her holding a sign that reads simply “Occupy the Tundra.”
While the remarkable growth of this movement is clear, less so its message. CNN did an iReporter poll of the protesters in various cities with a simple question, “What are you protesting?” The most-common answer wasn’t even a majority of the responses and was “government corruption” at 46%. The other top answers were more evenly spread out, including job scarcity, bailouts and Wall Street impunity. Perhaps the most simple way to get at the broad message of Occupy Wall Street et al is this: Something is very wrong, we don’t have confidence in our leaders to fix it, so we’re going to show up, speak up, and stay ’til someone does something right. President Obama put it accurately although mildly when he said the Occupy movement expresses “frustration.” Indeed.
In Old Testament times in the centuries before Jesus, God had a preferred way of expressing God’s own frustration. God sent prophets, less to tell the future and more to remind the people about the agreement they had with God, where they weren’t upholding their end of the deal, what would happen if they persisted and how God was going to keep on loving them anyway. Among God’s grievances were several that were quite consistent, and one of them was all about economics and injustice. The forms of this one included God’s own hatred of systemic corruption, gross economic inequity and the oversized affluence of some at the expense of the many, lack of compassion for the poor and pretensions of piety comfortably coexisting with rampant poverty. These are themes in the minor prophets Amos and Micah, and the major ones like Jeremiah and Isaiah, through whom God says: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (1.16-17)
Those were God’s words to the Jews then; they’re God’s words to all people, and nations, now. If we can hear the echo of God’s heart for those on the margins through the voices of the Occupy movement, it will be a mighty movement indeed. And if in those same voices are the echoes of God’s disdain for those who would seek their own comfort and position at the expense of the needs of others, it makes their hearing all the more important. History teaches that countries, at best, do not thrive when they lose sight and adherence to the deepest truths. At worst, like the Jews of the Old Testament, they go into exile.
It’s been said by many in various ways, including Pearl Buck that, “the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.” The Occupy movement is calling for America to pass that test, and it’s not hard to imagine God giving a hearty “Amen!” to that.
The Rev. Bill Haley is the Associate Rector at The Falls Church and Director of Formation at The Washington Institute.
See more essays from local faith leaders.