Over the past few weeks, I have traveled both to “Liberty Plaza” to see for myself the young people “occupying” Wall Street and to Abu Dhabi to meet with CEO’s and business leaders at a World Economic Forum summit. While the two forums couldn’t have been more different, I was surprised to find that the heart of their concerns were the same. Both groups believe that our current governmental and economic systems are broken and that change will require both structural and moral overhaul.
In both places, it seemed that God was in the air. Side conversations with orthodox Jews and Presbyterians at Abu Dhabi indicated that religion is being listened to and reflected upon in the midst of this economic crisis. I could tell many stories now (but I won’t) of CEO’s coming to talk privately, like Nicodemus at night in the Gospel story, to privately confess the sins of their industry. And then, stories of young people who think they have rejected religion but talk fondly about Jesus and how he might be with them in the park, overturning the money changers tables and preaching a better way of life. In particular, there were questions in both places about the concept put forward in the Hebrew Scriptures of the “Jubilee” where, periodically, debts were to be forgiven, slaves set free, and land returned to its original owners for the purpose of countering great inequities. Young student economics majors and middle-aged MBA professors, who are also lay church leaders, were equally interested in this “biblical economics.”
Traveling to “Liberty Plaza” and meeting the young people of Occupy Wall Street conjured up many old feelings. I remembered four decades ago, when I was a young protestor and found myself in the middle of a movement. Each night, the activities of students were on the evening news and we started to realize the power and responsibility of being able to put 10,000 people in the streets in a few hours time. Most of all, I recall the energy of feeling that you were at the center of a national and even global conversation. You grow up quickly.
The conversations I had with the young “occupiers” were both serious and thoughtful. Of course, they have ideas of concrete things that should and could change. But they are not reducing their occupation to a series of demands as some observers are asking for. Theirs is more a cry from the heart, from the soulof the nation over things that have gone very wrong. And that is often the role of a new generation, to articulate the things that others are feeling but are not able or free enough to express.
They represent a cry against an economic inequity that has grown to become greater than any time since the Great Depression, when things also came apart. My favorite sign of my visit said, “Democracy: Too Big to Fail.” Their message is really and mostly about that-the hunger for democracy to mean something again up against a market that is neither free nor fair, but rather rigged on behalf of the most wealthy and powerful. “We are the 99 percent” has become their rallying chant deliberately designed to challenge and trouble the one percent who seem now to control far too much.
A few days later I was in Abu Dhabi, for a meeting of the World Economic Forum, with about the same number of people who were in “Liberty Plaza”. The business leaders (and the handful of religious leaders that attended) were in agreement that we have an economy that is unfair, unsustainable, unstable and making a growing number of people unhappy. Those four “uns” kept coming up whether the discussants slept on feather beds in five star hotels or underneath tarps on the cement in Lower Manhattan. Everybody seemed to know or concede that some important things have gone bad and we can’t just keep doing what we have been and going in the same direction.
The economists and CEO’s in the Emirates were keenly interested in what the citizen economists of Occupy Wall Street were thinking; even if they found it a little unnerving and even annoying. My role in this elite economic salon, in the most surreal of exotic locations, was to chair a Council on Values and Decision-Making. And the discussion in the equally surreal encampment on the pavement in the financial district was also about values and how we might decide things in better ways.
I continue to find it a little surprising and even funny that the practitioners of the global economy have turned to some leaders from the faith community to carry on a dialogue with business and politics about the meaning and goal of a “moral economy” (their language). And, similarly, in a decidedly secular environment of “20 somethings” at the Occupation it was quite astounding to see (from last Sunday), pictures of a procession of people holding up a paper machete golden calf; but after a closer look--a golden bull! On the side were the words “A False Idol.” And it was even more amazing to hear people walking alongside the human train actually chanting the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount! I can’t remember ever hearing even Christians chanting the Beatitudes in their churches!
The words to the old song from my earlier days of protest came to mind during my two trips last week: Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. It may not yet be clear, but it sure is fascinating.