I’ve been following the grassroots movement that has been tagged, “Occupy Wall Street” with interest and some trepidation. The media certainly portrays it as a movement of malcontents – of those for whom the status quo isn’t working. They are the unemployed, the underemployed, the otherwise economically marginalized of our society who can no longer afford to live the American Dream. They significantly include what is perhaps the first recognizable wave of middle class casualties who are caught between the idealism and artificially manipulated appetites of a consumer driven society and the reality of limits in the form of debt – and if we look into the horizon - also the limit of ecological sustainability.
I suspect that many of them are quite baffled as to how this has happened. How is it that they now have the time and the inclination to join a grassroots protest movement? In many cases, they might tell us that not that long ago – maybe a few years ago, or even a few months ago - everything was good. They were employed in jobs that seemed reasonably secure. They had enough money to pay the bills and enough credit to enjoy the latest gadgets and other consumer comforts. They and their kids were busy, coming and going, with all kinds of activities and events. They were part of a culture that thrived on busyness. But then the economy took a nose dive – how did the government and the banks let that happen!? - and they suddenly couldn’t keep it all afloat. Maybe they lost their house, their job, their ability to stay in the game. Literally overnight they lost their position in society and with it, their confidence in the future.
And so, as more and more found themselves on the sidelines, the seeds of protest began to grow. Indignation set in. And puzzlement is giving way to frustration and frustration to indignation and indignation to anger. Maybe not enough anger to do anything rash, but enough to say ENOUGH. It’s not fair. I don't like what’s happening.
But the trouble with protest movements – even ones that start out peaceful – is that it doesn’t take much to unleash the anger that is simmering under the surface. And crowds of people are not rational. Even in Canada we’ve seen compelling evidence of this uncomfortable fact in recent years, most notably in Vancouver the night of the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
Sociologists can tell us that crowds do not think like individuals do. Crowds will bring out the very worst behaviors in people who would never think of doing the very things that they end up doing in the passion of the moment. Crowds are not rational. Crowds are not to be trusted – ever.
But what I really want to say in this post is that the protesters should be careful what they wish for. Most of them feel that the present system is unfair. They chant that they are the 99% and want to draw attention to the fact that the other 1% - the economic elite – are manipulating the system to their advantage. Governments are catering to corporations and corporations are greedy and exploitative. And it’s just not fair. They argue that the rich should not receive the spoils, but that they should be distributed more equitably. They want justice. Or do they?
I suppose that if the world really were only as big as one country – Canada or the US, for instance – then maybe they’d have a point. But the world is not one country and if we’re demanding justice, then we have to ask how far our concern extends. Do we want justice only for ourselves – because we suddenly can’t take for granted the relatively affluent lifestyle we’ve come to expect? I’m sure that I’ve quoted before in a previous blog, the astounding figure that the top 20% of the world controls some 86% of the wealth while the bottom 20% controls only 1%. And as incredulous as we may be, even the protesters in Canada and the US – the 99% in their country - fall in the camp of the top 20% of the world’s wealthy. Where should justice draw the line?
I expect that if the protests become violent – say someone decides that it would be a good idea to trash a mansion or two – the government will intervene swiftly and with the use of force. And who can blame them if they do. After all, no one can afford to allow our society to collapse into chaos and anarchy. These are dangerous times.
And because these are things I think about pretty much all the time, the question I have for people of faith is this: where will WE be if things begin to unravel. Will we be fighting for our rights and to hold onto what we’ve got (or had), or will we – in the worst of times – live out a gospel of justice and righteousness for the poor and downtrodden?