Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupying Wall Street (and other Financial strongholds)… Be Careful What You Wish For

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?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The (Artificial) Tree of Life

When Adam and Eve had succumbed to the temptation to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God’s punishment was swift and irrevocable. After God confronted the embarrassed pair with the fact of their fateful disobedience, he cursed the serpent and the earth and pronounced a new everyday reality for Adam and Eve. Life would be hard - the price they paid for a moment's surrender to temptation was higher than they ever could have imagined. And then he banished them from the Garden SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT HAVE ACCESS TO THE TREE OF LIFE. The picnic was over!

Humanity was thus pushed – literally pushed - out from the place of God’s provision, to a whole new reality where they would need to rely on their own innovation and creativity in order to survive. Humanity was no longer – or at least, so it must have seemed to them – under the protection and provision of a gracious and loving God. Humans were compelled to make their own way in the world. They had to rely on themselves and their resourcefulness. Life was going to be difficult, painful, hard. And God, though "an ever present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1), was no longer their companion in a well-watered Garden.

Blocked from access to the precious tree of life, they first settled into the labor of food production in an inhospitable physical environment. By the sweat of their brows and the diligence of their hands, they constructed shelters, dug wells, planted gardens, made clothing. They established their lives as refugees from the Garden. But as time went on and they had adjusted to the new rhythms of life, they began a new project. They set to work to construct a new tree of life - an artificial tree – a masterpiece of their own effort and ingenuity.

Of course God was not oblivious to their efforts. I wonder if he was amused – even proud – of their efforts to build abundant and prosperous lives for themselves and to compensate for illness and decay and death by learning anatomy, physiology, the healing power of plants – and much later, synthetic medicines and treatments. To recover some of what had been lost when the gates of the Garden shut behind them.

We know he wasn’t impressed when the peoples of the earth got together to build the Tower of Babel; something, by the way, which has always puzzled me. How I long for a spirit of collaboration and cooperation these days as we consider the state of global economies and ecologies. A little pre-Babel collaboration would go a long way to defining and perhaps attaining a modicum of justice – or at least that’s the way it seems to me.

But I’ve been listening (again) to Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his experiences as an inmate in German concentration camps during the Second World War. It’s a disturbing book insofar as it examines the primal theme of existence in the face of suffering and inhumanity and addresses the question of why, in such circumstances, some survive and others do not. As a psychiatrist, Frankl favours a scientific answer, though his own experience, one might argue, defies such rational reductionism. He states bluntly, for example, that the “best” inmates did not survive because they were not willing to do whatever it took to ensure their best odds. And yet, in recounting his experience, he describes in convincing detail, the way that “fate” determined his course. He was about to attempt an escape – on several occasions – when some incident thwarted the plan and in retrospect, the aborted plan led him through the door of survival.

Perhaps it was simply fate, or perhaps God protected him. This latter position, however, raises the uncomfortable and unanswerable question as to why God would protect some - and not others - from the gas chambers or from death by disease or starvation. The conviction which I have as I listen to Frankl’s audiobook though, is that despite the distractions of life, what really matters – the only thing that matters! – is our character. Or, put another way, our training in righteousness, a matter which unfortunately attracts little attention in the hustle and bustle of post-Babel life.

So, we may long for a spirit of cooperation and collaboration as we envision an end to human suffering and depravity, but the only thing that we actually have some control over is the state of our own heart in relation to a mysterious God. We can pour our energies and time into the “artificial tree of life” project – that is, manmade efforts to secure eternal life by our own efforts – or we can surrender our heart, mind, soul and strength to this God who promises us that if we will submit to Him in ALL things, He WILL direct our paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Can I lay down my plans and ambitions and learn to trust God to show me what to do and what to think in ALL things?