Am I Part of the 99% or the 1%? (Scattered Thoughts on #OccupyWallStreet and Global Poverty)

For the past several weeks, many of us who believe that the economic values of the United States are broken, have watched Occupy Wall Street on the news with awe.  There’s something about a nonviolent protest that gets any coffee-drinkin’ progressive excited about “stickin’ it to the man.” This prophetic display reminds many of us of the subversive Jesus who exposed the dehumanizing systems of the world – whether through overturning the unjust tables of the Temple or being executed by Rome for claiming Kingship over-against the Empire.  I’m convinced that the Occupy Movement correctly asserts that the distribution of financial power lacks morality. In the United States, the ratio of 99 to 1 makes an appropriate point: something’s gotta change.

Interestingly, Jesus speaks of a shepherd who has 99 remaining sheep when 1 wanders off:

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? Matthew 18.12

This begs a question: What are we to do with the “one that wandered off?” Could it be that in our day, this “1” might represent the rich of Wall Street?  In other words, the 99 find solidarity together, but this “1” sheep believes that if it goes away on its own, away from the community, that greener pastures might be found.  It seems that many on Wall Street, the 1%, have indeed found the “green” that they were looking for and are getting fat because of it.

Notice (I realize I’m being a bit metaphorical with the text here) that the Shepherd is not satisfied to let this single sheep (1%) go its own way.  The Shepherd relentlessly seeks to restore the wandering sheep back to the community to which it belongs. A question that could be asked of the Occupy Movement is: In what ways will this movement move beyond demonizing the “ones” with power and move toward reconciling love? This isn’t to say that the Occupiers motives should be scrutinized, as I see the movement as a legitimate call for equality… a movement that disrupts the norm by overturning tables.  But, for Christians, justice that doesn’t lead to reconciliation is only half complete.

There remains yet a second concern, even as one who endorses the overall purposes of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  The more I reflect on the 99 versus 1 mantra, the more I wonder how the 1% is being defined. As a friend recently prayed in church: “May we see that although we may be among the 99% in America, we are still the 1% compared to the rest of the world.”  This thought won’t leave my mind as I reflect on these facts:

  • One billion people in the world do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred liters of water a day.
  • Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under age five dies of hunger, while Americans throw away 14 percent of the food we purchase.
  • More than half of the world lives on less than two dollars a day, while the average American teenager spends nearly $150 a week.
  • Forty percent of people in the world lack basic sanitation, while forty-nine million diapers are used and thrown away in America every day.
  • 1.6 billion people in the world have no electricity.
  • Nearly one hundred million children are denied basic education.
  • One in seven children worldwide (158 million) has to go to work every day just to survive.
  • Americans spend more annually on trash bags than nearly half of the world does on all goods.[1]

In the United States, I’m among the 99%, and choose to stand with my sisters and brothers of Occupy Wall Street who struggle to make it each and every day. All the while the 1% are slaves to a system that brings out the worst in many people, greed perpetuated by apathy.

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Yet, in the larger scheme of things, I’m not the 99%, I’m the “1.” What I have is a product of a consumerism that too often captures my imagination and continues a system of injustice for the true 99% – the impoverished throughout the globe.  In many ways, I’m the 1% and need the caring Shepherd to reconcile me back to the global flock. Jim Wallis reflects this tension brilliantly:

Tomorrow, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be more than $1.259 trillion.
Tomorrow, almost 14 million Americans will still be unemployed.
Tomorrow, the homes of more than 2,500 new U.S. families will enter foreclosure.
Tomorrow, one in seven U.S. households still won’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Tomorrow, one in four American children under the age of six will still be living below the poverty line.
Tomorrow, three billion people around the globe will still be living on less than $2.50 a day.
Tomorrow, 400 million children will still lack access to clean water.
Tomorrow, 300 children under the age of five will die in the Horn of Africa because of famine.

My hope is that we American Christians recognize both our “99-percent-ness” at home and our privileged place as “1-percenters” in light of the poverty throughout the rest of the world. Only with these two in tension will the Kingdom truly come “on earth as in heaven.”

[1] Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Zondervan, 2008), pp. 122-123

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Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.  He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.

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About the Author

Kurt Willems

Kurt WillemsKurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is the founding pastor of Pangea Communities - a movement of peace, justice, & hope. The church plant, in partnership with the Brethren in Christ and Urban Expression, is based in Seattle, Wa. Kurt writes at The Pangea Blog and is also on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.View all posts by Kurt Willems →

  • Benmanben

    Would this site PLEASE stop acting like these protests are covered in the Bible,
    directly or indirectly. I don’t have to agree with people standing in the street pretending to be poor because some OTHER guy has  10 million dollars. 99%? Of the WORLD??? Or is that more like 4.9 percent whining that they aren’t the richer 0.1 percent? Or, is it half of 4.9 percent, (progressives)?

    • Alinaabbott

      I don’t think anything I have read on this site “acts like these protests are covered in the Bible.”  What I see and read is an honest discourse from Christians trying to think about how we respond to our world.  What better place to go for guidance on this than the Bible?  Should we act like the Bible has nothing to say when we have to respond to our culture, our finances, our relationships, etc? 

  • Dr. Bill

    What a wonderful misappropriation of a gospel truth, the 99 and 1. I can’t imagine Jesus ever considering the application you have made.  And, of course the “distribution of financial powers” lacks morality. Its amoral by nature.  In history it has never been driven by morality, except in the tales of  various “Robin Hoods” and a few self-righteous self glorifiers. The clear warning of Jesus about intanglement in the affairs of this world, particularly its materialism, is as true today as ever.  As a college student in the sixties, I remember how quickly the protest movements became corrupted by the carpet baggers and charlatans seeking some cause that could take on a life of its own, and possibly provide a platform for their own self-glorification.  Then, though, the protesters were more well informed regarding the issues of that day: the Vietnam war and racial equality.  Somehow, though, despite the uniqueness of each cause, they became melded into one and ultimately spawned pathological “movements” like the SLA.  Anarchy as a cause came to life again, as it did in late nineteenth century eastern Europe.  Now I wonder if that will again become the goal, with the result being the same.

    • Anonymous

      “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 

      Yep.  Sounds like Jesus wanted nothing to do with such things – sorta like his brother James, who clearly didn’t write the first two chapters of a letter that said things like “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.”

  • Anonymous

    Okay, previous comments were a bit terse. Let me put it another way: Christianity was, at its start, a poor person’s religion. At its best, it has been concerned with the plight of the poor. At its worst, it has been used as an “opiate of the people” or been subverted by people who would say, as George Michaels once wrote, “I may have too much, but I’ll take my chances, ’cause God’s not keeping score.” No one has the answer to global poverty, and many fits and starts have done little but make the problem worse. The best we can do is address the needs of the people around us and be aware of how good we have it, relative to others, while seeking to help out the rest of the world as we can. That said, I categorically refuse to accept a cop out answer like “Jesus doesn’t want us to be concerned about people’s physical well-being – ’cause that would make us materialistic.”

    • Dr. Bill

      “Ouch” on the first response.  Am I to presume that you are referring to me as “the accursed”, considering that I give from my lack, go out of my way to assist and care for others regardless of their spiritual claims or lack or them, and that I honor the call of Jesus in Matt 25:31-46 without complaint?  Is it because I serve God through others by the sweat of my brow and my own meager resources and take no compensation for it?  Or is it because of these efforts that I have little time to involve myself in the clamor of politics and finger pointing?  What I do may be ineffective on a global scale, as it primarily involves time and effort to actively meet physical and economic needs in the community around me, and consequently leaves me little time to make noise.  In fact, I surprise myself that I even have the time for this.  Perhaps I should leave the talking and writing to others who do have the time.

  • Iliketopike

    this is completely ridiculous. how do you compare the wealth of other people, in other countries, in other economic systems to our own system in us dollars? (does bread cost $1 a loaf in africa like it does here? if so that means on average a family can buy two loaves of bread a day (according to your sourceless statistics, not counting other expenses.) it seems to me like you completely misunderstand the basic tenets of economics…)  ignoring the insane allegorical representation of jesus’ 99:1 comment (which even the author agrees is ludicrous), what is this article based on?

    those “facts” you reflect on disregard the immense disparity in wealth between white and blacks/hispanics in america, something you probably dont reconcile with because you live in WASP america. man its easy for wealthy christian whites to act like the problems around the world are more severe than the racism and bigotry facing blacks/hispanics in america. the difference between the way the impoverished around the world live and american minorities is that american minorities are subject to blatant racism by our societal  norms. there is no such free ranging racism in africa. believe it or not, people have been living in africa for over 100,000 years. it was only when the whites came in that the catastrophic problems began.

    “christians” had better wake up and realize that the way the world lives, (in “poverty” as WASPs put it) is nothing but the typical standard of living and that to expect their qualities of life to emulate ours is foolish. you guys had better wake up and realize that the “impoverished” around the world were perfectly happy before becoming occupied by whites. why dont you focus on ending the suffering caused by racism, violence, drugs, economic and educational suppression, and political disenfranchisement that plagues minorities in our own country (people who deserve every chance at the same quality of life that you WASPs enjoy) before subjecting the worlds people to your belief system? 

    ill tell you why. because christians would rather be idealistic and not be held accountable for their “help.” sure church groups send missionaries to sub saharan africa and build a church. congratulations, youve done something that can never be assessed for its value. you cant quantify the good youve done, because its arbitrary. thats why you do it, because youre afraid that anything quantifiable that you COULD do would have no impact.

    instead of spending all your money on huge churches and plane tickets to africa, why dont you try to end suffering down the street? because your priorities are all f*****ed up.

    last i heard jesus was all about helping your neighbor, not people halfway across the world who have their own cultural norms and beliefs. you think your god is more true than theirs? based on what evidence?

    keep living in your WASP world, im sure you feel real good about yourselves trying to force your beliefs on people halway across the planet (whove had theyre own beliefs for orders of magnitude longer than your novel religion.) while your neighbors cant get by and are persecuted for the color of their skin.

    if christians really cared about people (instead of forcing them to agree that jesus is the only way (by the way, very original with that ultimatum!)) they would focus on increasing the quality of life of their neighbors.

    WASPs are delusional. you live in a fantasy world.

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