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