Saturday, October 29, 2011

What if Zaccheus was a Wall Street Banker?

Readers of the New Testament are well acquainted with the story in Luke 19 of Zaccheus the tax collector who made a radical change in his life after an encounter with Jesus. For those not familiar with the story, let me give a brief summary. Zaccheus was short, irascible man in the employ of the Roman governing authorities as a tax-collector. Think Danny DeVito with a tunic. One day Jesus was passing with his entourage through Jericho where Zaccheus lived. Since he was short, Zaccheus had to climb a tree to get a look at the itinerant rabbi who was causing such a stir as he passed through town. When Jesus came by the tree, he noticed Zaccheus and invited himself to the man’s house. Zaccheus scampered down from his viewing stand and according the gospel writer, Luke, “he welcomed him gladly.” Now, there is no record of what transpired as Jesus and Zaccheus met for lunch, but when they emerged Zaccheus pledged to give away half of his wealth to the poor, and pay back four times over to anyone whom he had cheated. In response Jesus said “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

Given the current chant of the Occupy Movement against the “1%” of wealthy Americans who control 40-60% of the nation’s wealth (depending on which economist you are reading), I couldn’t help but wonder: What if Zaccheus lived today and was a Wall Street Banker, a Corporate CEO, or a Congressperson receiving donations from lobbyists, special corporate interests and wealthy donors? How would this story play out today?

There are both significant similarities and differences between Zaccheus and today’s “1%.” Like some of the 1%, Zaccheus was disproportionately wealthy and gained his wealth legally, even if unethically. For instance 1st century Palestinian tax collectors were allowed by law to extort their clients and keep the difference, just like bankers could legally offer funky mortgages and high risk investment options without full disclosure to their clients, or like CEO’s could give themselves huge bonuses with government bailout money. Like his 1% counterparts, Zaccheus would have considered himself entitled and not needing to concern himself with the impact of his actions and policies on those desperately struggling to survive and make ends meet. The political and economic system supported him in his actions, and he could honestly say that it was his right (by the law of the land) to do what he did and have what he possessed.

However, there are also significant differences. Unlike his 1% counterparts, Zaccheus did not really control the policies and purse strings of the national economy. In his society Zaccheus served at the behest of the Roman government and with the willful ignorance of the Jewish elite. At any point he could be stripped of his privileges and thrown into poverty. Secondly, tax collectors were universally despised by the people of their society, rich and poor, and so there was no way that Zaccheus would ever get a Jewish Businessman Award at a national prayer breakfast. No one would extol his virtues as a deep man of faith who also happened to be lavishly wealthy.

These distinctions make the response of Zaccheus to Jesus all the more significant. When Zaccheus decided to give half of his wealth way to the poor and pay back any one he had extorted four times over, he was committing occupational and class suicide. He was not only divesting his wealth, he was closing the door on ever attaining that level of economic security again. He was inherently challenging and exposing the exploitative Roman-Jewish elite political and economic system for what it was as a whistleblower who would forever be vilified by those who had allowed him to get his wealth. Furthermore, he did so with no assurance  that the poor people whom he had cheated would welcome him with open arms or trust him. Let’s face it, he had screwed them over big time, and such actions are difficult to forget and even harder to forgive. So to do what Zaccheus did involved great sacrifice and tremendous personal risk.

So when I hear the Wall Street and corporate CEO types justify their big bonuses by saying that otherwise they “could not attract talent” I find that reasoning pretty self-serving. When I hear leaders in Congress go on and on as to why we can’t let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, because it will somehow restrict creation of jobs, I find their excuses pretty flimsy. When I recall that a few years ago the Supreme Court ruled that when it comes to political contributions, corporations are just like individuals and therefore should not be limited in the amount financial influence they can have over the decisions of Congress, I think “who are you kidding?” When I go to and see how much money both Democrats and Republicans receive from lobbyists and corporate PACs, I know that the interests of the common person are way down on their list of priorities despite their rhetoric. When I hear business leaders argue that we can’t place too many regulations on the actions of business and how it’s really unions not egregious corporate practices that are causing the recession in our country and world, I am not buying it.

What I am doing is waiting for a Zaccheus to blow the cover off the whole scam called the American capitalistic system and expose it for what it is. I appreciate the likes of Warren Buffet and others wealthy Americans who admit that they should pay higher taxes during these recessionary times. I also appreciate wealthy folks like George Soros who contribute their millions to progressive causes. However, I waiting for a wealthy insider like Zaccheus who not only gives his money away but also shows by his words and actions that the whole damned (I use this word quite deliberately) system is corrupt and needs to be radically restructured. Then salvation, liberation and justice will come to the house of America.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Questions Raised by the Occupy Movement

Like many of you I have been watching, reading and listening to the news about the Occupy Wall Street movement that is sweeping the country and indeed the world. Despite the attempts of critics to characterize the “occupiers” as leftist radicals, at least in the Philadelphia area there are grandmothers, housewives and regular folks lending their voice and support to those hardy souls camping out night after night around City Hall. Similar demonstrations have been cropping up in suburban and rural communities across Pennsylvania. Just as I saw when I visited Madison, WI this past spring, this movement is more mainstream than most leaders and commentators want to admit. People of all classes, colors and backgrounds are tired of the growing disparity between the few (the 1%) on the backs of the majority (the 99%).

One criticism of the Occupy Movement put forth by the pundits is that they have no clear agenda. The Tea Party folks have latched onto the notion of less government and lower taxes. However, the Occupy movement has set it sights on something broader and thus less clearly identifiable: the carnivorous corporate culture that allowed corporations, banks, lobbyists, and financial institutions like Goldman Sachs to make bundles of money legally but unethically with little more than a slap on the hand by the government. This corporate elite has spread the myth that more taxes will inhibit job growth, and yet after years of the so-called Bush Tax Cuts (which Obama signed into extension), we have had the worst recession since the Great Depression and jobs have been lost and not gained by this policy. People have finally seen through the fallacy of those myths, and are calling Corporate America and Wall Street to account. The problem is that it’s easier to march on City Hall or the White House than it is the disparate entity known as Corporate America. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an agenda.
Recently at a public forum, I asked Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne how he viewed the Occupy Movement, and he made what I felt was an astute observation. He said that for social movements to succeed they must have clear and concrete goals, and that the Occupy movement had not gotten there yet. However, he said he felt that the movement was raising important questions that we as a society need to consider. So I have been thinking about what some of those questions might be.

Chris Hedges in an article entitled “A Movement Too Big to Fail” beat me to it, and raised some questions I think are worth considering. Then I will add a few of my own. Hedges writes:

What kind of nation is it that spends far more to kill enemy combatants and Afghan and Iraqi civilians than it does to help its own citizens who live below the poverty line?

What kind of nation is it that permits corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves to save their sons and daughters?

What kind of nation is it that tosses its mentally ill onto urban heating grates?

What kind of nation is it that abandons its unemployed while it loots its treasury on behalf of speculators?

What kind of nation is it that ignores due process to torture and assassinate its own citizens?

What kind of nation is it that refuses to halt the destruction of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry, dooming our children and our children’s children?

Now for my questions:

What kind of nation routinely incarcerates its citizens of color and poverty with harsh snetences, while letting corporate raiders get off with paying a fine?
What kind of nation bankrupts and undermines its public school systems and then blames teachers and students for not "making the grade?"
How long will we allow our government leaders to be beholden to lobbyists and corporate interests simply because they can give bigger campaign contributions than we can?

How long will we allow our sense of well-being as a nation and as individuals to be defined by our bank accounts rather than a sense of equity, decency, and justice toward one another regardless of race, religious creed, or ethnicity?

Could it be that what is happening in the Occupy Movement is an expression true, grassroots democracy, and that what passes for democracy every 2 or 4 years is just a shadow of the real thing?
These are the kind of questions the Occupy Movement raises for me. These questions call for a radical change not only in our economic policies but our whole way of ordering and thinking about our society. The questions won’t go away just because some pundits think it’s not “realistic.” My sense is that this movement is for real and the questions it raises need to continue to be asked until we as a people start moving in a different direction. The reality is that the movement must come from the streets, because as 19th century civil rights leader and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said the powerful never give up their power willingly, it must be taken from them.

Let’s just hope that power can be transferred without violence, that enough wealthy corporate leaders listen to folks like Warren Buffet, and say the jig is up. Those who are the top tier 1-2% must pay their dues, and  must give up some of their power and privilege if all of us are to have a just and equitable society.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Could "Occupy Wall Street" Be a Sign of Things to Come?

Early on Sunday morning, the New York Times reported that 700 protesters of the group "Occupy Wall Street" had been arrested attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge to Lower Manhattan where there have been a week of demonstrations in New York's financial sector. While they characterize themselves as a "leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders, and political persuasions;" they indicate "we are the 99%" referring to the 99% of Americans who have lost economic ground at the expense of the 1% of Americans (roughly those who earn $650,000 or more) who have gained significantly during the "great crash" of 2008. While the movement has been centered in New York, it has spread to to other cities like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

Back in early March I went to Madison, WI and took part in the protests around the state capitol in response to Gov. Scott Walker's desire to suspend all bargaining rights for unions employed by the state. 50,000 people from all walks of life peacefully stormed the capitol, even occupying the rotunda for several days. It was inspiring as I heard filmmaker Michael Moore(producer of the 2009 doumentary "Capitalism: A Love Story"). Moore had shown up unexpectedly and shared that from his perspective the budget problem in Madison, Washington and elsewhere was not a shortage probelm but a distribution problem. That's the same issue in New York.

As I have added my voice (on this blog and elsewhere) to the rising chorus of protest of the suffering of the many at the neglect of the few, I have wondered when will people hit the streets in frustration and anger. The protests thus far have been nonviolent, but as I watched to video of the confrontation between police and protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, I could see the possibility of violence erupting.

Celebrities like  actress Susan Sarandon and philosopher/social critic Cornel West have joined the protests, which has enabled it to get some press. The movement is still young and at least in Philadelphia still trying to get organized. I must say I don't know how a "leaderless movement" sustains itself, but I share their convictions and concerns.

Scholars who study social movements, sense that like the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, this is not a movement that will go away. Hopefully, it will not result in repressive violence we have seen in some places, but it has the feel of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War movements. The injustice has become increasingly clear, and the arrogance of those who would defend current financial policies has been palpable while unemployment continues to soar and even those who are employed continue to lose ground.

Last Sunday, I joined over 2000 people in Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, calling on city leaders to work decisively int eh creation of jobs for the thousands of unemployed and underemployed Philadelphians. We call ourselves POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness Empowerment and Rebuilding). Our gathering did not confront the police like Occupy Wall Street, but our sentiments are the same. We've had enough of the sell-outs, givebacks and lame excuses for cutting essential services while not raising taxes on the wealthy. We are tried of the political rhetoric from our elected officials and want some concerted actions. We will no longer let corporate leaders hid behind their lobbyists and PAC money; they too must be held accountable.

I only hope and pray that this movement will grow and be a sign of things to come whereby the powerbrokers and dealmakers in state capitols like  Madison and Harrisburg, inWashington, on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms around the country will begin to recognize that while we 99% allowed this charade go on for too long, now their time of reckoning has come.