In solidarity with the 99 percent?

November 9, 2011 | Editorial | Number 22
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

What are we to make of the Occupy Wall Street movement gathering steam in North American cities and around the globe?

At a gut level, our Anabaptist instincts have us identifying with the protests of the 99 percent in their efforts to form a movement that addresses the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the favouring of political systems of the corporate barons over the middle and lower classes.

As citizens first of God’s reign in the world and then citizens of our homeland, we have always kept a healthy distance from the centres of power and influence because of our core beliefs that place higher value on justice, peace, community and discipleship over patriotism and allegiance to the powers that use force, fear and punishment to keep order in society.

On the other hand, we are not sure that the institutions that undergird a functioning economy are the collective culprits being portrayed in this movement. The signs and chants may be a bit too sweeping for us, a little too un-nuanced for us to be convinced that the problem is as simplistic as a battle between the 1 percent who are wealthy and the 99 percent who are disadvantaged.

After all, without being self-righteous, we take some pride in the work of such denominational service institutions as Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Economic Development Associates, which have proactively found channels for our wealth and the idealistic vision of our young people through their many assistance and self-help programs here and around the globe.

With a goal of narrowing the gap between the rich and poor, these agencies have worked creatively and with a great deal of passion at such things as sand dams in Africa to improve water resources and quality, and the provision of micro-financing, especially to women in underdeveloped countries, in an attempt to improve their standard of living.

So while we acknowledge that injustice and inequality still abound, and that corporate North America deserves to be challenged for its greed and consolidating political power to protect its sometimes ill-gotten gains, we are a little hesitant to pack our bags and head for New York City, N.Y, as Lyndon Froese of Manitoba did (see page 34). But we bless him for it.

Still, at a deeper, subconscious level, we are more complicit with the 1 percent than we might want to acknowledge. With our tax dollars and political votes, we keep in power a government that favours and protects corporations in the name of a strong economy, without equal attention to distribution of the wealth; that puts a higher priority on punishment than restorative justice by building more prisons; that uses fear to sustain and build up military might; and is often biased and bigoted in understanding cultural differences in a world of religious extremism.

There is, of course, nothing new about this classic struggle. It is hundreds of years old and we shouldn’t be surprised. Already back in 1890 it was populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease who exclaimed: “Wall Street owns the country. . . . Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us. . . . Money rules.”

And Bill Moyers, that venerable journalist who still speaks truth to power, has updated this 19th century outburst with his own observation: “Let’s name this for what it is: Democratic deviancy defined further downward. Our politicians are little more than money launderers in the trafficking of power and policy—fewer than six degrees of separation from the spirit and tactics of [TV mobster] Tony Soprano.”

The cultural disruption that has resulted from this scenario is now being named primarily by our young people. But it is not as superfluous and frivolous a movement as it might appear. It should not be written off as a flash-in-the-pan, where a fringe group of visionaries clamours for its 15 minutes—or 15 days or 15 months—of fame. Yes, these young people, growing up in an entertainment culture, have learned well how to use the tools of social media and theatre, but they should not be written off as illusionary and out of touch.

They have identified what we, as Anabaptist Mennonites, have always stood for. Are we in solidarity with the 99 percent?

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As an occasional visitor to the Occupy Winnipeg site, I have to admire their commitment and the questions they are asking. They are experimenting with issues within their encampment and learning to work with challenges in a fair and just way.
Today they were struggling with the question of how to deal with a frequent visitor who shows up drunk, is disruptive, threatening and verbally abusive. They are definitely committed to a pacifist approach.
As an interesting aside, I have met several Mennonites who are there to offer support; I am sure all of us are 50+ years old. I am disappointed that our young people are not there.

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