Mennonites and the 99%

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November 15, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

As someone who’s been a university student for almost a decade, I may not be an authority on money (considering that I’ve never really had any), or the economy more generally. But I do think about money a lot (being on a pretty tight budget somehow does that to a person), especially since I keep being told that in this day and age, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that there will be anything resembling a full-time position in my field once I’m done all these degrees. But if the worldwide “Occupy” Movement is any indication, I’m not the only one whose plans for the future are in serious doubt.

I’ve found that Mennonite reactions to the Occupy Movement span the spectrum, with some fully in support, even joining in the protests, others denouncing them as hopelessly disorganized and pointless, and many simply undecided. Those who disagree with the Occupy protests, interestingly, tend to be those who are established, financially speaking – if I can generalize, I suspect that my parents’ generation, the baby boomers, make up the majority of this particular income bracket. They tend to be those who have been in jobs or careers long enough to attain seniority, and who are at the point where their debts – mortgages, etc. – have been paid, and they’re living quite well. From that perspective, the Occupy protesters seem like a group of people who want the benefits and perks without having to put in the time and work it takes to get them. They can’t even seem to organize a proper protest with clear goals and demands. In other words, they’re lazy people with a sense of entitlement, which seems to be a common stereotype of our generation (generation Y or whatever – the children of the baby boomers).

But is this criticism really all that fair? For one thing, isn’t the Occupy Movement about growing income disparity around the world, and if so, how is that reducible to the protesters selfishly demanding that they themselves get a bigger piece of the pie? What I admire about the Occupy protests is precisely that they are drawing attention to a broader and extremely complex issue – economic inequality and social injustice, which are presumably on the rise. It’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight (where do we even start?), nor is it reducible to one issue, since it’s arguably an entire system of interdependent problems that have gotten us to this point (militarism, racism, colonialism, late capitalism, sexism, consumerism/materialism, etc.). This system isn’t working, according to the Occupy protesters, and I think they’re right.

It’s pretty easy for someone like me to complain about how I’m part of the 99%, about how tuition is so high and student loans are a heavy burden for many of us, and about how I may never attain the relatively comfortable standard of living I grew up with. It’s incredibly hard for us to admit, though, that these exact problems actually mean that we’re really closer to the 1% than to the 99% (as the editorial from the latest issue of the Canadian Mennonite suggests). We may not be billionaires, but if the statistics posted above are accurate (they’re from this source), most of us Canadian Mennonites are right up there in the wealthiest 8% of the world (and unfortunately, we tend to think about it in terms of God “blessing” us more than others – a.k.a. the “prosperity” gospel). But this goes for the financially-established baby boomers too. Even though they may have worked for several decades to be able to pay for a house, multiple cars or vehicles, exotic vacations, maybe even a second house (because yes, a “cottage” is actually a second house), does this mean that they “deserve” to have far more than enough to meet their needs? Is there a sense of entitlement there too, a sense that is threatened by the uncomfortable truths brought to light by the Occupy protests?

If we’re among those who follow the one who said to “sell everything you have and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22-23), this shouldn’t be the first time we’re facing the issues of poverty and social injustice, or the first time we’re hearing the call to live much more simply and to radically redistribute the wealth we have. Putting people before profit or relationships before the accumulation of possessions shouldn’t be unfamiliar concepts – they’re all over the Bible. Because of that pretty straightforward parallel, American Sheri Ellwood makes the case that in response to the Occupy Movement, we Christians are called to confess our failure to speak out against the harmfulness of our current economy, and I think she has a point. More than that, though, I think we’re called to actually change the way we live in keeping with such a confession, and to live in a way that values people, relationships, community, skills and talents, instead of reducing everything – including the meaning of work and our self-worth – to a dollar value (as our current government seems to do).

Shannon Hayes, author of this excellent book, speaks of this as turning “from our existing extractive economy – where corporate wealth was regarded as the foundation of economic health, where mining our earth’s resources and exploiting our international neighbors was accepted as simply the cost of doing business – to a life-serving economy, where the goal is […] to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few, where our resources are sustained, our waters are kept clean, our air pure, and families can lead meaningful and joyful lives” (p. 13). In this alternative kind of economy, the often thankless pursuit of money is always much less important than time spent developing interdependent relationships and do-it-yourself skills (like growing and cooking our own food, sewing or mending our own clothes, building or fixing appliances or bikes or furniture, etc.), as well as cultivating a sense of satisfaction with having “enough,” which leads to less reliance on exorbitant amounts of cash to meet our needs. Our most radical act of resistance, then, in a context that proclaims that she or “‘he who holds the gold [i.e., money] makes the rules,’” is to believe that “he or she who doesn’t need the gold can change the rules.” So let’s change the rules, then, shall we? I think we’d all be better off that way.

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