Occupy Wall Street began as a small gathering of protestors on September 17, 2011 in Manhattan’s financial district. Thirty days later, the movement has drawn thousands of protestors to New York and has expanded to draw tens of thousands across the U.S. and the world. At “Occupy Denmark”, 3,000 gathered to demand money be taken from the 1% and be given to the 99%. In Rome, vandalism erupted as the initially peaceful protests against corruption got out of hand. Protestors gathered at the European Central Bank in Germany while Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange led thousands of protestors in chants in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The central site for the international movement claimed protests in 951 cities in 82 nations on October 15. Meanwhile, the protests in New York press forward. While protests raged around the world last week, the movement marched into Times Square and police arrested 90 demonstrators.
What do these protestors want? No one is really sure. Occupy Wall Street organizer Beka Economopolous is quoted as saying, “Meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight. At this time, we are only interested in impossible demands.” A major website for the movement claims the goal is to “restore democracy” and to “no longer… let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies of our nation”. Pollster Doug Shoen surveyed protestors and wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence” and that protestors are “bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies.” Two slogans that rise above the rest are “people over profits” and “we are the 99” – in reference to the movement’s claim to represent 99% of humanity versus the richest 1%. Media interviews with protestors have revealed different agendas: some want to tax the rich, some want to abolish money, some want to topple capitalism, some want government jobs, some simply want to pay off student loans. All of them are mad at the evils they perceive from the unity of Wall Street and Washington that led to enormous bailouts.
Based on the coverage, the protests appear to be the latest incarnation of the old struggle between the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots believe the haves achieved their wealth by unjust, unethical, or illegal means. The haves believe the have-nots made poor choices, are lazy, or simply want a handout. So what does a society do with the persistent reality that some have resources while some do not? Before the Great Depression it was largely the task of private individuals and charities to care for the poor. Beginning with President Roosevelt’s New Deal and finding full expression in President Johnson’s Great Society, many came to believe the government would have the means to bring about justice and put an end to poverty. So far, neither private charity nor government intervention has been able to eradicate poverty.
The above statement by the Occupy Wall Street organizer – that the protests are interested in impossible demands – may be truer than she realizes. Jesus said in Mark 14:7, “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them.” Was Jesus right? Will we always have poverty among us? Yes, because at the root of poverty is sin – both the sin of the wealthy, powerful, and influential and the sin of the poor, weak, and oppressed.
Progressives tend to believe poverty is a result of systems and structures that oppress the poor; an unjust economy, racial prejudice, exploitation, lack of educational opportunities, or inadequate resources. This is certainly true. A child born in an impoverished neighborhood, who grows up in a single-parent household, attends a struggling school system, is victimized by criminal activity, and lacks the nurture, health care, and resources of wealthier kids experiences injustice beyond his or her control. Social structures prevent a person like this from receiving the fair pay, affordable loans, and decent housing they need to succeed. The sinful greed, selfishness, and oppression of the wealthy and powerful keep the poor down.
Conservatives tend to believe poverty is a result of poor choices, family breakdown, moral failure, or laziness. This is also true. Consuming addictive substances hurts one’s chances of success; the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 8.9% of Americans were using illicit drugs. Anyone who has worked in poor neighborhoods has been disheartened to see children wandering the streets in the same clothes day after day while their “impoverished” parents choose to spend their limited resources on a smart phone, satellite television, and tinted car windows. The National Institutes of Health reports single mothers are twice as likely to be in financial hardship as married mothers making single motherhood still one of the surest roads to poverty. The sinful selfishness, neglect of family, and laziness of the poor can work to keep them down.
The Bible has a more balanced view than either of these perspectives. Poverty can be the result of the rich and powerful exploiting the poor (Amos 5:11-12) through unjust wages (James 5:1-6), partial judges (Lev. 19:15), or unfair loans (Ex. 22:25-27). The solution to this injustice in the structures of society can come from the government or the community. For example, the Law mandated gleaning; the practice of leaving some crops for the poor to gather for themselves (Lev. 19:9-10). A year of Jubilee cancelled debts, freed slaves, and restored land – the most important economic asset – to families every fifty years so each generation wouldn’t be stuck with the financial failures of past generations (Deut. 15).
The Bible also teaches poverty can be a result of personal sin and laziness. Proverbs 6:6-11 teaches laziness and poor choices lead to poverty and Proverbs 23:21 claims substance abuse will do the same. Second Thessalonians 3:10 says if some will not work then neither shall they eat. Poverty can also be caused by natural disasters such as famine (Gen. 47), by disability (Acts 3:2), by crime (Ps. 12:5), family breakdown (Zech. 7:10), by a lack of friends (Prov. 14:20), a lack of resources (Is. 41:17), and a lack of education (Jer. 5:4). The solution can come from individuals taking responsibility for the poor among them (Luke 14:12-14) and sharing resources (Is. 58:7) and for the poor to walk with integrity (Prov. 19:1).
Tim Keller summarizes the Bible’s view of poverty in Generous Justice,
“Poverty, therefore, is seen in the Bible as a very complex phenomenon. Several factors are usually intertwined. Poverty cannot be eliminated simply by personal initiative or by merely changing the tax structure… Any large scale improvement in a society’s level of poverty will come through a comprehensive array of public and private, spiritual, personal, and corporate measures.”
The complex nature of poverty comes from the complex nature of sin. In this life, we will always be fighting sin and we will always be fighting poverty. We may not be able to eradicate poverty, but we can help those in need among us by addressing their personal needs and the social structures that keep them down.
Even if the Occupy Wall Street protestors have all of their demands met it still won’t fix their problems. Even if family breakdown and substance abuse ended and everyone worked 60 hours a week it wouldn’t fix the problem. The hope for a sinful world wrestling with the reality of poverty is Jesus Christ. His death on the cross deals with the sin that lies at the root of poverty, gives hope to the poor (Luke 4:16-21), and empowers His followers to engage all of the factors that cause poverty – personal, spiritual, and social.