Christ, Poverty, and the Goals of Occupy Wall Street

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.


(image credit)


In Your Fight for Justice, Don’t Forget the Unborn

You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Pastor Rick Warren, sitting across from candidate Barack Obama at the 2008 Saddleback Presidential Candidates Forum, asked “at what point does a baby get human rights?” Obama’s response was memorable. He replied, “…answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.” Of course, his answer was largely unsatisfying to people on both sides of the issue as he went on to add, “I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions?”

Of course, if nothing is morally objectionable about abortions then there is no reason to attempt to reduce them. This may be why President Obama, in his address on the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this year, simply said, “I am committed to protecting this constitutional right [to abortion]. I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.” The President left out any language about reducing abortions and only advocated reducing “unintended pregnancies.” His hope to accomplish this is “healthy relationships.” Sadly, his administration remains more moved by the tragedy of serving fatty foods in school cafeterias than by one in every five U.S. pregnancies ending in abortion.

Since that forum in 2008, it seems not only Obama, but the culture and the church has lost a great deal of interest in the abortion issue. At the GOP Presidential debate in September, candidates spoke endlessly about the economy, social security, illegal immigration, education, and foreign policy but only one question about abortion was asked and it was asked to Ron Paul – who, while popular, will likely not be a serious contender. Meanwhile in the church, fighting injustice and poverty is in but fighting abortion is out. The new generation is passionate about ending sex trafficking, protesting child labor, cleaning up the environment, combating poverty, building wells in poor African countries, drinking only organic coffee grown by fairly compensated farmers, rejecting consumerism, and reconciling the races.

In the stampede for justice, however, unborn children are being trampled. It simply isn’t as cool these days to be outwardly pro-life. Christian conservatism and/or the religious right made abortion central to their efforts in previous decades. In the minds of many Americans a conservative Christian became someone who oppressed women (because they were pro-life), hated gays (because they believed in traditional marriage), complained about obscenity, shunned alcohol, sheltered their children, never had any fun, and down deep  was a hypocrite who secretly enjoyed the sins they condemned. Newer generations of Christians have largely agreed with this caricature and have rejected the Christianity it represented. Unfortunately, in attempting to shed this image, many have over-corrected and rejected a passionate pro-life stand along with it. We can sit in our organic coffee shop, wear our Toms shoes, and save the money we would have spent on biscotti for an AIDS clinic in Madagascar but we aren’t particularly troubled by the plight of the unborn.

That plight is more serious now even then it was at the height of the Religious Right. In 2008, 1.21 million abortions took place in the U.S. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973 there have been over 45 million abortions in the U.S. In New York City, 40% of all pregnancies and 60% of African-American pregnancies end in abortion. Ninety-two percent of babies with down-syndrome are aborted. Worldwide the situation is far worse. The United Nations estimates that over 60 million girls are missing in Asia due to sex-selection abortion and infanticide resulting in a massive gender imbalance. This means that in India there are, on average, 300,000 less girls than there should be.  In Russia, 64% of pregnancies end in abortion. This has caused the number of infertile women in Russia to increase by 200,000 to 250,000 per year mainly due to complications from abortions. Twenty percent of the approximately 205 million pregnancies on earth every year end in abortion.

Here is my plea: continue to fight injustice, alleviate poverty, and eradicate pollution. But in your zeal do not forget the massive injustice being perpetrated against the weakest among us: abortion. A passionate pro-life stand will not necessarily make you popular. It may lump you together with people you’d rather not be lumped with. Your friends at work may not enthusiastically endorse it. You may have to grapple with it before you vote in the election. You may find yourself having some difficult and unpleasant conversations. But that’s ok. Battling injustice isn’t only worthwhile if it’s cool, trendy, and approved by the culture.

It is worth it because the unborn are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), God forms us in the womb (Psalm 139:13) and who we are comes into being before we are born (Ps. 139:16, Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:44). It is worth it because in the hours following conception the entire DNA blueprint that will define an individual for the rest of their life comes into being. It is worth it because a baby has a heartbeat after 21 days, has brain activity after 6 weeks, and can live outside of the womb after 6 months. It is worth it because if there is any chance unborn babies are human beings then ripping them to pieces as they are sucked from their mother’s body (most common abortion technique) is murder. It is worth it because those in the womb have no voice unless it is ours.

Will we stand by Scripture and 2,000 years of the church – from Tertullian to John Calvin to the present – in defending the rights of the unborn? Will we love those who have experienced abortion and support those who reject it? Will we weigh the plight of the unborn in the voting booth? Will we be passionately pro-life even though it is culturally un-cool? Will we speak for those who have no voice or quietly busy ourselves with other issues? Politicians may forget, the culture may move on, the church may get tired – but will we?


To check out more pro-life resources go to Abort