By the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 23, 2011
The folks gathered came from a variety of walks of life. Some were old, some were young. Some came from affluence, others from poverty. Some were classically educated, others came from the school of hard knocks. But they were all gathered to talk about what matters to them, and to help shape the world in which we live.
Some were familiar with the rules of the gathering, having been there, done that, several times before. Others were new and would feel out the procedures: new business, proposals, points of procedures, points of information.
These rules, everyone knew, were important to ensure that all voices at the table had a chance to be heard and to ensure that the necessary business got done. It is a fine balancing act.
At the end of the gathering, some inspirational words were spoken, the crowd cheered, and the day continued.
So what gathering do you think I am describing? Occupy Louisville? A congregational meeting? Our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly? UN Assembly?
Ideally, I believe I am describing anywhere that democracy is practiced, where democracy can be understood as both the form of government and as the common people of a community as distinguished from the privileged class.
What I am not describing is the way our economic system is run, nor, unfortunately, the way our government is currently run.
And this basic discrepancy is at the core to what is currently called the Occupy movement.
How many of you have heard of Occupy Wall Street? And how many of you feel pretty comfortable explaining it to someone else? I ask because I think this is very important to understand: the Occupy movement is not going away, and as people of faith, and as a religious institution, I believe we have an important role to play. I do not believe that this is something that we can just ignore until it goes away. I believe the Occupy movement is the stuff of peaceful revolution. It has already changed the conversation in Washington, DC and beyond and it has only been active for 5 weeks. What will happen in the next 5 weeks? 5 months? Year?
But I am getting ahead of myself.
According to their literature (which has to be approved by the participants), “Occupy Wall Street is a people-powered movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District.”
Occupy Wall Street participants are “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”
What began at Liberty Square is not an isolated resistance movement, but has spread like wildfire across the country and, even, around the world, to over “100 cities in the United States and actions in over 1,500 cities globally.” There is an Occupy Louisville assembly at 6th and Jefferson that started on October 4. How many of you have visited Occupy Louisville in the past 3 weeks? I highly encourage you to stop by sometime. As you heard Gail tell us in our Moment for All Ages, each Occupy Assembly is it’s own unique entity. Decisions such as what sorts of stands to take on issues, approving communications with the public, how to organize, and much more are made through a democratic process of General Assemblies held each day. So each Occupy Assembly has it’s own flavor that is uniquely representative of their own locale.
One of the things you will hear often at any of the Occupy assemblies is that “We are the 99%” This refers to the distribution of wealth and power in the United Sates, where the richest 1% of the population controls 42% of the wealth. The 1% includes the corrupt corporate CEOs who make billions while claiming to not be able to pay a living wage to their workers. The 1% includes the Wall Street executives who have gotten rich on the backs of the 99%, who have somehow ended up with 95% of the debt.
And the 1% is not only the CEOs and Wall Street executives – it also includes our elected officials as well. 50% of congress is made up of millionaires, whereas only 1% of the US population is. In 2009, as many as 55 members of Congress had an average calculated wealth of $10 million or more.
And the 99% are tired of it. Tired of carrying the debt, tired of not being represented in politics. Well, maybe not all the 99% are tired of it, but many of us are. Please understand: being in the 99% is not defined by your politics, not defined by anything you can choose. It is only defined by your financial status: to be in the top 1%, you have to have had a minimum income of $516,000 last year. According to the Washington Post, income is only part of the story. The average wealth of the top 1 percent was almost $14 million. All of us in this room, whether you want to be or not, are in the 99%. And if you somehow are not, I would like to talk to you after the service about increasing your pledge….substantially.
John Stuart Mill said that “Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption.” The Occupy movement has managed to survive the first stage, of ridicule, and so has entered the second stage of discussion. In the course of the discussion, there have been a number of critiques of the Occupy movement. Some might find these critiques annoying at best, misleading at worst, but I think they have an important role to play in understanding the Occupy phenomena, and to assess it’s growing strength and vitality.
The first critique was of the demographic of the people who made up the original Occupy Wall Street assembly. They were all young, the critics said. All students who have taken on tons of student loans, and don’t want to work to repay them. Urban hipsters. Lazy young adults. And that critique has hung out for a while, except that now we know it is not true. Besides students upset at having been falsely told that an education will secure your future (and that of your kids), there are small business owners who want to be able to afford to provide their employees with healthcare. There are single parents angry that they have to decide between spending time with their kids or working 2 jobs to make ends meet. There are retirees upset that their promised pension accounts hav ebeen used and depleted by corporations who used the pensions as pawns in their corporate games. Folks at Occupy assemblies are young and old and everyone in between: students, parents, veterans, former hippies, peace activists, your next door neighbor, black, white, latino, asian, gay, straight and everyone in between. AND it is not just liberal democrats: there are left wing political liberals, of course, but there are also conservatives libertarians and Tea Party members who are tired of “crony capitalism”.
When I visited the Occupy Louisville folks on Friday for their noon general assembly, there were maybe 20 of us there, but the diversity was amazing. In an ongoing self-critique, Occupiers continue to ask themselves how they can remove barriers to participation.
Another early critique was that they didn’t know what they want. Their demands were not clear. Many of us believe that this is not a flaw of the system, but instead is a strength. Without a single leader, who might fail, or a single set of demands, which by their nature will be limited, the Occupy movement has been able to draw people with their own niche issues that they are concerned about. This means broader appeal, which leads to broader participation because every voice has a chance to be heard. And as we pull back the layers, we begin to see how very, very complicated the problem has become.
Similarly, they were critiqued for not offering solutions. This one, frankly, made me shake my head. When has an oppressed body of people who, by definition, do not have the power, when have they been expected to come up with solutions? Does one have to have a fire extinguisher before they can yell out “Fire” in a burning building? But even as I shook my head at what seemed to me to be an unrealistic expectations, solutions are beginning to materialize. Occupy Louisville’s brochure lists 7 different specific reforms that they are currently advocating. And they clearly state that “these demands are a work in progress.” They invite all us us to join them downtown, to share our ideas, and to put them into action. So they are offering solutions, not as a closed set, but as a living proposal that is continuing to be understood, assessed, and reformed. For instance, if you are concerned that your tax dollars might be used to fund a hospital system that must answer to the Pope in Rome, you might head to Occupy Louisville and bring that issue to the stack at General Assembly.
Another critique is that the as the Occupiers rail against corporate greed and corruption, they benefit at least in part from the products of the corporations. A popular picture of the original occupiers was roaming around the internet. The picture labels: hat by J.Crew, shirt by Gap, cameras by Cannon, black marker by Sharpie.
Self proclaimed “Jesus Radical” Nichola Torbet had a blog entry on this that I found fascinating. She writes: “The truth is that we are implicated in everything we indict. Just by virtue of living embedded in a network of social structures that privilege some at the expense of others, we end up participating in oppression, violence, and exploitation.” We demand profitable 401k plans, which means that corporations have to be profitable, which means finding CEOs that are adept at cutting costs.
Torbet does not stop there: “To the extent that our protest movements ignore that, opting instead to present an image of us as the righteous good guys and “them” (in this case Wall Street stockbrokers and corporate execs) as the bad guys who done us wrong, we perpetuate a lie and make ourselves the targets of snide and cynical discrediting.”
Torbet’s solution? A confessing movement, where we can acknowledge our complicity in the very systems and structures that we protest against. Because the Occupy movement, made up of imperfect human beings, is not a perfect system. But, I ask you, if we sit around until such a perfect system exists, don’t you think our butts are going to get damned tired??
Which leads me to why this is relevant to talk about here, from this pulpit.
Oh young and fearless prophet, we sang a few minutes ago, stir up in us a protest against unneeded wealth, for some go starved and hungry who plead for work and health.
This is not some new issue that we are dealing with. This is not some issue that should be relegated to discussions of the secular. This is a religious issue. This is an issue that prophets from times untold have called us to: justice and peace for our fellow human beings.
This is a religious issue, because the word religious means to reconnect, and the issues that the Occupy Movement are crying out about are issues that effect us all – we are linked by them, no matter what our faith tradition, our theology, our politics.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Corporate profits and CEO bonuses reach new highs every day, while wages remain low. The gap between the haves and the have nots has grown so wide that 80% of the population of this country has access to only 7% of the wealth.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Veterans who fought for the values of our country are coming home to discover that the democracy for which they risked their lives has been co-opted and corrupted by an elite and unaccountable few.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Over 200 thousand people in the Louisville area struggle to survive on unemployment – the vast majority of whom crave gainful employment. As Marge Piercy reminds us, the pitcher cries out for water to carry, and a person for work that is real.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Higher education, which used to be the solution to climbing the social class ladder, is now out of reach for many Americans. Families everywhere are feeling a economic pinch, and for the first time in our nation’s history, our children will suffer from a lower standard of living than we have.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. One look at our legal system and you can see how broken we are. The United States is home to 5% of the worlds population, and 25% of the worlds prisoners. Of those prisoners, 70% are people of color. A system is horrible broken when a black homeless man, who stole, and then returned $100, gets 15 years in prison, whereas the white CEO of a mortgage company gets just under 3.5 years for stealing more than $3billion.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Even the environment is connected. Environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote “For too long, Wall Street has been occupying the offices of our government, and the cloakrooms of our legislatures…You could even say Wall Street’s been occupying our atmosphere, since any attempt to do anything about climate change always run afoul of the biggest corporations on the planet.”
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. And it is the job of religious communities, of this church, to call us back to our best selves, to call us into connectedness, to call us to create the beloved community. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell reminds us that “The church’s proper role is to stand on the side of the disenfranchised and to call out wrongdoing and injustice in our society. Jesus did not say,” I have come that you might be comfortable.” He said, “I have come that you might have life.””
For years, we Unitarian Universalists have taken the stance that working for a just economy is an important part of our faith. Our own general assemblies have passed statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness that center on economic justice. Our Unitarian Universalist Assocation president and many of our leaders, both lay and professional, are actively participating in and supporting the Occupy movement and call us to join them.
This is a religious issue because it connects us all. We can no longer live in our own little silos and pretend we are safe there. It is up to us to create a more just and compassionate society. But we can not do it and remain comfortable. We have to stretch a little, put ourselves out there, reorder our priorities.
This congregation has a history of being radical. Our esteemed minister, John H. Heywood, was one of the editors of The Examiner, Louisville’s regional antislavery newspaper. He was the only Unitarian minister with slaveholders in his congregation to sign a protest against slavery. Yes, this congregation had slaveholders! And that did not prevent it from taking a stand. In a recent article, editorialist EJ Dionne reminded us that “In their time, the abolitionists were radicals, too.”
I believe this is a defining moment for our country. A time when we can surge forward towards a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. A time when what seems like an overwhelmingly complex system that is impossible to change, might, indeed, begin to change.
Will the Occupy Movement be sucessful? Only time will tell. Earlier this week, I was speaking with someone who described herself as sitting on the sidelines during another time in our history when the beloved community seemed so far away, when it was but a dream. In retrospect, she said, she regrets not being more involved. I don’t want to look back in 30 years and wish I had done more. Do you?
It starts small, with individuals who are willing to risk, to put themselves out there and be ridiculed. But then, an amazing thing happens. Momentum picks up because a few more people decide to buck the conventional wisdom that says to take things slow, or to just work harder, orto wait until they have all the answers. They realize that when proper channels don’t work, you need to make new channels! You need to build a new way. And building a new way is complicated – it is an issue for which old solutions, by definition, won’t work.
With learning and exploration, that new way can get stronger, day by day by day. Until the ridicule has turned to discussion, and the discussion has turned to adoption and the movement that once seemed to be so fringe is credited with changing the world as we know it.
May it be so. May we, the 99%, make it so.