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What shall we say about Occupy Wall Street?

By The Rev. Riley B. Case
December 14, 2011

I must confess that here in middle America where I live not a lot of people are stirred up — either positively or negatively — over Occupy Wall Street. We watch TV and read the papers so we know about the people occupying parks and public spaces because they are enraged over corporate greed and income disparity, but we recognize we have always had corporate greed and income disparity. We do note that almost all of us are part of the exploited 99 percent and wonder how it is that people in far-off places claim to speak for us.

This is not to say we do not have some big-time concerns. We recognize there is poverty and homelessness in our midst, that government doesn’t always function well, and that there seems to be a breakdown of morality in the country. We agonize over the recession and the breakup of family life and the encroaching drug culture. We get involved politically, and we encourage the corporations in our communities to offer more jobs.

But if we want to be up on things, we really need to take a look at Occupy Wall Street. It now claims activity in 600 U.S. cities and 2,720 cities around the world. It also calls itself a “movement.” One Occupy Wall Street site speaks grandly of a world revolution and societal makeover. OWS is making judgments about political and social and economic systems, about quality of life in America, and who is to blame for all our problems. It merits response.

“What is this about?” That question was posed on TV to one of the occupiers. His answer: “The system is broken and needs to be fixed.” That would seem to be a pretty good one-sentence summary of Occupy Wall Street.

Christians can agree with that. If there is common ground between Occupy Wall Street and Christians, it is on this point: The system is broken and needs to be fixed. But we may part company on what is the cause of the brokenness and how it can be fixed. For Christians, evangelical Christians at least, the problem is much bigger than corporate greed or income inequality.

For the Christian, the system that is the world order has been broken ever since Genesis 3. We Christians have our own language for why this is: It has to do with S-I-N. Human nature is flawed. And, because human nature is flawed, the structures — whether social, political or economic — that flow from human nature also are flawed. Therefore, we are not surprised to hear, or to experience firsthand, the byproducts of sin, which are, among other things, injustice, exploitation and greed.

But sin is not the last word, or the first word for that matter. The first word is that we are made in the image of God and thus endowed with dignity. Indeed, it is the recognition of this dignity that allows us to recognize injustice. The last word is redemption, or restoration into the people we are supposed to be for we are made in the image of God. Thus, the mission of The United Methodist Church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Because of this perspective, many of us are reluctant to endorse Occupy Wall Street. It is doomed for disappointment. We could raise taxes on the 1 percent; we could break up the multinational corporations; we could redistribute income. But the “system” would not be fixed. Systems are no better than the people who operate them, and human nature is flawed. Because of our Christian heritage, the systems work in America as well or better than anywhere else.

Written into our way of government is the recognition of flawed human nature (thus the balance of power because we trust no one person or group with too much power), the dignity of the individual and the belief that we have a bright future. We work to make it the best system we can, but it will never be perfect. And it probably won’t be improved by fighting with policemen in our city parks.

This season the people in my Midwestern community collected nearly a $1 million to share love at Christmas. We gathered in churches to worship the Christ; we sang about peace on earth; even in tough times, we speak of a hopeful future.

We will not be promoting days of rage.

Case is a retired United Methodist pastor who lives in Kokomo, Ind. He is also an associate director of The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church.