Two images come to mind as I think about the people of Occupy Wall Street and its expansion across the country, and particularly now as their leaders are being asked to name their real objectives. One of the images comes from the Civil Rights movement in the United States which drew energy from African nations that were throwing off the colonial yoke and declaring themselves a free people. Dr. King linked that restlessness and yearning for freedom to his own movement. In his 1964 Nobel Lecture, King proclaimed that consciously or unconsciously, African Americans had been "caught up by the Zeitgeist [spirit of the age], and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers in Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice."
This notion of zeitgeist leads me to ask: What is the Spirit of this age? Is it greed? An advanced stage of materialism? Hedonism? Or is it a growing recognition that as the African proverb goes, "I am because we are."
Said differently -- our highest fulfillment in life can never be achieved in isolation from a community and its well-being. Rugged individualism coupled with greed may account for the widening gulf of the 1 percent, many of whom seem to be without even the slightest pangs of conscience from the suffering of the 99 percent.
The next image is Walter Wink's concept of "the powers" in which he describes that there is, in a sense, an angel of every nation. "The angel or spirit of America," Wink writes, "stands, as it were, before God; it bears the knowledge of that to which it is called. The angel of America is thus not identical with the present or past injustices of the nation. It always bears the divine judgment and calling to become what it is meant to be."*
Our angel can be defined as the interiority of our nation -- its spirit, values and commitments. That image leads me to wonder what the spirit of America is saying, what the angel of America is asking us to translate from the zeitgeist moving around the world. We are being asked to embody our highest ideals, to be the nation we are called to be through the providence of God, through the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Bill of Rights.
The angel reminds us of where we got off the track and reassures us that with courage and perseverance we can again be on the road to being the "Shining City upon the Hill." The angel provides the spark that recalls us to our truest being. For awhile it seemed that the spirit of the age was reflected in a callous disregard for the well-being of others and making it appear acceptable to hoard the resources of a nation.
The Occupy Wall Street project feels like a burning ember that might light the torch of justice and inflame our longing for freedom. For some time now, many have wondered where the power would come from to interrupt the obscene widening gap. It did not appear that the government could mobilize itself to be impacted by the angel -- political protectionism seemed to preclude an awakening to the unfinished business of a democratic society. We have been forced to observe, literally and metaphorically, the collapse of a major bridge, the general decay of our infrastructure, and the consequences of natural and manmade disasters.
What makes our angel most anxious for the future of our nation? We might begin with Dr. King's triplet concern -- racism, materialism and militarism -- but to that we now might add greed, partisan political wrangling and a loss of the spirit of sacrifice for the common good. Our angel must be aggrieved by the growing alienation between the haves and the have nots and the have littles. Our angel must weep at the rapacious grasp for even the very bowels of the earth for petro-energy, watching us eat away our very innards.
On the other hand, we might ask what might be a delight to the angel of the nation? It could be the awakening of the longing for justice, equality, and a crying out for values that balance the pursuit of material things with a return to conscience. It could be the impulse to inspire purpose, meaning, accountability and strength in community. The angel rejoices when children begin to lift their voices, when the voiceless ones begin to be heard. And the angel rejoices when people of means are touched by a sense of opportunity, that they are aware that they were blessed in order to be a blessing.
Even as we lift our highest values, our angel wants to disabuse us of any form of exceptionalism which is not reflected in peace, justice and the integrity of creation. The angel teaches us that the only claim that makes us exceptional is exceptionalism in regard to the highest ideals in service to the least of these, in our country, and in the world.
The angel rejoices that in the present struggle we see reflected again the success of non-violence in the Civil Rights movement that kept our strivings from precipitating violence. As we move forward, we aspire not simply to determine demands but also to prayerfully seek to discern what the angel of the nation would have us know and do at this critical time.
It is inconceivable that this movement is not in some way a press toward making America a more democratic society, both socially and economically. To see the undressing of the mighty moguls, revealing the excesses of power and consumption, it is not hard to believe that this moment may be designed that they too might be reminded of the moral values which lead to true greatness. A more satisfying reward may be that they use their entrepreneurial genius to envision alternatives that strengthen our society. In so doing, the angel hovering near Occupy Wall Street, and over this great nation, might even be seen to be smiling over us all.
*Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence (Fortress Press, 1986).