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Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. Headshot

Occupy Wall Street: Light From Above From the People Below

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We began the month of May marking the Occupy Wall Street movement, now into its eighth month, whose connections to previous public outcries -- perhaps a little of the 1932 "Bonus Army" or the "Resurrection City" encampment of the 1968 Poor People's Campaign -- have similar DNA, and yet may be something else entirely. But what is Occupy Wall Street about? What ideology informs it and how are we to place OWS in the landscape of the turbulent activity of these times?

Might I be so bold as to suggest that the Occupy Wall Street movement is an answer to our prayer? Let me explain.

After the destruction of Sept. 11, through the long process of search, recovery and removal of rubble, all across the country, at school assemblies, Broadway plays, in churches, synagogues and mosques, we banded together and sang Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" with a new sense of urgency. Written nearly 100 years ago, not everyone knew the introduction Berlin wrote for it ends with, As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. But after 9/11, we sang this old song as a prayer, even those who didn't claim a religion -- practically all of us were praying.

Then follows that specific petition: Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with the light from above. For all who sang that song from the heart, the Occupy Movement was, in a sense, part of God's answer to that prayer. I like to think of the movement as a light from above through the people from below.

What kind of light is it? Well when it's very dark, sometimes ultraviolent light helps you see what's on the horizon. OWS is that kind of light. It is also like X-ray and CATscan used to discover diseases which otherwise might not be detected until it's too late. I know what I'm talking about: I had a clogged artery, 80 percent closed, but it was only because light was shed at the right time that I now have three stents; I say, one in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I'm grateful for the light that was shone so that I could get help and healing.

OWS is at times a spotlight, pinpointing aspects of our culture -- political, social and economic -- where there are hidden malignancies at work. The OWS spotlight illuminates where the health of the nation is being threatened; on the other hand, healing laser light could provide restorative remediation.

The American dream is under assault. Civilizations may clash, but they surely fall if robbed of light from above. It could come from the 1 percent or the 99%, but a guiding light is needed to keep the United States from becoming the rubble of past great civilizations.

I am always helped, when bringing a moral and spiritual compass to bear, by revisiting what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1967 at the Riverside Church:

"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

Now 45 years later, where do we stand in the history of these "giant triplets"? Well, we know that racism is alive and well. If you are not sure, visit Sanford, Fla., or Tulsa, Okla. There seems to be PTSD from 2008 when a black president was voted into the White House. It's as if white supremacy has been shaken. Something of that virus has been working through the body politic, and we've been doing more than sneezing because of it. It's getting rough again, though racism has always been a part of the DNA of this young nation.

And militarism? Bless us, we did our best. We were in Afghanistan, the graveyard of nations, and now, though we tried mightily, we leave without having enough success to say, "Mission Accomplished."

But in this economic downturn, the triplet that OWS spoke to most specifically (though all are linked together) most surely was materialism. Greed and covetousness. America does not need to be lectured about this, just remember Avatar: When there's something we want from another people, we will demonize them and plunder for what we want.

While we're speaking of material things, note that OWS is not a theological movement per se. But in a sense, without even knowing it, it says "amen" to the biblical warning: you cannot serve God and mammon (money). Guess what? Mammon is "little g" god in America. OWS, with its X-ray vision and spotlight laser beam CATscan accuracy turned the eyes of a nation on that malignancy -- and in that light asks us, "Who is going to be god in America?"

Capitalism is a magnificent system for economic development, but if its gift for economic productivity is not coupled with humanizing sensibility, then its beauty is lost. It is the best cultural and economic system that we have here, but its virtue will be diminished without a moral compass. We know about the invisible hand of the market, but what about another hand, one of caring, sharing, up-building and affirming of the totality of the community?

I believe OWS is about helping capitalism to be beautiful in its humanizing sensibility -- a goal achieved when profit is not used to justify the denigration, dehumanization and the destruction of others. What are the markers of a great capitalistic society? It is one that is so productive that it can take care of the education of its people; one where taxes are paid according to standards that would be fair even to high schoolers when they look at them; one that will take care of the health of its people. It will maintain its infrastructure, it will build up the society for all rather than gathering resources in the hands of a few.

That's the problem of mammon -- it's not a very good god. It cannot love, it has no self-reflective capacity. It cannot regulate itself, it can't even move itself away from the perils of destruction lurking within its own ranks.

OWS is already being used by God if it helps us see ourselves. But what are the next steps of this young movement? Perhaps OWS can keep us talking until we can come to clarity about what ails us and begin to discover together remediating possibilities to put America back on its democratic track. If that happens, when the history books have been written about this unusual movement, they will say, it was one of the first steps of God's blessing America to be great all over again.

Oh I pray that they'll keep on walking, they'll keep on talking, that they'll keep on thinking and strategizing and organizing. I pray that we'll keep on praying until we can say that a new America has come and thanks be, God heard our prayer for a blessing and has raised up people from below to guide us in a more hopeful direction.