Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street? - Richard R. Crocker

Occupy Wall Street
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
October 9, 2011
Amos 8:9-13

You will remember that the theme for the term is “The Bible and the Newspaper”. Large in the news this week has been the growing protest movement called “Occupy Wall Street.” Now this phrase must be carefully explained at Dartmouth, because many of you might well think it summarizes your ambitions, or the ambitions of your friends. But this is not a movement of young people aiming to be hired by Goldman Sachs; it is instead a growing, somewhat amorphous protest movement that CNN news describes as “a leaderless protest movement made largely of twenty somethings upset with the state of the economy, the state of the war in Afghanistan, the state of the environment, and the state of America and the world in general.”[1] Far from being composed of people who want to work on Wall Street, this movement contains people who have “a dream : to see the titans of Wall Street trade their palatial office suites for a row of dank prison cells.”[2]

This is a growing movement, spreading into cities across the country, but conspicuously absent in Hanover, where the ambition to be among the Wall Street titans seems very much alive and well.

Now I do not intend to say whether or not this protest movement is in all ways justified or correct in its assertions. I will say, however, that in its basic intentions, it is certainly Biblical.

We could look through the pages of scripture and find many texts that would resonate with these protestors – among them the sayings of Jesus such as “You cannot serve God and Mammon”, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven”, or Paul’s statement that “the love of money is the root of all evil”. But I have chosen this passage from the book of the prophet Amos, who spoke to the 8th century BC equivalent of Wall Street in Israel, denouncing the traders there who could not wait for the Sabbath to end so that they could resume their work: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale. We will make the ephah (a measure) small, and the shekel (a coin) great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals….’ ” Amos proclaimed condemnation to a nation at the height of its wealth. He proclaimed that although the nation was wealthy, it would perish because of its lack of concern for the needy and the poor.

If Occupy Wall Street is trying to proclaim this message, the Bible agrees, and so do I. Our nation is in a perilous state – and most of its rulers do not know it. I know: we are all aware that the economy is bad, and we worry about the possibility of a double dip recession and the credit default of Greece, etc. These worries are evidence of a crumbling economy – evidences of great fissures in our economic foundation – fissures that have been evident for the past eight years, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown steadily greater in our nation, and in the world. Although precise figures vary, it is generally agreed that the disparity between rich and poor in the US is greater than it has been any time since 1928, the year before the great depression. It is widely reported that once again this year, as it has not been since 1928, 25% of our nation’s wealth (income) accrues to the top 1 per cent of the nation’s population, and over five per cent goes to the one one-hundreth of the nation’s population.[3] Something is very wrong with this arrangement, and a nation – especially a democratic nation – built upon such inequality will crumble – either into tyranny or chaos. And what is the remedy being proposed by so many to this problem? Tax cuts – not tax cuts for the poor, but tax cuts for the rich, so that they may have greater wealth either to create new jobs, or to donate to charity for the less fortunate. This is the remedy that you will hear from many of the candidates in the coming presidential election. It is a remedy that has never ever worked before, but somehow it is expected, by some, to work this time.

Now I expect that some of you are agreeing with the Amos and Jesus and me. But others of you are not convinced. You wonder what I (or perhaps Amos and Jesus) know about economics. And the answer is: very little. But we do know what is right. We do know that the exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful is wrong. And we do know that any nation that countenances such policies is really planting the seeds of its own destruction.

But wait – you may say: this is a democracy. We can change the policies of our nation by voting. Ah, yes. But it is not easy. Jeffrey Sachs, who is a well-known professor at Columbia and who does know something about economics, points out that “the rich finance candidates while the poor cannot. Political scientists have shown that members of Congress – many of whom are wealthy themselves – devote their legislative votes to the wishes of their well-to-do constituents. President Obama has dined regularly with the lords of finance; meanwhile, billionaire oil magnates fund the tax-cutting frenzy of the Tea party.”[4] And Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winning economist, said in Friday’s New York Times: “The protestors indictment of Wall Street as a destructive force, economically and politically, is completely right.”[5]

Why am I saying this to you?? What can you do about it? I am saying it to you because we are all here very privileged. We are part of the wealth of this country, even if we are not all among the top 1 per cent – though some of us at Dartmouth certainly are. You are forming your ambitions and commitments, determining how you are going to spend your lives. And the pressures at Dartmouth, the contours of passage, the incentives and structures, encourage you to give your talents to corporate America – to occupy Wall Street. I want you to question that ambition – not only for yourselves, but for your friends. Where should the most talented youth in our nation devote their energies? You must answer that question.

But, to come closer home: there was another article in the local newspaper this week about a situation that affects every single one of you (us). Columnist Jim Kenyon, well known in the upper valley for exposing unpleasant truths, took on this week the cafes in Baker Library. You know we have Novack, and you know we have the new coffee bar run by King Arthur Flour. Which of those two do you think pays its employees more? The college employees in Novack are union employees, paid $16 per hour. The King Arthur employees are non-unionized private employees who are paid, the paper reports, $11 per hour. For a full time employee, that’s a difference of $10, 400 per year. Kenyon states that “According to Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office, a married worker who lives in a rural area of the state has to make about $13 an hour to meet their family’s basic needs.” [6] So, when you have a choice, if you want to support a living wage for working people in the Upper Valley, buy your coffee at Novack You can still bring it up to the lobby to drink.

Economic justice. Realistic compensation for one’s labor. Fairness. These are the ideals of the Bible, and of our nation at its best. Something has gone horribly wrong. We cannot ignore it, or excuse it. We can devote our energies to trying to change it.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Time magazine, October 10, 2011, page 30.
[4] Time Magazine, October 10, 2011, page 30.
[5] New York Times, Krugman op-ed, October 8, 2011
[6] Valley News, October 5, 2011; “Regular or Skim?”, page B1


  1. Amazing! Thank you for posting this sermon. I am glad to hear someone from the Dartmouth campus area
    making this point.

  2. Bravo. My alma mater and too many of my fellow alumni need heaps and loads more of this point of view.