A meditation by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 9, 2011
AN AMERICAN AUTUMN?
A Yom Kippur Meditation
The Al Cheit Prayer at Occupy Wall Street on October 7th, 3011
By Stew Albert & Judy Gumbo Albert
We have sinned
By yielding to confusion and falling into passivity
By indulging in fear
By giving in to anger
By not standing up for ourselves
By thinking about (sacred) values only on holy days
By tolerating global warming, global disease and global poverty
By being cynical about repairing the world
By not defending Israel
By not defending Palestine
For all our sins, may the force that makes forgiveness possible, forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement
In the words of the immortal Harvey Milk, I’m here to recruit you.
There’s something in the air that reminds me a little of my first taste of tear gas in the nineteen sixties while protesting the Vietnam War. It brings tears to the eyes, but also suggests something important is going on, and the authorities have noticed. Occupy Wall Street is now in its twenty-third day. Similar events have started across the nation, and even in some European cities. On the 15th of October there will even be an action here in Providence. And all this is being noticed.
Now, those here who know me, know how I’m more an inside the room kind of guy. I think most of the time meeting with legislators and others in authority; bringing some moral suasion to the table has more power to it than standing outside and demonstrating. But, and this is important, a rule of thumb for most every human endeavor: not always.
Sometimes you have to be outside. Sometimes you have to stand up. And sometimes you have to shout. You have to make demands that may be uncomfortable to the status quo. The Vietnam war ended for many reasons, but one principal among them were the people willing to mass together, take some tear gas, and bear witness to another way. True for the civil rights movement, as well. And for women’s rights. And, for gay rights. Sometimes you have to be inside; sometimes you have to be outside. The art is figuring out when for which.
And with that in mind, I’m here to recruit you.
Everything is happening so fast. As I said, twenty-three days since the first demonstration in Manhattan, called by Adbusters, interestingly a Canadian-based activist group, to take place in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. This loose confederation of people with a long list of grievances, but particularly focused on economic inequality, corporate greed and the influence of corporate money poisoning the republic. Many are there to protest the fact that inside the room hasn’t been working too well.
These protests have become a phenomenon. Where it will go, who knows? People with a hundred different agendas are gathering together, protesting, from anarchists to social security recipients, to airline pilots. Thinking of the wealth of complaints coalescing in these demonstrations I recall that old story of the man who died and went to heaven. He said to St Peter, I want to talk to God; I have some serious complaining to do. Peter sighed, and said, the line begins over there. But, you need to know, it’s very long.
The line of those with complaints is nearly as long as the list of complaints themselves. You can get a sense of this from the signs at the demonstrations, ranging from “Wall Street and Corporations have corrupted the political process” to “Weed not greed.” It’s a mixed bag, lots of different agendas.
The last time I participated in a major demonstration, also in New York City, was when a busload of us from the congregation I was serving in Massachusetts drove down to join in a mass protest against the upcoming invasion of Iraq. We walked with old allies, Quakers and Buddhists and Catholic Workers and others with a similar view of wars. But, there were people I was not so comfortable standing with, as well, standing with us, marching with us. However, when one of them tried to start a chant calling for killing police, it simply died when very few were willing to join in. Lots of people, lots of issues, but the overarching spirit of the group was focused.
And I’m seeing that at Occupy Wall Street. The signs that caught my imagination and heart and seem to point to the overarching spirit of this phenomenon include, “I have a 4.0 GPA & $20,000 in debt. Where’s my bailout?” and “Free enterprise is not a hunting license” (interestingly, attributed to Ronald Regan), and “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” and maybe my favorite, “Apathy is for assholes,”
I’m here to recruit you.
In some ways the folk taking to the streets in these demonstrations are like the Tea Party before them, ragtag and sometimes over the top colorful. But with a substantive difference, rather than putting blame on government as the problem, they mostly see the root cause of our current difficulties flowing from the influence of big money on government, preventing it from acting for the common good. And this is something important. It is worth pausing and noticing. And maybe supporting. And maybe joining.
These are hard times, no doubt. We’re caught up in the backwash of the most profound financial crisis since the Great Depression. Now, precisely why we found ourselves in this hole is debated and heatedly. Everyone’s interpretation is flavored by one’s ideological stance. And I certainly cannot claim to be immune to this. And I’m trying hard to look clearly, but there’s a lot of smoke, and more than a few mirrors being set up by those with something to lose, or to gain.
An example of a heavily ideological spin on the causes of our troubles is that popular talking point at Fox News and casually thrown out by various on the American right placing blame for what is going on, on bankers being forced to give loans to the poor through the Community Reinvestment Act. Blaming the poor is an old standby for those who don’t want you to look at the wealthy. While there was abuse at Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, according to the Levin-Corbin Report, a sadly under reported analysis, and maybe the best to date, this part of the mess was in fact a minor sideshow among the many contributions to this crisis.
Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan said of that analysis, “High risk lending, regulatory failures, inflated credit ratings, and Wall Street firms engaging in massive conflicts of interest, contaminated the U.S. financial system with toxic mortgages and undermined public trust in U.S. markets.” Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, added, “Blame for this mess lies everywhere from federal regulators who cast a blind eye, Wall Street bankers who let greed run wild, and members of Congress who failed to provide oversight.”
At the same time as this was setting up the previous administration drove us into two wars, one of which was marginally justifiable, paying for them with a credit card, which was not justifiable, while, astonishingly, instead, cutting taxes, particularly taxes on the rich. Unprecedented. And, let me say, either cynical beyond measure, or astonishingly, criminally stupid. Your choice.
The American people have been sold a bill of goods. And that is the government is the problem. There is no doubt in my mind the government has problems. Large organizations accumulate power and have a hard time letting go when it should. But, you know, we haven’t been seeing that, except around the edges. People pointing in that direction are trying to get us to miss how the power, real power, is being held by an increasing shrinking number of super rich people, fostered and supported by a large number of folk who think that dismantling government is going to be good for them.
John Steinbeck summarized our collective problem, when he observed how; “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Let me be clear. I’m not against Capitalism. As Mae West and others, who would know, said, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. And, honey, rich is better.” I’ve been poor and I’ve no brief against making money.
But, there is a shadow to Capitalism, and it is a big one, a really big one; that is the business of business is business, and left to its own capitalism becomes monopolistic. Twenty percent of the American population control eighty-two percent of its wealth, and the majority of that is concentrated in the hands of one tenth of one percent of our population. It has been a very long time since we’ve seen such inequality in this country.
Capitalism is about accumulation of wealth, and nothing else. Think child labor, sweatshops, unsafe mines and meat painted to disguise its corruption. To be useful to people in real life, Capitalism needs regulation. As we’ve learned Ronald Regan is said to have said, “free enterprise is not a hunting license.” And, and this is so important, there is no force other than government to attend to regulating businesses, to keep them from their own natural inclinations to excess, to the constant concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
And as long as we’re on the subject, the government, at its best provides tools and support to help people engage as citizens and as workers or as entrepreneurs, supporting the whole thing. This includes fostering world-class educations as far as one is capable, also health care for everyone at some basic and reasonable level. And, also, providing a safety net for those who fail or are too old or frail to continue to work. No decent country should let its citizens go hungry or homeless or without decent access to healthcare. Our government should be about the commonwealth. And kept on target, and constantly reviewed.
But that’s not been what’s happening. The struggle today in America is over how much to dismantle government. The president, bless is moderate heart, has tried to negotiate solutions to these terrible problems in congress. Honestly, my only criticism of this has been how he’s been too quick to compromise. I’m not against compromise, far from it, but you start with the sky, and then work toward some middle. He has, up until recently, begun discounted, willing to start at half a loaf. And to no avail, the right wing has stuck to its guns and kept its eye on the ball, which has not, it turns out, been smaller and more efficient government, but rather to bring down the president, apparently at any cost. These are harsh times. The soul of the country is at stake.
And now, Occupy Wall Street. I think of this movement, and it appears to be a movement, although, again, we won’t know that for a while; and I find myself thinking of Kelly Murphy Mason, who on the morning of 9/11 was caught up in the horror in southern Manhattan. The towers had collapsed, and she was engulfed in smoke, disoriented and confused, when, in her words “an angel in a business suit grabbed my hand and ran me through the smoke and ash overtaking Wall Street.”
I’ve long thought about that moment, the fear and confusion, the smoke and ash. And then, a hand reaching out, grabbing hold of hers, holding on, and guiding her out. The Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and particularly for my heart, Yom Kippur have just passed, Yom Kippur concluded yesterday. Perhaps you noticed. It strikes me how powerfully connected these two events, the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement and Yom Kippur, the call for a season of atonement, a turning of hearts, and the beginning of new lives have come together.
Here we’re seeing angels in business suits, and have no doubt there are plenty of business people in this crowd, and people in clown noses, and people with hats just as silly as those at Tea Party events, people from every walk of life, come as angels in these worst of times, reaching out a hand, and calling us out of the smoke and ash. Are you ready for an angel in a clown nose? If you are, she’s waiting to help you on your way.
Finally, finally, a grass roots counter response to this madness that has overtaken our nation has begun. And, I’m standing here, hoping to recruit you. It’s time to take to the streets.
The biggest problem we’re facing, I think, is money flowing into the electoral process and corrupting everyone. The 2008 election cycle cost somewhere in the neighborhood of five billion dollars. 2012, well possibly it will run six billion. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with it if that money came in small donations from real people. But, it doesn’t. With Supreme Court rulings regarding corporate personhood and equating money itself with free speech, our society has, frankly, been given over to the corporations. Temporarily, corporations and unions, but the unions are on their way out, weaker every year. Soon there will be one source for big money.
Let us stand up for each other. Let us reform electoral financing. And, until the state of Texas executes one, let’s strip corporations of the legal rights of personhood. Let’s get money out of politics. As much as is possible, let’s get money out of politics. Reform now. Let’s set this ship on course again toward more democracy, more human rights, more justice.
On the 15th of October, a Saturday, at 5 in the afternoon, Occupy Providence will gather at Burnside Park, next to Kennedy Plaza.
It’s time to show what we feel, it’s time to stand up and be counted.
I hope to see you there.