Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of the Occupy movement and the intersection of national and local politics. This story first appeared in October.
I was listening the other day to an Occupy Seattle protester make her case. Her argument ran like this: “When the banks were in trouble and might have failed, they were bailed out — bailed out by the government, the taxpayers, all of us. But then the banks turned around and kept on foreclosing on people, taking their homes. And the banks are sitting on money instead of investing it to create jobs. We helped them, but they aren’t helping us.”
I thought to myself, “Where have I heard that before?” I scrolled back over the gospel lessons for the last couple weeks and recalled this one, “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” a story told by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus spoke of a king who was settling accounts with his servants. He discovered one fellow who owed him a mega-sum, say a gazillion. When the king threatened to have the guy and his household on the auction block to recover something, the servant implored him, got on his knees, and begged for more time. Really no amount of time would have done the trick given the enormity of the debt. Then a wonderful thing happened. The king decided to write the whole thing off. He forgave him the huge debt. He cleared the books and gave the guy a fresh start.
The next thing you know, however, this servant who had just had his huge debt forgiven grabbed a fellow servant, who owed him a relatively measly amount, by the throat and demanded repayment. That second servant also begged for more time. Since there was some actual hope of repayment, that request even made sense. But servant number one would have none of it. He had his debtor thrown in prison where he had no hope of making it good.
Meanwhile, those watching this little drama were totally ticked off. They reported to the king what the fellow, whose own debts had been forgiven, had done — his harsh and unforgiving treatment of his own creditor. “You wicked servant,” said the king to the man whose huge debt he had written off. “I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?” So saying, the king has servant number one tossed, not just into jail, but into “the outer darkness.”
You can read it yourself in Matthew 18: 21-35. The point couldn’t be clearer. Someone gave you a break. Do the same, pass it on.
Not only is the point clear, but it's precisely the same one that the Occupy Seattle protester was making. The banks, owing a ton, got help. But they haven’t passed it on. Instead, they’ve foreclosed on homeowners, returned to the practice of paying themselves huge salaries and big bonuses, all the while hoarding their growing capital on the sidelines. What gives? People are as offended by these practices as were those who watched the action unfold in Jesus’ parable.
While Occupy Seattle, a spinoff of Occupy Wall Street, may not have its agenda all spelled out, it is appealing to a basic sense of fairness. You’ve been given a break, a really big one. With that you incur an obligation, to give others a break.
The underlying notion here is one that Wall Street, big banks, and economic elites seem to have missed: we’re in this thing — the economy, the society, the country — together. You’re not all on your own. You didn’t get rich all by yourself. You had help. You have an obligation. Jesus said something about this, too. “To whom much is given, of him much will be expected.”
The big banks, hedge funds and the super-rich seem to think of themselves not as obligated but entitled. With the outlandish bonuses, unregulated exotic instruments aimed at short-term gain, and advocacy of minimal and reduced taxes for themselves, they seem to have overlooked something crucial, namely, that they didn’t get where they are by their own efforts alone.
Recently Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the U. S. Senate in Massachusetts reminded us that there is a social contract. Here’s Warren:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory beause of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific . . .? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.
When some Republicans hear this, or the chant of Occupy protesters, “We’re the 99 percent,” they cry “class warfare.” It’s difficult to take that seriously. For 30 years, the very rich and their political servants have waged war against the working and middle classes in the name of their claim to be the goose that lays the golden egg. The chickens, to mix birds if not metaphors, are coming home to roost.
How far Occcupy Wall Street will get, we don’t know. Unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, they’ve taken to the public squares in the fall, as it gets colder rather than the spring when it’s getting warmer. Even if that proves a tactical error, it’s a good symbol. It’s been getting colder and darker in America for lots of people, and its getting worse.
If the season is different the message is similar. We’re tired of it. Tired of basic lack of fairness. Tired of people who have gotten all kinds of help not helping others. Apparently, Jesus was tired of it, too. “I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?”