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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Is There No Shame?

Herman Cain, the latest phenom in the Republican presidential try outs, calls participants in the growing economic protest movement “jealous, anti-American whiners.”  So those who are taking to the streets in cities across the country are there simply because they are bitter someone else is better off than they are, or are too lazy to grab the brass ring that is there for anyone with gumption to possess?  Perhaps he didn’t notice that median family income in this country plummeted ten per cent since the beginning of the Great Recession and that most of the decline has come during the last two years when there was actually some modest economic growth.  Or perhaps he doesn’t know that for every Horatio Alger there are hundreds of thousands of hard working people watching their homes foreclosed, their jobs eliminated, their children’s teachers laid off, and their futures compromised under the banner of pension reform and fiscal responsibility.  Is there no shame?

On Monday I joined three thousand Chicagoans – teachers, union members, activists of various sorts, the unemployed and the homeless – who marched through the downtown streets to converge on the Art Institute where mortgage bankers from around the country were gathering for a reception on the opening night of their national meetings.  It was classic street theater – protesters chanting down below while well dressed bankers stood on the Art Institute’s veranda overhead, drinking cocktails, eating hors d’oeuvres, and snapping pictures with their Blackberrys of demonstrators being arrested down below.

It would be wrong to demonize all the bankers gathered that day, though the smug behavior of the party goers certainly reinforced the caricature of an indifferent financial industry responding to the economic crisis it had a huge role in creating by squeezing out new fees on debit cards.  Misdirected or not, the frustration and rage being aimed at bankers that is so palpable right now is understandable.  I just dropped the price on the home I’m trying to sell in Cleveland to a level below what I paid for it in 1992!  And I’m one of the lucky ones.  My mortgage isn’t under water, I have a good, well paying job, health benefits, and a pension that isn’t being ravenously eyed by governors trying to close ballooning deficits.  And it’s not lost on me that a big chunk of my salary comes from endowment income generated, albeit rather tepidly right now, by the Wall Street machine.  If the lucky ones like me are angry and frustrated, it’s no wonder there is rage boiling over in the streets.

It remains to be seen whether movements like Occupy Wall Street or Take Back Chicago start gaining mainstream traction.  The racial, economic, and generational diversity of the crowd in Chicago on Monday suggests that this is more than a momentary eruption of rage from the margins.  Paul Krugman’s analysis in this week’s New York Times of the “oligarchs’” frenzied response to it may indicate that the movement is making at least some of the privileged elite nervous.  The relentlessly anti-union Chicago Tribune relegated coverage of Monday’s mass demonstration to a brief article on page 6 while the front page above the fold was dominated by the Bears’ disappointing loss to the Lions.  When mainstream media suppress coverage of major events in favor of “bread and circuses,” the hermeneutic of suspicion regarding the origins and motivations of editorial decisions is on high alert.

The bankers complaining to police that their route to the fancy reception was being impeded by the rabble in the street may have no shame.  More likely they simply see themselves as strange victims as well of this whole mess and can’t understand why anyone would think ill of them.  The classic line from The Wizard of Oz – “I’m not a bad person, I’m just not a very good wizard” – is the moral refuge for many of us who refuse to confront our own complicity in structures and systems that privilege the few at the expense of the many.

Thus far churches have had, at best, a rather low profile in the burgeoning protest movement.  It’s always easier to ask our members to pray for the hungry and the homeless, to volunteer at the soup kitchen, or make an offering to the food bank, than it is to preach frankly about economic policies that are crushing the poor and snatching opportunity away from more and more of us.  Perhaps preachers are simply far too aware of how entangled many of our religious institutions are with the very financial structures the Biblical prophets and Jesus ask us to critique.  Avoiding difficult conversations about wealth, greed and poverty is nothing new for the church.  It may save us from unwanted conflict.  But it also may help explain why there seems to be no shame anywhere about what is happening to so many of our neighbors.  Presumably at least some of the bankers gazing down at us on Monday evening sat in church pews on Sunday morning.   I really don’t expect them to trade their suits and hors d’oeuvres for sack cloth and ashes.  But if the vision of anger, frustration and fear below them didn’t at least provoke an uneasy conscience, then we preachers may have no one to blame but ourselves.  In that case it won’t be “shame on you,” we shout, but “shame on us.”

John H. Thomas

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