Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
by Andrew Wilkes
At this inflection point within American political culture, the people-powered organizing of Occupy Wall Street and related efforts may represent the best chance of making living-wage jobs possible, housing affordable and decent education accessible. Last Thursday, a coalition of Christian clergy joined the effort. Reverends Jamal Bryant and Ben Chavis, along with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, unveiled the #OccupytheDream campaign at the National Press Club. Their aims are straightforward: $100 billion for community investment from Wall Street banks; a moratorium on new foreclosures; and substantially increased investment in Pell Grants. Starting on Martin Luther King day — Jan. 16, 2012 — they plan to galvanize faith communities through coordinated actions at regional Federal Reserve Banks. The actions involve bringing crutches, casts and prosthetic devices to the banks, symbolizing how the excess of the financial sector is crippling the fragile recovery of our economy.
Is the deployment of these symbols the best way to launch the campaign? Yes and no. It may generate good press, but could alienate differently abled folks, a community that Occupy movements presumably want to engage. Nevertheless, I support #OccupytheDream because it offers an opportunity to energize the progressive religious wing of the black organizing tradition. From Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin to Rev. Lennox Yearwood and Erica Williams, black politics has always harbored a rich organizing tradition. The tradition continues today, but its religious dimensions are largely unknown. The commemorative convergence of King’s birthday and assassination with the advent of #OccupytheDream — not to mention a Presidential election year — offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to publicly “refocus the cultural content” of black Christian faith in the direction of economic justice.
Student loan debt recently eclipsed credit card debt. Political expenditures by well-capitalized corporations on advertisements within electoral contests are regarded as constitutionally-protected speech. Unemployment among African-Americans in November, 2011 was 15.5 percent. Our ability to responsibly consume financial products appears uncertain in view of stalled national protection bureaus. This is the world we inhabit on every day except Sunday. On that day, Christians envision a partly realized, partly forthcoming world of love and justice. The task before #OccupytheDream is to organize around that vision, between those two worlds, during the rest of the week.
Andrew Wilkes is a concerned citizen and ordained clergyman who writes about the intersections of religion, culture, and politics. He currently works at Habitat for Humanity – NYC as the Faith and Community Relations associate. He is a contributing writer for Sojourners Magazine, an alum of the New York Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, and serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York. Three experiences drive his commitment to public service: reading Jim Wallis’ The Soul of Politics, witnessing the promise and peril of globalization in a trip to China, and serving as a policy intern during the first administration of Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Andrew is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University. Follow @AndrewJWilkes