Over the 12 or so years I spent in the corporate marketing world as an advertising executive for global entities like Citigroup, MasterCard, and the ad agencies that animate their brands, it became an increasingly perplexing problem. Even as I developed high-profile campaigns and promotions for my clients, I felt distracted and uneasy with the work. Sitting in meetings, it seemed everyone was speaking an odd language I couldn’t wholly follow, a vernacular inspired by a buy-in I could not seem to achieve. I gave myself pep-talks. I beat myself up for not appreciating my “glamorous” job. I tried my best to heed the corporate creed pleading loyalty to a doctrine that while arguably logical on a spreadsheet, made zero sense internally. Why was I so bored at board meetings? Why couldn’t I force myself to care more about the office politics or the latest buzz products in the financial sector? Maybe I just didn’t have what it takes.
Three and a half years ago I followed a call to seminary, and quickly realized that my trepidation in my former career had nothing to with me… and everything to do with me. Nothing was wrong with my career efforts, my business practices, or my level of intelligence. But the core of my being — the person I am at heart — rejected every slippery acquisition presentation that promised ever-higher profit margins, every business plan that banked on the instinctual insecurities and mutated desires of consumer culture. The ultimate goal of my work all those years had been to shape human behavior into a spending pattern, to open up a bottomless hole of desire and then promise to fill it with something that could actually cause people to lose more than they gained, or at the very least leave them ultimately unsatisfied so their longings could be exploited again and again. Even considering the relational, emotional tug of the MasterCard “priceless” commercials, the experiential payoff of each sweet scenario depends upon a preceding purchase path; dependent upon credit worth and buoyed by buying power, the moment of truth is based on lies.
No, nothing was wrong with me, per se. But because of my faith, reality — or truth — takes a form that would spark little recognition within those towering office buildings: a truth embodied by a man whose nature was to give everything and take nothing, who did not have a place to lay his head yet held the weight of the world on his shoulders, and who was willing to risk and lose life to give others a chance at it. I’m not so sure that the reality of Christ has a return on investment (ROI) that would be attractive to the big banks. They are two very different ideas of what’s “priceless.”
At Union Theological Seminary the academics did not tend toward sentimentality, but I learned more in those three years about the action of loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbor as myself — the social justice aspects of my Christian faith — than in the lifetime of Christianity I had claimed. Yet I also realized that there is indeed a Holy Spirit that I learned about back in my early, conflicted upbringing as a Southern Baptist in Alabama. It is a Spirit that lives within us if we will allow it. Once it takes up residence it will not allow us to live by any other standard than that of Mark 12 and the Greatest Commandment without sounding an alarm in the core of our beings.
The companies I worked for were putting profits before people consistently, investing in short-turn profit runs over the long-term common good, and even though at the time I was generally naive about the level of my complicity (at age 21, I simply thought advertising would be a cool, creative job), something in my core being would not let me feel comfortable with it. In my particular job, I certainly had not been propelling humanity forward day by day. In order to succeed, I was being required to think backward.
In light of the great commandment to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves, it’s easy to see that many (most?) of our societal norms are backward: the consumption of far more than is needed by many while others barely survive or do not survive, the widespread preferential treatment of people who exhibit certain physical qualities or social status, an economic system based on the callous exploitation of animals, natural resources, and the beauty and utility of creation. Yet we are impervious, desensitized, senseless. We don’t get it. Besides, giving of ourselves to nature, to others, without expectation of a generous ROI, would threaten our precious “standard of living.”
Yet this was not the expectation or the standard by which God came to Earth, as we of the Christian tradition are called to remember especially during this Advent season. This, it seems to me, is also the message of Occupy Wall Street. There is a Spirit that will not let the occupiers rest in a world of gross inequality and oppression of the vulnerable as it stands. Media, politicians and pundits are continually confused about what they’re up to; OWS is simply refusing to be forced to think and act backward in order to succeed.
While criticized for a perceived lack of leadership, decorum, demands, or action plans, OWS picked up on something far more profound, something that has the potential to change the world. If it came in the form of a business plan or a savvy political scheme led by a select few who had the power or clout to make it take off in popularity, it would not be a forward-thinking idea with a better sense of priorities than our current systems. (Hint: forward-thinking does not equal more profitable.) Besides, isn’t it oxymoronic to demand compassion? Isn’t it counter-intuitive to carefully construct a publicity campaign for spontaneous acts of passionate protest, for extemporaneous takeovers to inspire extreme makeovers in the most crucial sectors of society?
Occupy Faith NYC, a multi-faith group of clergy who support the new democratic spirit of OWS, sensed the subversive potential present in the rag-tag appearances of the movement. Faith communities of all types have unified behind OWS because the movement comes the closet of any effort of late — religious or non-religious — to illuminating the sheer life-and-death nature of our choice to obey the principles of economic justice, social responsibility, and merciful dealings that all scriptures and inter-religious ideologies promote.
In the Bible, God asks the people repeatedly to care about one another as they care about themselves, to want the best for everyone regardless of circumstance, even it if means compromising or taking less than one might believe one has earned or otherwise deserves. Is it impossible for human beings to actually care about one another? Or it is that many of us who are powerful — or even just comfortable — don’t know how to care for others because we don’t know what it means to truly care about ourselves anymore?
In his new book The Price of Civilization, world-renowned economic advisor and scholar Jeffrey Sachs describes the current economic crisis as a moral crisis, a product of “the decline of virtue among America’s political and economic elite.” He begins his entire thesis narrative by saying:
A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world. America has developed the world’s most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.
But before we fix our glare on politicians, Wall Street, capitalism, corporations and absurdly compensated CEOs alone, Sachs reminds us that “[the] breakdown of politics also implicates the broad public. American society is too deeply distracted by our media-drenched consumerism to maintain the habits of effective citizenship.”
People generally know more about the Kardashians than American socio-economic policies and political procedures, and people generally buy into more of their ideas, brands, personas and products, too. So, which one shapes our goals and priorities?
Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation of Economic Trends and advisor to the European Union, wrote The Empathic Civilization to argue that the arch of history bends toward an increasingly compassionate and unified global culture, if for no other reason than our common, ill-fated environmental conundrum. He points out that no matter who or where we are, we all ultimately want and need the same thing: to keep our planet from self-destructing, and to ensure positive economic, social and environmental prospects for our children and those we love.
To realize our shared goal, it is imperative to recognize that although there are individual or nationalistic advantages at stake, which make agreeing on the right course of action a contentious proposition, our fate as a species depends on our ability to loosen our tightly-wound self interests and cooperate. Only then can we pull off the sizable revolution that will be “saving the world” and restoring humanity to a sustainable future.
As a pastor, a theologian, and an activist, I have to believe Rifkin is right: human beings are on a trajectory of experience, growth, and change that evokes our empathic sensibilities, encouraging the practice of compassion toward the “other” more intensely with each passing decade. With the advent of technology fostering global interconnectedness, the rate of realizing the benefits of collective care increases with each passing day.
But to propel us along this trajectory, we must face challenges, we must correct setbacks, we must point out our missteps to one another, we must speak out about systemic malfunctions. Charity cannot sustain us; the systems that either provide or deny avenues for education, training, support, and opportunities must be reworked to promote human dignity and allow real change that lasts. This is why we urgently need protests, movements, occupations. This is how human kind provokes the movement of God in the world:
The Lord rises to argue the case;
And stands to judge the peoples…
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the faces of the poor?
says the Lord God of Hosts. — Isaiah 3:13-15
The tempting truth is that in our profit-driven world, backward makes bank. But as people of faith, alive with the Spirit, we are called to live out of our conscience into a new consciousness. This is the coming of a new reality that some may call the kingdom of God, some may call social responsibility, and some may call an empathic evolution of humanity. God’s presence is called forth by our rejection of the status quo, and our desire for new way of being. In this Advent season, let us be occupied by a forward foretaste of hope.
A version of this article first appeared at the State of Formation blog.