The Common Good
December 2011

An Open Letter to Occupy Wall Street

by Jim Wallis | December 2011

Nonviolence is not just a critical tactic but a necessary commitment.

You have awakened the sleeping giant, too long dormant but ever present, deep in the American democratic spirit. You have given voice to the unspoken feelings of countless others that something has gone terribly wrong in our society. And you have sparked a flame from the embers of both frustration and hope that have been building, steadily, in the hearts of so many of us for quite some time.

Throughout history, that task, which sometimes means saying and doing what others only think, has often fallen to young people. You have articulated, loudly and clearly, the internal monologue of a nation.

Some of you have told me that you expected only to foment a short-lived protest and that you were as surprised by this “movement” as anyone else. While there are some who may misunderstand your motives and message, know that you are an inspiration to many more.

One of you told me in New York City that you are trying to build something in Liberty Park that you aspire to create for our global village—a more cooperative society. I asked one of the non-leaders who helped lead the first days of the Occupation what most drew him to get involved, and he replied, “I want to have children someday, and this is becoming a world not good for children.” It is precisely those deepest, most authentic feelings and motivations that should preoccupy you.

You are raising very basic questions about an economy that has become increasingly unfair and unsustainable for a growing number of people. Those same questions are being asked by many others—even by some at the top of the economic pecking order. Keep pressing those values questions, because they will move people more than a set of demands or policy suggestions. Those can come later.

Try not to demonize those you view as opponents, as good people can get trapped in bad systems. Still, you are right for saying that we all must be held accountable, both systems and the individuals within them. The new safe spaces you have created to ask fundamental questions are helping to carve out fresh societal space to examine ourselves—who we are, what we value most, and where we want to go from here.

Instead of simply attacking the establishment economists, you can become the citizen economists, like the young economics major I met at the Wall Street occupation who discussed with me new approaches for society’s investment and innovation. We desperately need new vision like hers to come up with alternative ways of performing essential functions.

Keep asking what a “just economy” should look like and whom it should be for. They are noble questions. But avoid utopian dreaming about things that will never happen. Look instead at how we could do things differently, more responsibly, more equitably, and yes, more democratically.

Don’t be afraid to get practical and specific about how we can and must do things better than we have in recent years. You have begun a conversation about what markets could and should be. Even in forums where business and political leaders meet, they too are asking those questions and using terms such as “moral economy” as a way to interrogate our present failed practices. Keep driving both the moral and practical questions about the economics of our local and global households, for that is what the discipline was supposed to be about in the first place.

I know you believe that leaders on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C., have failed you. Indeed, they have failed us all. But don’t give up on leadership per se. We need innovative leadership now more than ever. And you are providing some of it.

And remember, nonviolence is not just a critical tactic but a necessary commitment to moral and civil discourse that can awaken the best in all of us. There is much to be angry about, but channeling that energy into creative, nonviolent action is the only way to prevent dangerous cynicism and nihilism. The anarchism of anger has never produced the change that the discipline and constructive program of nonviolent movements have done again and again.

Cultivate humility more than overconfidence or self-indulgence. This really is not about you. It’s about the marginalized masses, the signs of the times, and the profound yearning for lasting change. Take that larger narrative more seriously than you take yourselves.

Finally, do not let go of your hope. Popular movements are the only forces that truly bring about change in society. The established order is never as secure and impervious to change as those who preside over it believe it to be.

And whatever you may think of organized religion, keep in mind that change requires spiritual as well as political resources, and that invariably any new economy will be accompanied by a new (or very old) spirituality.

May God be gracious to you and give you—and all of us—peace.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. A longer version of this letter can be found on sojo.net.

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