I’ve been watching the news reports of the Occupy protests this past week wondering how much to criticize and how much to sympathize. In general, I sympathize with the feeling that our society is broken and we don’t know what to do but we want to do something. I’m not sure what blocking traffic accomplishes. If I wanted to be snotty, I could say that I’m part of the 90% who wants to get to work. Ten years ago, I would have been in the streets with my African drum, but these days I’ve generally bought into the assumption that the best way to change the world is through the much less dramatic and spectacular daily actions of millions of people loving God with all their heart and loving their neighbor as themselves.
But is there a point when revolution becomes appropriate? When does it become necessary to block traffic because society needs to come to a complete standstill and the complex system of relationships and transactions that we take for granted as “reality” needs to get thrown away and replaced with something else? Obviously if we were living in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, then it would be reasonable to quit our jobs and sit down in the street to block traffic so that everyone else would get out of their cars and join us. But despite the Hitler mustaches that some protesters want to draw on pictures of George Bush or Barack Obama, I think it’s utterly ridiculous to compare our society to a totalitarian dictatorship. So what would be the tipping point that would make it reasonable to stop everything?
The founding fathers of our country believed that they had reached that point in 1776 when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. Here’s how Thomas Jefferson justified their revolution:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
I don’t agree with all the Enlightenment presumptions that Thomas Jefferson held upon writing this paragraph. It’s naive to say that governments “derive their just power from the consent of the governed.” Judging from the polls, a vast majority of Americans do not give their consent to what’s happening in Washington for one reason or another. The fact that we can choose between Democrats and Republicans on a bubble sheet once every two years hardly constitutes giving our “consent” to the monstrous mess of lobbyists, gotcha PR wars, and perpetual campaigning that has ruined our democracy.
My eyes zero in on Jefferson’s declaration “that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes… while [their] evils are sufferable.” Are the evils of our political system “sufferable”? Or here’s a different way to ask the question. Are the evils of our political system made insufferable by the ideologues on all sides whose self-righteous zeal in reacting to what they perceive as rotten is itself what makes our political system rotten? Does the whole system need to be canned completely or do we have a messy, imperfect system that needs a lot of changes but works better than anything else we could come up with for a country of 300 million people? 300 million people can’t sit in a circle in a park and hold a general assembly to figure out how to create a million more jobs. I tend to believe that if the self-righteous people on all sides of our political debate could come down off their high horses and dial back their ideological pledges to listen to each other with open minds, then the democracy we have could work (of course this is probably my own naivete talking).
Not everyone in Thomas Jefferson’s day thought that the colonists had just cause in launching their revolution. To some people like Methodist founder John Wesley, the colonist revolutionaries were being self-righteous ideologues. Here’s an excerpt from a letter Wesley wrote to the American colonies in 1775 to try to dissuade them from launching a revolution:
After all the vehement cry for liberty, what more liberty can you have? What more religious liberty can you desire, than that which you enjoy already? May not every one among you worship God according to his own conscience? What civil liberty can you desire, which you are not already possessed of? Do not you sit without restraint, every man under his own vine? Do you not, every one, high or low, enjoy the fruit of your labour? This is real, rational liberty, such as is enjoyed by Englishmen alone; and not by any other people in the habitable world. Would the being independent of England make you more free? Far, very far from it.
Maybe Wesley was right. Maybe America shouldn’t have rebelled. Maybe the solution to our problems today is to send a delegation across the Atlantic to kneel before Queen Elizabeth II and beg her to take us back as her loyal colonists. She could make all our decisions for us. No more lobbyists. No more election campaigns. How many billions of dollars would be saved? Monarchy would be a lot less messy.