“Occupy till I come,” said Jesus. I’m not sure he had in mind the protestors who are occupying Wall Street and central parts of other cities. In fact, as the context makes clear, his exhortation to “occupy” speaks of the need to be productive, utilizing and maximizing talents while we wait for his return rather than camping out in protest waiting for the demise of capitalism. Occupying requires having an occupation.
The frustration of the protesters is understandable. It is clear that the gap between the rich and poor is getting greater. However, the conclusion reached from such undeniable facts – that the rich are getting richer as the poor get poorer - is less clear. In fact there is much evidence to suggest that profitability does not cause poverty, much as we must be concerned for the plight of the poor.
The false conclusion that the rich are getting rich on the back of the poor is based on the assumption that global economics operates as what is called a “zero-sum game”, i.e. there is a global pie of a fixed size, so that when some people get bigger slices, others must get less. However, the parable of the talents speaks of a different kind of economic reality: the one who is genuinely “occupying” is in the wealth-creating, not the wealth-splitting, business. Jesus commended the one who made a profit rather than the one who sat on what he had, for Jesus knew that the profit added to the wealth available to be shared with the non-productive poor.
From 1970-2000, the $1 per day poverty rate fell from 20% to 5%, and the $2/day poverty rate fell from 44% to 18% [Quoted by Hill & Rae: The Virtues of Capitalism, p.66]. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that in those 30 years, close to 500 million people emerged out of poverty. More recent developments in India and China, where millions have joined the middle class for the first time, show the way out of poverty: engaging in the much-maligned global economy.
We all deplore that poverty trap. We must find the right way out. Jesus’ version of Economics 101 (the parable of the talents) suggests the way is in making bigger pies rather than re-slicing the existing one. “Occupying”, in biblical terms, has more to do with productivity than protest.