Thursday, December 08, 2011

The 100%

While the various Occupy movements fade away with a whimper, what impact they might have had linger in phrases like “the 1%”. Lots of the chanting and debate sparked by the Occupy movements center around those sort of catchphrases.

It seems to me that the problem is that this sort of thinking restricts the debate to the economic and political sphere – a far too common fault of modern thinking. Supposedly “the 1%” exercise disproportionate control over a too-large amount of the world's wealth, and “the 99%” should have more of that control, and (presumably) that “the government” should do something about it. This is answered by questions about liberty, and legitimacy of government power, and free markets, and so on. But the whole debate ranges along economic and political lines, as if these were the only areas of human activity that really mattered.

In the midst of this discussion we find this almost unnoticed incident . Los Angeles County recently buried 1639 “unclaimed” bodies – people who had died for whom nobody ever showed up to attend to their burial. They lingered in the morgue or wherever they're kept until they were interred in a mass grave with a civil ceremony. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is to be commended for making this minimal sign of respect for their fellow humans, as are civil authorities everywhere to attend to such matters, but even they acknowledge that it was far short of what those people deserved.

Some would notice that some of the unfortunates were “poor or homeless”, and resume the 99% vs. 1% argument with renewed fervor. But I think this misses the point. It was not because of a shortage of money that these 1639 people died abandoned. Only “some” of them were poor – probably a good number had sufficient means to at least pay for a simple burial. The shortage that necessitated this mass burial was a shortage of love. Nobody loved them enough to bother providing a simple burial, so the responsibility devolved to the civic community.

We have no idea how this came to be. Perhaps some of them lost all their close relatives. Perhaps some had children who they'd lost through death or estrangement. Perhaps some had walked away from love offered to them to pursue abstractions like “independence” (I've seen it happen). Whatever the reason, these people died with nobody to love them enough to know about their death and do something about it.

That is the ultimate poverty.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta used to say that the world she served in, what wealthy Westerners referred to as “the Third World”, was poor in material goods but rich in love, while the West was rich in material goods but poor in love. This mass burial of unknown, unclaimed people could be Exhibit A of this. In one of the richest, most envied counties in the world,1639 nameless people were buried in a mass grave with no marker to record them and nobody to mourn their passing. This is an impoverishment of what matters most.

Ultimately, discussions about which percentage of the population controls which percentage of the wealth are meaningless. In the end, 100% of us are stripped of all economic goods. That's when we find out how much real wealth we have. Who cares enough about us to stay by our side through our final days on this earth? Who loves us enough to honor our memory and insure we're laid to rest with dignity and respect? Who remembers our names, and why? In short, what is the balance of our “love account”?

One of the classic works of mercy for Christians is burying the dead. This meant more than just cleaning the landscape of corpses – it meant expressing God's love to even those who no man loves. The reason it was a duty was not to remind us to do it for those we loved and respected.  Burying them comes easily. It so that we'd do it for those like these 1639 forgotten ones of Los Angeles County.

Because 100% of us die without earthly wealth. But thanks to what happened at Bethlehem, and Calvary, none of us should die unloved.