Jesus and the 99 Percent
Many have asked whether the Occupy Wall Street Movement has a coherent message. It really seems pretty clear to anyone who is listening at all. Because of the greed of the 1 percent, the other 99 percent of the population has been reduced to working for lower wages (or not working), to trying to survive (unemployment insurance, welfare and family handouts), to renting or homelessness, to suffering environmental degradation with sickness but without health insurance, and to paying higher prices for food and education while getting lower returns on savings and investments. The unchecked greed of these capitalist elite (symbolized by the banks) impoverishes the majority of people and undermines our democracy. This much was obvious in just the first five minutes of OWS.
We in the Christian community are also asking how the movement’s message coheres with our theological precepts. Should the church be for or against OWS? Should the church offer spiritual support? Should the church lend physical and material support to movement members? As I write from here at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (my alma mater where I’m currently on sabbatical), I have observed and participated with OWS at Zuccotti Park and its Oct. 15 action in Times Square. Union Theological is the seminary of choice for progressive Christian clergy in the United States, so it is no surprise that it has students who are active with an inter-religious group of clergy, religious professionals and leaders, as well as seminarians from other institutions, known as “Protest Chaplains,” who participate in OWS as spiritual support and presence. I have attended meetings and worship services conducted by local clergy Occupy Faith NYC who felt drawn to be involved, even before all the questions listed above have been answered.
What has become clear among these liberal and progressive clergy is that although we do not know fully what the movement is or where it will wind up, we know that we are called to be there. The fundamental question is whether we are called to be there for the OWS members’ benefit or for ours. Do they need us or do we need them? We intuitively feel the connections between the nascent OWS and the major social movements of the past from the free speech and civil rights ones of the ’60s to the anti-Vietnam and peace ones of the ’70s. When the history of this second decade of the new millennium is written, we don’t want it said that American Protestantism was late to the party, again.
Upon serious reflection, the question emerges as to whether the Christian church has a message for OWS or whether the movement has a message for us. Of course the answer is “yes” and “yes.” Occupy Wall Street’s message to the church is, “If you were doing your job we wouldn’t be necessary.” The message of the church to OWS is, “There is an ally in the liberal progressive Christian community, and not all Christians are on the right.”
OWS pushes us to re-examine our fundamental understandings of Christianity to discover what our role is in this historic moment. When it comes to greed the Christian message should be pretty clear across the board. Jesus quite clearly said, “Blessed are the poor” — not the rich. Jesus constantly challenged his listeners to understand that the choice before them was between wealth and fidelity to the Empire of God: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). He also spoke to the issue in Luke 18:25: “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” So it should be immediately obvious that the church from left to right should be doing all it can to breathe life into OWS. In fact, if the liberal progressive Christian community were to find its way to fully supporting this movement it just might breathe life into itself. Occupy Wall Street seems quite healthy, thank you.
The Roman Catholic Church has weighed in indirectly with the recently issued document “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” prepared by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This document, although not carrying the authority of the pope, calls for a focus on the “common good” and redress of the “inequalities and distortions of capitalist development.” Mainline Protestant churches have been dribbling into the movement congregation by congregation in various Occupied cities from coast to coast. Judson Memorial Church here in New York City has become the de facto home base for the Protestant Christian response to OWS. In one dramatic gesture, the church carried a papier-mâché “golden calf” in an OWS event symbolizing the worship of false idols that had led us to financial and social catastrophe.
But on the conservative and evangelical end of the spectrum there is either hostility or a deafening silence about OWS. Mark Tooley, president of the ultra-right Institute on Religion & Democracy, commented, “Amid our many blessings is a spirit of entitlement and resentment, embodied in the Occupy Wall Street movement, supported even by religious voices who confuse the Gospel with coercive wealth redistribution.” A search of the website of the Southern Baptist Convention finds no mention at all of OWS.
Back on the progressive end of the theological spectrum would be the voices of Liberation Theology who constantly ask, not as the evangelicals, “What would Jesus do?” but “Who would Jesus be?” In the 1960s, Jesus would be a peasant in South America oppressed by both Fascist regimes and the Roman Catholic Church or a poor black woman in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. Liberation Theology asks how we would recognize Jesus in a contemporary moment followed by the question, “What will we do?” in response to the presence of Jesus in our midst.
So, is Occupy Wall Street the contemporary presence of Jesus? I’ll say this much: It certainly reminds me a lot of John the Baptist of whom it was said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. …’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ ”
The rulers of his time responded first by putting John in prison. When this did not shut him up, they cut off his head (not just an al-Qaida move). Our current rulers, from Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, unable to find a head to decapitate, are attacking the body with mass arrests. The OWS movement is wise to have the non-leadership leadership structure it has. If its members are like John the Baptist, they are wise to keep their heads down.
The Rev. Madison T. Shockley II is a board member of ProgressiveChristianity.org and pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ (UCC) in Carlsbad, CA.