I have been giving a lot of thought to the Occupy Walls Street movement lately, even though it does not seem to be getting the same front page treatment of late. To be fully candid, I suspect that my thinking was stimulated by an email I received weeks ago asking me why our organization had “ignored the important Occupy movement.” According to this writer, the absence of some “direct statement of support” by our organization “was unthinkable and disappointing.”
The fact is that we have not ignored OWS. Several of the articles that we have published have mentioned the movement in very favorable terms. But it is true that we have not come out with a strong statement as I assume this reader feels we should have done months ago. Our hesitancy to offer such a thing has been based upon two things.
ProgressiveChristianity.org is primarily focused on theology and spirituality and we are always working to distinguish ourselves from those traditional and evangelical Christians who refer to themselves as “progressive” who focus only on “justice issues.” Generally speaking, these folks are referring to their belief that Christ as the Son of God had instructed his followers that God is pleased when we work for social justice. In this understanding, this biblical Jesus was instructing us to do good works as the voice of the biblical God. For folks like Jim Wallis, who now often refers to himself as a progressive Christian, the term progressive simply refers to his belief that being a Christian demands that one work for a more just society. It is a call, by the way, that we applaud and support. But Wallis and many others who refer to themselves as progressive Christians are not progressive in their theology and Christology. My email suggests that this difference has confused a lot of folks out there.
Secondarily, I have refrained from making some statement that would suggest that I are making a judgment upon those inner city churches across the country that are struggling with the difficult issues of letting the “occupiers” use the church facilities as a place of encampment and headquarters. The complications, both legally and politically, have been very difficult for clergy and church leadership, many of whom are colleagues and friends of mine. It has often been a test of will and righteousness, but it has been a test that can tear a church apart.
However a couple of things have happened recently that brought my thoughts back to the reader who challenged our organization to make a statement. One of those things was the letter written by Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, in response to the ongoing conflict between members of the Occupy Wall Street movement and Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, on whose property OWS has hoped to continue its occupation after having been evicted from Zuccotti Park in November.
Please understand that I have the upmost respect for Bishop Jefferts Schori. I believe she has been a breath of fresh air for the Episcopalian Church. But for many, both in and out of the Trinity Episcopal Church, the letter seem to challenge prophetic witness and the core values of their Christian faith. But she is also the CEO of an institutional church and her success as a Bishop will be measured in part by her success in holding together the Episcopal Church in these turbulent times. Most of the people in Trinity Church, Wall Street feel like they have done their fair share. The church has provided the Occupiers the use of their precious facilities for restrooms, meeting rooms, places to eat and rest. But apparently the church was split over whether it should provide an encampment area in the church’s park next to the church. This was just going too far with too many risks.
And therein lays the issue for all of us. When we are both students and proclaimed followers of the radical Jesus, how far is too far? We know that his path of compassion lead him to the ultimate sacrifice. The truth is that the Christian church is not designed to be radical or even a change agent. Churches, by design, with their creeds, liturgies, traditions, and “ownership of properties” are often more about politics than they are about spirituality. I have done church renewal workshops now for over twenty years in literally hundreds of churches. I have seldom seen radical discipleship as one of the underlying motivators.
And apparently for some in this church, providing the use of the park was understandably going too far. And for the Bishop, suggesting that they have done enough might hold the church together. Few of us sitting in our comfortable churches, studies, living rooms or classrooms have had to face such decisions and such challenging political fallout. I was once told that mainline denominations are made up of armchair Christians. We send our checks, our missionaries and sometimes our pastors while we watch the news in our recliners.
So I have been thinking a lot about these primarily young people who have been camping in tents, cardboard boxes and sleeping bags now for months in all kinds of terrible weather trying to bring our attention to the terrible inequities we have created in our own country. And apparently it is working. They are getting our attention. A report released on Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found that about two-thirds of Americans now perceive a strong conflict between the rich and poor in this country. That was up 19 percentage points from 2009.
I wondered if my faith could have ever called me to such radical behavior. I did not wonder why our denominations have not shown greater support for these committed and in many ways extremely faithful young people who believe through non-violence they can change the system. I wondered if my faith would ever give me such courage and fortitude.
There was another thing that occurred that brought this issue to my attention. It was the result of some research that I was doing for another article. I was rereading, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs, by the excellent scholar, Richard Horsley. It had been over a decade since I read this book but it has always stuck in my mind. As I was reading it, I became more and more aware of the similarities between the resistant movement(s) of the first century Jews and the young Occupiers. Horsley points out that while there were many groups that came and went over nearly seventy years, they were all united in their resistance to the Romans and the Jewish ruling groups’ treatment of the peasantry. Horsley points out that, “…in this respect, Jesus shared the same basic concern as the (other) popular leaders and movements.”
It appears that by the time that Jesus appeared on the scene, somewhere around 90% of the Jewish citizenry was barely surviving, as a result of the brutal control and taxation by the Romans, with at least the acquiescence of the Jewish leadership. A very high percentage of the population had lost their family farms and was now functioning as tenant farmers on land they used to own.
The thing that really caught my attention was how these movements coalesced during the Passover holidays. Apparently the great celebration of Passover, when Jews celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt, had become an annual reminder of the severe injustice they were still experiencing. It represented another slap in the face reminding them that they had gone from one form of slavery into another. And so year after year, Jews would migrate to Jerusalem by the tens of thousands and occupy the city. It was clearly more than a religious holiday. It was a protest of resistance about the absolute unfair distribution of economic resources. These protests took on many forms over the decades but they were grounded in one common social issue-the incredible injustice that impacted the lives of ninety percent of the Jewish population.
There were different types of protest, some more violent than others. But the vast majority of the people were simply there to make a statement. “We are not going to let you get away with this.”
Every year the Roman leadership, with the support of the Jewish leadership, would bring in extra troops and arrest and hang protestors by the thousands. Where did they hang them? They hung them on crosses of course, in front of the five gates into Jerusalem as a way of discouraging any further uprisings. But even this did not work for these courageous, radical folks. They believed they had God on their side. They did not ask how far is too far.
Horsley and others suggest that the story of Jesus’ protest in the Temple probably had roots in one of those Passover events. It my mind it is virtually impossible to read whatever historicity we have left in these bible stories and still have doubts where Jesus was on these issues two thousand years ago and frankly where he would be today, if not in Wall Street New York, than maybe in Detroit. So the question is not “what would Jesus do?” but rather “how committed are you to following the radical path?” Or how far is too far?
K.C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman, in their book, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, write: “…in many ways the society in which Jesus lived was structurally dysfunctional, since it gave inordinate power and privilege to a very few.”
Does that sound familiar?
I believe history has repeatedly demonstrated that when any society gives an inordinate amount of power and privilege to a few, something is ultimately going to break. These valiant Occupiers may be providing us not only a model, but salvation from a far worse scenario, a real revolution. And if we look at it historically from the Christian perspective, it appears to me that our response would have to be one of four things. If not to join them, if not to support them, if not to applaud them then at the very least we should be thanking them.