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 spawned what are known as “Protest Chaplains”: seminary students 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.

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The Rev. Madison T. Shockley II is a board member of and pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ (UCC) in Carlsbad, CA.

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