Anyone who believes that the Occupy Movement is a ragtag batch of hippies who have had their day now that the police are cracking down had better look again both at the churches, the civil rights leaders and religious leaders now joining in the fray.
Yesterday, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, veteran of four decades of civil rights protest, showed up at Occupy London’s headquarters at St. Paul’s cathedral, during their ‘Occupy Everything’ day of protests. He likened the Occupy movement, which he called a ‘global spirit’ now sweeping the world, to the civil rights struggles by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose the same day to release a message of solidarity with the Occupy Movement and appealed to Trinity Church in South Africa to house the protesters.
Civil rights leaders join in
Jackson’s and Tutu’s messages are part of concerted move by many veterans of the civil rights movement of the 60s and also African-American churches, to announce solidarity with the Occupy movement. In Washington, DC, Benjamin Chavis, another icon of the Sixties’ Civil Rights movement, announced the creation of Occupy The Dream, which is demanding federal grants for university education, an immediate halt to home foreclosures and the creation of a $100 billion fund from Wall Street institutions for new jobs and investment in neighborhoods.
Chavis is no stranger to organizing. A colleague of King’s, he organized a one-million person march on Washington in the 1960s with a coalition of African Americans, progressive white liberal groups, and organized labor. ‘That is what we have to rebuild,’ he announced.
On January 16, Martin Luther King’s birthday, Occupy the Dream plans its first actions at Federal Reserve Bank locations around America and thereafter every 30 days, and Chavis’ has special plans to marshall the gigantic African-American faith community.
The work has already begun with The Occupy Homes National Day of Action last week, where in more than two dozen cities across America, the occupiers helped evicted residents reoccupy their foreclosed homes, disrupted bank actions and blocked eviction of victims of toxic mortgages and unconscionable mortgage ‘insurance.’
Churches offer support
In Wall Street, and throughout America, churches are responding to the evictions and police action by offering shelter and support. When the police evicted the protesters from Zuccotti Park, a huge network of churches stepped forward, including Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Rev. Michael Ellick, the pastor at the church, who marched with the movement in October holding aloft a golden calf shaped to look like the famous Wall Street bull, claims that his phone has been ‘ringing off the hook’ with churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and monasteries wanting to get involved.
A similar network of religious communities stepped forward to house the protesters in Portland after their eviction. The First Unitarian church in Portland has created a base for the protesters, and the night before the eviction, 25 religious leaders spent the night at the camp, praying with the protesters and offering counseling in non-violence.
Occupy Faith DC, an interfaith coalition in Washington, has prepared a rapid response contact list of all faith-based groups who will stand in solidarity with the protesters if they are evicted from Freedom Plaza, which looks likely.
Even the Vatican got in on the act with ambitious plan of global reform of ‘idolatry’ of world markets, again castigating utilitarian thinking (i.e., ‘I do best for the world by looking out for number 1’).
The hijacking of Jesus
What is so interesting is about all this is not only the fact that this movement is changing the global conversation but also how the Christian church is finally, rather belatedly, reclaiming the rightful moral stance of Jesus Christ.
Since the rise of the religious right in America, Jesus began to stand for prosperity and American military – what noted theologian Karl Barth once called the ‘criminal arrogance of religion.’ Having money and military might was a sign that God was blessing you, and being deprived of either in some way was a sign that God had turned his back on you. In short, we created a spirituality of capitalism and a religion of Western – particularly American - imperialism.
Jesus’ name was invoked and hijacked by the likes of George Bush and Tony Blair, to justify unpopular political or economic decisions, including the invasion of Iraq. Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein claimed that he was doing ‘God’s work.’ And through all this the various denominations of Christianity have kept conspicuously silent.
Although the Archbishop of Canterbury has supported the Occupy movement, yesterday, Jackson lambasted St. Paul’s cathedral for its ambivalent attitude toward the protesters. The church reversed its original decision to join action by the Corporation of London to evict the campers, but has now placing barriers in front of the cathedral steps. "The church should be the headquarters for the Occupy movement,’ he said. ‘In a sense, the occupiers represent the conscience of the church.’
In response to St. Paul’s fence-sitting Occupiers have been holding up signs that read: ‘What would Jesus have done?’
Unlike George Bush, I don’t pretend to speak for God, but just looking at Jesus’ track record I have a decent idea what he might have done. He certainly wouldn’t be trying to take the occupiers to court, and he wouldn’t have simply joined them in a tent. To my mind, Jesus would be marching into investment banks on Wall Street and chucking computers out the window.
Jesus, it’s important to remember, was a revolutionary, and much of what he preached was challenging and extraordinarily radical for his day. Jesus’ single act of vandalism and violence occurred in the Herod’s Temple, in the courtyard of which livestock were up for sale and the ‘money changers’ exchanged Greek and Roman money for Jewish and Tyrian currency.
After overturning the tables and chairs, he fashioned a whip from some cords, and drove all the moneychangers and the livestock out the door, dumped their money on the floor, and shouted after them, ‘It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.’
Jackson made reference to the Cleansing of the Temple story, when announcing to the occupiers, ‘You represent Jesus standing outside the temple,’ and Tutu invoked ‘the higher calling of Our Lord Jesus Christ,’ when asking for an end to ‘injustice, unfairness, and the stranglehold of greed which has beset humanity in our times’.
Belatedly as it may be, the Christian church is finally wrenching Christ away from the politicos and the moneychangers, and reclaiming Him as both radical reformer and a symbol of universal connection, love and justice.