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My Take: Occupy Wall Street looks like church to me
Protest Chaplains Robin Lutjohann, left, and Michael Zahniser take part in an Occupy Boston march September 30.
October 7th, 2011
08:00 AM ET

My Take: Occupy Wall Street looks like church to me

Editor's note: Marisa Egerstrom is a Ph.D. candidate studying American religious history at Harvard University. As a member of the Boston-based group Protest Chaplains, she has been involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and Boston. She is an Episcopalian.

By Marisa Egerstrom, Special to CNN

In the movement that's making campgrounds out of city squares across America, it might seem there's little religion happening. But Occupy Wall Street, and its local offshoots springing up everywhere from Boston to L.A., has described itself more clearly in the language of “soul” than in the language of federal financial regulation policy.

That’s because, at its heart, the Occupy movement is about creating a democratic society in which everyone matters, there is dignity in working together across differences, and there is enough for everyone. Is this vision tantamount to socialism? No. Once upon a time, we called this “American.”

It also sounds pretty Christian to me. What the early Apostles called “The Way” was a vision for peaceful living that built on Christ’s teaching, life, death and resurrection. The Way repudiates the pursuit of individual wealth in favor of building communities that care for the marginalized, the desperate and the powerless. Jesus demonstrated this by healing lepers and dining with prostitutes and tax collectors.

This is not to say that American democracy is synonymous with Christianity, nor to argue that it should be. Understanding what’s happening in these protests, though, requires that we quit impatiently insisting on a list of demands and listen for what the Occupy movement is saying. The US Day of Rage website, one organizational hub for the protests, says we’re “fighting a war for the soul of our nation.” Such language is unmistakably religious and reveals how deeply this popular discontent reaches.

The consistent message emerging from the protests against the concentration of wealth in the hands of 1% of Americans is this: We are the 99%, and we intend to chase the corrupt moneylenders out of a democracy created for the people. It’s a vision of inclusivity and participatory government that confuses pundits and politicians alike, because this movement is more about being for a way of living than it is against anybody or any group. It’s the thing Christianity talks about but often has a hard time doing. It’s a new politics fighting to restore the vision of equality laid out in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the checks and balances so brilliantly constructed in our Constitution.

Critics have derided the protesters with the usual rehearsal of slurs: spoiled kids, lazy hippies and so on. But the occupiers don’t want your money or your stuff. In this entitled era of “Have it Your Way” and overwhelming consumer choice, spend any time listening to people speaking about their grief and hope, and you hear a groan of longing for a different way of living. “I want less,” a friend told me once. “Less of everything.” She wasn’t talking about wanting to be poor. She just wants real life.

Protest Chaplains Heather Pritchard, foreground, Sarah King and Nicholas Hayes in New York on September 17.

Jesus teaches that in return for having less, we get more. More life, not more stuff. The little experiments in community arising in cities across the United States in the Occupy movement are revealing how much there is in “less.” For many, “less” is not a choice. The Boston camp is full of people who have lost homes to foreclosure, whose unemployment applications have gone unprocessed for weeks and whose retirements have been absorbed by the banks.

Yet in the music, conversations, meetings and daily work that come with running a community, there is a profound sense of abundance. A delivery of dry blankets and towels is met with cheers. Trained medics volunteer their skills to treat injuries and illness. The food station is “loaves and fishes” in action: There is always more than enough to eat, and homeless folks eat side by side with lawyers and students off of donated plates. There is always meaningful work to be done. It’s not charity. It’s cooperation. It’s The Way, and it’s happening right now. The Occupation is the church your church wants to be.

I’m with a group called the Protest Chaplains, and we have spent time at the New York and Boston protests, tending to the spiritual needs of protesters. We’ve found no shortage of work to do. Over and over, I hear the chaplains saying they’ve never had such an opportunity to put their faith into action. Coming from a mix of mainline and evangelical backgrounds, we’ve set up an interfaith spirituality tent in Boston where protesters are constantly meditating, leading workshops and holding services in Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and other traditions. Just as in The Way, it turns out that ideology and theology matter less than what we do. And it’s bringing us all new life.

For Christians, the Occupy movement amounts to an invitation from people outside of the church to join them in prophetic witness to the failure of a hyperindividualistic consumerist society. Will Christians find the humility to accept the welcome and join? Or will we fail to recognize The Way in what’s happening in this movement simply because it doesn’t speak Christianese? Could it be that open-hearted participation in this growing experiment in abundant life is exactly what the church needs to recover its own sense of vitality and mission? As Jesus said, “Come and see.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Culture wars • Opinion • Protest

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    May 2, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
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    April 1, 2012 at 11:21 am |
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    March 4, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  4. Scot

    What I think is interesting is the CNN.com presentation here, contrasting it to the "My Take: Jesus was a free market capitalist" entry. This article is reinforced with images of the protest chaplains; that article is broken up by subheading hyperlinks to pages that go contrary to the article's purpose/statements.

    CNN, is this merely accidental?

    December 8, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  5. Eric

    A couple of problems with this post
    1. The tax collectors in Jesus' time weren't poor or marginalized. They were the 1%, and were guilty of a lot the acts comparable to what the occupiers rail against today. And Jesus loved them and hung out with them.
    2. The early disciples were not "vision for peaceful living that built on Christ’s teaching, life, death and resurrection," they were advancing the Gospel at great risk to themselves. Yes they lived in community where needs were met by the collective, but this was done out of their free will, not out of government mandate.
    I applaud your efforts to meet the spiritual needs of the occupiers, but only if it comes with an advancing of the Gospel and a call for repentance in the same manner that the early disciples did. Otherwise, for all your efforts, you really aren't accomplishing anything.

    December 6, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  6. ObamaDIDit

    Jesus hates those who oppose Israel! I have seen outright hatred of Jewish people in the "occupy" protests, claiming that "jewish bankers keep all the money" This type of hatred brings up old NAZI propaganda!

    By the way people, don't let ACORN fool you! It's not wall street throwing money away, it's the white house! open your eyes! wall street has to follow insider trading laws and guess what? washington lawmakers are not subject to those same laws and restrictions so they can lie cheat and steal and put the blame on "fat cats" and "wall street". Obama loves the protests because the more effort spent on "protesting" distracts people from watching Obama install his own form of National Socialism.......... i.e. NAZI! go ahead, I know tons of you will say I'm a liar but just give obama the absolute power he wants and see what he does with it! America is going downhill fast with Obama in the drivers seat, he spends the money and points the finger elsewhere!

    November 4, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • SuZieCoyote

      Geez. Obama is a figurehead. The president's only significant power is to take us into war, although he does have some veto authority, but not much. It is congress that passes laws. If we are going down the tubes, look to your representatives on both sides of the aisle who pass endless legislation at the behest of special interests – most of the moneyed. Are you really this ignorant?

      December 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  7. LKylerR

    What's funny about these "Occupy" protesters is that they are so naive to think that if somehow the government were to redistribute all of America's wealth, they wouldn't still be poor; because we would all be poor. Even in a socialistic society there are a select few people who would control the wealth (if there is any left) and be responsible for dolling it out.

    October 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • seraphim0

      You missed the point of the protets. It's not about 'redistributing wealth.' I'm not quite sure where you're getting your information on the subject, but it's clear you don't know what it's about.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  8. jon

    If a bunch of smelly hippies camped out on a sidewalk looks like a church to you, some may suggest you see a shrink.

    October 16, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • albert jackson

      humm, i would suggest, someone as cynical and hateful as you seem to be might be the one who should seek professional help,. I never saw a "smelly hippie" here, just people fed up with the lies, and greed and disinfranchisement, this is our response to the hate and greed and anger of the tea party folks. The wall street profiteers who crippled our economy by speculating the prices of oil and food, not because of shortages, but because they could, and to hell with the rest of us

      October 23, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  9. Brenda McEntire

    ALABAMA ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT LAW-IT'S ABOUT TIME-I saw David Mattingly's report on Alabama's new law and how a woman that has been in the United States Illegally for 11 years and STILL can't speak english. She is afraid of being deported because she is 7 months pregnant with a "high risk pregnancy". She and her spouse would not face the camera and he never spoke. She gave her name as Arelee, she said "Don't be selfish." "WE ARE NOT STEALING ANYTHING FROM THEM, SIMPLY ASKING THEM TO LET US WORK".The point is, they are "stealing" from us. She is receiving government supported medical care, which will be more expensive being that it is a high risk pregnancy. I'm hearing the story again on CNN as I write this and we are supposed to have sympathy for a student that is dropping out his senior year because he doesn't want to risk deportation and his dreams for college and an education is going away and that he has been here 10 years living with his family in a 2bedroom apt. all packed up and ready to run in case they get caught, he says he'll leave with his family because they all came here together.Back to Arelee and her "Were not stealing anything from them simply asking them to let us work". I see it that they have had an 11 year chance, with no choice of American's to live here. take jobs, when they are at a premium right now, have free medical help when Americans can't afford it for themselfves or their families, if you go to Family Services here in Missouri more than 1/2 the people waiting are speaking spanish and talking on their cell phones. We supply them with food stamps. So Arelee is VERY wrong. She did not come her for fear of her life or because she was seeking immunity. She came here for better housing and all the free benefits she could get. When her child is born it will be another burden on overcrowed schools that were intended to be used for American children, we should not have to have "English as a second language" classes in schools because parents that are illegally that have time to make babies that we pay for can't take the time to earn English in like maybe 11 years or more so that when their children are in the American school systems they will then also get their free lunches and any other benefits that our taxes pay for in support of the school. The school is not just run on hope. It is paid by American taxpayers. 95% of the illegal aliens here in Missouri DON'T PAY TAXES TO SUPPORT THE SCHOOLS OR OTHER THINGS THEY BENEFIT BECAUSE WE DO PAY TAXES. When they raid turkey or chicken plants around here they round up all the illegals and then sure enough they have scattered only temporarily and then all come back and it starts over. That's why the business owners that have illegals working for them should be heavily fined. This is our Countries worst time economically in history so you are wrong Arelee, you are stealing, you have been since you've been here. You and your family are not welcome here. If we wanted the people from Mexico to come here to live you would have been invited, so that makes you very unwanted illegal criminals. I use the word criminal because that is what you do when you sneak in to a country you don't have a right to live in and then steal from that country anything you can. You state that "We all have and want an opportunity" you don't deserve it here. This is not your home and not your country. I think our country that is paying unemployment to all the people who can't get jobs should line them up one yard away from each other along the border and shoot to kill. Then anyone who sees that we are done with the Illegal Mexicans
    crossing our border then the never ending flood of illegals will find some where else to sneak into, Maybe Central America and then down to South America. Anywhere but here!

    October 14, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Muneef

      Guess all over there were illigals until they legalized them selves starting from the early settlers....!?!

      October 14, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Sarah

      You sounds very angry. Maybe you have lost a job or are stressed financially yourself... These are difficult time and we all want solutions, but the statistics don't actually support more American jobs if we deport immigrant workers...it would actually cost us far more to deport them and our economy would collapse without migrant workers. We need immigration REFORM. Paths for people to LEGALLY come as migrant workers there would be regulations and they'd also be taxed more fairly.

      However, my biggest question is have you ever sat down and had an actual conversation with someone who is here illegally? We all have our struggles and pain- and anger can be justified- but sometimes its also worth spending some time seeing another perspective, walking a day in someone else's shoes.

      December 6, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • BruceInDenver

      All the problems you cite are caused by the Federal government's failure to follow existing immigration law, and to reading things into the law that aren't there, like birthright citizenship for the children of illegal aliens.

      Obama wants a one world government, and should be impeached for dereliction of duty for not enforcing existing Federal immigration law.

      December 8, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Jose

      Thanks for the link.But you've put that my ailtcre was posted at "Adnan". Could you please change this to "posted at Blogtrepreneur".Thanks mate,Adnan

      March 2, 2012 at 4:44 am |
  10. Groundswell Movement

    "At its heart, the Occupy movement is about creating a democratic society in which everyone matters, there is dignity in working together across differences, and there is enough for everyone." Yes! Thank you so much for this. We're sharing at: http://www.groundswell-movement.org and https://www.facebook.com/GroundswellMovement

    October 14, 2011 at 12:41 am |
  11. Anita

    The movement certainly reflects basic values. All religions teach of helping, being fair to everyone, taking care of those who are not able to take care of themselves, compassion, etc.

    October 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • Muneef

      Anita.
      Dear your views are the right one's as an example of humanity of mankind towards his fellow men...what is obstructing that is what is called "Obsessions"..to be obsessed with thoughts of fear from others or a sense of superiority over others, what ever the cause might be whether racially or religiously or politically there will always be some prophecies or greeds to race to and fight over... What ever it was that stands on the way of integration and the blending of the races cultures to live in peaceful interfaith together helping each other....what ever is against that is evil that we have to seek refuge in the lord of mankind;
        
      Sahih International
      Say, "I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind, (114:1).
      The Sovereign of mankind. (114:2).
      The God of mankind, (114:3).
      From the evil of the retreating whisperer -(114:4).
      Who whispers [evil] into the breasts of mankind - (114:5).
      From among the jinn and mankind." (114:6).
      ---

      Sahih International
      Say, "I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak (113:1)
      From the evil of that which He created (113:2).
      And from the evil of darkness when it settles (113:3).
      And from the evil of the blowers in knots (113:4).
      And from the evil of an envier when he envies." (113:5).

      October 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • BruceInDenver

      "All religions teach of helping, being fair to everyone, taking care of those who are not able to take care of themselves, compassion, etc."
      You're right. What they DON'T teach is that it's right to have a communist government that will TELL you it's doing those things, when really it's concentrating the lion's share of the wealth and power in a party elite, resulting in a system that has much less wealth to BE shared.

      "The problem with capitalism is that it allows the unequal distribution of wealth. The virtue of socialism is that it demands the equal distribution of poverty." – Winston Churchill

      "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." – The Who

      December 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.