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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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soundoff (769 Responses)
  1. NothingBut

    We would definitely all feel better about this country of ours if we prosecuted and sent the guilty ultra-rich corporate banking/rating executives to prison for the felonious mortgage fraud that they committed that cost us all so very, very much. A country that does not have a fair legal system that sends people to prison if they are poor, but does nothing if the people are rich is called a dictatorial regime if another country other than ours does it!!! Our country has more people in prison, percentagewise, than any developed country and in the US they are 99.999% poor. To quote many celebrated intellectuals, "If that is the law, then the law is an as". Let's prosecute the guilty that caused this and let's make dam sure they go to prison, regardless of how much money they have. I, for one, am very tired of all this BS!!! If the law means nothing for the ultra-rich in this country, why should it mean anything to anyone. Let's enforce and prosecute equally regardless of how much money they have.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  2. maeve

    We are not a "Christian" nation. We are supposed to be a nation that embraces all religions, ethnic groups etc. We do have a separation of church and state. We are supposed to respect the beliefs of all citizens. So who cares if the protests sound Christian or not? Get over yourself! We are not a country controlled by one particular religion. We are not Italy or Greece or Israel or Iran. The Pope is welcome to visit but he is not welcome to tell us what to do. Nor are any of the phony preachers on TV who really just want your cash.... preachers with dubious intent. Real religion is in your heart and your actions. A large ornate building and lots of real estate holdings that are tax free is not a guarantee that you will find peace in your heart and love for your fellow man and tolerance for his personal beliefs.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • jason

      this is what i was thinking. i applaud your comment

      October 7, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  3. Studygal

    And this is what Harvard produces?

    No wonder our Schools in America have gone to garbage, liberals.

    On another note, funny how the protesters protested THEIR OWN BANK then had to apologize cause they're a bunch of Dummies with no jobs...

    October 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  4. tensai13

    The last thing the protesters need or want is your brand of religious delusion. Keep your stupidity to yourself.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  5. Ryan

    Ah there is always somebody trying to stick religion into our everyday lives.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  6. Rich

    Who cares if its Christian?

    October 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      thats the point

      if christians get involved

      it nulls the validity of anything positive

      since everyone with some intelligence knows that christians are idiots

      October 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • Scott

      Since when did intelligence include sweeping generalizations? I'll be sure to mention that to Dr. Ben Carson – since he is a Christian, he cannot be a successful neurosurgeon.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  7. b4big bang

    @*frank*: "Then you can't credit religion for the rosier behavior." Your logic is flawed frank. I'm no logic expert but i know enough to know that a reverse corollary is often flawed logic.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  8. Actually...

    Christian? NO! Our woes are not the result of the sins of 1%. These protesters are sinners, also, and have absolutely no right to point their finger at anyone. There is nothing wrong with charity but to force others to be charitable is not Christlike.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • seneca

      Thats right, christians should not be forced to give up thier money! If I want to horde my god given profits and let women and children die from starvation its better than me giving up my money and them living on socialism! God giveth to me and taketh from them!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • JG

      Since when is money an invention of God?

      October 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  9. James

    I just wanted the author to know that I lost interest and stopped reading after a few awful and pointless paragraphs.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
    • nicknormal

      2nd paragraph, last line for me – silly article.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  10. steveinmo

    So why are the demonstrators so opposed to Republicans only? They're the ones in bed with the bankers?

    As I recall, it was the Democrats in Congress, under both Bush and Obama who supported and voted for the bank bailouts, TARP, the automaker bailouts, and it was the Republicans in Congress by and large who opposed it.

    To go further, it was Bill Clinton who signed into law allowing the deregulation on Fannie and Freddie specifically to allow subprime lending, to those who NEVER should have been allowed loans. So where is the backlash on those actions? Where is the truth in these protests?

    And again there is nothing Christian about these protests. Neither Christ nor Moses & the 10 Commandments taught to covet so much we steal what others earn; even if what they take is unethical – even the President admitted the actions were legal, just unethical.

    Kids, leave the streets and go back to college. Better yet, spend some time serving in the military to see what really goes on outside our borders. Then see if you can agree with all those blind, idiotic college professors – not all are bad, but don't listen to those who advocate this sort of action.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      its because these tools have no idea why theyre protesting

      its the trendy thing to do

      October 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Actually...

      Right on

      October 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • seneca

      Because republicans were only against the bailouts until it was time to prop up the wall street bonuses and never have any intention of doing anything but giving more money to the richest 1%. If you are not rich the repugs don't want to talk to you.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  11. Amber

    Trash...This article is pure trash! ...Missing the point entirely.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • Michael

      Yeah........christian is a dirty word.........they cause nothing but trouble and want everyone and everything to be like them....now watch the mormons and christians fight each other..........and the bigoted christians try to figure out if they can vote for a Black man..........woohoo.................

      October 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  12. Producer in LA

    This writer hasn't really read what Jesus said. Jesus was quite capitalistic. If you don't work, you don't deserve to eat. If you're lazy, what was given to you should be given to another worker who isn't lazy.

    Remember the parable of the master and the talents? Matt 25:14

    The master scolded the servant who didn't work, and gave that servant's share to the servant who worked hardest and gained the most.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • Scott

      Always amazing how that little fact is left out. That and the fact that Jesus' whole ministry was to die for our sins so we can spend eternity with him, not create a kingdom on earth (take note, protestors). Social Gospel is as heritical as health and wealth gospel. By the way, I make under $30,000 a year, and that's no one's fault but mine.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • seneca

      The bible also says you should kill anyone who you find working on sunday and that if you kill your wife or slave while punishing them with a rod then its not a sin since they are your property. Google it, it is true.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Smartasss

      Check it. –> Acts 4:34-35: "There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need." Wow. That almost sounds like what she's describing in her article. Huh.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • Producer in LA

      @Seneca

      Look up what Jesus said about the laws of the Old Testament, which I assume is what your referring to.

      Oh and if I were you, I'd use the real book over Google. When you are blatantly ignorant and quote Google, it makes it worse.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • Aaron

      @ Smartasss If you want to use that scripture to suppoert the efforts of the protestors, then they should be asking that the rich give their money to the church so God's work can be done and that those who are working for the church doing God's work will have all of their needs met. Using that scripture in any other context is inaccurate.

      October 8, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • Producer in LA

      Good point Aaron

      October 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  13. Uncle Bob

    Christian beliefs are a personal decision, not a legal requirement. Caring for the weak, the poor, the sick are all admiral tasks that Christians do because the make the choice to show love, mercy and grace. But it's a choice.

    Love when required and enforced by law ... is not love.
    Mercy when required and enforced by law ... is not mercy.
    Grace, when required and enforced by law ... is no longer grace.
    Charity when required and enforced by law ... is no longer charity, but rather a tax.
    If Christian beliefs are required and enforced by law ... those are not longer religious beliefs ... it is a seculare legal system.

    And I seriously question anyone who demands that someone else be required to show them mercy or grace. The Bible and Christian beliefs also speak to living within your means and utilizing the means and gifts God gives ... no where in the Bible does it tell those who are poor to demand that others give to them.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • Scott

      Exactly.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • trexonu

      GRACE.....is not something YOU can give. Grace comes only from the Father. Dont presume, dumazz.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Patricksday

      As a Republican your chapter on Matthew is not part of your "Bible", that holy section talking about Gods Love for the Poor, and the First being Last is totally missing. But then a Christian would not be about building their Kingdom here on Earth. But maybe your exposing a Lie, I would Love to see your meeting with Jesus or whoever you follow their teachings.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Tisha

      Brilliance for free; your parents must be a sweetheart and a crteiefid genius.

      January 27, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Congratulations, you managed to make about ten spelling errors within one word!!!

      F'ing moron...........

      January 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • zbkfzcrjpc

      qoZXbw refjuuecbkbq

      January 28, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • fvqszg

      urXOSG oajxjfasjefi

      January 30, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  14. Patricksday

    The Republican Christians are all about hording and promotion of Death Penalty and sneering at the homeless, elderly and Poor, they are stealing all their "Blessings" There a sick bunch who wouldnt know Jesus if he walked up to them. Jesus would not deny the Poor or Elderly like these Hypocrits and liars.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  15. Jim

    What an awful article. I think that CNN should maybe wait until someone becomes a professor maybe, or at least HAS their phd before publishing this trash... I am a grad student and I can tell you firsthand that grad students just do not have enough wisdom or knowledge to make these sorts of bold claims...what a terrible article. According to her theories, you can find christianity in anything that is based on community and group dynamics... so bad.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • wsu1983

      Jim, I don't know what discipline you are studying but if you believe you are not educated enough to intelligently join the conversation then DON'T! If you don't have the tools to think critically by now maybe you should change schools or think about a career at Walmart!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Smartasss

      Why do you think young people never want to step up and do things? Because people like you are always telling us we're not good enough, smart enough and/or experienced enough. Get off your butt and do something or shut the heck up.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  16. Muneef

    To the Wall Street gathering;

    “If poverty was a man, I would kill him with my sword”

    Islam’s Radical Formula to End Poverty
    By admin on May 2, 2010 in Aqeedah, Khilafah, Muslims in America, Ummah

    In an age of abundance never experienced in history, with more access to wealth, technology, and energy resources than ever before, the mere existence of poverty itself, let alone its severity and global scope boggles the mind. Ironically, the era that is responsible for the birth of the internet, space travel, and open heart surgery has been unable, or rather unwilling, to decisively and purposefully end the phenomenon of poverty that affects hundreds of millions of people across the world in rich and poor nations alike.

    Since the definition of poverty is the inability to provide for one’s basic needs, Islam addresses the issue by providing a system that justly fulfills the basic needs of every human being. The Islamic economic system is unique and wages a war against poverty. In fact, Imam Ali was quoted to say:

    “If poverty was a man, I would kill him with my sword”

    Go through the link to see some of the practical steps that Islam has legislated to wage war on poverty:

    http://www.theshieldnewsletter.com/?p=915

    October 7, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  17. Lee

    Just another protest started for the right reasons that the religious want to claim as theirs.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Muneef

      It don't matter who but main issue is to make a change for the best of all human beings...thanks.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • mickey1313

      agreed, anything that thiesm ataches itself to become croupt. There is no such thing as an honest careing christian. It is against the bible to be careing honest and just.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
    • Just_a_girl

      I don't believe she is trying to claim the protests are religious. I believe she is simply trying to say this heart of the issue is the betterment for humanity, which also happens to coincide with what Christ teaches in scripture - "love others as you love yourself." So it's something Christians can be a part of as well. She is speaking more to Christians who might write this off as a "hippie movement" than anything.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Muneef

      We say it differently;
      We say; "Love for others as you would love for yourself."

      You say; "Love others as you love yourself."

      Wonder which one is more right than the another?

      October 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  18. Muneef

    A Sea of Tears
    Sheeple of the world lend me thine ear,
    for the truth we speak sends messages clear!
    33 degrees plus 2012 years
    adds to masterplan complete: a sea of tears.
    Distractions abundent losing your focus
    as the magicians wave screaming "hocus pocus"!
    And despite all your anger you sit content in complacency
    as the "Novus Ordo" churns with conspiracy.
    The undead walk without a clue that they are dead –
    and you fail to recognize what the poet has said.
    The shepard has come to tend to his flock,
    ignorant children of intelligence mock.
    The third eye is straining to see the light
    so open up your mind and begin to take flight.
    The undeclared war is wageing so get ready for battle,
    unless you are happy being mindless cattle.
    So get with the plan – Not of the "master"
    and help us usher these cattle from their pasture.
    For all minds have potential to do glorious work
    and then we can eleveate a world that's gone berserk.
    posted by Phreshview @ 10:38   12 comments  

    http://www.theyear2012.blogspot.com/

    October 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  19. chadem311

    NO, CNN, THE PROTESTS ARE NOT CHRISTIAN. RELIGION HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. SWEET AD HOMINEM THOUGH.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  20. Aaron

    How do the protests sound Christian?? Repudiating the pursuit of individual wealth in favor of caring for others doesn't make something sound/seem Christian. If it does to you, then you know little of Christianity. Christianity starts with rejecting your own desires in favor of serving God by fulfilling the great commission. Simply doing for others is not Christ-like. Doing for others for the sake of reflecting the love of God, now that sounds like Christianity. But there is no way you can protest against the wealthy and call it christianity, because the correct term for that is ENVY!!! Another is COVETOUS! Both are sins and are both anti-Christ's teachings (yep, anti-Christ). The very reason why they are there is not to give, but to take. This is nothing but propaganda to disguise their selfishness with the compassion they're showing each other. When they start showing that same compassion to both the rich and the poor alike, as Jesus did, then we can have a conversation about how this movement sounds Christian.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Scott

      Well said, Aaron

      October 7, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • mattski

      Oops. Sounds like Christians have a problem. There's a group out there whose message is consistent with Christ's. The "I got mine, get yours" crowd doesn't sound very Christian in this context...

      October 7, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Aaron

      @ Mattski: You're right! "I got mine, get yours" is not Christ-like. That's called greed. Christ also taught that one should be content with what they have and not envy or covet what others have. But just as the poor should not be forced to adhere to Christ's teachings, neither should the rich.

      October 8, 2011 at 10:59 am |
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