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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. hmmm...

    Here is my issue/s: 1: There are appear to be spokespeople who are all over the news who when asked specifics, they can give none. They defer to the 'experts' to decide. Who are these experts? That is not know either but they will be the government. Hmmm.... 2: Issues are all over the place...basically each individual is 'marching to their own issue'. Sounds great but there is no resolution for such a quagmire. Within a family of four separate issues never get fully resolved to everyones satisfaction. So, this is simply a numbers game...for someone..but not for each individual. 3: A particular group is targeted not becasue they have broken the law, but because we want something from them for us. There is a reason why those who crafted our nation sought to never allow groups to be targeted (the law is 'blind'). 4: Unions are involved. Unions are a government within a government and they control the voices of their members (who cannot speak for themselves) hmmm...what kind of a structure are they looking for? 5: Why not march upon Washington where law is made and resolution can take place? A bigger imact is made by finding a small group (1%) and painting them as evil to the rest of the 99%. 6: Spokesman says our system is outdated...needs to be replaced...with a group that will determine what is fair and what we should be allowed to keep...ahhhh...did the truth slip through the lips- finally a solution...an idea of where this is going? 7: These people do not represent me even though I am in the 99%...they represent themselves but it shows they assume they know what I want or what I do not know is good for me or theyt just do not care because they know what THEY want. So, I ask myself, what form of government have I studied that I wish to live under...hmmm...I live under it now and I am not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater simply because we have hit an economical cycle. My take away...keep people in the dark by letting them think that what they want is what everyone else wants until you can get them angry enough to act simply as a mob for the few who have had plans for a good long time. Can anyone say...PAWNS?

    October 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Paul

      Is there a point to your ramblings?

      October 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • hmmm...

      Good question Paul. When you can answer what it is the Wall street occupiers seek you may have your answer.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Stagger Lee

      I was under the impression people were tired of banks using fraudulent practices to make profits off normal working people, disheartened by the gigantic and growing income gap between low-level workers and CEOS, and angry at the general mantra that wall street goes after profits without generally considering the well-being of the people and environment they affect while doing so.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • ummm...

      hmmm needs to read a bit more about what's going on in the world before rambling on.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  2. Doris

    Meeage from protesters: Greed is wrong, so give us your money.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Who's a Real Christian?

      Is that right, Doris? Can you please explain what you mean? How do "they" propose to take money forcefully? (you must be talking to "me") Are you saying that when people desire to be treated fairly they are "thieves"? So when the financial burden of our society falls disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor and middle class, it's what they deserve? Please give me some details to back up your assertions. Really I want you to tell me who I am and what I am doing. All those years of working, paying taxes and struggling to get by must have turned me (and people like me) into a real selfish monster.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Brad

      Or better put, "we are many so our greed is more important than your greed.". Send us a check, please - you know, just like the disability/welfare/WIC check that we receive now. Thank you.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Cynic

      Well Brad, to put it differently, "we are the 99% that you have exploited, by reducing our pay, by shipping our jobs overseas, by begging for our tax money to bail you out so that you can continue to get your multi-million-dollar bonuses when you mismanage your corporations, and by begrudging us the pittance that we get in government services and for which we have contributed all our working lives."

      Thank you.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  3. Kathleen

    Well said. Good article. I wish people would open their hearts, minds, and eyes like this truly Christian person has.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Doris

      It these people were caling for those on Wall street to voluntarily give to help those who have less, I woud heartily agree with you, but they're, not. They want to forcefully take money from one group and give it to another. It's called theft.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • hmmm...

      So, let me say that you belong to a group...let's say the wall street occupiers, and my group thinks that your doing what you are dong is bad for us all...just making noise and upsetting people. Do I form a group to go after your .000something % and seek to have your voice taken away. I do not have a problem with treating all people evenly. I do have a problem with ANY...yes, ANY group who seeks to paint another group who is within the law, that treats us evenly, as evil so we can take advantage of them or what they have. In this, even religion oversteps bounds as this group has. Bigotry comes in many forms and for many reasons.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  4. Live Free88

    The bible also said "Thou shalt not covet". Seems like alot of protesters a coveting the successes of the 1%.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Cynic

      I don't see any covetousness, and no one begrudges the rich their wealth IF THEY HAVE EARNED IT. Just a lot of people who are tired of the top 1% using their wealth to unfair advantage by means of political privilege, unprincipled greed, and acts of treason against their fellow citizens.

      Jesus also said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven."

      If you are looking for a justification for using your wealth to beggar your neighbor, you won't find it in the Gospels.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  5. John O

    Sounds like the protesters want to move to Cuba or North Korea. Everyone is equal regaurdless of initiative, education, hard work.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  6. Rsprings

    Young and naive.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  7. Paul

    Seeing religion in this movement is just as hilarious as seeing Jesus in a dog's bum.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  8. atypical

    oh, geez; i do hope this movement doesn't become religion thing. bankers aren't the only ones who have manipulated the masses to maintain control.
    let's keep this a human issue–not a "Christian/religious issue. let's keep the focus on creating social and economic equality.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Mary

      And why shouldn't it be a religious thing? For too long, the hardworking AVERAGE American has heard the blow-hards on the religious right scrambling to create Jesus in their image.

      It's about time that the poor "huddled masses" claim the moral high-ground that is their right and heritage.

      We all have a moral imperative to use our talents to God's glory. We have NO moral imperative to be a grasping, greedy, selfish rich SOB who uses "Beggar thy neighbor" as his motto and creed.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  9. Real

    I'm reading some idiot comments here. We are a pluralistic society, folks. Your insistence that the religious be excluded from public discourse is no better than the right's insistence that the non-religious are destroying America. What moronic, polar thinking. This woman is putting her Christian values to good cause and all you people can do is deride her. YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM!!! I'm not a christian, but I'll support her position over yours any day of the week.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Denise

      Well said.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Barbara Nichols

      Good job!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  10. Russ Winter

    Occupy Wall Street has now gotten the attention of the people who control this country. Accordingly they are rolling out the Ministry of Truth to try and interpret what it is all about. Immediately the discourse turns to trivial two-party partisanship matters. The remarks are just ridiculous and sickening, including that this is a movement to reinvigorate Presidente Hopium, what nonsense. Herman Cain had the audacity to twist this into a criticism of people who don't work, and who seek handouts. No Herman, you have it back ass backwards, this Movement is about your cronies free riding at the trough and seeking handouts.

    What "they" just don't get is that Occupy Wall Street is primarily a pro-democracy, anti-kleptocrat and anti-bankster Movement. Occupy Wall Street is not anti-wealth, it is not about class warfare, it is and I repeat, anti-kleptocratic. . Occupy Wall Street is pro-American in the traditional sense. It is about removing the anti-democratic influence of money from politics. Kleptocracies using government and the corrupt two party system are dangerously anti-American. The Movement can't let them take the high ground. The high ground belongs to the Movement.

    The corrupt media uses all this protest to pull out their standard dividers. The Movement will naturally attract true conservatives and true progressives, and true moderates. The machine arrives on the scene with false "conservatives", and the false "progressives" pushing their corrupt status quo anti-democracy agendas. I am proud that the Movement sees through this. Stay the course. That is the Movement's strength and gives us the ability to not only see through the lies and misrepresentation, but to actually turn it against the corruptos.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  11. tom

    we are NOT a democracy we are a repblic and these protesters are what Lenen called the usefull idiots

    October 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  12. pete

    Don't blame wall street. Don't blame congress Your money and mind is in there one way or the other, also it's us that cause the problem. Stop and look we bought homes and cars we could not afford, we pay big dollars to go to sporting events, we stand in line for a phone that we can't afford. The brokers are doing what we tell them, and we want it now. Madoff could be a P.T. Barnum because there is a sucker born every minute, and we line up to try and get the latest, which is only the latest for a week. I just wish i was a better salesman because i see suckers out there all the time, my problem is i don't like to screw people

    October 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Phil

      Pete, you are wrong. Your comment assumes there was an equal playing field with the banks. People put money in investments the banks knew were bad, and were secretly betting against. Entire pension funds went down the tube because the banks sold paper they were betting against (And made billions). This wasn't buyer beware. There was no consumer group protecting "Joe Investor" when all this went down. This was a case of unfettered human greed... a de-regulatory nightmare!

      October 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      and remember – 102nd – 109th and then 112th Congress's were all GOP led, that is 16 of 20 years or 80% of legislation in past 20 years was passed under GOP watch including opening the trade floodgates with China. How do you like your Chinese Levi's and Schwinn Bicycles?

      October 7, 2011 at 10:32 pm |
  13. The Ignorant Loon

    Wow. Good to be reminded of the logic of a completely ignorant loon every now and then.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  14. Laura

    What is the point of this story!?!?! Talking about grabbing for anything and why relate this to Christianity thats exactly the problem, creating devisions. Way to drive people away from this because now they think its religious. Please remove this article, its pointless, jumps to conclusions and creates segregation.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • chadem311

      Exactly. This is article is terrible for the movement. Religion has no place in politics, and this is very much a political movement.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  15. chadem311

    Can't we keep religion out of this?

    October 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Barbara Nichols

      The author is just voicing how she sees it; loving, kindness, and coming together for the right reasons. It just so happens that is what people of multiple religions practice and since she is a Christian, understandably, that is her context.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  16. larry lins

    All these potesters should go sign up for a Financial class and put in the time and effor to learn market trends, currency's, mutual funds, precious medal and on and on. Guys that make money on Wall Street work, train, educate and dont sit on there behind and complain in a ridiculous protest.
    Obamanomics at its worst., Everyone wants a handout without putting in the time to be successful.

    Larry

    October 7, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • S.R.

      You are part of the problem. Most of these people have put in the hard work, the long hours and the education only to be layed off because the corporate greed decided they needed a 4 million dollar bonus instead of a 2 million dollar bonus. Just because you got lucky don't look down on the ones that didn't.

      October 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • chadem311

      It's not just that most people aren't privy to the methodology. It takes a huge amount of not only drive and determination, but greed and selfishness to get where most of them (the Wall Street money grubbers) have gotten. It's a good thing that must people aren't driven solely by the dollar sign, and that most people aren't greedy to the point that they only care about themselves and their own immediate family. It's about seeing the bigger picture. Concern for fellow Americans. For fellow Earthlings. For the Earth itself, and it's ability to host the wonderful abundance of life it does and has for so long, but may not much longer if we continue down this path. Wake up.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • JB

      Anyone who uses the term "Obamanomics" to describe what basically amounts to Republican obstructionism, or can't tell the difference between "metal" and "medal" has no place to lecture anyone else. Its funny to me how the Greed Over People party can try to blame the economy on Obama when what we're actually looking at is a do-nothing congress. How many republican jobs bills has Obama vetoed? 0.

      Please, shut up. You are part of the problem. You are part of the exploited 99% but you can do nothing but kiss up to the 1%, hoping, dreaming that one day you'll get to be the exploiter instead.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Barbara Nichols

      Yes, I think you might be part of the problem.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  17. Conrad Shull

    Her cluelessness is profound. The time in America "in which everyone matters, there is dignity in working together across differences, and there is enough for everyone"? When was this? The 90's? The 80's? The 70's? the 60's? The 50's? The 40's? The 30's? The 20's? Before that? Seems you can go pretty far at Harvard and not learn much of anything.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Laura

      HAHA you are awesome. I read this and had to check back twice it really said Harvard and not like Harvard Community college

      October 7, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  18. Seth

    Just because the American people want the same thing that Jesus wanted (which is NOT the same thing that the present-day Abrahamic churches want) doesn't make it a Christian movement.

    And honestly? Those in charge of those churches could learn a thing or two from OWS.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  19. martinipaul

    Sartre: Without God, everything is indeed permitted. Without God all morals are only individual valuations based not only on rational but also irrational needs. Birds of a moral feather may group together but without God the individual becomes his own god and all 'moralists' can go to hell.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  20. nk

    What a bad article.

    October 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Barbara Nichols

      If I might ask, what did you find "bad" about it, nk?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:07 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.