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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. Kirk

    F religion. This is about jobs and the economy!

    October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  2. USA401

    Dumb American Protestants are ruining the Church. The preach peace until race or an outside ideal is introduced then they become hateful and violent people. A true Christian accepts everyone no matter their beliefs and status in life.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  3. dudley0418

    Bad economic times are breeding grounds for protests and revolts. Dictators and tyrants often are grown during these times. History is full of examples. The powerful love to say, "In chaos there is opportunity." That's why voting is the best way to solve the problems. Stick to a reasonable response to the problem and offer a solution, like you do when you vote. In America we have this option. Be thankful for it.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  4. James Sharp

    I question whether the "Protestant chaplains" in the photographs are legitimate or not.

    My bet is that they are every bit as legitimate as The Reverend Jackson.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • petercha

      Good point, James.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  5. Dante

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlZyGObTrS8&w=640&h=390]

    October 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  6. Moby49

    When I hear sermons supporting this movement I will believe these christians really are Christian.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  7. Iakoub

    Good points, petercha

    October 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  8. puhbah

    The overwhelming subject Jesus speaks of in the New Testament is Charity. Everything pales beside this.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • skeptic

      Yeah, but the bible (both new and old testament) is a bunch of nonsense. So....

      October 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • petercha

      I'd sure like to know what percentage of these protesters give a decent portion of their time or money to charitable causes.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • headspin

      The majority of his sermons were on money, not charity.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  9. skeptic

    What I see as a better representation of Christian values is the Tea Party movement.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • petercha

      Amen, Skeptic.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Jeff

      What do they pay you morons to troll these news sites and spout this nonsense anyway?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  10. thunderbolt_lightning@yahoo.com

    Why some of it seems to be , I think you have to look deeper at the issues and what these people are wanting. I don't believe in Robin Hood and don't think you can justify stealing no matter what use, you put the money to. Don't want to pay back student loans, that you asked for, signed the papers, and took the money. Not to mention that the terms are the easiest out there today. Lets all get a free education! but first, tell me how that is going to work. Lets destroy capitalism but first explain to me where tax revenue will come from to pay the tab.They want to shut down wall street, when the problems we have occuring today is because of such a poor economy.Which means, less tax revenue, less money for people to spend on the economy.I don't think you can walk in and buy a computer and pay for it with a hug( last time I checked) Do we need changes, we sure do, but none of these guys want to face the fact that whether wall street led, or followed, the tools they used to break the economy all came from politicians, and the policies they wrote into law.Both parties are responsible for that. The dems have more (big corporate money come in during Obama's election than the republicans.) The dem party has more of the richer legislatures and out voted republicans 4 to 1 to rescue the banks and big business. These are all facts that anyone can look up with a google button. If you make a deal, you should keep it. If you sign the paper, thats your fault for not thinking it thru first. If you didn't work hard and it takes you 20 years to get out of college, then that lies on you.Not me, not government, not Wall street for that matter. You have to take a problem, find the source and go from there. We didn't get a free pass on education, paying social security, and supporting our older generations, but some how these people seem to think, that they don't have to be responsible for themselves, much less their financial obligations, that they brought on themselves by getting the loan in the first place.And the attacks on older generations is sickening. How come its all about the good(supposedely) when it seems to have a much darker side underneath the cover of the media, and the rants. But then, to call republicans the names they have used, and the talk about letting grandma die. It looks to me like they are shouting at themselves, but fail to see the mirror in front of them.........

    October 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  11. O.T.

    Note how the writer equates wealth with corruption. Is this necessarily the case? American is being free to pursue your dreams and having the opportunity to do so. It's not following a specifically socialist vision as this writer wishes. In America, she can do that. But she can't force others to do so, which is the implication of her argument.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • petercha

      VERY good point, O.T. I personally tend to equate wealth with honest, hard work, unless there is solid evidence to the contrary (innocent until PROVEN guilty).

      October 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  12. petercha

    I hold that there is no way that Jesus could have been liberal. He did not advocate the killing of innocent unborn babies. He did not advocate immoral same-gender marriages. Please do not drag His holy name through the mud by calling Him liberal.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • O.T.

      Very correct.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • DAISHI

      Apparently you only define liberal by what you choose to associate it with. Jesus was certainly liberal considering that he went against much of the conservative lines of thought of the time. He did so even while defying calls for zealotry.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Iakoub

      liberal means to go against tradition. i'd say Jesus did a pretty good job of that in the eyes of the Jews.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • petercha

      DAISHI, those things I mentioned ARE liberal points of view. It has nothing to do with anyone's association of anything with anything else. Facts are facts.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Brad76

      Those who are without sin may cast the first stone.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • petercha

      Brad76 – I suggest that you bring that point up with all the liberals that are so ready to paint anyone wealthy as "corrupt", "selfish", or "greedy", as I have seen in these posts.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • headspin

      Daishi- Jesus did not go against conservative views. He went against the leaders who corrupted the morals taught by scriptures. That's why he said he came to fulfill the law not destroy it. He was as conservative as it gets- without the phoniness.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • TryToBeCivil

      He also told one person to sell all he had and give to the poor. You can't pick and choose when you describe Jesus's actions.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Jeff

      petercha, it's people like you that make me not want to be an American. It never fails to amaze me that people with your thought processes even exist. Just mind boggling.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  13. Rizzo

    wow I'm a liberal and this is in NO WAY Christian. This is the devil in disguise. YEA like Obama IS REAGAN.

    Why do so many of us act so stupid? I'd hope it's not cause we actually are.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  14. Christlink

    This is one of the stupid articles I have ever read. The diaster that has come upon America is due to her attempted destruction of Israel. Read the Bible & see what it says. Jesus did not advocate communism. If that's the case, lets sell all that we have & give it to Somalia

    October 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • petercha

      Good point, Christlink.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • DAISHI

      The original church lived much more closely to socialism than they did to capitalism.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  15. Susn

    Trying to twist a Christian view out of the "Occupy" movement is absurd. If anything, it's the "anti" of the idiotic "good Christian" Tea Party. Personally, the fewer "good Christians" this movement has, the better off everybody will be. God needs to be left out of it.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  16. SCOTO

    You mean Christian as in the Bible or American Christian? They are quite different. In some cases completely polarized (try finding "prosperity preaching" in the Bible. I'm an atheist so I prefer "moral" . So yes, I believe much of this is about morality and and protesting the fact that this country is becoming an immoral society.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  17. petercha

    Some people in here should read "Liberalism is a Sin" by Fr. Salvany. It's written from a Catholic perspective, but it makes lots of good points for non-Catholics, too (and I don't worship at a Catholic church, by the way, although I respect them).

    October 7, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  18. Dave

    Sorry but no. Nice try on usurping a movement and trying to tie it into your brainwashed crappy belief system.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  19. MaybeAgnosticMaybeNot

    If you really research it, it's closer to Marxism (not actually a religion, though). The class divide between rich and not rich grows until there is a proletariat revolution.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Bob

      "If you really research it, it's closer to Marxism (not actually a religion, though"

      And if you really researched the early Christian church, you'd realize why that is.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • headspin

      Christianity is a moral system not a political one. Judeo roots clearly teach not to envy or covet what your neighbor has. It also encourages judging based on facts not bigoted beliefs about another person.

      The wealthy are people. The poor are people. The middle class are people. Everyone should be judged on their own merits based on what they've done.

      This new bigotry masquerading as equality and justice is but rage and angst. It's ok to be angry but be constructive about it. Creating "us" and "thems" are dangerous terms that normally precede an violent outburst of group-think.

      How ironic that those calling for "fairness" don't exercise that same fairness when they're "judging" others.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  20. Brad76

    Christian Americans were greatly deceived into thinking that the proper Christian way is to vote in Republicans who favor the wealthy, send American youth to kill and be killed in selfish wars, and to ignore the poor.
    Jesus would never EVER participate in a war of any kind, and He was no fan of the wealthy, and he was all about helping the poor.
    Stop being deceived. Listen to the Bible and your hearts, not corporations and their minions.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • James Smith

      Leave Jesus out of this, he doesn't have the time for this!!!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Brad76

      I will not leave Jesus out of things that affect everyone's lives. Also, you apparently haven't read the article. So many hypocrite and deviant Christians are quick to persecute the poor while praising Republicans and waving the American flag.

      Wake up and stop being deceived.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • James

      Okaaay, so your saying the "Christian" thing to do is vote democrat? As in, Obama, the "Christian" who's second act in office was to send tax money overseas for foreigners abortion? Or the Obama who went to the muslim nation of Saudi Arabia and BOWED to their king? Or perhaps the "Christian" Obama who went to a church that preached about the 'evil' white man? Or perhaps even the "Christian" Obama who told the Israelis to back off to their 1967 borders despite that the land was promised to them by God. Or perhaps the "Christian" Obama who worked with Hilllary Clinton to support the muslim brotherhood in Egypt, which has lead to an increase in Christian persecution in that country. Something tells me your not even Christian, or that you at least haven't looked at the bible much.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • John/kc

      A rich man has as much chance going to heaven as a camel has passing through the eye of a needle. If you support the rich and the selfish greedy ways, then you are not a true christian and you do not follow the ways of Christ!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • petercha

      John/kc – How do you know that all rich people are selfish and greedy? Judge much? And Christ taught AGAINST judging, if I recall correctly!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Brad76

      I never said anything about voting Democrat. Both parties are liars and thieves.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • headspin

      ...except the black church, which has been solidly Democratic. The politicians even get up and stump in the pulpit on Sundays.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:53 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.