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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. wishfulthinkers

    Here is what I get from the idiots protesting:

    They want what everyone else has without having to do the work for it!

    SO for example, this means that MY neighbor who is of no relation to me, who refuses to go get a job, who wants to have everything I do but would rather sit on their ass gets HALF of MY paycheck that I work for because they feel they have the right to MY money....

    Forget that crap, you want something work for it.. My kids will be taught the same thing and already know that nothing in this world is free..

    October 7, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  2. Socal

    Poor protestors, doing their thing and they get invaded by bible thumpers. Can't you people mind your own business.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  3. Howard

    Doesn't look like any church I've seen. And that's a good thing.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  4. Sandra

    What is it with certain people that keep insisting on "Christianizing" everything? This has nothing to do with Christianity. It has to do with the majority of Americans fed up with being raked over the coals while doing the right thing, while the executives at banks, who did a helluva lot more than just grand theft, seem to have the sweet life and be made of Teflon. The average US citizen, if he stole or swindled someone out of just $1000 he would be facing jail time, but these bankers and Wall Street Execs screwed people out of BILLIONS, and are flaunting it by raising bank feels, giving larger executive bonuses (called another name now, as those get taxed out from under them if so named). People, not "Christians", have had enough!

    October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  5. Peter

    spottedsharks...what Bible do you read???? You're a dangerous big moth spreading lies to compensate for you lack of Faith. 2 and 3 are especially classic. You have some research to do.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  6. DarrellS

    WHY would you have to take this movement and place it into a "Christian" pigeonhole??? I can understand saying it's American, but you cheapen the movement by calling it Christian, or even likening it to Christianity. This is about HUMANITY, and it's big enough to include Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Atheists, Agnostics, and those who don't label themselves.

    If, by chance, you were reaching out to Christians to get them to understand Occupy Wall Street is a good thing, then it would have been better to share this article within religious publications, but not on a main news outlet. It seems you're promoting Christianity, rather than saying there are some great things about Occupy Wall Street that all people can agree with.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  7. Zzz

    Wake me up when CNN puts on something worth reading.

    On second thought, don't.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • CW

      Yeah, go back to sleep... it's better there in your little dream world.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  8. Peter

    Nicely put Marisa! It is time for Christians/Churches to take a slightly herder line than they have been. A good church helps it's local community...a lot! Separation of church and state, as folks love to bring up, has nothing to do with this. This is about Christians standing up for the average Joe. More power to them!!! At least they are doing something.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  9. gager

    Marisa Egerstrom, after you get your phd in religion take a course in science and learn how the real world works.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  10. Ann Anderson

    This is why we're demonstrating:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8o3peQq79Q&w=640&h=390]

    October 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  11. Andrea M

    Classic case of "I like your Christ but I hate your Christians." (Yes, I probably misquoted that, but you get the point.) Jesus said good things, I don't care what religion or non-religion you happen to be, you can't deny that. It's the wicked and greedy men throughout history who have twisted that good into what we see now, the "gospel of prosperity" types who believe God rewards followers with fat paychecks, the holy rollers who hate government yet demand that the same government meddle in peoples bedrooms, The men who sit in gilded cathedrals and preach to help the poor then ask for donations to add more gold to the building. This world would be amazingly better if everyone just dropped formal religion and actually lived by the best of all the prophets, preachers, and messiahs. Help your community, give strength to one another, make yourself a better person, confront bigotry with love, leading by example, etc.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  12. kendallpeak

    The early Christians of "the way" congregated in small groups and shared their limited resources with each other and the less fortunate. These folks are intentionally disrupting other people's lives, demanding that others surrender to their wills and relinquish their assets and way of life. To compare the two is idiotic.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  13. Zaphod2000

    Really? This is NOT the teabbagers fun run. These are people of all ages, the 99%, who are tired of being screwed by the super rich and corporations thanks to the republikans in congress.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  14. RyaN

    Every major world religion teaches to love one another, care for the poor and not worshiping greed/money. God bless the protesters! It is about time we live according to our faith teachings.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Hindenburg

      The word 'love' does not occur in the Qu'ran.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  15. Qularkono

    the Bible (the inerrent Word of God) teaches :
    1. not to covet (this pertains to everyone)
    2. not to be biased against the poor
    3. not to favor the rich
    4. that Government's responsibility is national safety and to support morality
    5. the Church's job is to spread the gospel and to take care of the poor
    6. to not steel what is not yours (including the use of the government to take what is others and give it to you because you covet what the others have)

    October 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Justin B.

      Thank You... I love how CNN tries to tie Christianity into anything offensive or morally wrong.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • spottedsharks

      The Bible (the inerrant word of God) also teaches:
      1. women should keep silent in church
      2. you should kill your rebellious child
      3. it is an abomination to eat shrimp
      4. the world is about 6000 years old
      5. gay people should be killed

      October 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • UncleM

      That's because Christianity is offensive and morally wrong – look at history.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Andrea M

      You forgot no tearing "mixed fibers." There goes all that cotton-poly blend comfort.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • J.W

      Justin B. must be Justin Bieber.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  16. VP

    Sorry Christ never pursued protests, or sit ins, pot smokin, or civil disobedience. In fact his disciples tried to get him to get all riled up once, and he said that they should make themselves right with God as they could be killed at any minute like those in a disaster. This movement is not Christian, dont' stretch it.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Scot

      And the tea parties are christian like they say they are. Give me a break !

      October 7, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Chris

      You really seem to have a distorted perception of things. Jesus Christ was all about civil disobedience. overturning the moneylenders' tables, setting the doves free. He was arrested and executed because he had become a huge thorn in Rome's side. He broke the laws.

      There certainly weren't any hippies around at that time, but the man wore his hair long and grew a beard.

      Please, do not use the Lord's name to promote your fear and hatred of those who have a differing world view and are different than you.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  17. Doug

    You argue like my wife..."every", "none", "always", "never", "no exceptions"...

    Really – CNN has NEVER posted a positive story about a Republican?

    October 7, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • LiberalChristianthinkingaboutmorestuff

      No.

      Happy?

      October 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Scot

      What's there to say postive about ? They are crooks that want to make sure they get rich at the expense of the poor and the middle class !

      October 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Rabbi Green

      CNN posts plenty of stories written by and in support of Republicans. David Frum comes to mind, he has about 1 story a week that makes the front page of CNN. Those who don't notice, probably never read the articles....

      October 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  18. martinipaul

    Jesus was not a social reformer. Jesus was not concerned about government, financial insitutions, wars, the Roman senate or the redistribution of wealth. Jesus did not believe in the perfection of society. Jesus was concerned my , and your, individual relationship with God. And that is all. He is not going to judge corportions, he is going to judge me and you.
    Protesting Wall Street greed is not going to do you any good if you, personally, are greedy. Forcing the rich to give to the poor without you giving to the poor is futile. When did Jesus ever have anything to do with Wall Street? When, really, did Jesus have anything to do with organized religion? The revelation of God through the Holy Spirit is not corporate, societal, or sectarian. It is personal. Churches are places to praise God and ask for forgiveness. That is all. Simply put, Christ is our personal saviour, not a community organizer.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • MiddleWay14

      This is some evangelical/fundamentalist protestant bs that is made up. Jesus's message was not just personal. It was grounded in the way people treat each other. Don't make stuff up about the story that's not there.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Jadugara

      My dear sir,...that is a fantastic, excellent statement! VERY well put indeed! I, myself, am not Christion, but I support your statement in every conceivable way!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Jadugara

      Oops,... *Christian*, not *Christion*... My mind was apparently in a bind...

      However, my response was to martinipaul, not to MiddleWay14, who seems to think that spewing vitriol was the best way to respond... The basic thing that martinipaul was trying to say is the same thing that you, MiddleWay14, praised Elmer for stating moments after you posted here...that the whole Idea of Christianity didn't need to be brought into play for the sake of discussing the whole Wallstreet debacle... Religion should remain a private, personal issue, and not one that has any say in how the government functions, how our economy functions, how the corporate structures and systems of our nation functions, nor how our laws function... Considering how you responded to Elmer, I'd think you'd agree with martinipaul too... Instead, you just came off as if you were merely abusing him because he happened to be religious himself, which merely makes you look like a bigoted cad.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Imam al-Mahdi

    All of life's greatest mysteries are now answered here.

    plusone4theheroes.org

    Welcome everyone to the return of divine purpose!

    October 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  20. Elmer

    Don't even try it.......How dare you even put religions grimy hands on something so beautiful. Hands Off

    October 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • MiddleWay14

      Thank you kind sir. This is what I've wanted to say from the beginning.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Agreed. Why mess with something good by corrupting it with religion?

      October 7, 2011 at 5:13 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.