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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. Hash Browns

    Sure if Christians are there, then you can say its Christian backed... But it's not just Christians I think I noticed a few Mormons and Jews in there?

    October 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  2. RevDana

    Seems to me that many compassionate traditions (religious and otherwise) would find ideals within this movement that they could relate to out of their experience with their tradition. Nothing wrong with that and I think that is all this author is really saying – for her, the ideals being pushed are reflections of the best of her Christian faith. To all of you who are lumping all Christians together as some kind of pawn for the GOP (or anyone else or anything negative) I urge you not to do so – if you are going to judge people do so according to what that individual does (not by what you have assumed to be true of the whole group). I think you will find that there are many good, compassionate Christians who would tend to agree with a great deal of what you say you are striving for – just as there are many good, compassionate atheists, muslims, hindus, etc. who would also find much in common together. Lumping every member of a group (be it Christians or otherwise) is exactly in opposition to what is being advocted in these protests – Your rejetion of "all" of any group is not American, it is not what this movement is about, and it is buying into the tactics of the opposition you are trying to overcome.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  3. James W.

    No, it's a ChristioBuddhaIsamicHinduiistica Movement. Who cares. Get a life.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  4. LEMME SEE

    OKay. I just wanta make sure I got this right. Scripture says 'The human heart is DECEITFUL above ALL THINGS and DESPERATELY WICKED." And this is why we can't afford to have Christians IN government: because they will CONTINUALLY remind us that we CAN'T TRUST PEOPLE we must MONITOR them, MONITOR their actions. So you really want Christians to ignore government? They have. And that's how we got HERE.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  5. Hash Browns

    No the protests are not religious... If you haven't noticed its a million groups who all see the same problems! They are Americans and they have awaken to the truth that the system is flawed in so many way! Yesterday people labeled them hippies, and today they are labeled Christians... Tomorrow we should label then spaghetti monsters! Hash Brown out...

    October 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  6. Christian L

    God Bless all Christians! Jesus is the way, the truth, the love.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  7. Lol religion

    Well, I nearly died from laughter when I read this author is a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies. Sad that people are stupid enough to spend exorbitant amounts of money on education and waste it on a subject that's nothing more than fairy tales. Shame she didn't study something worthwhile, that can genuinely make a difference in the world. Wishing for supernatural events from nonexistent fairies is not the way to resolve the issues in America.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Bill

      You're an idiot.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Edwin

      What I think is amazing is not the author's belief system. Instead, I am incredulous that you ridicule her and many of the other posters, yet somehow think that is an effective way to get others to believe you.

      Try educating YOURSELF. Try psychology, perhaps communication courses. If you actually want to convince others of that your own belief system (the belief that there is no God) is real, you should learn to express yourself in a more reasonable manner. Otherwise, you sound as luny as the people who occasionally post excerpts from the Bible and expect us to convert.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  8. JG

    I wish spirituality was an individual journey and not the organized religion it has become today.

    When any organization gets too large, it gets harder and harder to uniformly represent every member of that organization. Everyone has slight tweaks to their spiritual/religious convictions – even members of the same congregation.

    I don't understand why so much devotion has been given to churches from all of their members. I am NOT anti communion/fellowship of faith, but it just seems that the higher up you go in labeling a faith or spirituality, the more problematic it becomes. Google "groupthink."

    I believe in something... whether that is some scientific explanation of our presence or a purely supernatural one I don't know. I enjoy conversing with others about their own beliefs. Why does this have to be such a sore spot for some people? For those who are very religious and those that have no religion – isn't it possible to merely coexist and respect (yet still disagree) with others' perspectives?

    Lastly, how have some Christians come to support church leaders who do nothing but damn others? Even Jesus, the holiest and most central figure of the faith, would never do such a thing... at least based on what I understand of him. This is why I feel like individual spirituality is much more promising for our future as humans... because only then can you really see your own faith flourish rather than being told right and wrong from another.

    If anyone reading this feels similarly regarding individual spirituality and tolerance to individuals' own spiritual beliefs – even those you don't agree with (assuming it doesn't involve harming others) – please "like" this so I don't feel alone in my little corner of the world. Sometimes I feel radical for respecting that others have taken a unique spiritual journey... I hope I am not actually alone in that belief.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • blinky

      JG, Thank you for some sanity. I'm basically on the same page with you. This country was supposed to be all about tolerance and respect for your fellow citizens' outlooks, not trash talking them which is what Christians and anti-Christians alike have been doing on this board. I started out atheist, a long time ago my questions took me to a spiritual outlook, but am not interested in belonging to an organized religion. That's just me. Everyone has their own path so please make peace with having difference from your neighbor.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
    • JG

      Thanks for the validation 🙂 I can sleep better tonight knowing someone out there has similar beliefs on the matter.

      Living in my part of the world... that is a rare luxury indeed.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  9. liam ciam

    Why this sounds EXACTLY the powers who put us into this problem are now trying to put in front of us their religion to keep us forced down in fear their false made up religion to KEEP YOU IN FEAR...they are running their RELIGION TRICK right here on CNN

    October 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  10. jj

    The movement has nothing to do with religion. Conservative nutcase "Christian" greed is what they are protesting. Stop reading your religion into what is going on.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  11. XO

    Stop blaming politics (you voted them in) and cooperate executives. I've made it out of the ghetto and off of the welfare system in possibly the worse economy in history (while everyone else complains). I've managed to save $40k in my savings account in 3 months flat (this summer). Get off your a$$ and get some work done. The excuse of the day, 'I'm busy' OR 'I forgot'. Everywhere I work people are surfing FB, YT and Tweeting while their jobs are leaving the country to harder working individuals

    October 7, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • James W.

      Dude, you must be selling drugs. How can I get in on some of that action?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • XO

      Heh, not quite ;). I can be reached at xoneil-at-hotmail-dot-com

      October 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • JohnReedjr

      Perhaps you could share with us what type of work you did to earn this money after clawing your way out of the ghetto?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • XO

      @JohnReedjr Now you're talking ;). I can be reached at that email address. xoneill hotmail com

      October 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Edwin

      Anyone who saves $40,000 in 3 months has to be earning upwards of $150,000 adjusted. One of the main points of this protest is that jobs like that are not available to the general population. Sure, a few lucky or unethical people get jobs like that, and they probably do work hard. But there is no way our economy could produce a hundred million jobs like that - at least not while 1% of us hoard 99% of the wealth of the country.

      So in a way, you have strengthened the argument for the protest.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • Brent Slensker

      I've gone blind...What am I supposed to do?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Bill

      You're lying. If you stashed 40K in your savings account you've been cooking meth. BTW, what is a "cooperate" executive, O brilliant entrepreneur?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
    • XO

      @Bill ;). It's all legit. I just study and work very hard. I save what I make. What I spend, I invest to get tot the next round. I never spend the principle. Timeless, age old wisdom.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • XO

      @Edwin I was raised by two heroin addicts who milked the welfare system. I ran away at 17 and put myself to work to get off of government support. I did not take a lateral step like many do taking the job they're parents filled before them. I did not have an unfair advantage. While many in the hood complained, I simply worked hard. The system is fine, it works. People just have self control issues when it comes to money.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Bill

      If it's legit then why are you trying to lure us into emailing you? Give us the details here. Of course when there are no details it's kind of hard to do that. So I change my position. You're not a meth cooker, you're just a liar, or maybe an Amway nut.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • XO

      @Bill It's simple. Work hard! No one ever looks like a fool working hard. That's the secret. But it's too simple for most. Do not live beyond your means. A void credit like the plague. Never, ever spend the principle. You do not go into debt 'by accident'. You have to do stupid things to get into debt. it's no mystery, no magic formula.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  12. SamSite

    Today’s church is about as much for bringing about real social progress as my cat is keen on learning calculus. Please, the Christian church is only really interested in perpetuating the System that Occupy Wall Street is protesting. The church’s high command is a bunch of power hungry gorillas, who flourish under the 21st century nightmare called America. The lesser membership is a bunch of namby-pamby dullards, self medicating by blathering on about forgiveness, passivity, and witnessing. They don’t have the wherewithal, let alone the raw guts, to change anything. Occupy Wall Street won’t accomplish anything if the likes of the church is allowed into the fold. But then, that’s what the church really wants, isn’t it?

    October 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  13. Asia Wall

    Occupation is not a Christian movement. It is a social justice movement. The Episcopal church does not seem to know the difference.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • JohnReedjr

      Christianity at first was a social justice movement before it was a conservative power bloc

      October 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  14. rene

    Christianity has nothing to do with these protests. Christianity is part of the problem, in fact because the GOP has hijacked the churches and brainwashed congregations with morality issues. Please stay away Christians – you had the chance to do what was right when you were in power and blew it all away for corporate greed.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Agreed. Christianity is the problem. We're where we are as a nation because of the divisive nature of christianity; it breeds hatred, contempt, judgement and stupidity.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Rob Dinsmore

      Thanks for your response. This article makes me want to vomit. I can't believe how badly biased religious people are. Not everything is about them or their silly beliefs.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Edwin

      Perhaps christians can retake the image of christianity that has been usurped by the GOP. The original messages of Christianity are not repugnant - it is the current face you cannot abide. If we change that face, maybe the religion can be seen again.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  15. Scott A

    I don't hear people being that hateful – they just want what they deserve. So no, it's not Christian or anything else bad. Why would it even have to be Christian to be worthwhile? Is stealing millions of dollars of tax payers' money and giving it to workers as bonuses rather than putting the company's house in order considered a Christian act? How about hiding money in off-shore accounts so you don't pay taxes on it? Is that something Jesus would do?

    October 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Edwin

      I think you missed the point of this article. The author is comparing the movement to the tenets of true christianity, and finding similarities. Your dislike of Christianity may stem from the fact that it has been straying from its ideals for decades, rather than a dislike of the religion itself.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  16. blinky

    There is nothing in this article "forcing" anyone to be Christian. My wife belongs to an evangelical Christian church, I don't belong to any, but I've never met anyone from her church who tried to coerce me to join. I think the author of the CNN article is trying to say there are POINTS OF SIMILARITY between the protest and Christianity. And there are. Also with American populist tradition, and, though the author denies it, with Western style socialism too. Europeans would have no problem connecting Christian ethics to mild forms of socialism, and we shouldn't either. The author could have spelled out her approach better, though.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Barbara Nichols

      I agree, Blinky. The author didn't purport her expertise was in writing. 😉

      October 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  17. Sparky

    Christianity ruins everythings...just drop it already and just be a decent human without all of the archaic, hoo-doo voo-doo, "I belong to a special club of god's favorites" religious nonsense!

    October 7, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  18. Fizzylift

    To be Christian by historical standards of the church is EXACTLY what Wall street is doing. A shining, rich beacon amidst the poor surrounding it. Think of the glorious churches in the world surrounded by teeming poor. Visit the Vatican, it's soooo rich it makes everything else seem poverty stricken. The church has always collected money from the poor. The fictional Jesus doesn't think or feel anything in regard to modern economic times and it is silly to put thoughts or words in his literary mind. Americans who don't make it are fed up with those who do and those who make the rules who keep those with everything richer and richer. It's cute to reference this to 2000 year old Jewish mythology but this article is as meaningless as the philosophy it quotes.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
    • ch

      I feel sorry for you. Walk thru this if you dare, if I am wrong then I will have lived a great life fullfilled in every way my family and friends will be able to proud to say they knew me and then I go to nothingness. If you are wrong you will spend the rest of eternity in place that is terrible beyond words don't think it is worth at least reading the whole Bible with a open mind to be sure?

      October 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Erisian

      CH: Did you just decide on behalf of God that Fizzylift is going to hell because he doesn't believe Jesus is divine?

      October 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • ch

      @Errison Jesus said this "I am the way and the truth no man can come to Father but by me", He also stated if you are against Me then you are against God. So no I did not decide Jesus is the one who did and will decide

      October 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • Erisian

      The yardstick by which you assert God will judge is is inconsistent with the portrayal of a loving and caring God that is presented throughout the rest of the bible. By these standards everybody in the Americas that could not hear Jesus before 1000AD because of geographical boundaries, as well as half of the Nicene Council, is going to hell. Should we reframe the biblical God to indicate that God so loved man that he created us so that 90% of us could spend eternity in hell? Or could we just say that you don't know that for certain?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • ch

      No! Why is Abrahm in Heaven because he believed God would find a way to make him righteous.

      Yes God is loving, He is also just and hates sin, His words not mine. So this loving God sent His Son Jesus Christ to give us a way to go to Heaven thru the sacrafice that Jesus made. Funny thing about gifts though you must accept them for them to be yours. So the question I ask you do you believe Jesus was a liar? If not why would you not call Him your Savour?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Erisian

      I could only say Jesus was a liar if I was basing what he said on the words you put into his mouth. You purport to know exactly how Jesus will judge people. You believe that only if a person is lucky enough to be born in a place accessible to Christian teachings and that if they conclude based on what they hear that Jesus was divine will they not go to hell. You decided on behalf of Jesus that Fizzylift was. I find it disturbing that you would rush to judge on behalf of Jesus.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • ch

      I have judged no one, I have given you the words of Jesus He told us how the judgement will happen, I am a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus Christ and I have no right to judge anyone.
      As far as people learning about Jesus, Abraham, David and many others knew they where sinners and knew God would somehow provide a way for them to get to Heaven, that way is Jesus Christ for them also. For the people in those far away lands that never see a Bible "all creation speaks of God" to believe there is a creator and that despite my imperfections he would find a way to bring me to Him, which would still be Jesus. There are many witnesses of people learning about Jesus without ever seeing a Bible.
      So when you are standing in front of Jesus what will you tell Him?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Erisian

      The consensus in this room is that"you will spend the rest of eternity in place that is terrible beyond words" is judging someone.

      If Jesus was divine, based on the universal perceptions of a creator God and of understandings about what is good that stretch across philosophies and religions, we will be judged by our actions and not conclusions we came to about which holy book or prophet had it right.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • ch

      In my statement I asked him to consider two options, I never stated which option was his. If he believed the first as Jesus stated that Jesus "is the way and the truth and the light and that no ones comes to the Father except by Him" then he would be headed for Heaven as God decalarednot not me. I am not perfect and hence cannot judge, also I am not perfect so I cannot set the standard by which someone is accepted either. You want God to be good and kind which is true, but you want to cut out the part ofHimthat cannot accept sin, why is that? You then comment that if we do enough good then we would be accepted so I ask you how much good must I do to offset a lie? How about speeding, or stealing? Do you believe God would leave things that embiguous (sp) so we would have to guess if we are good enough to go to Heaven? You would call this a good God?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • ch

      Which do you think are more accurate the writings about Jesus or Alexander the Great

      October 7, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  19. LKJ

    Empowerment of the poor is not a Christian monopoly. Jesus preached this message. So did Buddha. So did Muhammad. And it's not even strictly a religious message. I know my atheist friend agrees with me on many social issues. I hope Christians don't hijack this movement. It should be much broader than that.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • Edwin

      They won't. If anything, it will help illustrate the growing divide between christians who "walk the walk" and those who just use religion as a political tool. Embrace all who share the message of social equity, whether secular or sacred.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • LKJ

      Excellent point.

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

    Not sure I should post this as some here on the BELIEF BLOG are upset that religion is involved even though the article is pretty much about religion but - As a Christian my greatest fear is that my church will become more interested in social activism than in the Word of God. I believe this activism is more for the glorification of the church and its congregation than the glorification of God. If an individual Christian wants to engage in social activism, fine, but to use the church and the cross to sanctify what is a political and economic issue is wrong. Any church that tries to compete with secular humanism in an effort to remain popular or reveliant is making a deal with the devil. Jesus did not call on Rome to help the poor, he called on me and you. If Jesus so condemned wealth, how do you explain the two tax collectors in the gospels?

    October 7, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • urownexperience

      Sorry to break this to you but the Bible is legends and Jesus is a conglomeration of whatever the Roman Church decided we should all believe. Lay aside your dogma and hit the streets. Be really alive for the first time in your life and see what is real, not dead words in some book. Stop hiding behind your religion.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Edwin

      Jesus was DEFINITELY a political figure. He created a movement that transformed the country he lived in. In fact, his movement transformed the entire empire, essentially half the world.

      Christianity has been associated with ACTIVE social agendas since its inception. A significant part of the activism is helping the less fortunate - those that do are glorifying God with their actions. Christianity needs those who want to reshape the world for the better, not just those who want to hide away in their congregations and pretend that is all that is expected of them. God demands we create a better world with our actions.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • martinipaul

      UR: assuming. I was an existenial atheist for years. Would be glad to have a discussion Sartre if you would like. Also assuming that I hide. I don't. Come and get one in the yarbles -
      Ed: didn't say a Christian shouldn't be an activist but to base that activism on Jesus - chapter and verse please? That Christianity is activist I won't argue but I would argue that the church is not built on His teachings.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:25 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.