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. johnny b real

    Yes, down with corporate greed – because everyone deserves what they don't earn... wait, isn't that greed? From the church that blesses pets and allows ministers to live in open sin, I would expect no more.

    October 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • TG

      indeed. The problem is the american psyche, busy sucking down bread and circuses, then crying foul. It breaks my heart to say it, but we are kind of a stupid people.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  2. Col

    ★✩ ★✩ AMERICANS who LOVE FREEDOM MUST FIGHT worker UNIONs! ★✩ ★✩

    UNIONs steal the freedom of the people thru the DEMOCRATS they


    We want the freedom to handle our own health care.

    We want the freedom to start a company.... with out UNIONS
    coming in and telling us how to run it.

    We want the freedom to FIRE ineffective teachers, policemen,
    firemen with out UNIONS telling us we cant.

    October 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • TG

      Yeah! Enough of people banding together for an end. Let's go free-for-all. No freedom of assembly either–let's ixnay that little troublemaker. Ew, ew, can we do away with corporations too–their just groups of people. Yeah, this is going to rule. I can start my own business, mistreat my underpaid slaves (maybe if I'm lucky I can loan them money too and get them in debt to me), and finally live the good life. AMERICA–F@!K YEAH!

      October 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  3. Col

    2 Thessalonians 3:10
    For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

    October 10, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • johnny b real

      amen and amen

      October 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  4. Bob in Denver

    I don't know about other places, but the union boys around here are never ones ot miss church on Sundays. Many of them are actively involved in their communities and participate in pro-Christ activities. The only problem is sometimes that blue collar side of them gets the better of them like the time someone came along during a Christmas celebration at our church and began saying a few unsavory things about our Lord and Savior. Wouldn't you know, our local unionized boys wouldn't stand for that kind of talk and it got a little ugly if you know what I mean. Our pastor had to step in and remind everyone that God was watching and He would not tolerate rowdiness on the birthday of His only begotten son.

    Some of them unionized laborers are veterans of foriegn wars and I guess you just have to remember sometimes that those old reflexes don't ever go away. God bless their hearts.

    October 10, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  5. AD67

    "And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24 KJV)

    October 10, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • johnny b real

      so why try and make more rich? are you asserting the best thing we can do is keep men poor?

      October 10, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Muneef

      "Indeed, those who deny Our verses and are arrogant toward them – the gates of Heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise until a camel enters into the eye of a needle. And thus do We recompense the criminals." (7:40)

      October 11, 2011 at 2:08 am |
    • Karen

      TW15T3D32 on October 24, 2011 I have been doing this and it does work If anyone would like a link to a legit site that does these eorffs Pm me.

      March 3, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  6. fda

    glad to see 18 years of education wasted on this writer.

    October 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  7. BobZemko

    Really? Are priests molesting little boys there, too?

    October 10, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Hypatia

      go back to homeroom, troll

      October 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  8. Brandon

    Are libs heads on backward? You idiots are speaking out against a free market. You should be speaking out against government interference. The big banks should have failed, and the government should have had nothing to do with saving the banks. You should be mad that the government helped big banks before it helped the people.

    October 10, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • TG

      Like crop subsidies and corporate tax breaks, right? Let's get rid of that interference.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  9. bming5

    Ananda: 'Isn't it true, o Buddha, that community service is at least 50% of the spiritual path?' Buddha: 'Wrong Ananda community service is 100% of the spiritual path.'

    October 10, 2011 at 2:47 am |
  10. Central Scrutinizer

    My fellow Americans, until such time as an Atheist, an Agnostic, an openly ho-mose-xual person, or any other minority can be seriously considered for political office, particularly the presidency, then I hang my head in shame as an American. Sure, Obama is half black and that is a step. But where are the Asians, Africans, Mexicans, Gays, Atheists, Agnostics and all other minorities? Scr-ew the Christians! Let some intelligent folks move the country forward for a change. The Christian Right are liars, cheats, thieves and charlatans. The Dems just lie to fit in. Americans, let’s take back our country! The time is now! Call out the politicians on their lies. Call out the banks on their thievery. Take Wall Street money away from the politicians. Smart people in Congress, that should be our mantra, Carry on with common sense or we are doo-med. It is up to us to remove them!

    October 10, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • YurFunny

      LOL...wow, i don't even know where to begin, but oh, the meolodrama!! for the sake of your mental health, i suggest you move to another country, honestly. otherwise, you're destined for a life of constant shame and disappointment.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  11. Adam

    Christ lived during a time of occupation and oppression. Did he rally against the occupiers or march against the government? No political/economic system–capitalistic, democratic, communist or otherwise, can reflect the Kingdom of God. Fight the power by loving the people.

    October 9, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • TG

      uh...actually, he kind of did. his followers sold all their sh@! and lived out of a communal purse.

      Just saying.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • MomOf3

      And didn't Jesus trash the temple when he got angry at the money lenders and the market that had developed there?

      October 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Carmen

      Your aitlcres are very inspiring indeed. I keep coming back! There are so many things I agree on. I hope we can exhange ideas in the future.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  12. Bill L

    Like church? Hardly! Many of these people are marxists and anti-capitalists. While capitalism is not neccessarily a Christian dogma it has brought up peoples standard of living and education, not to mention the freedom to protest like they are.
    Christianity is a system of love for all under a King, Jesus. Church is for worshipping God. It is for giving praise and worship to the God/King who died for us. I have seen nothing of this in any of the protests.
    These protesters don't even know exactly what they're protesting for the most part. Greed? Maybe, but when do they step up for their own responsibility and use the American entrepreneurial spirit to make a living or improving America.
    People, go home and work at making a living.

    October 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • B N

      I had no idea financial regulation was so anti-capitalist. And here I was, some sort of idiot, who believed that increasing regulation over the robber barons of the 1800's led to some of the golden years of the 1900's. I guess if we hadn't done all that trustbusting and monopoly breaking, we'd all be a lot better off- right? Because these are very basic things that were established by Teddy Roosevelt, and if he was an anti-capitalist Marxist, I'll eat my hat.

      October 9, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • YurFunnyToo

      the very definition you offer for church speaks to the fact that you struggled to grasp the message of the article.
      the church is not a 'place.' it is PEOPLE!! and the fact you have compartmentalized it to sunday mornings, and perhaps wednesday nights, demonstrates your insular thinking. she speaks of the COMMUNITY of believers that comprise the spirit of the church..something that's been lacking in recent decades.
      but continued luck with that narrow-mindedness of yurs bud..

      October 9, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Fundie

      Leviticus 25. Enough said.

      October 9, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • YurFunnyToo

      lol.. what the h is leviticus 25 supposed to justify?! i'm confused...

      October 9, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • Erica

      Leviticus 25 talks about the Year of Jubilee. Every 7 years slaves would be free, debts would be forgiven. But we are not a theocracy. I think this woman's article was beautiful and I will share it. That is what church looks like. This isn't about whiny hippies not wanting to work, this is about corruption and greed at every level in the governments love affair with our free market. Love the free market, I really do! But the government has no right promising shareholders that they will be repaid before the taxpayers!! I have conservative values, but I despise the government. It is suppose to be "By the People, and For the People". Our founding fathers are rolling in their graves citizens.

      October 10, 2011 at 12:58 am |
    • YurFunnyToo

      yes, and it's detailing JEWISH law, which doesn't necessarily apply these days, at all, whatsoever..unless you're jewish, of course, and perhaps selling yourself into slavery or buying someone else as a slave.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  13. Jimtanker

    "My Take: Occupy Wall Street looks like church to me"

    No, these people are trying to do something constructive and help people in the real world.

    October 9, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Pantz

      My Take: You only read as far as the headline

      October 9, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  14. KP

    "... 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."

    What a great message, and how unsurprised I was to see it fly right over the heads of most of your readers. I would ask if you commenters are listening to what you're saying, but I already know the answer. Human beings will never cease to amuse me with their total lack of metacognition. The psychology behind such unbending rigidity is really interesting.... until you actually have to TALK to these people that is. The fact is it doesn't MATTER that you had such a well thought out and eloquent article – it provokes anxiety because it undermines the concrete nature of their religious beliefs. When they make stupid comments telling you you're going to hell and you're not a real christian or whatever, it triggers the release of dopamine and makes them feel all better. It's called the dominant status, and it's that frame of mind that makes you feel comfortable and safe, even if that frame of mind is close-mindedness and ignorance. It's the same reasoning behind people with die-hard political beliefs, and we've got the research to back it up. Analyze your own thoughts, people, and you may realize that your idiocy doesn't have to be a terminal illness.

    "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I'm not sure about the universe." ~ Albert Einstein

    October 9, 2011 at 6:23 am |
    • Paul cohen

      good show, lots of folks are so full of hate, confusion, and lack of faith except in their own trip. I support the wall street folks, i tire of seeing my planet destroyed by these twits who think they run our brains too. We need change, tired of giving hard earned money into the hands of these maniacs

      October 9, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  15. Muneef

    We are living a new means of Slavery where slaves are no longer chained with steel chains but rather Chained with Time and Financial obligations towards creditors such as those of credit cards and housing loans... It is not only individuals being Slaved but as well as countries through World Bank and the IMF...!!

    October 8, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • .........

      do not waste time reading reality posts hit report abuse

      October 9, 2011 at 6:19 am |
    • Reality

      And Islam is attempting to enslave the globe with its koranic/imam- driven terror and horror!!--–

      A few examples:

      The Muslim Conquest of India – 11th to 18th century

      ■"The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

      and the 19 million killed in the Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C by Muslims.

      and more recently

      1a) 179 killed in Mumbai/Bombay, 290 injured

      1b) Assassination of Benazir Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh

      2) 9/11, 3000 mostly US citizens, 1000’s injured

      3) The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US troops killed in action, 3,480 and 928 in non combat roles. 102,522 – 112,049 Iraqi civilians killed as of 9/16/2011/, mostly due to suicide bombers, land mines and bombs of various types, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and http://www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf

      4) Kenya- In Nairobi, about 212 people were killed and an estimated 4000 injured; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85.[2]

      5) Bali-in 2002-killing 202 people, 164 of whom were foreign nationals, and 38 Indonesian citizens. A further 209 people were injured.

      6) Bali in 2005- Twenty people were killed, and 129 people were injured by three bombers who killed themselves in the attacks.

      7) Spain in 2004- killing 191 people and wounding 2,050.

      8. UK in 2005- The bombings killed 52 commuters and the four radical Islamic suicide bombers, injured 700.

      9) The execution of an eloping couple in Afghanistan on 04/15/2009 by the Taliban.

      10) – Afghanistan: US troops 1,385 killed in action, 273 killed in non-combat situations as of 09/15/2011. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror

      11) The killing of 13 citizen soldiers at Ft. Hood by a follower of the koran.

      12) 38 Russian citizens killed on March 29, 2010 by Muslim women suicide bombers.

      13) The May 28, 2010 attack on a Islamic religious minority in Pakistan, which have left 98 dead,

      14) Lockerbie is known internationally as the site where, on 21 December 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 crashed as a result of a terrorist bomb. In the United Kingdom the event is referred to as the Lockerbie disaster, the Lockerbie bombing, or simply Lockerbie. Eleven townspeople were killed in Sherwood Crescent, where the plane's wings and fuel tanks plummeted in a fiery explosion, destroying several houses and leaving a huge crater, with debris causing damage to a number of buildings nearby. The 270 fatalities (259 on the plane, 11 in Lockerbie) were citizens of 21 nations.

      15 The daily suicide and/or roadside and/or mosque bombings in the terror world of Islam.

      16) Bombs sent from Yemen by followers of the koran which fortunately were discovered before the bombs were detonated.

      17) The killing of 58 Christians in a Catholic church in one of the latest acts of horror and terror in Iraq.

      18) Moscow airport suicide bombing: 35 dead, 130 injured. January 25, 2011.

      19) A Pakistani minister, who had said he was getting death threats because of his stance against the country's controversial blasphemy law, was shot and killed Wednesday, 3/2/2011

      20) two American troops killed in Germany by a recently radicalized Muslim, 3/3/2011

      21) the kidnapping and apparent killing of a follower of Zoraster in the dark world of Islamic Pakistan.

      22) Shariatpur, Bangladesh (CNN 3/30/2011) – Hena Akhter's last words to her mother proclaimed her innocence. But it was too late to save the 14-year-old girl. Her fellow villagers in Bangladesh's Shariatpur district had already passed harsh judgment on her. Guilty, they said, of having an affair with a married man. The imam from the local mosque ordered the fatwa, or religious ruling, and the punishment: 101 lashes delivered swiftly, deliberately in public. Hena dropped after 70 and died a week later.

      23) "October 4, 2011, 100 die as a truck loaded with drums of fuel exploded Tuesday at the gate of compound housing several government ministries on a busy Mogadishu street. It was the deadliest single bombing carried out by the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group in Somalia since their insurgency began. "

      October 10, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  16. Baccar Wozat

    Religious? Rioting is a form of pestilence. This is one of the Four Horsemen in action.

    October 8, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Kyle

      But these people are not rioting. They are gathering in single areas of their respective cities, and at times marching from one spot to another. If you want to see "rioting", I suggest you look at what occurred in London only weeks ago.

      October 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Fundie

      Or they could be protesting the worship of Mammon (money) that's so pervasive in the U.S. today...

      October 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  17. Bay Area Protest Chaplains

    Calling all Bay Area religious leaders (lay, ordained, seminarians) - email bayareaprotestchaplains at gmail. Let's organize a spiritual presence for the Bay Area occupation!

    October 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Paul cohen

      love to see the churches and other religions chip in instead of preaching to wealthy folks and preaching to each other and raking in the bucks, anybody ever see large churches with any poor folk involved. A few but not many

      October 9, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  18. farmerjeani

    Everything I've always wanted to say. Amen.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  19. Garnet

    This article was also written about what Jesus has to do with the current Wall Street Protest.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  20. lastofall

    The Word of God tells us that we are to put away clamor from us, which you may or may not know means protest, as in a chorus of disapproval. We which do believe do know that we are not to involve ourselves with this world´s matters, because we are not of this world; because it is they of the world who are the ones that speak of the world, and it is the world which hears them. We which are of God hears God´s Words only, and shall flee from strangers who do not speak in behalf of the Lord. If you had learned anything in becoming a wise and prudent sort, you ought to have learned that the truth is hid from such, which may be why you are going along with the world´s ways and protesting.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • YurFunny

      and why, pray tell, are you involving yourself with commenting on this article, and these matters of the world?!
      thou art (in keeping with your clear preference for king james fundamentalism) reminiscent of balaam's ride of choice..

      October 9, 2011 at 6:20 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.