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. Muneef

    What they say;

    October 12, 2011 at 2:04 am |
  2. Muneef

    Seems there are intentions to drag USA to waste further more of your Tax Money and your youths blood on wars and in interventions with other countries policies. Have received an e.mail with the following link from a Syrian friend stating that Fox News is taking opinions as if USA to intervene in Syria and he wrote that to me with the link;

    Please tell all your friends to be with us and say "NO",Please select No 3.


    October 11, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  3. Jared Roussel

    Genuine love and spiritual connection will always be our connection to each other, not what one book says versus another.

    October 10, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  4. STAB

    this women is a communist loyalist who will not be happy until the united states is destroyed,she is a traitor to her country and should be dealt with quickly,cnn is also a sympathizer and remember cnn was started by ted turner an athiest and jane fonda a traitor,nuf said!!!!!!!!!!

    October 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • vlaughlin

      Your post provides absolutely no reasoning. Also, lessons in grammar and capitalization are badly needed. If you don't have something that adds to the discussion, then please don't say anything at all.

      October 10, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Muneef

      Strange ! We thought we had one like that but to our surprise she was given the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday...? Why are our's are considered heroes while yours you consider as traitors and that you need them be destroyed...!!?

      October 11, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • jd

      "she should be dealt with"? so are you saying to hell with our legal system and just punish her for expressing her opinions? Now who is the traitor??

      October 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  5. chaplain2

    From one Ivy educated chaplain to another, I thank you! Clearly not everyone in the occupy movement is motivated by Christian ideals, nor will all onlookers understand the movement in this way, but there is something notably "the Way" about it. In a time when churches are struggling more than ever, it's no wonder that humanity's desire for justice is boiling over in this way. I'm reminded of Luke 19:40, when Jesus is asked to stop his disciples from entering the city, Jesus responds, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out" (NRSV). If our churches refuse to speak up for what is injust, or worse yet to add to the existing injustice, then even the stones will shout. Cries for equality will come from the most unexpected places when those who should be fighting for it have stopped. Shout on dear stones.

    October 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  6. Justicepagol

    we have 1% powerful super rich elites and 99% poor and meek around the world. Unfortunately these 99% poor and meek people are sleeping but they are slowly waking up and they will win as the bible predicts, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”.

    October 10, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  7. lolwat

    I think it's silly that some Christians are buying into this modern-day hippie movement. Because that's all it really is: modern-day hippies.

    October 10, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • phnxrth

      Those who are involved in this don't like the comparison but those of us who have seen a protest or two in our time know that they represent people wanting a cause. The problem with people wanting a cause is that any will suffice, and causes tend to be ends unto themselves.

      People need to believe they can change something but are distracting themselves from the need to change themselves. Best case scenario this is a big preshow before individuals go to work on changing themselves. The preshow is not needed.

      October 10, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  8. conoclast

    The 'soul of America' pretty well describes what's at issue. In particular, to the kids on The Street it's about who we are at our core as Americans versus what we seem to be fast becoming. They've connected the socio-economic dots and are repulsed by what they see. They're there for all of us who have connected those same dots: they're heroes!

    October 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  9. Steve

    ^^^ I think that's awesome and probably what others are starting to learn from all this. We don't need much to be happy, we just need to be comfortable and able to care for ourselves. In my opinion, there's a difference between comfort and excess. And there's a lot of encouragement to have more more more, buy stuff and be the BEST by having the MOST. It's the reason advertising works so well, because it plays on our psychological needs and essentially makes us feel bad about ourselves, compelling us to WANT to feel BETTER (want to buy).

    I don't know... I think the problem is that people are searching for practical solutions when it's more about this, spirituality. The tricky thing about spirituality is that people can't measure or manipulate or obsess over it. People want to argue about THINGS, not some invisible/emotional idea.

    October 10, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  10. Fairfax Mom

    Here's the Atlanta Occupy Wall St. video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QZlp3eGMNI This is their religion. I don't know why people characterize this group as 'students' or 'young people'. Most of them pictured in the video are over 40 or 50. Many photos and videos depict the protesters in Halloween costumes, so mature. The ones I've seen interviewed in different states have either been drunk or in a drug induced stupor. This writer is dreaming. Now you know why my kids will not even apply to an Ivy League school. This is the warped thinking of their PHd's right in this . Watch the video.
    Occupy Atlanta Video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QZlp3eGMNI

    October 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  11. longshot

    great, now the jesus freaks are trying to jump in front of this parade

    October 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  12. Dan

    For a second, I thought this article might be an intelligent view on the OWS movement...until I realized this was just another religious wacko spewing her ideals upon everyone. Buh-bye!!!

    October 10, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  13. Brett

    I thought the line was, "Blessed are the poor in spirit"?

    October 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  14. Steve

    Here's my take on occupy wall street: It can be about politics and capitalism, and obviously is in many ways, but as this article points out, something spiritual can also grow from these surface ideas. And spirituality is good, right? In my opinion it is, and it's something that we as Americans don't do very well. We do REALLY well at scratching and clawing to move up in our careers and playing "the game of life"– and there's NOTHING WRONG with that– but there comes a problem when large amounts of pressure to 'win' the game of life overtakes the joy of life itself.

    We've been led astray from the real meaning of life by a heightened sense of fear because of our current day situation. NO ONE is to blame; it's not about pointing fingers. It's just like in a relationship between two people... whenever there's an OVERALL problem neither person wants to take the heat. Even though in most situations, each person has some fault in the issue. We need to bypass the finger pointing and complaining and focus on the bigger picture of LIFE.

    If we are happier and more spiritually connected as individuals, our progress as a society will follow as a bonus. Right now we're sullen and bitter. Everyone. Not just the people at these riots. My mom, dad, friends, nearly everyone I know.

    October 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Babs

      I could own a Mercedes but I don't...I could have a big house but I don't...I could have lots of Things...but I don't. I have had many things but I don't. I have downsized my life (BY CHOICE) and I am happy...the happiest I have ever been. I feel for the first time I AM in control of my destiny. That what they are fighting for...the right to control their own lives and stop letting big money and bad politics do it for them.

      October 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  15. jj

    Don't try to read your religion into the movement. The movement is protesting against rightwing nutcase "Christian" greed.

    October 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  16. shelly

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Declaration of Independence
    We have liberty and we can pursue happiness, but until everyone supports the right to life for our unborn brothers and sisters, we are hypocrites. If the right to life in not upheld then our foundation as a country is weak. If we cannot defend the most defenseless then who can we defend. No more greed, no more abortion, no more capital punishment, no more war, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the poor. That is true "church"

    October 10, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • So

      No more prejudice and let gays marry! A woman has the right to choose what is going to happen to their bodies, NOT you! When abortion becomes illegal the crime rates go up because people like you want to require these unwanted children to be born. Put your religion into action and go adopt some children stuck in foster care hypocrite!

      October 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  17. Tom

    The Tea Party claimed the Christian mantle and acted anything but Christian. That's usually the way it works, the people who hide behind the Bible don't live by it. Jesus himself wouldn't recognize modern day Christianity, it has become a hate filled right wing nationalist political movement.

    October 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • littleriver2

      Sad but very true. It bears no likeness to Christianity.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Aaron

      The Tea Party did not claim anything, just as the OWS movement does not claim anything.

      It is the media that assigns all of your prejudices. I support both movements and I am secular.

      October 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • MM

      The T.E.A. party claimed to be Taxed Enough Already. Why do people who work for a living have half of everything confiscated by the ones who don't. People agains the T.E.A. party are usually leaches sucking the life out of the producers.

      October 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  18. Etchasketch

    Shakey Shakey Shakey =)

    October 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  19. Col

    ☆★☆★ Things UNIONS have made ☆★☆★

    1) EMPTY factories..
    2) EMPTY Homes
    3) Overseas Jobs.
    4) Bankrupt pensions
    6) Obama.

    October 10, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Jim

      You need to catch a clue brother...Obama INHERITED the mess...why dont you go back to Fairytales instead...facts shouldnt get in your way.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • littleriver2

      More of the same old "empty" jargon. Boreing!!!! Anyone not for Unions in this day and time isn't paying attention.

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

      Your into STIGMATA KUNTROVERSY!!!!!

      October 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • John

      Jim yes Obama got a bad economy, but so far he has only made it worse.

      October 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • KZimm63

      Don't see how it can be the unions fault. Union membership has dropped from 20% of all American workers in 1983 to 11% in 2010. Explain to me how a decline in unions in this country is causing the issues you mentioned? Maybe if union membership in the last 28 years had grown substantially you may have a point. But a big decline has actually happened so how does a decline make the unions the scapegoats?

      October 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • longshot

      I suppose unions designed crap cars that caused everyone to buy foreign? unions horded profits instead of investing in new steel technologies? Got news for you, unions are the only thing propping up whats left of middle class America, and before too long that will be gone, so why are you siding with corporate greed?

      October 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Daws

      The weekend? A minimum wage? The 40 hour work week? How come exorbitant CEO wages are never to blame for any of the things you mentioned?

      October 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Clyde

      Unions brought us the weekend. Organize teh unorganized for human dignity.

      October 10, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  20. Col

    ★✩★✩ Herman Cain to protesters ★✩★✩

    "Don't blame Wall Street.
    Don't blame the Big Banks.
    If you don't have a job, and you're not rich, blame yourself."

    "It is not a person's fault because they succeed.
    It is a person's fault if they fail."

    – Herman Cain

    October 10, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • littleriver2

      I understand he made it bigtime by walking over people. NOW? It's your fault if you can't make it in the middle of a recession. What logic! What a heart! What a leader wannabe.

      October 10, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • JFE

      Sorry, I disagree with that philosophy entirely, Col.
      I think Elizabeth Warren has a bigger vision of what makes people wealthy: each other.

      " There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.

      Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

      October 10, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • John

      Well as it is happening already, when the less than rich man can't buy the successful man's product, no one wins. Class warfare is starting, and the future will resemble Mad Max days in the future. Does anyone need to live on more than even $1 million dollars a year, and I,m willing to give a man his million.

      October 10, 2011 at 6:39 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.