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. b4big bang

    @Barbara 451: One thing atheists can't seem to wrap their head around is the fact that humans always have and prob always will kill one another for religious *or any other excuse*. Can't blame religion for the violent streak. Even chimps organize and ambush and kill other groups of chimps.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Doug

      They see what they want to see.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • *frank*

      "Can't blame religion for the violent streak."
      Then you can't credit religion for the rosier behavior.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Franco

      So, your answer is to just accept the violence and move on? I think your position does demonstrate the difference between theists and atheists. Theists, at least adherents of the Abrahamic religions, think of humans as naturally evil, in need of divine intervention and the threat of eternal damnation to stay in line. We atheists believe humans are naturally compassionate and decent, and that given the choice, most people will choose to do the right thing. While secular humanism seeks to erase arbitrary boundaries between people, religions tend to divide people through exclusivity.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • john lindauer

      human beings are not chimps. they can chose a path beyond instinct. many religious folk are kind and gentle. but MANY are judgmental and mean. they seem to follow every part of the bible except the sermon on the mount and the ten commandments. I

      religion has become politics. and politics is F-UGLY.

      if you're really a CHRISTIAN, you should renounce all political parties – and instead find thoughtful men and women, regardless of party, will to work to help our nation. not sign a bunch of stupid pledges to demagogues who only serve themselves.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  2. john lindauer

    count the letters. it's hilarious and sad.

    R-o-n-a-l-d = 6

    W-i-l-s-o-n = 6

    R-e-a-g-a-n = 6

    what's that? 6-6-6.

    weird. no wonder the "christians" on the far right can no longer find Christ in the idea of social justice. (didn't Christ charge into a temple full of men "selling religion for cash" and tear it down?)

    just sayin.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • LKJ

      I wouldn't call him the Anti-Christ, but I do think that the Reagan administration brought on the beginning of many of our current problems, from homelessness to outsourcing.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  3. Bub

    I are the holiez.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  4. Mark Taylor

    Before making sweeping, uninformed generalizations how about going to your library and checking out "How God Changes Your Brain" this was written by two neuroscientists, one agnostic. Also the predecessor "Why God Won't Go Away". Chairman Mao and Josef Stalin, both confirmed atheists, killed and oppressed more people in a 50 year span those in the name of religion. It's popular to make comments like the one you have made but brain scans of those who engage in spiritual and religious practices where God is contemplated seriously show precisely the opposite of claims made by guys like Richard Dawkins. He provides absolutely zero scientific facts for his claims that religion is bad for you. Don't take my word for it, If you are truly interested in truth then study the findings from this 8 year study.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Credenza

      Nice one. That is a really good comment. Thank you.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • JJWW

      The only thing unholy here is your grammar.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Franco

      The Stalin/Mao argument is one commonly used by theists to point out that atheists are bad, too. It has a significant flaw, however. Yes, Mao and Stalin were atheists, and they were responsible for a staggering number of deaths, but they didn't kill in the name of atheism. They killed for political reasons and to solidify their power. Atheism simply means "without religion." It is not an affirmative position, so it doesn't inspire people to action per se. There are infinite things you don't believe in, but it's ridiculous to assume you would kill for any of them. Yes, atheists, because they are subject to human frailties, are capable of terrible behavior. But that's because they are human, not because they are atheists. There are, however, countless examples of people doing horrific things in the name of one god or another. Watch your logical fallacies.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      Franco – regardless of how you want to spin Mao and Stalin – try reading the book I mentioned. It does not advocate any particular spiritual path and one of the authors is agnostic. It's fascinating stuff filled with empirical data from the study – something Dawkins and others like him have failed to do. the data proves that spiritual contemplation is actually very good for your brain. It's anger and trying to force particular theologies that is harmful. I don't disagree that people have done terrible things in the name of religion. Mao and Stalin certainly did conduct purges of religious people by the way – read.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:38 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Then why are so many christians terrible, greedy people? I just don't see a connection between christianity and goodness.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  5. windypoint

    Please keep in mind that many of the most overt Christians in today's political scene are also among the least tolerant and forgiving members of our society. There seems to be an inverse relationship between tolerance and the number of times you have been born.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • LUNA

      Wendy maybe you need to stop being so judgemental:)

      October 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Mark Taylor

      Not true by any stretch of the imagination. Extreme conservatives may have hijacked the word "Christian" but their views have almost nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. There are plenty of us out here that DO call ourselves Christian and DO try to follow those teachings – especially the Sermon on the Mount, especially forgiveness of others and recognizing our own spiritual poverty.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • Credenza

      I could call myself a Buddhist monk. It wouldn't make me one!

      Too many people abuse the word 'Christian'. If they're not following the way of Jesus Christ in the best way they can, then they have NO right to the name. It is not a designer label; it is a way of life.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • JG


      perhaps the extremists are the only one to make the news or to catch your attention?

      I'm not Christian but I know plenty of them personally who do give many of their wealth year after year to organizations and charities. They are also good-hearted people, and they don't judge me for not agreeing with their faith.

      These types of Christians don't make news because they don't "sell" controversial news. What sells controversy are extreme opinions – the kind we see when we rely on news sources and "stand-out" representatives. Open your eyes, there are good and bad everywhere. If we want more good in the world, we just need to perceive it.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  6. wharf0rat

    Time for a Jubilee.

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

      Maybe it's time for the CHRISTIANS to wake up from their slumber, the sign of the time are here, and it's not looking pretty.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • wharf0rat

      Did you mean to say "the sign of the time is here" or "the signs of the time are here"?

      October 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  7. barbara451

    Steveo To quell your discomfort, I have studied the history of western civilizations. They all had a "god" and fought wars in that name. There was a society of women in early western history and they had no army. Needless to say they did not last long as violence in the name of a supreme being destroyed. them.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • James

      I believe if you will consider your posts and your own words you will agree that what you describe is the effect of greed, be it for wealth, power or what have you as the root of the misery you describe. The actual practice of religion is most often a positive in human existince. The missuse of religion in the name of that greed (a very basic human trait) leads to the suffering and destruction you describe. There are many religious systems of the world guilty of this, not just Christianity. For the record, I too have studied the religions of the world and have taught it on what is refered to as an upper level, I suppose.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Credenza

      Well said, James. Your comment is credible based on what we know of religion generally.

      If Barbara considers the sheer scale and viciousness of the murders and slavery carried out by Atheists, she will understand that the 'godless' have killed more in the last 150 years than ALL the religions in history. And the religious wars etc WERE based on greed and power. Not God.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  8. Ed Zachary

    As an Episcopalian, I don't see much in common with the people occupying Wall Street. I see an opportunistic gathering of people who are unhappy for a wide range of reasons, and a significant number of "professional" protestors, provocateurs and spokespersons desperately trying to tie all these strings together into something they can lead. The peace, love and social justice crowd had better be careful that they don't end up fomenting anarchy, which brings justice to no one, only chaos.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Faithful

      God loves chaos. He does His best work with chaos. It people that get their panties in a twist...

      October 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • wharf0rat

      That's your problem, Ed. You are living your life based on fear, not love. Some Christian you are.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  9. barbara451

    Steveo research what ?Christianity or misery

    October 7, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Doug

      Hypocrits. If you really want to focus on the community, do so. Get a job, make some money, spread the wealth. Don't stand there protesting other people. Be the good you want to see.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  10. barbara451

    IT IS NOT CHRISTIAN. IT IS NOT CHRISTIAN. Religion is the cause of all this misery in this world.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Steveo

      sounds like you have no clue do some reseach

      October 7, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Steveo

      research don't want you to complain about my spelling. 😉

      October 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • D. Hazen

      You might be surprised to know that the 3rd Reich in the 1930 had similar thoughts about religion, particularly Judaism and Christianity. As for the source of human (world) misery, look to yourself and note the distance between you and your Creator. Relief from misery can been found in large part through one's own reconciliation with family, society, and with God. I wish you well in that pursuit barbara451.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • gingersrule1

      Actually the root of the cause is Christian like in every way. The name Christian was invented by Greeks who worshiped many Gods and Idols. The early followers of Christ were called followers of The Way. The Way indicates not a zeal for religiosity but for living as Jesus did. Helping the poor in finances and the poor in spirit. This article is a very good way of describing solutions to our problems in a way that Jesus would agree with. Jesus constantly rebuked the people with money who were the Sadducees and Pharisees for many different reasons. Jesus was not a greedy man just because he was God in the flesh but because he was showing us how we should live if we want to know God. The people who call themselves Christians but stand for capitalism and greed are the people that Jesus will say I never knew you when it comes time for the reckoning. It is people like this that define true Christian values in todays age and the conservatives embody the idea of who the greedy were in Jesus' time. This is the best article I have ever seen on CNN.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  11. Tom

    The Tea Party hides behind the Christian label but they do not follow his teachings. The OWS protestors care for the poor and that is what Jesus taught.

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

      Is that what they they care about, the poor? I don't think they know what they care about (each individual may have a specific cause but the movement in general seems to lack any type cohesion). They're just mad and the banks are the biggest and easiest scapegoats around. I'm no fan of banks

      October 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Jim

      ... but I do understand that, until we are willing to stop kicking their asses over everything, we won't see any significant improvement to our economy. They are a very necessary evil.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  12. Bill

    While the movement as a whole is not overtly Christian, there are strong Christian and spiritual overtones to it. Until very recently Christians were quite often on the cutting edge of social justice movements. May were abolitionists, others fought to end child labor and still other sought for Social Security and other programs that assist the poor. The Religious Right has unfortunately kidnapped the word "Christian" and distorted it to mean something ugly, greedy and hateful. Of course Jesus himself said that many false teachers would come around claiming to be his representatives. Looks like he was right.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Lee

      If the right has kidnapped the word Christian then blame yourselves. I see very few so-called christians out truly protesting the problems of this country today, from the death penalty to ensuring gays have the same rights as straights. Perhaps they do feel their so-called christian values, but they don't really seem to be doing anything about them, except of course electing right-wing nut jobs to power.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  13. Bill Wilson

    De Chardin said it is the evolution of our christian natures to have a universal consciousness. Or what i like to think of as what hurts you hurts me. He said the Cities would be the place where this would occur first as we learn we must get along. T Jefferson hated cities as he said they breed every kind of vice and man's endless search for shortcuts/corruption. One might think of WS as heartless or without a soul as money compounding with every kind of short practice today even sends investors running for cover. With a thousand just causes always ready to have or give voice and on the other side we mostly hear the right wing talk hosts that sabotage our elected president and economy with deregulation and promotion of big business at all costs. The answers are in each of us and many and simple, already we hear about the corruption of Kock Brothers and rumblings of need to bring back sensible regulations. For me the Keystone XL pipeline will be the cause that will define our willingness to finally see and act about the interrelations of most of the causes for justice and a sustained shared world. Our way of life of dependence and addiction on oil kill children from asthma and heart disease, It keeps us running around senselessly in our cars where we live remote and angry and never connect the last car accident we saw to the real destruction of lives and families making war and our mean natures deaf to the calls this article articulates so well.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  14. Jim Jensen

    This article is written by a nut-bag, and it's utterly mystifying why CNN would post it. The Wall Street occupiers want democracy rather than the oligarchy we have now, and that has f..k all to do with religion of any description.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  15. Loss4Words

    Yup...the meek shall inherit the earth...after the warriors have conquered it and sacked its cities...after the agriculturists have farmed it and left it barren of plants...after the mining concerns have stripped it of all its minerals...and after the bankers have mortgaged and leveraged it in foreign investments. Yup...the Christians can have it...or what's left!

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

      The biggest problem with America today is excessive pessimism. We're addicted to it.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  16. fred ca

    Why oh why did monty python allow the twit olympics to end. We have a sure fire winner in the writer of this blog.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  17. Bill

    I believe the commenter overloaded Doris' tiny brain.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
  18. Bill

    Speaking as an Episcopalian, I can say that there is nothing more Christian than social justice. Those who would claim otherwise, such as tea partiers, are not truly Christian.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • sargeanton

      Jesus never taught social justice. Read the New Testament sometime.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • Credenza

      @sargeanton – "Jesus never taught social justice!" – I don't know which tin-pot version of the New Testament you've got, but it sure ain't the same as mine! Read Zaccheus first. If you can manage that read some more and learn!

      You also said that Jesus threw the money lenders out of His Father's house because they were ripping off ordinary folks. BUT according to YOU He wasn't an activist??????? PURLEEEZE! Make your mind up.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Alex II

      It is true, as explained in the Jesuit Liberation Theology.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  19. jo an

    If Jesus were here...do you think he would be 'with the people' or up in the towers with the 1%??? He is here...and we are all one...

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

      @jo an
      He is also here too, and with the bankers inside those buildings too. He's wherever one will receive Him and He doesn't care about our politics. No more than your movement has a religious truth or message.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • sargeanton

      If Jesus were here, He wouldn't be in either place. He'd be in the church throwing out the phonies. He was not a money mongerer, nor was He a protestor.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  20. *frank*

    I think the author is really reaching here. Like, so hard she may have torn a rotator cuff.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:12 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.