Prophetic voices in the Occupy movement

November 2, 2011
Occupy Sydney, October 15.

… and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

In my spare moments, I have been collecting Christian responses to the Occupy Wall Street movement. A few common themes have emerged.

One of the most dramatic themes has been a number of protesters dressed like Jesus with signs reading something like: “I threw out the moneylenders for a reason.” Another similarly theatrical one is images of Wall Street’s Charging Bull statue compared to the golden calf idol which the children of Israel worshiped in Exodus.

A more serious and spiritual engagement has come from the “protest chaplains”, a movement of Christian clergy who go to the occupations with signs saying “blessed are the poor”, and offering spiritual blessings and even communion at the occupations.

All of these symbolic actions have been greeted with solidarity, and have made it clear there are progressive Christians who support the occupation, because the God we believe in is on the side of the poor and oppressed.

That being said, I do not believe the response of left Christians has yet gone deep enough. I also think there are problems in the messages we have been giving out. The most disturbing in my view is the tendency of Christian activists to be moralistic in their criticisms. We imply that the bankers are bad people, who commit the sins of greed and usury. We present ourselves by contrast as good people, nice Christians who give blessings to the poor.

The reality is that it was our spiritual ancestors who erected the golden calf, and they were not bankers, they were poor refugees. It was not capitalists that Jesus threw out of the temple — it was the religious establishment. In Mark 11:15 and John 2:14, 16 it is clear that the “money-changers” were selling animals for religious purposes.

Many Jesus scholars believe that Jesus was acting against the temple-aristocracy, who were in function the agents of the Roman Empire in Jerusalem. He was not condemning usury, or anything remotely similar to our banks or stock exchanges. But he was performing a prophetic action which exposed the injustice of a global system of military oppression.

Like the temple aristocracy, churches in our world remain rich, oppressive and culturally aloof. A 21st century Jesus may well be throwing us out, not the bankers. So, who are we to cast moral judgment?

Pictures of a modern-day Jesus occupying Wall Street, of a modern day Moses smashing the golden-calf of Capitalism are therefore historically misleading — but that is not the worst of it. By making individual, “naughty”, “greedy” 1-percenters the object of a moral critique, the Christian left offer a message that belongs in the shallow end of the Occupy movement.

The movement, by contrast, is deep. It is so deep that its most fervent critics can only guess at what the “demands” of the movement are, and in ridiculing its lack of demands show that they have missed the whole zeitgeist of the historical moment.

Occupying the financial district of a town is an action which reveals structural flaws in an economic system that is oppressive because it is undemocratic: because it serves the 1%.

We dare not forget what happened when, under Christian influence, the suffragette movement abandoned feminism’s structural critique of patriarchy in favour of a programme of tee-totalling and long, beige dresses.

The Christian message itself became distorted, and the image of christian wowserism became part of the modern imagination.

Steinbeck had this to say about capitalism: “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolise. There is a failure here that topples all our success.”

His understanding of the human toll of the systematic oppression bred by capitalism was borne out of being an eyewitness to the Great Depression. He was therefore able to speak out of a deep, costly and loving identification with the real people capitalism chews up and spits out.

By contrast, the Christian message becomes comical if it cannot wade into the deep structures of injustice, and prefers to splash around in the shallows of “I thank you Lord that I am not a sinner like that wicked, greedy banker!”

More appealing is the message of the protest chaplains. The assemblies of the 99% are in many ways like the primitive ekklesia. However, I feel cautious about the potential of turning this whole movement into something about us, about our identity. The politics of identity are notoriously self-indulgent and can divide movements.

If the 99% are the “true church”, then they are not the 99%. The 99% are Christians, but they are also Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and people who are spiritual but not committed to any structural belief system.

What I want to suggest as an alternative to all of this is simply that Christians get involved in the occupations as (wait for it) … normal people!

The message we preach by our behaviour will speak louder than any religious words we say. The image closest to my heart is not of some prophet railing against the rich people, but instead, the image of Coptic Orthodox people in Tahrir square, forming circles around Muslims at prayer so they would not be attacked while they were defenceless.

Christian responses to the politics of the day must not try to usurp the movement by bringing in our own trendy theology, by squirreling away in our holy books and finding every possible allegorical connection between a Biblical story and the current events.

The prophetic voice of the Christian community must ultimately ask the question, what is the Spirit saying today? This question is discerned by paying attention to the signs of the times when we listen to the holy books of our alternative newspapers, blogs, YouTube and Flickr.

I will never forget the morning that I first glanced at the news and saw that a revolution had broken out in Tunisia. This was something completely different to me. Having been born in 1980 at the very beginning of the decade of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, all I had ever seen in international news was wars, famines, genocides and economic summits.

The Word of the Lord was rare in those days, and there were not many visions. Revolutions, I only read about in history books. But at the dawn of the Arab Spring, there was hope. The thought came to me that after decades of Western powers trying to bomb democracy into the Middle East, these people had risen up spontaneously and taken their own democratic freedom, and they won it as quickly as they demanded it! Hear the Word of the Lord, these bones shall live!

Then it spread to Egypt, and Tahrir Square, and it was no longer a small thing: it was a huge thing. It spread to Spain and Greece, and it was a global movement. I spent more time reading news stories than I ever had in my life. Behold I am about to do something new in your day, even now it is coming, do you not see it?

Then it spread to Wall Street, and the revolution was in the West. The newspapers ignored it but images of police brutality were all over YouTube — the orange fencing and the unprovoked use of pepper-spray. A week ago, it came to my home city of Sydney and I stood there at the opening assembly of the occupation and realised what had happened. This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes.

Humanity has taken a new turn. This was a moment that had no precedent I could think of. It was undeniably international, unquestionably revolutionary, and irrefutably from below. Political parties who never predicted it couldn’t claim to understand it — and neither should we as Christians.

A spiritual revolution has taken place, and the spark of Tunisia has set the world ablaze. I too was standing in Tunisia. I was standing in Tahrir Square and Puerta del Sol: in the Kingdom of God.

[Karl Hand is a socialist and an ordained Christian minister.]


A fine analysis but: Beware of those who have another agenda - serving the movement is secondary to serving the Lord. Fundamentally, all chaplains are fundamentalists filled with missionary zeal. They seek out the vulnerable and spiritual vacuums wherever thay may be - schools, youth groups, and yes, the streets.
Many liberal Christians undertake roles as chaplains. You know, folks who detest Christian fundamentalism. So, if you are implying this of Karl Hand and many others then you mustn't know them. Introduce yourself. They won't bite or Bible bash & they're certainly not as offensive as some of the fundamentalist atheists I know.

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