Religion itself needs redemption. In the Occupy movement, its potent ideals and traditions of resistance are resurrected
Faith of the faithful: at Judson Memorial Church, New York, 'protest chaplains' pledge support for Occupy Wall Street. Photo by Andrew Burton/AP
Joerg Rieger is professor of constructive theology at the Perkins School of Theology at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and co-author of Occupy Religion (2012).
Late last year, people started putting up tents in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Similar things started happening to public spaces in cities across the United States, and indeed across the globe. Occupy protests were reported on every continent beside Antarctica. The movement’s defining image, its most visible expression, was young people camping out on public squares. Its other manifestations are much less well known, if no less significant. Occupy Homes, for instance, organised US neighbourhoods to prevent mortgage foreclosures and family evictions. Occupy Sandy is a more recent sign of life: it formed in response to the devastating hurricane that struck the east coast of America. Occupy Religion is still another strand, embodied by people who felt compelled by their faith to join the protests, people whose spiritual commitment grew deeper in the streets.
Religion, particularly in the US, is commonly used to justify power. The divine is envisioned as commander-in-chief, a successful CEO, an arch-conservative. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, has tried to embody alternatives. It called attention to the flow of power in economics and politics. Its battle cry ‘We are the 99 per cent’ was a wake-up call heard around the world. It reminded us that many are no longer benefiting from the ways in which the economy is going and from how politics is organised. It seemed, in short, and in America at least, as if Occupy was playing on religion’s opposing team.
So, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the expressions of faith embodied by Occupy tended to go ignored. It simply did not occur to most observers that the movement might enjoy a good deal of support from religious communities, or that religious professionals might have got involved — indeed, some of them became known as ‘Occupy chaplains’. The media, for its part, rarely reported Occupy’s spiritual links and implications. Perhaps they just didn’t want to offend well-connected religious power brokers.
This tendency to overlook the role of progressive religion in our own time is matched, curiously enough, by a forgetfulness about the part that it has played in social movements in the past. For more than two centuries in the US, faith has been inextricably tied to the abolition of slavery, the battle for the vote for women and minorities, the organisation of workers and the labour movement, and the Civil Rights movement. It was a force for change.
Yet even sympathetic observers who remembered religion’s former emancipatory role might have been thrown by the shape it took within Occupy. That’s largely down to the particular nature of the movement. Famously, it has not produced visible leaders. In the same spirit, its connection to faith did not depend on prominent religious figures. The Occupy movement did not give birth to a new generation of Elizabeth Cady Stantons or Martin Luther Kings. This might strike some as a failure. On the contrary, I look on it as an expression of the new forms of solidarity that are developing within the 99 per cent.
The Occupy movement addresses power. So does religion, but it does so in conflicting ways. To give an example: it often operates with images of divine authority that echo the powers that be. In ancient times, state religions imagined God as a heavenly monarch, modelled after particular rulers. Today, dominant religion imagines God, often by default, as the boss who calls the shots and rewards religious shareholders. This is not only the message of the so-called Gospel of Prosperity; mainstream churches of all major denominations are found in this camp as well. Who can blame atheists for flagging this kind of theism as the wishful thinking of the status quo?
Yet there are alternative forms of religion, and alternative images of the divine to go with them. The early Christians proclaimed a God who was executed on a cross in solidarity with the people. For this, the Roman elites called them atheists. In the Civil Rights movement, God was conceived as the liberator who challenged oppression and used leaders such as Moses and Martin Luther King to lead the people to freedom.
Jesus himself was a construction worker, and would have been in touch with the many unemployed of his time
In the context of the Occupy movement, fresh images of God are emerging. Some of these images connect us back to ancient and forgotten traditions of liberation, rather like the Civil Rights movement discovering Moses and the labour movement reclaiming Jesus as well as the prophetic traditions. In Occupy, these emerging images might bring us closer to the true nature of the world and of the cosmos than any of the dominant images could.
Dangerously, some Christians in the movement were reminded of where and how Jesus had actually lived. Occupiers camping in the streets could relate to Jesus’ deep solidarity, not with the elites of his time, but with the multitude. Jesus had stayed among those who struggled with life: with the sick, the social outcasts, strong women of ‘dubious’ reputation and working people such as fishermen. He himself was a construction worker, and would have been in touch with the many unemployed of his time, who quite regularly experienced layoffs. Perhaps he was even unemployed himself.
Participants in the Occupy movement could also relate to the way that the divine frequently resists elite agendas. Jesus challenged legalism by healing on the Sabbath. He put the demands of liberation above the law, challenged the myriad uses of religion that kept struggling people down, and defied the conservative impulse to marginalise women and children.
Moreover, he rejected narrow notions of the family — still at the core of conservative politics — and declared that the true bonds of community are not biological but social: ‘whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’. Unlike dominant Christianity, Christians involved in the Occupy movement could easily see why Jesus would challenge even the temple, the highest symbol of his religion. Thus the basic tenets of Christian religion take on a new life when seen through the struggles of the Occupy movement, which questioned the powerful and entered into solidarity with the proverbial ‘least of these’.
Some of Occupy’s puzzling features also become clearer in this light: not least, the oft-lamented fact that it did not produce a list of demands. What simple list of demands could Jesus have made to Caesar without turning the tables altogether? This movement is not about reformism — the assumption that the system can be fixed by adjusting a few of its problems — but about a new world where power flows from the bottom up.
And so it is not about the kind of solidarity in which the privileged are the agents who take care of the passive underprivileged. Rather, it is about what my colleague Kwok Pui Lan, professor of Christian theology and spirituality, and I have called ‘deep solidarity’, which depends on an awareness that the 99 per cent are ultimately in the same boat. Deep solidarity reshapes what is commonly understood as leadership. Leaders are not the privileged few but everyone else. The Occupy movement is therefore best understood not as a leaderless movement but a ‘leaderful’ one: it motivates the multitude to take responsibility and assume leadership, defying top-down orders if necessary.
The implications for politics are now clearer. Like Jesus, Occupy defies the devil’s elitism which offers unilateral power and control over all the kingdoms of this world (Matt 4:8-11). Instead, it embraces the power of the multitude at all levels. In that respect, it calls to mind another of the Abrahamic traditions, Islam, which also speaks of a God who takes the sides of the oppressed. The Qur’an not only notes God’s fight for the oppressed but invites the community to participate: ‘And what is [the matter] with you that you fight not in the cause of Allah and [for] the oppressed among men, women, and children?’
Ultimately, the challenge for religious supporters of Occupy goes further than a battle for religious images and their mostly conservative uses. We need to find out whether religious symbols point to a reality that differs from the status quo. If they do not, even the most popular and commonly used symbols will ultimately collapse and disappear: this is what has happened to dominant religion for centuries, and we suspect that it is about to happen again. Is it any wonder that young people are less committed to religion than their parents, even in the US?
In Europe, there is a deep suspicion of religion. This has always puzzled Americans, but it relates in part to the long history of a Church that was unbendingly in support of the status quo. Over the centuries, there have been many opportunities to reshape religious symbols, to make them point more adequately to the reality of a God who lives in the power of the people. Alas, they were missed in Europe and have often been suppressed elsewhere. Perhaps we can do better this time. It looks as if the Occupy movement might help religion in this pursuit. And in turn, Occupy gains allies who are in touch with the power of a centuries-old tradition of resistance and struggle for a better world.
7 December 2012