Jesus and the Occupy Movement: Why the Political Left (& Right) needs the Church

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As the single largest conference of the leftist and liberal political agendas gathered this Week at Pace University in NYC, I found myself wandering back through my own experience of this Conference and wanting to offer some ruminations not only on its seminal importance, but also its shortcomings as a movement.

When I went to LeftForum last year, it was galvanized by a huge presence of activists and leftists of a hundred different stripes…even a Ron Paul Leftist group was present. They were all there, descending upon the City and the University that is within a few blocks of the sights of Protest in the fall of 2011, gathering to discuss the future of our economy, our politics, our government, our social constitution…and attempting to think alternatives to the greedy hubris and totalitarian politics that is making an indelible imprint on each of our lives. It was an act of the word Glen Beck hates the most, Social Justice, a movement attempting to define and grapple with what it means to live just lives, fair lives…lives that are not stacked against the proverbial “house” that seems to be holding all the cards.

Those that attended the conference were admittedly having discussions on how to, in the words of Barack Obama, “fundamentally change” America. They were talking about folks like Marx, Trostsky, Lenin, etc. They were attacking neo-liberal political agendas and asking how we might move past these hegemonic forms of life. It was a critique of culture and it was admittedly coming from the Left.

Unlike outlets like FoxNews would have us believe, these people were not covert in their demonstrations. They were not trying to subvert the Constitution in a shrouded room with dimly lit lights and coverings over the windows. On the contrary, most of the people I talked to admitted the problems with our democracy. They went after “archaic” documents such as the Constitution, and most humbly and admirably, many of them were able to demonstrate how leftist politics and “socialism-lite” have always been a part of America’s history. Socialism and Marxism literally goes back to Thomas Paine (the darling Common Sense author of the political Right) and Abraham Lincoln (who was reading and being influenced by Marx in the 1850’s…Marx even supported Lincolns invasion of the South), both personages who conservatives worship as if American Gods and to Lincoln we have affirmed this divinity erecting a temple in Washington to commemorate his divinity. Time would fail to recount the rise of lobbyism under Grant, the creation of social “safety” nets under FDR, and the “great society” given to us by LBJ.

The attendees of the Conference know the system (and our financial and political ways of beings are systems) is so complex and multi-faceted that there are truly no simply solutions. But just because the task seems formidable and perhaps irresolvable within a complacent electorate, doesn’t mean we should just surrender the cause of justice and mute the prophetic voices that must call systematic evil to the floor. America is a difficult project because the liberal democratic ideals upon which it was founded has now been merged with ideological sentiment that is logically inconsistent with the libertinism of authentic liberalism and the net result is literally crippling the country…and there are many folks feeling the buckling of our national knees. The system simply cannot sustain itself at its current pace…we must seek alternatives…or we must be willing to accept the logical ends of capitalism unchecked and production unabated.

That their cause is noble and good is not a question. Whether or not one finds the caricature of my experience palpable or not, is also a mute point. At bottom, Occupy was about speaking truth to power, saying “hell no” to those that want to trample and prey on unsuspecting consumers…even if their ignorance is partially their fault, and it was seeking alternatives outside the framework of laissez faire capitalism (even though this type of Capitalism has been dead in this country for at least 100 years).

One of those new frameworks being explored was Christian theological tradition. This is what our group of folks was there to explore… I was part of a panel that was largely comprised of McAfee School of Theology @ Mercer University affiliated pastors and theologians that presented on the topic of global capitalism and Christianity. Our panel was chaired by the Rev. Dr. Graham Walker. We baptists were engaging the far left political and activist elements alive and well in America and around the globe.

As a group we learned several things that are extremely important for Occupy and our Churches to note.

We were asking the question, “Is there anything that the Christ event, scripture and Christian history can say to this current predicament?” And, surprise, surprise, we were the ONLY ones exploring this issue. Last year, out of 400 panels, we were the ONLY panel exploring Christian theology and economics as it interfaced the global economic meltdown.

This, however, is problematic…it is a problem because most human beings are religious in nature, in habits, in orientation, even those that claim irreligiosity or atheism. People organize their lives around principles and ideas that transcend the immediacy of their bodies, even if that which transcends our bodies is a transcendent idea of the self regulated self (which is a problem if no one’s ever told you). There is an “other” idea, concept, thing, being, whatever, that drives us toward further existence…a purpose that grounds who we are and what we value…and this value of all values is what concerns us. It is how we make sense of the meaning of life.

Most people are religious because the religious does not confine itself to a specific ontology; it is, rather, couched in various ideologies which may, or may not, be theological in orientation…Even 60 years ago Paul Tillich was making this argument…and today Slavoj Zizek is the cultural reminder of the religious value of our ideologies.

But this begs the question…if Occupy was a movement that was engaging that which is most complex in the world…and that which is felt by us all…how could it proclaim to answer these questions for the majority when most of the majority answers the tough questions of life through a lens of faith?

How can a movement tackle systemic evil when it has no paradigm for engaging evil other than in subjective moral leanings or ideological preferences from the Left…especially those that robustly discount how most people in the world determine value and a sense of good or evil?

Over and over we heard, and many saw on the news, signs that were proclaiming “We are the 99%”…as if to suggest that those in Occupy were the “common joe” and fighting for “main street” when all the while the folks that instigated the movement, and the folks that hosted LeftForum, are really part of the 1%. They are part of the academic world that has all but forgotten the word “God” or faith. Marx has become their Christ…the dead Lenin their Pope. Revolution has become their New Jerusalem and the Parousia is the place where their ideologies take a physically manifest form in the much anticipated, and not too distant, future.

“We are the 99%.” Or so we are told by all the academic elites and activists that litter the hallways and conferences of the Occupy Movement and LeftForum.

But this is not the 99%…and to try to solve the problems of the majority with an ideology of the very very marginally populated academic elite will not gain the necessary grass roots to effect real change in real systemic ways. The leaders of the movement and its intelligentsia are generally agnostic, if not adamantly atheistic. At last Springs Left Forum, one panelist even described herself forthrightly not as an activist or socialist, but as an atheist. This is the way she wants people to primarily identify her…her first impression if you will. And the movement claims no religious motivation??? Indeed, the 99% that Occupy is fighting for is most certainly atheist, right?

To neglect the religious when dealing with some of cultures most difficult problems is to neglect the singular most significant resource that humanity has used to make sense of the world.

The problem with Occupy is not its concerns or even its methods. The movement is thoroughly a justice movement, and despite the bad media attention, it is prophetic in its content.

The problem with many folks in the Occupy movement, however, is that most of them embrace historical perspectives that are antagonistic toward religion and they continue to foster such antagonism. Many of the leaders in the movement are pro-Marxist, pro-Leninist, pro-Anarchist, pro-socialist, pro-Communist, to name just a short few, and they embrace many of the great ideological thinkers behind these movements. Unfortunately, many of the ideologues that generated these many “isms” were not careful enough thinkers and they dismissed religion as myth rather than metanarrative.

What the Occupy Movement (and what this year’s Conference will also most likely miss) fails to see is that they can never effect change in a multi-contextual way if they are adamantly opposed to the theological persuasions of the 99%.

Most people in America believe in God. Most of the working class finds their faith very important to them.

Most of America, the large portions of Americans that are victims to the financially systemic evil we find all around us, believes that God is important and that their lives have divine purpose. They are not buying the famous Marxist line that religion is an “opiate” regardless of if they even understand that analogy within its historical context or not.

If those at the front of the Occupy movement insist on defending the 99 and insist that they are the 99, they need to realize that unless they embrace some form of theological underpinnings their movement will have little effect and it will generate little excitement at the grassroots level. It will remain an academic sideshow with little relevance in the real world.

People need devotion to drive them. They need something greater than themselves to galvanize their spirits and organize around. They need hope and salvation/wholeness. For many people, the simple nothingness of the concrete world is nothing for which they should sacrifice themselves or their families.

When I was at the Conference I was speaking with a lady who is a Methodist activist within the Occupy Movement. She noted the loathing of religion by the elites within the movement and how their own ideology was inconsistent with the working class they were attempting to help. Much of Occupy is fighting for those marginal groups of people that are exploited for financial gain. They tout their movement as a justice movement, yet they fail to embrace the theological grounding upon which social justice is predicated in most major world religions. Social justice and equality is not a Westernly originated idea. It is a religious idea encased within a religious framework.

Occupy (and it’s morphological forms that will precede from this movement) should realize that they need the churches as much as the churches need them. The Church is the defender of the poor. It is the organization that can speak truth to power and do so under the protection of religious liberty. It is the place in which wholeness and salvation are united into a concept of well being and restoration/restitution of our humanity. It is the bearer of sacred scripture, the text that has the power to convict and call into question the evils of the world, not reinforce either a Left or Right political agenda! The very ministry of Jesus was about releasing the captive and condemning the political and financial structures around his ministry. The church should join hands with those fighting exploitation and stand alongside equality and reconciliation in an attempt to create a world that more faithfully looks like the Kingdom of God and less like a reflection of the greed that penetrates the heart of a capitalistic society.

Only in doing so can anything be truly “occupied,”…and strangely, only in this way, can anything beside our selves be an incarnate manifestation of a Kingdom not of this world. Luckily for us, we have an example of an “occupation” in humanity that effectively did change reality and serves as a salvific paradigm for us all.