Did Jesus and his disciples occupy Palestine? It doesn’t take much to read the gospel accounts of overturning the money-changers’ tables in the Temple and the “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem with crowds hailing Jesus as the Messiah as versions of today’s “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
There are significant differences. I mean, of course there are. It’s not even entirely clear how any of us should understand the “occupy” movement today, with its multiple demands, sometimes confusing messages, and apparently conflicting allegiances. But this much is probably safe to say: the “occupiers” (whether in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, D.C. or wherever) have had enough of “business as usual.” It might also be safe to say that they love their country; these are insiders doing all this occupying – they are us.
We could say the same thing about Jesus and his disciples: They loved their country, they loved their religious tradition, they were insiders and they had had enough of “business as usual.”
This becomes very complicated very quickly. We mustn’t forget that first century Palestine was itself already occupied, by the Roman Empire. Some of the religious leaders actually colluded with those occupiers by making various economically beneficial deals on the side to keep the peace. Disrupting that peace, some have argued, is what got Jesus in so much trouble and eventually executed by the Romans (and without any real objection from his own religious authorities).
“Occupy” has a very troubling history, not just in the first century but also today as we live with the legacy of Euro-Americans occupying far too many lands and cultures at the expense of those who were already there. But I wonder if we might find a way to rehabilitate that troubling word with some more “homey” resonances.
I occupy my home, not out of protest but because, well, it’s home. I’m happy to occupy it and I’m happy to share that occupation with my mother and a canine, by the name of Tyler. I’m also happy to share that occupation with friends, colleagues, visitors, guests.
I also occupy various vocational roles – as a priest in the Episcopal Church, a theologian in the academy, a writer, a teacher, a pastor. I consider these to be privileged “occupations” and they are more frequently grace-filled than I can recount.
Those examples (and many others) make me think of “occupation” as a form of “taking up residence.” I wasn’t the first to take up residence in the house I currently occupy, and I probably won’t be the last; I’m making it a home in ways the previous occupiers didn’t, but which build on what they did before me. Countless others have taken up residence in the vocational work I now occupy and they have inspired me to extend their work with some redecorating and renovations.
What about the Church? Modern western cultural values have taken up residence in Christianity and have occupied it for quite a long time now, for a few centuries at least. The results have been rather mixed. Is late modern global capitalism a gospel value? What about racial bias? Do Christians really believe that the current gap between rich and poor is a gospel value? What about environmental degradation as the price to pay for corporate profits?
What about people just seeking to be loved and cherished for who they are? Can we imagine Christian churches welcoming absolutely everyone, no exceptions? What would that kind of welcome do to our stratified communities?
I honestly don’t know how to answer all these questions, but I do believe they need to be asked and pondered in fresh ways. I do believe this: If the Gospel were to occupy Christianity and take up residence in our churches in new and compelling ways, the world would change.
I saw an “occupy” protest sign recently online that read, “Jesus is with the 99%.” Well, yes, but Jesus is with the 1%, too. Jesus is with all of us. Only when “all” really means all will we realize that the wonderfully peculiar Gospel of Jesus has taken up residence among us once again.