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Occupy Christianity…with the Gospel

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.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth B. says:

    Hey Jay,

    Great post! I’ve also been thinking about how to apply Christian doctrine, particularly from these peculiar locales (PSR, Berkeley, “progressive” Christianity, etc., to the Occupy movement. (Full disclosure: I feel a strong allegiance to the Occupy movement on the basis of freedom of speech, assembly, and affiliation guaranteed those in the US in the Bill of Rights.)

    What I keep bumping up against in my mind is that this movement was begun and is being perpetuated by the 99% (or somewhat less, but growing) that is rejecting “faith as usual” as well, which includes an indictment of us (left-leaning religious leaders and religious leaders-in-training). They are not doing so explicitly in this protest movement, but they’ve been doing it with their feet, their hearts, their minds for years now. It shows up in our dwindling congregations, and in the dwindling authority which mainline Protestant religious leaders hold for large swaths of the population. I think this makes a relationship between “us” and the Occupy Movement even more difficult and complex, if examined authentically. I’m not sure what to do with these thoughts… All I know is that I am more moved, in this moment, to be a citizen involved in the movement, and not a religious leader, or religious-leader-in-training, until I get a better grasp on an authentic relationship between “us” and the 99%.

    A pointed aside: I think any authentication of leadership from the Occupiers to religious leaders needs to happen organically, and not because religious leaders assert that their views are in pure alignment with the movement… I am resisting the easy lines being drawn. Maybe I’m resisting alone. I have no idea.

    What do you and others think?

    • I’m totally with you on this, Elizabeth. AND, I’m part of the 99% and I am totally religious. Am I supposed to leave my religion behind to join the throngs? I don’t see religious leaders getting out there because they are trying to “authenticate” or “legitimate” the “movement” with their religion. (That may be how the media is trying to spin this, but that’s their gig, not ours.) I see religious leaders and people of faith getting out there because we are in fact part of the 99%. And we’re not going to leave our religion behind, especially when (to so many of us) our religion has been informing this kind of thing for a long time, long before the “occupy” folks started occupying anything. I’m not going to keep my faith in the closet…. 🙂

  2. Re: “If the Gospel were to occupy Christianity and take up residence in our churches in new and compelling ways, the world would change.”

    The question is, which Gospel? There are as many interpretations of what constitutes the Good News as there are interpreters. Is it the “gospel” of Matthew, of Mark, of Luke, of John? They all had different ideas about it. The “gospel” of Jesus? Well, who knows what that was, since anything we know about him is second-hand, at best. The “gospel” of Paul? Now there’s a problematic interpretation.

    I think, when we rely on traditional interpretations, we subject ourselves to traditional alternatives. Can they possibly be viable alternatives today? Possibly, but unlikely, in my opinion. We can’t put new wine into old wineskins. Not only do we need new interpretations, but we need entirely new ways of thinking–that is, entirely new ways of being, of existing on this earth.

    The Occupy movement is rightly concerned with certain issues of justice in the USA. But we will soon have 10 billion people living on this planet. Is the Occupy movement concerned about people outside our borders? Are the protesters even concerned about the foreign nationals inside our borders? Or about the “other Americans”–the endangered wolves and condors and ferrets and other creatures who “occupied” this land long before it was called America?

    Yes, it’s complicated, and I applaud the protesters for making their voices and opinions heard–we need more of that, so much more. I hope real change can come out of the cacophony, but I admit I don’t know how that is going to happen.

    (I know I rambled a bit. Thanks for listening.)

    • That wasn’t rambling, Anthony! That was an excellent point! And of course, you’re quite right to ask “which Gospel”? I was terribly imprecise in my post. Answering that question probably deserves a post unto itself. I will say, however, that I don’t think we need (nor even can) “start from scratch.” And I do believe, rather oddly I suppose, that there’s still plenty yet to learn from Christian traditions. I’m not ready to give up on them yet, not by a long shot. That’s the conviction lurking around in my post about occupying Christianity with the gospel. In my experience of Christian congregations, there’s a woeful lack of any real engagement with Christian history and the multiple ways Christian theology has been understood and lived. Not that all of it is somehow good or relevant, but I’m committed to working with others on retrieving the compelling and innovative bits for today. That’s the short, and thus inadequate, response. Thanks for responding, Anthony!

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