October 15, 2011

10 Things Christians (and other Spiritual folk) should Know & Do about the Occupy Protests.

10 Things Christians (and other Spiritual folk) should Know & Do about the Occupy Protests.

Can you be spiritual & be an occupier? What does conscious activism look like? What will you do?

After two weeks with a notable lack of media coverage about it, American Christians are learning about an amazing phenomenon that is taking place on Wall Street in New York that has birthed a movement that’s spreading across the land, and now internationally. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are showing up en mass to parks and city squares to protest corporate fraud and exploitation and to express their outrage.

But what should Christians make of all of this?

We like “lists of 10” so I’d like to offer the following action items for us to consider:

1. Try to understand what’s going on.

In order to decide if these protests are a bunch of angry anarchists who want to burn bras and smoke pot; a passing, inconsequential fad; or if they are the sincere actions of a growing group of deeply patriotic and highly diverse fellow citizens from across the country who are proving to be a serious force to be reckoned with – depends upon how familiar we are with what is actually taking place and why.

Here are some links that can help you get up to speed on what is motivating these protesters and what’s been taking place over the past few weeks:

Chris Hedges interview

NY Times Editorial


Chart 2

“Economy Held Hostage to Defeat Obama”

“I am not moving!”

Independent U.S. Senator, Bernie Sanders, summarizes things well when he stated, “The financial crisis and the jobs crisis have demonstrated to the American people that we now have a government that is of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent and for the 1 percent, as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz eloquently articulated. The rest of the 99 percent are, more or less, on their own. 
We now have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major, advanced country on earth. The top one percent earn more income than the bottom 50 percent and the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans.”

2. Identify Points of Agreement

It would be difficult for any Christian to bless the increasingly unjust status quo. Put me on record as saying, “impossible.” And it would clearly be unfair and wrong to dismiss all of the protesters as “naïve hippies.” At our best, Christian values have historically embraced the Biblical values of egalitarianism; social justice; prophetically speaking truth to power; and championing the cause of the poor, the exploited, and the oppressed.

3. Place the Occupation into Larger Contexts,

including global, historical, biblical, and within the context of Christian tradition. Our domestic occupations have arisen within months of the “Arab Spring” where massive sectors of the populations of several middle eastern nations rose up seeking increased rights, liberties, and democracy. It is an historical fact that revolts and uprisings tend to be contagious across the globe over the years. It is no accident that the French and American revolutions happened within months of each other.  It’s a curious irony that we’re being reminded of our historical commitments to freedom and non-elitist democracy by people living under highly repressive regimes overseas.

We would also do well to ponder associations with the exodus of the ancient Hebrews with Moses telling the oppressive Pharaoh “God says, ‘Let my people go!’ ” as well as the early covenant God made with his people – a covenant that included prohibitions against usury (charging excessively high interest rates); commands to provide for the poor; a regular and intentionally ongoing “Year of Jubilee” designed to release people from their debts (and indentured servitude to their debtors) and to restore properties to their original owners, etc.

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD’S remission has been proclaimed. ~ Deuteronomy 15:1-2

Lest anyone think that “Christians shouldn’t get upset, express anger, or protest,” we need to remember the ruckus Jesus made one day in Jerusalem where he knocked over the tables of the money lenders and chased them out of the Temple courtyard with a bullwhip spinning over his head (note: he didn’t actually hit anyone with it).

We should also be prepared for “the Empire to strike back.” Though Jesus showed that the worldly powers-that-be are ultimately impotent, they do tend to sting.  Sacrifice should not be a surprise (but pepper spraying harmless girls who are penned up? Really NY cops?).

We should also ponder associations with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. One strategy that comes to mind is to employ what they did in Birmingham, Alabama – flooding the jails.  If we can provide and endless sea of protesters, they won’t be able to tend to us in the jails – and we’ll render jailing us with a revolving door – costly, moot, and ridiculous.

We’d also do well to heed the words of wisdom from veterans of those movements such as Jim Wallis – especially his reminder of how essential nonviolence is to effective protest.

4. Show compassion to as many of the people caught up in this mess (all of us) as possible. Strive to love our enemies as Jesus taught. When we confront CEOs, bankers, politicians, pundits, police, or the media, let’s remember their humanity. They go home to families and pets that love them and they have wounds in their hearts that we’ll never know.

A particularly Christian thing to do might be for Church people to show up to the protests and serve water, coffee, and baked cookies to the protesters, the police, and the businesspeople walking by. It’s hard to be aggressive toward someone who is drinking hot cocoa and eating cookies with you.

That said, when he taught his followers how to love their enemies Jesus instructed them to not be doormats, but to employ tough love – even to the point of flipping the power dynamics and making the oppressors be publicly embarrassed. Roman soldiers sometimes forced hapless Hebrew peasants to carry their packs.  The military code of conduct stated that they couldn’t have a given peasant carry it more than 1 mile however. So, Jesus told them, should that happen to them, keep on going past the 1 mile marker and carry his pack a 2nd mile. The dismayed soldier would be forced to chase after the peasant and plead with them to stop carrying it as otherwise the solider would be punished by his superiors!

Similarly, Jesus told his followers that if someone they owe money to approaches them demanding payment, and if you don’t have the cash, and if they ask for your coat as payment, go on and take off the rest of your clothes too and give them as well  In that culture, the shame isn’t on a naked person, but on people who look at them, so this would force the person who you’re indebted to flee asap (sort of like how frogs pee on themselves when being attacked, makes them not such a savory meal to would be predators).

And finally, Jesus told this disciples that if a Roman or Hebrew superior strikes you on the right cheek (with the back of their right hand), you should go ahead and turn your left cheek to them too, as this would force them to not backhand you as a superior would do, but to instead treat you as an equal, as a peer – as someone they’d have to outright punch — thus taking away the hierarchical power imbalance.  The oppressor would either have to hit you and concede that you’re his equal or walk away with his tail between his legs. Either way, you win.

One way to apply these teachings to today’s confrontation with corporate greed might be, “If someone demands payment on your mortgage or debt, give them your ROTH IRA too.” Or, send your child into the lobby of their business with their payment in full – in pennies, in a wheelbarrow – showing that their demand is hurting a real live family – and be sure to video record it and post it onto YouTube.

5. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors against us.” In other words, engage in Confession.

The fact is that we’re all caught up in this nasty mess where we owe some people and others owe us. Sure, some of us are more “victim” than others, but most all of us have some degree of complicity in our own predicaments. We spend beyond our means. We use credit cards when we shouldn’t. We may agree to loan terms that we know we can’t live up to. And… we may have people sign loans whose terms we know they can’t satisfy.

Some of us have pension plans or investments that benefit from the exploitation of others. Yeah, that’s kind of a big deal. Might be time to consider transferring investments to ones that are more socially conscious and just.

Oh, and if you don’t have stocks to transfer, if you drink coffee or cocoa that isn’t “fair trade certified” or wear most brands of sports shoes or clothing, you participate in oppressive systems that exploit others.

It’s too easy to paint them as “the bad guys” and us as the “good guys.” Don’t take the easy way – it never works. Jesus said that “his way is narrow.” Try following it anyway.

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Roger is the author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity. We understand that he’s participating in the “Occupy Denver” protest today to give out cookies and water to the cops and his fellow protesters. – 10/15/11

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