Because they are Americans, the Wall Street Occupiers are suffused with messianic purpose, as are nearly all our nation’s American political crusades. But the often raggedy Occupiers themselves do not seem specifically oriented towards organized religion.
Not to worry. Religious Leftists of all sorts have rallied to the Occupiers’ bedraggled banners. Guided by the Social Gospel’s emphasis on social justice over theological details, these religionists discern God’s Kingdom among the squatters’ tents and sleeping bags. One group of clergy visited while carrying a mock golden idol shaped like the dreaded Wall Street Bull, the very incarnation of greed.
Praising the Occupation is a gamble for liberal evangelicals, who have tried so hard to appear centrist in recent years, anxious to softly persuade suburban churchgoers to abandon their conservative voting habits. Oldline Protestant elites, along with left-wing Catholic activists, of course welcome the Occupation as a long overdue 1960s revival.
The Executive Council of the once prestigious Episcopal Church publicly declared recently “that the growing movement of peaceful protests in public spaces in the United States and throughout the world in resistance to the exploitation of people for profit or power bears faithful witness in the tradition of Jesus to the sinful inequities in society.”
There was a time, not too long ago, when Wall Street and the Episcopal Church were viewed, not unfairly, as almost interchangeable. J. Pierpoint Morgan once famously carried his denomination’s bishops on his private train to the Episcopal Church General Convention. It’s doubtful that Episcopal Diocese of Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, who personally paid homage to the Wall Street Occupation, will be getting any train rides from prominent financiers. After his pilgrimage, the bishop met at nearby historic Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, with interfaith leaders to discuss how religions can back the Occupation’s goals, whatever they are.
Meanwhile, the top Presbyterian Church USA lobbyist on Capitol Hill also has enthusiastically backed Occupy Wall Street. The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, fresh from his October trial for being arrested this summer in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda protesting federal budget limits, is now touting the Occupation as the next trendy cause to rouse ordinarily staid Presbyterians.
“One of the things I am convinced of is that faith has a role to play in the leadership of these movements,” the Rev. Nelson recently enthused to a newspaper. “There are people who are angry because they may not be able to go to school … angry because they have been locked out and left out for years,” he explained. “When we begin to talk about a constitutional right to protest … there will be a time where people will resist,” he even warned, adding “We could be looking at a Tunisia or Egypt.”
Such dramatic language, predicting Occupy Wall Street could start to look like the “Arab Spring,” with violent government crackdowns, and turmoil. Rev. Nelson implied that peaceful church prelates could offer counsel on how to keep the lid on while still pursuing the Occupation’s supposedly laudable but vague goals.
United Church of Christ President Geoffrey Black hailed a popular picture showing Jesus cleansing the temple of money changes as “The Original ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Protester.” The reverend insisted this illustration is “helpful,” “gives people of faith a frame with which to assess what is going on with this movement,” and “makes the relationship between Christian faith and the quest for economic justice clear for all to see.”
Not to be outdone, the ever left-wing United Methodist Women’s Division, during their directors meeting in New York City, even marched down to Wall Street to join the Occupation. Funded by local church bake sales and church bazaars, they carried their own protest placards endorsing the Occupation’s assorted demands, which typically include cancellation of all private debt, open borders, massive tax hikes, elimination of credit rating agencies, complete government control of health care, and free college for everyone.
This call towards utopia, enshrouded simultaneously in grievance, entitlement, idealism, and youthful naiveté, has understandably seduced old-style street activists like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, or even Brian McLaren of the emergent church movement. “When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus,” Wallis has pronounced, even before himself visiting the Occupation, which doubtless only amplified his excited nostalgia. “‘The occupation of God has begun'” might inspire the same fear and hope among people today as ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand’ inspired in the first century,” gushed McLaren, after attending his own local Occupation protest.
Representing a newer generation of Evangelical liberal is Shane Claiborne, a winsome young white man who typically sports dreadlocks, a bandana, and a rustic smock, while proclaiming good news for the poor to attentive middle class evangelical students. “In a world where 1 percent of the world owns half the world’s stuff, we are beginning to realize that there is enough for everyone’s need, but there is not enough for everyone’s greed,” he recently insisted. “Lots of folks are beginning to say, ‘Maybe God has a different dream for the world than the Wall Street dream.'”
The dubious statistic about the wicked “1 percent” aside, Claiborne speaks some truth. But he and the other religious enthusiasts for Wall Street aren’t calling for individuals to shed their wealth for God’s Kingdom. Of course, they primarily want an all powerful state to seize and redistribute wealth according to some imagined just formula, after which the lion will lie peaceably with the lamb. It’s a utopian dream, not based on the Gospels, always monstrous when attempted, and premised more on resentment than godly generosity. But it’s a message that will always have an audience in a covetous world.