The Meaning of Occupy Wall Street

I am weary of hearing well-meaning friends question the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. They ask, “What do they want? They don’t have any clear goals — how can they hope to bring about change?”

I want to ask:

“What was the meaning of Gandhi’s fasts? ”

“What was the meaning of the Watts riots?”

“What is the meaning of the young Syrian who set himself on fire because he could find no job, and started the Arab Spring?”

In other words, what is the meaning of a human cry? There comes a moment from time to time in history when a system is so patently unjust and cruel that people rise up against it and say, “No more!” Sometimes the people have not worked out a clear political agenda. Perhaps in their anger and pain, they have not sorted out the issues, or chosen leaders, or created a movement. Perhaps they never will. But this does not mean that their cry was in vain.

Occupy Wall Street has had great significance. If nothing else, OWS has changed the national conversation and shifted the civic discourse. They have made space for the voice of the people.
Since the country’s founding, our national myth has been the promise of equal opportunity for all. Of course, that opportunity has never been there for everyone: we have never been truly egalitarian. However, the ideal was there, calling to us as individuals and as a nation to broaden the umbrella, including more people in that promise. And so we have recognized our theft of Native American lands and destruction of native culture; we have set a course for civil rights for those whose heritage was slavery; we have said that women should be considered equal to men and should be rewarded equally for equal work.

But somewhere during the last 30 years, we got lost on the way to the bank. We came to believe that “greed is good.” The best and the brightest of our university students concluded that making a lot of money and garnering many possessions is the great goal of living. A country that understood neighborliness and compassion as positive goods began to look past the hungry, the homeless, the afflicted, as if they were in no way connected with those of us who are strong and able. We began to stop making things and began to spend our working days shuffling paper and making bets on the vagaries of the stock market. We refused to believe that the earth had limits, and we kept sucking up resources as though there were no tomorrow. In other words, we have been living in sin.

As so often happens when change is needed, we left it to our young people, to those strong enough in body and spirit, to wake us up. Occupy Wall Street is calling out the devastating results of corporate greed. The occupiers are saying this must stop. They’re saying we must make human need and the care of the planet our central concerns.

At my age I am not healthy and vital enough to go downtown and lived in a tent for weeks, so I have been on the periphery of the movement. But I realize that I’m in debt to those who have been willing to shake the bars of the cage. They are serving as prophets- they have asked us to look at nothing less than the soul of this country. My only response is a deep sense of gratitude. With this new consciousness, there is at least the possibility that we can move to a new place.

The Church and Occupy Wall Street

I’m waiting to see what the religious response will be to Occupy Wall Street, which is a true revolution of the people. It is a cry from people who have been abused far too long by those who hold economic and political power. It is a cry for justice and compassion. It is a demand for responsibility from our elected leaders. What will the established churches say in response?

Most likely, not very much, if history tells us anything.

During the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, most churches were “gradualists,” saying that, yes, slavery was wrong, but social change takes time, and we should just let slavery die out naturally. Religious leaders didn’t want to disrupt the economic system that supported their churches, and they certainly didn’t want to introduce conflict into their institutions, which might result in a loss of both membership and financial contributions.

During the civil rights movement, black churches were heavily involved, of course, but mainline Protestant churches remained firmly ensconced in the status quo. The same thing held true during the Vietnam War. Most clergy who spoke out against the war were not leaders of congregations : they were chaplains (William Sloane Coffin) or Catholic priests (the Berrigan brothers) or administrators (Bishop John Shelby Spong). While young people flooded into the streets in protest, getting beaten up and jailed by the establishment, churches were mostly silent.

The OccupyWallStreet phenomenon is a true prophetic moment, and it should be the subject of sermons all over this country. But I suspect it will not be. Sermons will continue to be preached about saving souls, giving generously to the church itself, and avoiding the usual temptations of the flesh. The systemic sins of the culture will not be addressed, except by a few bold and isolated preachers. Why? Because the churches of this country, like all middle-class institutions, are more interested in the protection of the institution than in the prophetic message of Jesus.

Who are the people marching in the streets, with colorful signs, in such great numbers? These protesters simply feel that they have no alternative. Business and government have acted in lockstep and have refused to listen to those whom they should be serving. OccupyWallStreet is a coalition of people who have lost their jobs, people who have lost their homes to the bank, young adults for whom there are no jobs, people of all ages without health care, environmentalists who see short-term economic gains trumping care for the planet, veterans who doubt that our current wars are worth it, and concerned citizens of all stripes who have looked askance at our dysfunctional Congress, and have finally said “enough is enough.”

Some of these people go to church, I expect. But they cannot take their grievances to the church. They would not feel it appropriate, most likely. They may say to their church, “I can’t find a job,” or “I am depressed,” or perhaps they can go to the church food pantry and get a basket of groceries. But they cannot ask the church to stand with them against the powers that be–the banks and their political lackeys–who sold out ordinary citizens.

It is no wonder that more and more people in this country identify as “unchurched” in national polls. When churches and ministers refuse to be involved with the real pain of real people, and have as their main mission maintaining their institutions, they lose their relevance. They have no prophetic voice. And without a prophetic voice, what is their purpose for existence? They become just another social organization to provide a gathering place for their members.

Churches are not allowed to participate in partisan politics, lest they lost their non-profit status. But they can and should be involved with political issues, because politics determines how the economic pie is divided–and that becomes very much a moral issue. When ministers speak out against systemic sin, they risk losing financial support, it is true. Congregants who benefit most from the economic status quo may leave and seek safer ground. But the integrity of the message will draw many others, in greater numbers.

The church’s proper role is to stand on the side of the disenfranchised and to call out wrongdoing and injustice in our society. Jesus did not say,” I have come that you might be comfortable.” He said, “I have come that you might have life.” OccupyWallStreet has given the church an opening, a decisive moment in history. The Holy Spirit is not on the side of safety and stability. When will the church find its prophetic voice?