A Time to ‘Occupy’?

Is your church talking about Occupy Wall Street? Whether you support it or not, movements like it and the Tea Party provide Christians with opportunities to discuss crucial questions about our nation’s socioeconomic values.

SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.

More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.

Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.

When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?

Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta who preached a series on greed and the Great Recession, argues that churches should converse about issues that grip the nation. Occupy Wall Street meets that standard.

The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.

About the author, Andrew Wilkes

Andrew Wilkes is the editor of UrbanFaith. He serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York and works at Habitat for Humanity – New York City as the Faith and Community Relations associate. An alum of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University, his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Sojourners Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewjwilkes.
  1. Very good point. Unfortunately many ministers fail to see the importance of everyday matters and often exclude themselves from the general public’s intelligence (politics, world news, popular culture). How many ministers could thoroughly breakdown what’s going on in a way that they could unpack it and discuss it intelligently? I’d argue …less than the majority.

    • I suspect that you are right about the number being less than the majority. If we assume that to be the case, a part of what needs to be done is making sure the curricula of seminaries, divinity schools, Christian colleges, etc. – as well as the Christian education layout in our churches and denominations – equip clergy and laity to convene such discussions. Everyday congregants are critical to this discussion. They bring expertise and experience on socioeconomic issues that many clergy do not have. Churches like a Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas, a Trinity UCC in Chicago, or perhaps Andy Stanley’s Northpoint Church (I say perhaps b/c I haven’t been there) are doing this such of work well.

  2. Very thoughtful and timely commentary. The notion of “taking back our country” now has a left-leaning movement to balance the right. I agree that these are important and necessary debates that the church should embrace. Thanks for bringing the historical context.

  3. As a preacher of the Gospel, what should I say? What I hate about the church and current politics is that we are so divided into left vs. right. It’s one thing for the world to be divided, it’s a whole different thing for the church to be divided. If we are the church, then we are Christ’s body of which He is the Head. We should speak as one body instead of left vs. right. Right now, believers on the Left don’t even see believers on the Right as part of the same body and the same is the case in reverse! If we speak, we’re just going to be one more voice in the wind, talking a lot, but saying nothing because we’re more split than the world! Again, I ask, what should I say?

    • Unity in Christ need not mean uniformity. The Church can and should be a witness to the broader society about how to charitably disagree without resorting to ad hominem arguments and attacks. As a preacher of the Gospel, you can help folks understand that the Church has a long history of reflecting on economic justice and faith. Many Christians desire to know how their gifts, passions, resources, service, and advocacy can make a difference now if they appropriate the Church’s witness on matters of faith and social justice. You could start with the Catholic social justice tradition (papal encyclicals, the 1986 Economic Justice for All document from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops). You could walk congregations, denominations, and individual believers through the biblical call to social justice – it’s a core motif in the canon, but esp. in Deuteronomy and Levicticus; the prophets; Proverbs and the Psalms; the Gospels; and the apostolic tradition of remembering the poor In Acts and Galatians, especially chapter 2. You could host a talk-back session after doing a sermon series on social movements and the mission of the Church. Lastly, you could connect with Christian organizations that provide resources such as Sojourners (www.sojo.net) or Just Neighbors (www.justneighbors.net). There are tons of ways to get involved and stay involved. If you are interested, I would happily discuss such matters with you.

  4. Pingback: Faith and OWS | Saint Stephen's Blog

  5. I believe the scriptures do teach that the church should be about the business of alleviating the situations of the poor and the needy. This is NOT the chief business of the church. The chief business of the church is the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom. The fact that we are all sinners who were in need of a Savior because the wrath of God abided on us. But because of God’s great love He sent His Son to die in our place, raised Him from the dead, and all who place their faith in Him are saved. The fact that in Christ, God is bringing all of creation under His Son’s rule. His instrument, in part, for doing this is the church. The problem in the U.S. is that His church is divided into sides, one Left and one Right. The problem becomes more complex because each side has married itself to a political party/movement. Each side is more concerned about advancing their political agendas than they are about advancing God’s Kingdom agenda.

    You talk about economic and social justice. I have no problem with either idea. What is troubling me is that it appears that we have our priorities mixed up. We have forgotten that we serve a holy God, not simply a God Who desires justice. We have so many problems in our society and our churches. Premarital sex is so commonplace now it’s no longer even talked about. The blood of millions of unwanted babies runs like a river in our nation due to the sin of abortion. Drugs and gangs overrun our neighborhoods. The problems I mention are not a left or right issue, they are a sin issue. It is an issue that is especially a problem in the Black community. The only answer is the salvation that resides in Christ alone made available to all by His blood.

    Like I mentioned earlier, I have no problem with seeking economic and social justice where folk are being taken advantage of. But if I’m morally bankrupt, economic justice serves as a temporary solution that won’t fix the real problem. Jesus put it this way:

    “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

    On top of this, the world looks at the church and thinks “Left/Liberal” or “Right/Conservative” depending upon who’s the lead voice. The message we should be trumpeting is being drowned out by our politics. The church has become distracted. We are dancing to the beat of a different drummer. We are heeding the voice of a different shepherd.

    Thank you for your offer of help. I’m not in a position to do what you speak of. I’m the pastor of a very small non-denominational church that the Lord started with my wife and I under another larger church. The Lord has called me to build people, not movements.

    • It’s not only an issue of call. It’s an issue of being faithful to the canon of Scripture. I spoke earlier, albeit briefly, about the biblical call to social justice. As an example, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for neglecting the weighty matters of “justice and mercy” (Matthew 23.23). The implication of course, is that we are to pay attention to these matters. What I am asking you to do – what Scripture is asking of you – is to grapple with those words for our time. What would it mean for your congregation to take justice as seriously as Jesus does? I am not predetermining your response to the question, but I am saying that you cannot escape the question and remain faithful to the message and mission of the Christ who said that he came to preach good news to the poor in Luke 4.

      • Christ in no way implied that the church should pass it’s responsibilities to civil authority. Christ exalted personal responsibility and taught that He will reward those who are diligent and industrious. Nowhere does Christ imply that anyone is owed equal anything–in fact he teaches the parabolic opposite.

        We should be just and merciful, but those words mean something quite different than what is implied by leftist ideas of “social justice”. The church is called to see after the poor, not civil authority. Nowhere does the apostle suggest any such thing when he extrapolates the role of government and our responsibility to obey governmental authority in Romans 13.

        The church ought to teach us the precepts of Scripture as it pertains to the poor and needy:

        “ Honour widows that are widows indeed. But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. 3:3-5

        If we as the Body of Christ took these words “as seriously as Jesus does”–there would be no call for nebulous concepts like “social justice”. Honor our own on a familial level as we are admonished to do first, when that is not possible as a consequence of true need, the Church should spend the money they put in the bag to help others.

        Passing the responsibility on to government to do what should be done by believers–directly absolves one of the law of sowing and reaping taught with constant resolution throughout Scripture. The only thing that results from placing these responsibilities with the government is that there is always waste and lack.

        This is how our nation used to operate before politicians decided it was expedient to buy votes under the auspices of “social justice”. The church started charity hospitals, orphanages and programs that assisted the needy. As government took over and began to oversee these tasks, the problems that created the needs of the poor and under represented were exacerbated.

        Because unlike the church who knew the people and had a vested interest in not just helping the people but seeing to their spiritual and physical needs with a mind towards helping them to better there situations–the government sees only numbers and provides no accompanying council or love.

        The leftist social justice paradigm that many liberal Christians try to wring out of Holy Scripture may insure that certain politicians always have a job, but it has never–ever–addressed the issues that cause the need for charity and mercy at the onset! It can’t and never will.

        • So when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, you’re telling me that didn’t address the issue of blacks being denied the right to vote? Seems to me that did the job pretty well.

          Unless you’re trying to tell me that Dr. King and Jesse Jackson were closet conservatives… ?

  6. Thank you Digital Publius. I couldn’t have responded better! There is a biblical call to “justice”, not “social justice”, as you call it. Social justice, as it is used today, comes from Liberation Theology (more specifically Black Liberation Theology) which takes many scriptures out of context to try and justify a “Robin Hood” mentality which says it’s okay to take from the rich and give it to the poor. The only difference between Robin Hood and Social Justice is that many are trying to institute this form of theft through government legislation and the raising of taxes on the rich. Now we have this OWS movement. I have to be honest, I understand the motivations of the movement in its infancy. What has happened in our economy is upsetting. But I quickly depart from it because of what it has become.

    Let’s look at the scripture you quote, Matthew 23:23. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes of that day. These were the leaders of Judaism. They were the equivalent of the church today. They had position in the Roman empire but not much political power. Jesus is speaking to the House of Israel, not to all of Rome. In the Old Testament, God had given them specific ways they could meeet the need of the poor and downtrodden. As leaders in Israel this was especially their responsibility. But nowhere does Jesus say they should lead some movement. In fact in the gospel of John there are a couple of places (John 2:23 – 25 and John 6:14 – 15) where the people wanted to make Christ a leader and even a king after He performed a great miracle. Why did they want to make Him a king? They saw Him as a great deliverer and they wanted deliverance. They saw Him as Someone Who would bring them justice (social and economic) in their lives. Jesus specifically resisted this because He knew what was in the heart of man and He also knew the reason why the Father sent Him. Jesus refused to deviate from the Father’s plan. My great concern is that segments of the church are deviating from the main reason we are here. We have allowed the message of Christ to be co-opted by political concerns and political people, neither of which has the best interest of Christ and His kingdom at heart. The church is being used for someone else’s political gain!

    Also, I have a question. If Christ was so interested in “social justice” for the poor, why didn’t He go straight to Rome and demand it?

    • Because several hundred years earlier, many of the major prophets had already done so. This was one of the reasons why Jesus said he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Part of the law Jesus came to fulfill addressed the need for … wait for it… redistribution of wealth and/or property, regarding the year of Jubilee. Speaking of which, does knocking over the moneychangers tables, does that count as redistribution of wealth? If so, does that make Jesus a socialist? I hope not.

      • Mr. Greenidge, are you advocating that we institute a theocracy since the Year of Jubilee took place under the Law? I don’t think that would go over to well here in America. Secondly, Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables was done because they had turned God’s House of Prayer (its true purpose) into an opportunity to steal and profit from the less fortunate.

        I will say that having a situation where too much wealth in the hands of the few is not a good thing, but how do you propose to “transfer this wealth” without taking it by government fiat? Remember also that we live in a republic which considers such acts tyranny. It seems to me that so much focus on the rich vs. the poor promotes avarice in the rich and envy in the poor which only further divides our nation. More importantly, both avarice and envy are sins in the eyes of God. This is not good for any of us!