“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” (Proverbs 13:41)
These are the words of my placard. It is soft and worn from a night in New York and many days facing the sun and wind. I am a Christian dutifully attending my post, which is neither a Tea Party rally nor a Westboro “Baptist” convention; I am an Occupant because my faith compels me to the front lines.
On my first day in Zuccotti Park, I met a diverse array of individuals: Vietnam veterans, Native American activists, Egyptian children, students, union representatives, men in three-piece suits and one woman who showed up in her birthday suit. I also met many Christians, which surprised me more than it should have.
After all, Jesus threw the moneychangers and their unethical practices out of the temple. Jesus told the rich man that his love for money would make it harder for him to enter heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle. Jesus unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, which foretold the coming of a man who would “proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The placards of many Christian occupants contained common biblical sayings. One cannot serve both God and money. Blessed are the meek and poor. Allegories abound in corners of the encampment: the story of the sheep and the goats, of the poor woman who tithed her last pennies and of the Lord’s Prayer. But with such a wide range of secular and non-Christian opinions and desires expressed within the occupation, why should Christians occupy the front lines of the movement? How does the Christian perspective inform the occupation?
“‘Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me?’ declares the Lord. But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.” (Jeremiah 22:13-17)
Christians and Christian rhetoric must be present in the occupation, in part because it offers a counter-narrative to the common views of the “prosperity gospel” and the Protestant work ethic, philosophies partially responsible for current financial and socio-political despair. The above verse from the prophet Jeremiah is one of hundreds that expound the biblical source, standard and need for financial and social justice above personal gain. Indeed, the ideals of the occupation have been the object of prayer and intercession by Christians for millennia.
However, the Christian ideology differs from non-Christian approaches to the occupation in its humble admittance that humans are incapable of erecting a perfect political, judicial or financial system, and that goodness flows from the Creator, the embodiment of justice, rather than the people, who are its mere recipients. According to the Christian tradition, one must repel the oppressor of her neighbor, even while she patiently awaits deliverance from and yearns to love her own. Such a prioritization of one’s neighbor is the very attitude that the movement needs in order to garner more support.
Similarly, it is a meek and loving attitude that will contrast with media reports of supposed occupants defecating on police cars and accumulating trash. Occupy Wall Street is not the locus of an uprising. Rather, it is the civil clearing of a throat long gripped by corporate and political irresponsibility and greed. The movement charts the difference between freedom of speech and participatory justice, the condition under which all parties have equal decision-making power; this differs from free speech, which allows all to speak, but makes no guarantees that certain opinions will be heard.
While many mainstream media outlets have criticized the movement as a directionless, disgruntled crowd, such a characterization may be its greatest merit. Its open-ended nature ensures that individuals of all walks of life can become involved in the reality that this movement, and the lack of corporate and political accountability it fights, affects them. It is a movement that defines itself as it progresses. Therefore, no one is excluded from deliberations or the enactment of demands.
The movement exists to raise awareness, not to be a decision-making entity. Rather than impose the demands of a few vocal members on the general public, the occupation allows all constituents to influence the decision-making process. To deny the public the opportunity to help shape the movement would only create a plutocracy of a different malodor. Political and corporate entities have found ways to nullify the importance and threat of free speech; in response, occupiers demand what is at the heart of the desire for free speech: participatory justice. The Christian worldview beseeches believers to love their enemies. Such a measure is necessary to ensure against the very tyranny the occupation aims to repel.
On one Sunday in Manhattan, I marched with a group to Bowling Green Park, where we unloaded a replica of the Charging Bull, which eerily resembles the idolatrous golden calf depicted in the biblical book of Exodus. Later that day, we marched around the Federal Reserve building. I was reminded of the fall of Jericho, a strong city that could not be taken by the force of men alone. According to the book of Joshua, Joshua and his army had marched around the walls of Jericho seven times, shouted, and then watched the city fall into their hands. Perhaps the occupation is this battle cry.