Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy. It's What Jesus Would Do.


The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)

With another high-magnitude global protest coming up on October 29 (the eve of the G-20 Summit), I thought it would be timely to address the Christian nature of activism and protest. There most certainly has been discussion from pulpits, blogs, articles and face-to-face dialogues over the nature of Christian witness in regards to Occupy Everywhere. Is this the kind of activity that Jesus and the early church would participate in if they lived in the 21st century? Those of us compelled by the EasyYolk of Jesus obviously think so.

The very nature of Jesus' ministry was a campaign of confronting the ruling class (the 1%) while energizing and humanizing those denied dignity and opportunity by the rules of the social, religious, political and economic game (the Other 99%). His proclamation of the Reign of God (basilea tou theou) echoed the yearning of the masses held down by those empowered by Caesar, Herod and Caiaphas who, clinging to wealth and power, made decisions that vociferously maintained The Status Quo which was always terrible news for the Other 99%.

Unfortunately, many Christians since the Constantinian disaster of the 4th century have portrayed the signficance of Jesus' life, ministry and death as a sort of sin amnesty and road to heaven after death for those who "believe" that Jesus was the Son of God (hijacking the Greek word pistis which meant a radical allegiance to a way-of-life, not a mental ascent to a metaphysical doctrine or principles). The idea that Jesus' kingdom was spiritual while Caesar/Herod/Caiaphas' was political was thoroughly debunked by John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus in 1972. Supported with biblical exegesis and theological sophistication, Yoder described the Reign of God as "a visible socio-political, economic restructuring of relations among the people of God, achieved by divine intervention in the person of Jesus." Yoder's masterpiece was named the 5th Best Theological Work of the 20th century by Christianity Today in 2000.

When Jesus told the Rich Young Man to sell his "possessions" and give all the proceeds to the poor and then join Jesus' campaign, he was confronting a horrific economic situation in 1st century Palestine, where wealthy landowners were collecting foreclosed properties from debt-strapped tenant farmers. Jesus' bold confrontation was more than an endorsement of charity. It was a clarion call to overhaul The Status Quo. And after all, Jesus was taking the Bible seriously, demanding that these corporate landowners actually obey the Deuteronomic provisions of Jubilee.

The 1% hated Jesus because his populism threatened their bottom line. If the Reign of God was being inaugurated in Jesus, then the wealthy and powerful were in trouble. The Status Quo would be shattered. Wealth and precious resources would be shared, not hoarded. Religious practices like Sabbath and cleansing would not be used to keep the Other 99% in the basement and the moneychangers of the Temple would not be able to overcharge pilgrims during Jewish festivals.

Jesus creatively, symbolically and nonviolently confronted the antics of the ruling elites. He mocked how they took themselves so seriously by riding a lowly donkey to the cheers of the Other 99%. He quoted Scripture to religous leaders to challenge the acclaimed militaristic politics of King David. He theatrically turned the tables on the bankers who got rich off fees and interest charged to the poor and the middle class. He fed thousands by sharing small meals, modeling an economics of abundance. He occupied towns with his loyal activists who lived simply and shook the dirt off their sandals to all those who refused to listen to the Jesus' Dream for a New Economy.

In short, Jesus embraced the 99% and actively resisted the 1%. So should we. We should use creativity and imagination just like he did. We should use our words and our bodies and our resources just like he did. We should expose lies and deceit that continue to propel the 1% into financial dominance...just like he did.

Sometimes our creatively nonviolent practices will lead to arrest just like they did for him. Sometimes we will be mischaracterized just like he was. Sometimes our inconvenient truths will lead to torture just like it did for him. Sometimes our well-articulated Dream will lead to an untimely death just like it did for him.

The basic notion of neighborly love ought to lead us to occupy. Even simple-yet-symbolic acts of protest like walking, putting words to signs, camping and sharing a meal with those who join us plant a seed to proclaim that the Reign of God is in solidarity with the Other 99%. Many of Occupy's opponents chide the lack of demands, condescendingly calling for a honed vision. But in this highly fragmented society with multi-layered strands of injustice, this occupation invites all of us to expose the wounds strategically inflicted upon us by the 1%: escalating college debt, foreclosures, cut jobs, outsourced jobs, increased workload, privileged legislation at the hands of the legions of lobbyists and lawyers, war profits, mortgage-backed fraud and deceit, political backscratching, bailouts, trickle-down fantasies and unlimited corporate contributions.

Quite frankly, many (most?) contemporary forms of Christianity are dedicated to the socio-economic status quo, emphasizing personal piety, eternal salvation and personal charitable giving (on top of church tithing) which is sincere-yet-paternalistic. These mainstream pastors encourage prayer and personal responsiblity for the down-and-out and impoverished. For them, the church can help during hard times, but ultimately isn't called to be "political." This, in itself, is a deeply political statement. Appeals to political neutrality always means The Status Quo. In order to keep things the way they've always been, leaders do subtle work, under the radar, behind the scenes, to keep the Other 99% docile and focused on "spiritual" matters. Put more cynically, abortion and gay marriage have become lightening rods in these circles to distract disciples from the real issues.

But as Cornel West put it in the 5th chapter of Democracy Matters (2004), there have always been "prophetic" and "priestly" strands of Christianity (and every other religion in the history of the world). The ancient Israelites received direction (Torah) from God, after their liberation from Egypt, about how vital it was for them to cultivate an economic system that would tangibly meet the needs of the widow, orphan and resident alien. But priestly faith creeped into the Israelite mix, emphasizing cultic rituals and cleanliness litmus tests. Some folks apparently deserved full dignity...and others didn't.

And this is precisely what we hear from the 1% in regards to the poor and working classes today: "if you don't have a job, get off the couch and get a one" and "if the government got out of the way, then businesses could start hiring again." Priestly religion has always been about instituionalizing the righteous and the wicked and isolating the scapegoats so we can have someone to blame all our hardships on. Jesus died as a scapegoat between two wicked sinners to expose the shortcomings of priestly religion, calling us to a form of prophetic faith that rejected narcissism by pledging solidarity with "the least of these."

That loud voice you hear second-guessing the strategies and motivations of the Occupiers is the priestly megaphone of the 1% who have unlimited access to money and media outlets. But that other still small voice of the Occupation is the whisper of the prophetic God who is always on the side of the crucified. Always has been. Always will be.
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Epilogue:
Props to Gavin Fabian, an EasyYolk conversation partner here in Orange County. Here's what the Orange County Register had to say about his prophetic work:

GAVIN FABIAN OF IRVINE says he has joined the occupation to speak out against "economic injustice" and the "lack of empathy" that the super-rich in the United States have toward regular Americans. The Princeton University graduate, who is employed, wants "conservatives" to know that many people in this country have worked really hard but are still struggling financially. He wants unemployment fixed, more funding to public schools and higher education made more affordable. He wants "progressives" to exert energy in helping President Obama promote their agenda rather than just blaming him for not getting it done.

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