Though it’s strapped for cash and coming out of hibernation, the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to press on, six months after its fiery start on September 17 of last year. The resurgence of the movement is a chance for Christians to enter into fruitful dialogue about Christian parallels to the movement, as well as the spiritual insights derived from the protests.
It seems as though most Christians paid attention to the movement for roughly the first month, made up their mind that the movement was misguided and essentially pagan, and moved on. Pat Robertson labeled the movement a “rebellion” of people who are “just mad.” Writing for Christianity Today’s website, Bruce Wydick said the real problem lied not with Wall Street moguls but instead with Americans in general, due to the creation of “material entitlement” that has “infected our personal choices, our politics, and our financial system.”
No doubt material entitlement has entered the American psyche. You need look no further than pictures and videos from the Occupy encampments to find the entitlement exemplified by an array of iPhones, MacBooks, and the like. The central grievance of Occupiers is that they did all the things society told them to do—buy a house outside their price range, get a collegiate education courtesy of Sallie Mae, and so on—and they came up short when their respective version of the American Dream proved illusory. The Blaze’s Billy Hallowell is right to argue that these protesters must take responsibility where applicable.
But while these are legitimate grounds for concern, they are not reason enough to discredit the Occupiers as inherently misguided, or even anti-Christian. Even if one considers the movement anti-Christian based on their sense of material entitlement, this is ground for engagement and dialogue, not dismissal.
Whatever Occupiers’ spiritual leanings may be, they display obvious parallels to many Christian principles. The movement’s agreed-upon means of consensus decision making has theological roots. Activist L. A. Kauffman traces these roots to the Quaker belief in corporate guidance, which acknowledges the work of the Holy Spirit in directing people’s decisions and actions, all the while uniting the community of believers. Further precedent can be found in Acts (4:32-35, for instance), where consensus had to be reached to meet everyone’s needs and to foster community. While many Occupiers may not know what they do, they are still building genuine community through what formal structures they have.
The Occupy movement also adheres to the principles of non-violence, popularized during the Civil Rights Movement by Martin Luther King, Jr. Christ laid the foundation for non-violent resistance by rebuking Peter’s resistance against Christ’s arrest. Christ’s lesson seems to have stuck; when Peter himself is arrested in Acts 4, there is no indication that Peter resists arrest.
Because of its democratic policy of consensus guidance, the movement discourages outliers from engaging in violent action against police forces, for the media will quickly magnify those violent protesters as though they represented all participants in the movement. As journalist Naomi Klein pointed out in her speech on October 6 last year, the lack of violence has drawn more attention to the injustice of occasional acts of police brutality. As I explain in my column May Day and the Danger of Violence, and as Peter realized through his two run-ins with the law (mentioned above), nonviolence can often be more fruitful than violent action.
But while these features mirror some Christian qualities, Occupy Wall Street has something important to offer Christians: a much-needed opportunity to re-evaluate the tacit acceptance of free-market capitalism as the best available economic system.
Starting in the 1970s, prominent free-market economists successfully overthrew the belief in safeguarding markets with regulations. They convinced major leaders like Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to embrace free-market policies and deregulation. This economic ideology, or belief system, has essentially taken hold of the American psyche, so much so that those questioning capitalism are often derided as “un-American” and socialist (which, in their minds, is automatically stupid).
Yet as social activist Raj Patel has said, the 2008 Great Financial Crisis has made people realize they are in “a world turned upside down, where everything we were told was to our advantage has turned out to be its opposite.” The disillusionment felt when we discovered the gambles taken by business executives with our money accounts for why Occupy movement participants said in their Declaration of the Occupation of New York City that they are representing “a feeling of mass injustice” caused by dangerous decisions made by the “corporate forces of the world.”
For Christians it should come as no surprise that the world tipped over into disarray in 2008. The basic tenets of capitalism are built on the desire for accumulating capital, better known as wealth–and accumulation, as we’ve seen from the Great Financial Crisis, all too often breeds greed. This should strike Christians as deeply troubling.
In I Timothy 6, Paul supplies a series of instructions to ministers working with slaves and slave-masters. For slave and slave-master alike, contentment is recommended because it keeps people from falling into greed. For those who pursue wealth, though, numerous dangers are present:
“But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with much grief.” (9-10)
Elsewhere Christ says that those who pursue wealth risk gaining the world at the expense of forfeiting their souls (Matthew 6:26). They who forfeit their souls are aware of having done so and are thus afflicted with grief (whether they admit it or not).
The pursuit of wealth, however, does not just affect greedy people but also those around them. A person’s greed can lead others to suffer “ruin and destruction”—and have we not seen this in the aftermath of the financial collapse? Many have lost their homes through illegal foreclosures. Investments were lost and savings accounts have dwindled while the unemployed have searched without success for work after being laid off. Keep in mind, too, that the ruin and destruction from this crisis is not just domestic but international.
The Great Financial Crisis has (or should have) reminded us that capitalism is predisposed to and inclined toward evil, just as man is. This is a point most Christians are not used to encountering, but it is nonetheless one they must confront. Few are better situated to help Christians probe this startling reality than the Occupy movement followers.
When faced with complex social issues like the Great Financial Crisis, Christians tend to search their own hearts for sin while neglecting to try to grasp injustice on a wider social scale. It is true that they certainly should probe and repent of their own material entitlement. But Christians are also called to be “in the world,” and an important part of being in the world is trying to understand it—the people in it, the way society functions, and, perhaps new to many, the free-market economic system at work, which negatively and positively influences how so many live. Having searched their hearts, Christians must turn to searching the heart of capitalism—a daunting but necessary task.