Jesus liked children and poor people. He also opposed greed. Unfortunately, there is a good bit of greed in the United States. The top 1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth; take home 24% of its national income; and own half the nation’s stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. The gap between how the wealthy live, and how others live, is enormous. Wider than it has been since the Great Depression.
Occupy Wall Street is a grass-roots movement raising consciousness about the problem of greed. It is now growing in different parts of the world. The demonstrators urge the creation of just communities in which people live in more loving ways. Indeed they encourage people to live in what a Christian might call “Christ-like” ways. The demonstrators simultaneously protest against a kind of Empire which now dominates so much of the world: an Empire of greed and selfishness, rooted in the darker sides of capitalism and consumer culture. Jesus sought a counter-cultural alternative to this kind of Empire. He called it the basiliea theou. For him, is would be a society guided by justice and sharing — by divine love — rather than greed. A divine commonwealth.
Would Jesus join in the demonstrations? Would he occupy Wall Street? We asked one of the wisest Christian theologians in the United States, John B. Cobb, what he thinks. Here is his response.
The Answer is Yes
To this question there is a simple answer: Yes. By that I mean that this is the kind of thing that Jesus in fact did. He drove the money changers out of the temple. He proclaimed the nearness of the basileia theou, which was the other world that is possible, the world organized for the benefit of the 99% (and even, in ways they don’t want, of the 1% as well).
The basiliea theou was a counter-culture based on just the values that were rejected by the political, economic, and religious establishments of his day. I call it the “divine commonwealth.” Jesus was killed for his in-your-face rejection of the political authorities, but these had the support of the religious authorities as well. So, if we project the character and commitments of Jesus into the contemporary world, we can expect that he would be occupying Wall Street.
The question is then why so many of those who want to be his followers, people like me, are not there. We have good excuses. Consider mine. I am the chief caregiver to my wife. I am committed to helping finish preparations for several conferences. It seems that fulfilling my commitments to others is more important than simply being another body on Wall Street or in Los Angeles.
But Jesus did not deal generously with excuses. When the rich young ruler was unwilling to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, Jesus did not have a discussion with him of why he needed to keep part of his money to take care of his family. When he told the parable of the banquet, he noted that many declined to come because they had family, professional, and business responsibilities. Clearly in his view they made the wrong choice.
From Greed to Justice
Even so, I am not sure that I would be a better disciple if I abandoned by wife and my commitments. Jesus also called on us to be “wise as serpents.” Perhaps it is just rationalization, but I like to think that the basic choice for which Jesus calls so unequivocally is between putting first success in the dominant society (today, the American Empire and the world of consumerism), or putting first the divine commonwealth. I like to think that Jesus saw the reasons for not following him or coming to the banquet, the reasons he rejected, as favoring the status quo, the Empire, rather than the counter-culture he affirmed.
If we put first the divine commonwealth and live from its values, then we should use our critical abilities to decide how best to serve it. I persuade myself that implementing conferences that show how the Empire is destroying the world is a greater contribution to the realization of the divine commonwealth (in my particular circumstances) than participating in demonstrations, valuable as that is.
But that some of us may have good reasons for not physically joining the demonstrators in no way denies that Jesus can be found there among them. Those who are there, whether they know it or not, are part of the Jesus movement. The prophets of Israel initiated ethical critique of the powers that be in the name of God’s justice. It is primarily through Jesus that this critique has become part of Western history. Those who engage in nonviolent protest against the powers and principalities of this world may or may not acknowledge the leadership of Jesus. That is not the test of discipleship. It is those who do the will of God, and not those who use the proper language, whom Jesus lauds.
When so clear an opportunity to follow Jesus presents itself as we have today, it is those of us who do not join in occupying Wall Street or Los Angeles who need to examine our consciences and our decisions. Are our reasons expressing the wisdom Jesus commends or the power of the Empire over us?