What Would Jesus Occupy?

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With the Occupy Wall Street protest entering its fifth week, there is no shortage of commentary reflecting Christian perspectives. Some, like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, are generally sympathetic to the protests. Bruce Wydick at Christianity Today takes the opportunity to point out that the conditions being protested have been brought on by a crisis in American values; they cannot be blamed neatly on one sociopolitical faction or another.

Other writers ask themselves, "What would Jesus occupy?" (See here as well.) And that's an important question. I believe the true answer, based on his life on earth, is: nothing. It is a remarkably simple answer, but one with profound implications. Our society has become all but deaf to those implications, glorifying as we do the force majeure of entitlement and sanctimony. But Jesus is the very antithesis of an occupier.

Among the most famous words of Jesus are those recorded in Revelation 3:20: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." (NIV) No passage more clearly reflects the attitude with which Jesus lived his life on earth, and with which he approaches us today.

Jesus never went anywhere uninvited. Even when he rebuked the money-changers in the Temple, he did not approach the institution as an antagonist, demanding entry on his own terms. He entered the Temple in obedience to the Father, as a Jew going to worship: exercising the privilege of a Jew under the commandments of God and the system of worship and priestly authority God had instituted. At no time did Jesus enter the premises of any person or institution on any but an orderly pretext.

The intention of the Occupy Wall Street protesters—to occupy the premises of others and challenge society's institutions—has been clarified during the week of October 10. Informed by the New York authorities that they would have to vacate Zucotti Park while it was being cleaned, the protesters insisted that their activities constitute an occupation, mounted on their terms. They are not there at the sufferance of the mayor or the police. (As I write this, we don't yet know the outcome of their promised showdown with the authorities on Friday, October 14.)

That's something Jesus would not do. He didn't have to defy the authorities in order to triumph. In fact, he obeyed their decrees all the way to the cross, rebuking Peter for showing resistance. The resurrected Jesus doesn't even "occupy" our hearts, the territory he was sent to claim. He dwells there only at our invitation. To us, too, he accords respect for our authority in that regard.

He does this not out of weakness, but in spite of the authority and power that are his by right. In Philippians 2:5-7, Paul describes Jesus' posture this way:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant . . .

Acting in this humility, Jesus affords us a second simple lesson: that he was not here for the purpose of complaining about what was wrong. He was here to deliver good news. He was here to transcend the pessimistic calculations of the material world with the promise of salvation. His prize is our hearts: his great victory is us, transformed. And whether he was speaking to a rich young man (Mt. 19:16-22) or telling a parable of workers who were wrongly concerned about what others were being paid (Mt. 20:1-16), Jesus' focus was the state of the individual heart.

When speaking of personal subsistence, Jesus' message was, literally, "Don't worry" (Mt. 6:25-34). This is not an instruction to us that we need make no effort, nor is it a promise that we will never see others richer than we are. It is an exhortation about attitude. Jesus had at his back all the promises of the Law and the Prophets about God's bounty for those who obey Him. There is an entitlement that we have every right to claim—but it is not good against our fellow men. The entitlement is fulfilled at the hand of God.