As the "Occupy Wall Street" protest stretches on for a fourth week, members of the faith community have been stepping out to stand in solidarity with demonstrators speaking out against greed, capitalism and economic inequalities, moving some Christians to wonder if Jesus Himself would also "occupy" Wall Street.
On Sunday, Judson Memorial Church and Union Theological Seminary organized an interfaith event at Zucotti Park, where the "Occupy Wall Street" (OWS) protests are being held. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders addressed the crowd as supporters held signs with slogans such as "Jesus is with the 99%" and "You cannot serve God and Wealth – Matthew 6:24."
The leaders talked about how they were there to show solidarity with the OWS protesters and that there needs to be a new focus in America to help the poor and underprivileged rather than "too big to fail" banks – a common theme among the OWS protesters.
"We are not here as religious leaders," the Rev. Stephen Phelps, of Riverside Church in New York City, told the crowd. "We're here to show support to the movement."
"What is our struggle?" Phelps continued. "Our struggle is not war. Our struggle is for an American identity. That means the majority knows how to be the majority and protects the minority."
As rabbis, imams, and ministers spoke, they all made sure to stress that their goal is the same as the OWS protesters': change. "Occupy!" and "We're gonna do it!" were chanted repeatedly, with the crowd joining in. Phelps also told the crowd, "Step out of line and do something! Do something!"
However, religious leaders calling on OWS protesters to "do something" has caused some conservatives to raise their eyebrows.
The OWS protest has been depicted by some conservative media as a socialist battle cry, giving the impression that Karl Marx would have a greater presence at Zucotti Park than Jesus Christ. However, that has not necessarily been the case, and during the past week, the faith community has been making its presence felt and plans on increasing its participation in the protest, giving politicaly progressive Christians a louder voice than they usually have.
Revered Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote an article on Huffington Post last week expressing his support for the protesters. Admitting that he does not know everything about the protesters and that some of them might not share his Christian views, he drew on the similarities between what he knew of the their goals and the goals of Christians who wish to enact social change through the teachings of Jesus:
When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus. When they stand with the hungry, they stand with Jesus. When they stand for those without a job or a home, they stand with Jesus. When they are peaceful, non-violent, and love their neighbors (even the ones they don't agree with and who don't agree with them), they are walking as Jesus walked. When they talk about holding banks and corporations accountable, they sound like Jesus and the biblical prophets before him who all spoke about holding the wealthy and powerful accountable.
Conservative blogs, such as TheBlaze.com, took Wallis to task for, what they believed, was a misconstruing of the Bible for a "leftist" agenda. After agreeing that it would be "biblical" to hold the powerful accountable, Billy Hallowell of TheBlaze responds to Wallis: "But doesn’t the Bible also speak about personal responsibility, the power of negative decisions and the like?"
He adds: "the issue here isn’t simply about the poor; it’s about the extent to which businesses and government should be blamed for social and political problems. Nowhere in his article does Wallis address the other side of this debate - the one that deals with individuals’ decisions to take out loans and to engage in other consumer behaviors."
Although taking out loans and engaging in "other consumer behaviors" is vague, Hallowell's point is that the fault of today’s current economic situation lies not only with the big banks and corporations who eliminate jobs while taking taxpayer money – one of the main grievances of the OWS protesters – but with the people for taking out a loan they could not pay back after losing their job. Therefore, assuming Jesus would automatically side against the big banks is not accurate, Hallowell believes.
However, the religious leaders in attendance at Zucotti Park on Sunday strongly disagreed.
"Jesus would have provided the poor with fish and bread – even if they could not afford to pay back a loan," Meredeith Kadet, 29, told The Christian Post.
Kadet, a theological student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City as well as a community minister at Judson Memorial Church, was present at the OWS protest Sunday to help counter the perception that Christianity is ideologically opposed to helping those hurt by the economic crisis.
At the heart of Kadet's religious reasoning was a philosophy that believes Jesus sides with the poor.
"I think Jesus considered himself to be part of a long line of prophets who spoke for the poor and rejected," she said. "That's why we came here today…He would be here."
"Jesus almost always sided with the poor and persecuted," Erica Richmond, a Union student who helped organize the interfaith event, told CP. "Jesus was an activist in His time."
Regardless of one's interpretation of the Bible, the OWS protests combine many ideologies and beliefs, including some that are highly skeptical of religion and even see religion as part of the overall problem.
Acknowledging that there might be a spiritual disconnect, Richmond said that the agreements between Christian and non-religious protesters outweigh the differences.
"We have the same concerns," she said, pointing out that Jesus spoke out against the corrupt powers of his time, one of the main goals of everybody in the OWS protests.
Richmond, who identifies as a Universalist Unitarian, said that a basic tenet of her belief is to "affirm the inherent warmth and dignity of every person."
"That warmth and dignity are being denied," she said. “And that's not okay. That's not Christ's ethics."
Whatever interpretation of Jesus' teachings one has and how it may apply to the OWS protests, New York's faith community has vowed to play an important part in the movement.
Addressing the crowd, the Rev. Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church promised that he and others in the faith community would be in it for the long haul.
"We will not tire. We will not falter. We will stand with you in every city, every state, every country," he said. "And whatever [the protesters] need, the faith community of New York will be there to give it to them."
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