In Occupy movement, religion and politics mix

Washington's ecumenical community has wrestled with its role in the Occupy movement. Is there a place for religion in the leaderless masses?

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Protestors in Zuccotti Park mix religion and politics.

Washington's ecumenical community has wrestled with its role in the Occupy movement. Is there a place for religion in the leaderless masses?

In the days following the ugly confrontation between Occupy movement protesters and Seattle Police in downtown Seattle on Nov. 14, images of an 84-year-old woman and Seattle clergyman covered with pepper spray went viral. The Seattle pastor, Rev. Rich Lang, wearing full, white clerical vestments, stood between the line of peaceful demonstrators and spray-wielding police officers.

Lang is part of a team of “Occupy chaplains” who come daily to the encampment sites to lend spiritual support and pastoral care to the scores of protesters braving the winter rain and cold. As the nation’s Occupy Wall Street movement continues to spread, even worldwide, the nation’s religious community has been conspicuously silent about the economic justice issues protesters are raising, he said.

“The chaplains have been listening posts and calming companions for a very young movement,” said Lang, senior pastor of University Temple United Methodist Church. Lamenting the absence of other Seattle clergy at the Occupy sites, the 55-year-old minister cited the movement’s ethical imperatives. “The Church has strong economic justice narratives, but they aren’t preached much, nor do clergy put them at the forefront of the Christian story. Congregations have been silent about that, but as the economy and culture worsen, I think those narratives will come back into play.”

Occupy activist, Neal Bernstein, a 48-year old research chemist and native of New York City, sees deeper reasons for his involvement. Raised in a Jewish family but a self-described atheist, Bernstein believes that the ecumenical community and Occupy participants find common cause in their concern for the perilous economic meltdown now engulfing the country.

“The church deals with spiritual issues on several levels,” he said. “The Occupy movement is similar, but we’re seeking redemption from our government and corporations, and to be better in the same way that the church seeks to make better people. When the religious community gives us its blessings, it has a duty to participate. Stripped to its bare core, the secular and faithful both do good works. Our movement encompasses both believers and nonbelievers. We’re the 99 percent.”

Indeed, religious leaders like Rev. Grant Hagiya, Bishop of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, believe the growing conversation about the nation’s worsening economic crisis and wealth inequality raises profound moral questions of justice.

“The broader implications for us as a church, and more importantly, as a society, are that we awakening from the slumber of complacency and apathy. For too long, we have just accepted the status quo without any prophetic challenge to it," Hagiya said. "What I see in the Occupy movement is a return to grassroots civil engagement, much like I experienced directly during the Civil Rights and Vietnam protest era of the late sixties and seventies. We believed we were working for a better world then, and I think the same can be said of those who Occupy Seattle and the other 100 cities.”

Alice Woldt, co-director of the Faith Action Network and former executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and Washington Association of Churches, concurs. “Connecting with our community is what our faith is all about. We are not only concerned with providing charity, but also being advocates. Many of our churches do one without the other. We do need to be concerned about equity and the people who are oppressed by the systems we have created.”

Many in the Seattle ecumenical community, like Wes Howard-Brook, look to local communities to take the lead. Howard-Brook, who teaches theology and biblical studies at Seattle University, believes the Occupy movement has succeeded in framing the conversation.

"They have done a great job naming, with much prophetic power, the evils, and injustices of our corporate economy and political reality,” the religious scholar said. “In practical terms, for today’s movement, this means seeking change not via government or expecting the corporations themselves to be other than what they are [by law and by practice], but to form communities that embody radically different economic principles, as we hear in the gospels.”

Other Seattle clergy assert that the Occupy movement has given the religious community pause to do more soul-searching about its lack of engagement. “The movement has been more effective than the Church in lifting up the moral failings of greed, economic injustice, and consumerism,” said the Rev. Michael Denton, conference minister for the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.

“By occupying physical spaces, they have helped these topics occupy conversations, media, and politics. That said, I think recent years have made us very ready for these conversations,” the UCC pastor explained. “There are some who try and suggest that this movement is about the jealousy, stupidity, and laziness of those who did not succeed economically. In actuality, for many of us in the church, this is about something much simpler than that: 'Thou shalt not steal.' Just because the stealing may be legally defensible does not mean it isn’t morally reprehensible.”

Within the ranks of the progressive church, however, opinions diverge on the church’s response to the Occupy movement. Some, like religious activist and theologian, Ched Myers, of the Los Angeles-based Bartimeus Cooperative Ministries, look to pragmatic strategies like the “Move Your Money” campaign to advance the Occupy movement’s concerns for economic equality. “We’ve been tracking and supporting the viral growth around the country and across the world of the Occupy protest against an economic system geared to benefit only the richest one percent,” Myers said.

Now that protest has begun to get traction. According to the Credit Union National Association, as of the first week of November, American consumers transferred more than $4.5 billion from big banks into more than 7,000 credit unions, he explained. “Those numbers then dramatically spiked on Nov. 5, ‘Bank Transfer Day.’ It is estimated that more than a million people have now ‘voted’ by moving their money,” said Myers. “We hope the corporate banks are paying as much attention as the media.”

Seattle author and citizen activist, Paul Loeb, believes churches should embrace the underlying themes of the Occupy movement. “The significance of the movement is that it’s addressing the real issue of the divide between the top one percent and ninety-percent in the nation. We should have been doing this three years ago,” Loeb said at a recent interfaith forum on the Occupy movement at Seattle’s University Temple United Methodist Church.

“Churches can play a role by offering physical space and inviting movement leaders to speak,” he said. “The Occupy movement has offered a public witness and put themselves out there with a question: ‘What will you do?’" These are serious moral issues, he said, and they are not just the sole concern of progressive churches, but all churches.

“Three to four months ago, these issues of economic justice were off the table. The Occupy movement has now provided a window, or opportunity, to discuss wealth inequality. The stakes are too high, and we have to engage the political system.”

Assessing the response of Seattle’s ecumenical community to the movement, Denton stressed that the church’s challenge is not to lead, but participate. “I think our impact has been as part of this movement, not as leaders, or director, or fundraisers for it, but as partners. We have not always done this well, but these days have been different. When a clergy person wearing a black, button-down shirt and clergy collar is marching next to a person wearing a black t-shirt and studded dog-collar chanting words in unity, that’s a good and holy day. “

“As a partner, I think there have been particular things we’ve been able to add to the mix: various experiences of community; a practiced listening ear; connections to social service when needed; and, sometimes, the ability to help translate political demands into calls for moral clarity,” Denton said.

In a recent article in The Nation, political columnist William Greider sees parallels between the economic justice issues voiced by Occupy protesters and the ancient Hebrew society’s approach to debt crises. “Every seven years, the cycle of debt accumulation was erased by a declaration of general forgiveness. This was called the year of Jubilee, and Christianity embraced the same moral principle. Everyone was redeemed. The economy was freed to start over again.”

Notwithstanding the media’s preoccupation with the quelling of protesters by police wielding batons, pepper spray, and stun grenades in Oakland, Zucotti Park, and other urban encampments, Loeb points out that, before the Occupy movement was launched three months ago, the nation’s widening wealth disparity was seldom talked about. “Now the media coverage of the Occupy movement has validated that reality. One of the movement’s accomplishments has been to get that conversation restarted.”

In the opinion of several Puget Sound clergy, such as the Rev. Marian Stewart, pastor at Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church, church participation and dialogue about the movement are still in its infancy. “The progressive, liberal churches have been supportive of the Occupy movement, but a lot of other churches are curious,” said the Kirkland minister. “The religious right has been absent from the conversation. But, these are everyone’s issues. These are deep questions. Who are we as a country?”

Stewart was one of many local clergy who joined Occupy protesters in the rally in Olympia at the start of the Legislature’s special session to debate Gov. Chris Gregoire’s 2012 supplemental budget. “Some Christians are woefully ignorant about these economic issues. It’s important that churches just show up. Churches have a larger, societal role of calling us to do better. The church has forgotten how to promote humanity and is focused on exclusivity. The Occupy movement is the ultimate human call to live up to our better selves.”

Woldt agrees. “I think that the churches have a responsibility to be engaged with changing oppressive systems. They need to be challenging elected officials and the Administration, as well as institutions that foster economic injustice. The Occupy movement is calling into question why more and more people are suffering, without jobs, hungry, and losing their homes. This is not the kind of society that I believe is healthy, nor is it the vision of God’s kingdom that is described in the gospels.”

Bishop Hagiya believes the church is well-positioned to engage the conversation about the nation’s economic turmoil. “The church is the one institution that has the ability to look outside of its own perspective and call into question all of the other institutions’ value systems. The prophets of our tradition, and also Jewish tradition, were radical scrutinizers of the society, who were called by God to call into question human greed and arrogance. It is this same prophetic tradition that the Occupy movement has engaged, and it is consistent with our history and call.”

Editor's note: Collin Tong is a member of the congregation at University Temple United Methodist Church


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.