Occupy’s Theological Roots


There’s nothing like a good Occupy rally to clear the liberal head. Where else to catch young ideologues and old peaceniks protesting, mingling and venting on such a scale and in such a way?

Depending on the focus and degree of preparation, for the whippersnappers an Occupy assembly is a political rave with your cool grandma and for the bandana crowd it’s a back-to-the-future flashback to halcyon days.

Either way it’s a 99% camp meeting organized with enough cyber skill to make a tea party coordinator’s head explode.

And the camp meeting analogy is for real. In their book published last year, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, Joerg Rieger (Perkins School of Theology) and Kwok Pui-Lan (Episcopal Divinity School) suggest that there is an underlying theology to the movement – one that sounds a lot like that of the liberator Jesus.

At the core of this praxis-style liberation theology is empire versus the many – a variation on the 99/1 quotient that created and still drives the movement.

Case in point, Rieger and Kwok lift up the Muslim and Christian influence on Occupy; the former with its Arab Spring insistence on debate in the public square; the latter with Quaker-style egalitarianism as Occupy’s means of governance.

The authors locate strains of Zen (non-materialism) and Judaism (prophetic witness) in Occupy’s theology of an oppressed underclass exiled from dignity and opportunity.

But for the Christian authors the hero at the center of Occupy’s theological narrative is Jesus, champion of the disenfranchised and disturber of state, status and soul.

He is Tom Joad’s Jesus, present to exploited workers eveywhere. He’s King’s Jesus, inclusive in vision and nonviolent in practice. He’s Marx’s Jesus, come to confront capitalistic excess.

And as if Rieger and Kwok’s Jesus weren’t threatening enough, there is the God behind; for to recast Jesus as liberator is to rethink the source of his liberating power and authority.

And it’s here that Occupy, intentionally or un becomes a vehicle for a God that inherently and forever sides with the downtrodden. Because while in no way overtly linked to any religious tradition, the movement nonetheless prods the reflective religionist to wonder what kind of deity sides with empire and against the people.

Rieger and Kwok make two further and critical points. One, that Occupy has done religion a great service by bringing together faith communities with secular progressive service providers/lobbyists and faith traditions with one another. As a result there is increased progressive cooperation and solidarity – a byproduct of Occupy’s mission to unite likeminded causes under its broad umbrella.

Two, Occupy with its vision of a healed and healing world pushes religious communities to consider how they do and don’t align with Jesus and his God of liberation. Such a dangerous standard would surely rock most religious traditions and the way they conceive their place in the world.

Occupy’s critics have made a sport of relegating it to a political footnote. And in the wake of constant campout evictions and more subtle attempts to stifle the movement, it might have become just that.

But not only has Occupy survived and evolved; it has had a mostly accidental but nonetheless considerable impact on liberal religion, the progressive sleeping giant of the times.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2013



Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2013 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652