Occupy Religion

I’ve been spending a good deal of time down at McPherson Square, which is the home of either Occupy DC or Occupy K Street, depending on one’s perspective. You see, there are two Occupations in Washington, D.C. and there’s quite a bit of controversy over who legitimately holds the “Occupy” title. And of course, there you have the first point of similarity between this phenomenon and another that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean: Nobody is quite sure what it is or how to define it. More on that in a moment.

This blog’s theme is an exploration of how the Hebrew scripture (a.k.a. Old Testament) story of Nehemiah. As I’ve described in detail, the first six chapters of that book provide a fascinating and detailed description of how a decentralized grassroots effort succeed in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls in 52 days, after generations of failure by the usual authoritarian top-down approach that relied on the blessings of government.

What I’ve seen at McPherson Square certainly has some resemblance to the rather chaotic way that tasks were handled by whomever happened to be near a given section of wall, as well as the general sense of being surrounded by a somewhat hostile and more powerful group. On the other hand, it’s also rather different in that Nehemian organizing in that there isn’t a clear leader, even in the hands-off visionary sense that Nehemiah modeled. And I’m also seeing less evidence of a real shared purpose.

Nevertheless, those who view this scripture as important – hopefully including all Jews, Christians and Muslims – should take the time to read Nehemiah’s story and reflect on what it says about how God does things among people. There are striking resemblances.

I am no expert on the Occupy movement, and barely feel like I have a handle on OccupyDC alone. But the more I look at this thing, the more it seems to resemble what was going on among the followers of Jesus in the years following his death. In particular, it echoes the rather erratic gatherings of the primitive church, which went by the name ecclesia, meaning “gathering.” (more event than organization)

I’ve previously written quite a bit about the spiritual side of the Arab Spring and revolt in general, and I have to admit I was overly optimistic about the awakening that was occurring there. I’ve been deeply disappointed by the sectarian violence that has followed, although also encouraged by the ways that many Muslims have come together to prevent violence against Christians.

The Occupy phenomenon is admittedly not as faith-oriented as the Egyptian uprising, in which the people consistently stopped whatever they were doing to pray, even when under fire by water cannons.

However, there are already people of faith wrestling to grasp what this means for their own spiritual life.

This wrestling has taken a variety of forms including sacred spaces at Occupations, as well as religious services. Interfaith Worker Justice has developed discussion guides for Jews, Christians and Muslims. There have also been both small and large interfaith services. And I recently attended a meeting of a nascent organization called Occupy Faith DC, which seeks to be an interfaith coalition in support of the movement.

But not everything is interfaith, and I’m particularly fascinated how people are engaging Occupy within their own religious contexts.

I have to hand it to the Jews. They’ve really been leading the way with trying to connect their faith with the legitimate moral challenges to capitalism that Occupy poses. In less than a day, a small group of local Jews got over 100 people to come for a Kol Nidre service, in which they returned the holiday to its roots of atonement for injustice. Since then, they’ve built a sukkah (booth) and have held weekly shabbat services.

Christians are also starting to make their presence known. Some churches have brought food. Other groups have set up church services. There is appropriate concern about preaching and it seems like most people have avoided being too pushy with anything.

I haven’t personally seen much large-scale prayer organizing among Muslims, but I’ve heard that Friday prayers have been organized and there have been several tents with Islamic signs and a Bahraini flag. And the Islamic Circle of North America issued a statement that included this: “ICNA sympathizes with the message of Occupy Wall Street protesters and supports their cause. These protesters are raising legitimate concerns regarding income disparity, unemployment and the state of our economy that cannot be ignored. As American Muslims we stand in solidarity with them across the country.”

This Occupy thing is relatively new, but it is already showing serious signs of stress. There have been incidents of police brutality, infighting and occasional acts of violence within the various encampments. The weather is certainly adding to the stress and I have my doubts about whether this is a viable tactic for the social and economic transformation we so desperately need.

But its a worthwhile struggle that deserves the support – and prayers – of people of all faiths.

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