Occupy Religion? (Religious Perspective)


The suggestion that I write an article on religion and the Occupy movement seemed to me absurd at first. Is Occupy in any way a religious movement? While many occupiers and friends are religious, representing about any background one can imagine, many are atheists and otherwise not religiously identified. Certainly, the movement holds to a moralistic tone, protesting against injustice and corporate dominance; but it is not clear that this is in any way based upon any religious belief, except in the conscience of each individual. I laughed at the idea of Occupy as a religious movement. Then I stopped.

I suddenly remembered the prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. While most of the Hebrew prophets were from the highest caste and the upper class, maybe even from the top one percent, by the time of Jesus, the example of the ascetic denouncing the wealthy and powerful for their impiety, immorality, and exploitation of the poor became the cultural vision, the meme. John the Baptist attracted an important following living in the desert, imitating the example of Elijah. Elijah had been an itinerant ascetic prophet and priest. His chosen disciple Elisha imitated his example with even more success. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke appear to use the story of Elijah and Elisha as inspiration for their depictions of John and Jesus.

The Gospels are quite explicit that Jesus was homeless, dependent on charity, and politically powerless. While the story is not clear, a good case can be made that Jesus tried to occupy the Temple of Jerusalem and that this lead to his execution. James, the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just, clearly did successfully occupy the Temple for a short time, although he too was executed as a heretic priest. The Jewish zealots took possession of the Temple and all of Israel in the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE, which ended in disaster, the destruction of the Temple, and the looting of the Temple gold. This event was reminiscent of previous revolts by religious zealots, such as those of the Maccabeans and Judas of Galilee. And that clearly prefigured the ultimate dissolution of the Jewish patrimony after the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135 CE. Then, the Christians and Jews occupied the whole Roman Empire.

Protests have had enormous influence on the development of both Christianity and Judaism. While the Occupy Movement seems nonreligious, the similarity to the prophetic paradigm is startling and impressive. However, is this similarity significant? I think that it is, because just as in ancient times, those who are politically excluded will continue to seek a voice in society.

The example of the Judeo-Christian prophets as protestors has powerful resonance in our culture, and with persistence it will succeed in exerting a moral influence. A friend of mine was asking about my views on the history of early Christianity: what did I think was the goal of the early Christians? I answered without hesitation: the overthrow of the Roman Empire. Immediately, he broke into a hearty laugh. Then, he stopped.



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