I have been asked a lot lately about this issue. People both within the Occupy Wall Street movement and without come to this question assuming that Jesus would basically be doing whatever they want to be doing. Those on the Occupy side tend to believe that Jesus would Occupy Wall Street just as Jesus “Occupied” the temple in Jerusalem, flipping over tables and the like. Those who are opposed to the Occupy movement usually say that Jesus was completely non-political, that Jesus was only political in regards to bringing more people to correct religion, or that God is in control and thus protesting the way things are is protesting God. Thus they would say Jesus would surely not be Occupying Wall Street. After giving it some thought, I think I have the right answer.
No. Jesus would not be a part of the current Occupy Wall Street movement.
That might shock some of you, and yet lull others into a false sense of being right. So let me explain. If Jesus somehow were to have come now to the world rather than 2000 years ago, he certainly would have some things to say about our current system of oppression. But, Jesus would not have waited for the middle class to get upset before he acted. Jesus would have been at the forefront of protesting (or non-violent social action) long before Occupy got its momentum. Jesus would have been at the forefront of teaching and growing the Kingdom of God movement. Perhaps it might have been called the Party of God, the Nation of God, The Community of God, the Dream of God, etc… but it would have addressed both the religious and the social climate of our day, as it relates to God’s will.
Perhaps it is backwards to ask whether Jesus would join the Occupiers, and perhaps more appropriate to ask if they would join him?
Remember, in the culture of Jesus, faith and politics were impossible to separate. So what happened religiously affected the political and social lives of the everyday people, and vice-versa. Therefore, when Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of God, was he talking about sphere of faith/religion or the socio-political sphere? Both. They were the same thing then. How then are we to think of how Jesus might address our current crisis? Would Jesus, as many of my good friends suggest, simply deal with the spiritual lives of people today, ignoring the socio-politics of the 21st century? Or, as many of my colleagues from the opposite end of the spectrum suggest, would Jesus simply address the socio-politics, and leave the religion behind as less important? I suggest these are false premises. Jesus, if his earthly life before was any suggestion, would have addressed both.
This might come as a surprise, but God is concerned about what people do, even if they are not followers of God or never will be.
God is concerned about Justice, whether or not it involves people being in “right relationship” with God. A few scriptures here might help.
Amos 9:7 reads, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the LORD.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”
The Philistines were the religious and political enemies of both God and the Hebrews, and yet God shows his hand in helping them similarly to when he helped Israel. And even while the Ethiopians were not Hebrews, God likens his relationship with Israel to them. You see, God is concerned with more than just “Christians.” A second scripture:
Ezekiel 49-51 “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. Samaria has not committed half your sins; you have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed.”
Here, the scripture states (and this should settle the homosexual issue regarding Sodom) that Sodom’s sins were pride, having too much food, prosperity, and not helping the poor and needy. I’m sorry, but Sodom wasn’t Hebrew, right? They didn’t have a “love relationship” with God, right? And yet God still cares whether or not they do justice? God still cares if they have too much food and wealth, and don’t aid the poor?
I can’t be the only one who sees this as a picture of how America is acting, right? Since many would claim, rightly or wrongly, that America is a Christian nation, would it not fall even more heavily upon us to take seriously the charges God leveled against a non- Christian nation? They hoarded wealth and did not help the poor and needy. Enough of that. If you won’t see it now, you likely don’t want to, and not amount of exegesis will help that. So back to Jesus.
Now that we have established whether God cares about things beyond the spiritual realm (and whether we should act for justice even apart from religion), we can turn to Jesus’ acts and teaching.
Jesus’ Teaching on the Rich
First, is it not interesting that Jesus does not address the rich, except in discouragement?
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.””
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
[This one isn’t about all rich people, just religious people who don’t concern themselves with the poor, only with “getting people into “right relationship” with God] “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (contrary to popular interpretation, this was a condemnation of a system that placed tithing above a person’s ability to survive. This is not an example of how the poor should give)
Mary, singing about what God is doing through Jesus: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
“God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
The story Jesus tells about the rich man and Lazarus should scare us, because it has nothing to do with religion, but only about how a rich person is rich, and a poor person is poor.
The story Jesus tells about the sheep and the goats is loaded with people who are “in a love relationship” with God, but in the end, are rejected and judged because of “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these.”
“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. (for those who are eager to dismiss this verse as simply this man’s greed being the reason for Jesus’ words, you might want to look deeper. This man was violating a commandment. The command in Deuteronomy 15, “There need be no poor people among you…If anyone is poor among your people in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.”)
“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
Jesus’ Teaching on the Poor
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” It is interesting that Jesus addresses the physical ailments of these folk. Lame = walk. Lepers = cleansed. Deaf = hear. Dead = raised. poor = raised out of poverty…er… wait, why would Jesus help everyone else, but leave the poor with a message of post-houmous salvation? I respectfully submit that the “good news” may be about more than spiritual matters, but indeed included helping the poor out of their poverty.
“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Jesus hearkens back to Deuteronomy 15, where the law clearly states that if they desire it, there does not need to be any poor people among them. The idea that their generosity should be so great that the poor from other places are flocking to them, creates this effect of the poor “always being among them.” Shame on you for using the words of Jesus to justify not doing more!
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (once again, Jesus points religious people to the statute of helping the poor in Deuteronomy 15. It is not the need for a deeper spiritual life that Jesus is addressing in the man, but the plight of those around him that are suffering.)
“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” (Wait, Jesus, you don’t mean to say that wealthy people aren’t paying their fair share, right? They keep the economy of the temple afloat! Surely this poor woman shouldn’t get a temple handout on the backs of the wealthy donors!)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (err… Jesus, don’t forget about the rich, now. They need spiritual help too…. huh? The “gospel” isn’t just “spiritual?” That doesn’t make any sense. Now you better preach to the rich too, or we’ll sue…)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (try preaching on this text on Sunday. Talk about a quiet room….)
“‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’” (what is this referring to? the wedding feast for the King’s son…)
“Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (what? salvation came to the house when he gave the poor handouts? He gave them 4 times too much! Salvation should have come when he called on Jesus, not when he was unfair to himself by giving to the poor out of his abundance!)
Now, that certainly isn’t a comprehensive list. Most, if not all of the parables of Jesus contain economically subversive statements that take up the cause of the poor.
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (this should only take a minute. What is the Kingdom? It is very neatly explained in the following words. The Kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. That is why Jesus prays that God’s Kingdom come ON EARTH as it is in Heaven. You see, the message of Jesus isn’t escaping to heaven at the end of our lives, but transforming this Earth into Heaven as much as possible. Is there poverty in heaven? No. Is there greed in heaven? No. Is there injustice in Heaven? No. Therefore every step we take, religiously or not, towards making earth more like heaven, we are participating in the Kingdom of God)
Give us this day our daily bread. (this sounds like the prayer of a poor person, eh?)
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (contrary to popular usage, the greek word refers to debts, not sins. Ergo, Jesus is saying that if people forgive others their economic and social debts, God will forgive them their debts to God)
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (dear God, we can’t afford to go to jail, even if we can’t pay our debts, please keep the taxman and the rich landowner away for a little while longer)
To say that Jesus was not political is simply very poor theology, verging on outright heresy. I am not claiming, now or ever, that Jesus was not concerned about spiritual matters such as teaching, prayer, scripture, sinning, forgiveness, worship, and the rest. That would be heresy as well. But to claim, as many Christians do, that Jesus is somehow apolitical and simply cares about our spiritual lives is false.
Still, I advocate that Jesus would not join Occupy Wall Street. If they cared about the poor and injustice, the Occupiers would join him, just like justice-minded people joined MLKJr, whether they were religious or not. He was about bringing this world closer to the kingdom of God, whether people knew it or not. Whether they cared or not. Whether they appreciated it or not.
A more practical question, though, is whether or not the followers of Jesus should join Occupy Wall Street and its affiliates. Based on everything above, and based on the fact that the church simply does not have the reputation for fighting injustice, and based on the fact that so many Christians are downright hostile to the poor, or those advocating for them, then I would say that unless you are doing something equally beneficial on behalf of the poor, oppressed, or hungry, then we should have a moral imperative to support the movement, even if we may not be able to be Occupying with them. To those who think that this movement is non-Christian, and therefore think that Christians should not support it, I would point out that tacit Christian support of America’s current policies are far more un-Christian than Occupy, and downright damaging to the conditions of life for others. Do you drink soda? Live in America? Own a computer? Ate candy lately? Wear clothes from a chain store? Cheered for a professional sports team? Then you have ALREADY participated in practices VASTLY more evil and destructive than Occupy could ever be.
Occupy wants to help. They are democratic to a fault. They reflect the vastly different groups of people that are a part of them (as does America at its best, no?). They don’t have it all figured out yet. They have a lot of growth to do. But they will do so, with or without Christian influence, as long as so many Christians shun them. Even if you consider them evil, or bad, or the enemy, how often have you loved them? How often have Christians taken them supplies they need? How many of us have fed them? Does not Jesus say to love our enemies? If you can’t even get it right on how to treat non-violent enemies who are doing YOUR job by advocating for the poor, then how do you really expect to get anything about Jesus right?
It appears we are unwilling, not unable, to see Jesus for who and what he was. Not simply a spiritual guide, filled with some vacuous Christ-conciousness. Not some kind of a Savior of our souls so we can escape this world and go to a better one. Not an absentee king who gives us pretexts for wars and exploitations in the name of the kingdom of God. Instead – A revolutionary, a brilliant tactician for the underdog. A flag-waver for the losers of the world. A son of God who tells us what is really important, and let himself be killed so the whole world would know that just because someone says they bring peace (Pax Romana), doesn’t mean that they won’t kill you in order to force it on you. And then rises to show us that we have nothing to fear by following God, because they can do their worst, kill us, and it will be ok, because God has that covered.