The Occupy movement addresses power. So does religion, but it does so in conflicting ways. To give an example: it often operates with images of divine authority that echo the powers that be. In ancient times, state religions imagined God as a heavenly monarch, modelled after particular rulers. Today, dominant religion imagines God, often by default, as the boss who calls the shots and rewards religious shareholders. This is not only the message of the so-called Gospel of Prosperity; mainstream churches of all major denominations are found in this camp as well. Who can blame atheists for flagging this kind of theism as the wishful thinking of the status quo?
Yet there are alternative forms of religion, and alternative images of the divine to go with them. The early Christians proclaimed a God who was executed on a cross in solidarity with the people. For this, the Roman elites called them atheists. In the Civil Rights movement, God was conceived as the liberator who challenged oppression and used leaders such as Moses and Martin Luther King to lead the people to freedom.
Jesus himself was a construction worker, and would have been in touch with the many unemployed of his time
In the context of the Occupy movement, fresh images of God are emerging. Some of these images connect us back to ancient and forgotten traditions of liberation, rather like the Civil Rights movement discovering Moses and the labour movement reclaiming Jesus as well as the prophetic traditions. In Occupy, these emerging images might bring us closer to the true nature of the world and of the cosmos than any of the dominant images could.
Dangerously, some Christians in the movement were reminded of where and how Jesus had actually lived. Occupiers camping in the streets could relate to Jesus’ deep solidarity, not with the elites of his time, but with the multitude. Jesus had stayed among those who struggled with life: with the sick, the social outcasts, strong women of ‘dubious’ reputation and working people such as fishermen. He himself was a construction worker, and would have been in touch with the many unemployed of his time, who quite regularly experienced layoffs. Perhaps he was even unemployed himself.
Participants in the Occupy movement could also relate to the way that the divine frequently resists elite agendas. Jesus challenged legalism by healing on the Sabbath. He put the demands of liberation above the law, challenged the myriad uses of religion that kept struggling people down, and defied the conservative impulse to marginalise women and children.
Moreover, he rejected narrow notions of the family — still at the core of conservative politics — and declared that the true bonds of community are not biological but social: ‘whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’. Unlike dominant Christianity, Christians involved in the Occupy movement could easily see why Jesus would challenge even the temple, the highest symbol of his religion. Thus the basic tenets of Christian religion take on a new life when seen through the struggles of the Occupy movement, which questioned the powerful and entered into solidarity with the proverbial ‘least of these’.
Some of Occupy’s puzzling features also become clearer in this light: not least, the oft-lamented fact that it did not produce a list of demands. What simple list of demands could Jesus have made to Caesar without turning the tables altogether? This movement is not about reformism — the assumption that the system can be fixed by adjusting a few of its problems — but about a new world where power flows from the bottom up.