Theology of Occupy: clergy discuss role of the church in Occupy Wall Street

By Kurt Karandy, M.A.R. ‘13

Policymakers and investment bankers have faced the most pressure from the Occupy Wall Street movement, but they are not the only groups challenged by the emerging movement for economic justice. The Occupy movement, which burst onto the political scene in mid-September 2011 and offers a scathing criticism of contemporary income inequality in the U.S., also challenges church leaders to evaluate the relationship of the church to movements for social change. 

Panel DiscussionSeveral clergy leaders who are active in the Occupy protests in New York and New Haven explored this question at a Common Room conversation on Feb. 2. Drawing on their experiences in the movement, panelists argued that the movement compells the church to take more seriously social justice work. Together, they articulated an Occupy-inspired theology of justice.

All three panelists—Rev. John Gage, senior minister at United Church on the Green, in New Haven, Rev. Michael Sniffen, priest-in-charge at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, Brooklyn, and Rev. John Merz, priest-in-charge at the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—said the community at the Occupy encampments provided a source of theological reflection. 

Merz was immediately impressed by the “dynamic energy of people doing justice” in the meetings. Marginalized voices were included in discussions, he said, adding that, through their work together, people found new meanings in their lives.

Sniffen described his early visits to the Zuccotti Park site similarly. “I felt like I was in a community like the Book of Acts,” he said. Gage, who has been active in the New Haven branch of the Occupy movement, said he found sanctity in witnessing diverse groups of people coming together to build community for a common cause.

In light of such experiences, panelists said, they were compelled to reconsider how the church lives out its call to social justice.  Sniffen said the church is often better at raising awareness than actually engaging in the practice of seeking justice. “Occupy is forcing me to think about incarnational theology in new ways,” he observed.

Gage agreed and argued that the Occupy movement challenged churches to do more than merely talk about social justice.  “These people face ridicule for putting their beliefs on the line,”  he said, suggesting that the church could learn from the dedication of the Occupy protesters.

Near the end of the talk, discussion shifted to questions on how the church should engage the “one percent.” The three panelists were in agreement that the image of Jesus who turned the tables in the temple was a more salient one than Jesus eating with the tax collector, Zacchaeus.  While the panelists did not want to simplify the portrayal of Jesus, Sniffen argued this imagery was meant to offer “tough love” to the one percent, not vilify them.

Merz agreed, suggesting that much of the Occupy movement was theatrical in intent.  Added Gage,  “I am a great believer in the creative use of shame.”

Date Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2012 - 9:11pm