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Occupy and the church

Mark Barrett and Ginger Haag explore how the Occupy movement has re-opened a debate within the church on the gap between markets and morals.
January 2012

“What would Jesus do?” asked a pithy placard at the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest recently. It seems rather obvious in a way. For some the answer was given in another St Paul’s placard, carried by a man dressed as Jesus “I threw out the money-lenders for a reason”. Of course we’re not in Jerusalem, nor are we technically in a temple.

But according to David Cameron’s speech to mark the anniversary of the King James Bible, we have a dire need to “return to Christian morals”, and we the people should revive “what we stand for” and go back to the Bible to define ”the kind of society we want to build.” Some Occupy supporters may agree with some of these sentiments. We are a ‘broad church’ and the Bible, and the Jesus it portrays does contain a lot of progressive political references. Plus the idea of  reformulating what we are about as a nation sounds quite democratic.

There is, however, a dissonant note associated with a politician – the politician - lecturing the masses on returning to Christian morals. As Luke 16:13 has Jesus himself saying: “No servant can serve two masters.. you cannot serve God and mammon.” Cameron’s economic nationalism should also grate on Christian souls.The world needs international co-operation to solve its many problems, and Christendom was never ‘Little England.’ In fact, for most of its history it was associated with Europe as a whole ,and further afield. Yet Cameron retreats pointlessly from the European project just when we should be pulling together against the dictatorial power of the financial markets.

David Cameron’s visionary idea for Britain was ‘the big society’. Revd Giles Fraser says “one can imagine Jesus being born in the protest camp” and the early Christian movement was one of the biggest ‘big society’ movements in history. In a way those hardy souls camping out, in an effort to transform the system are the closest thing we have to a functioning global – big – society. Yet Cameron’s government has recently legislated to ban political camping!

The energy, practices and idealism Occupy embodies is a potentially huge, productive motor around which to build a new, enlightened economy. Yet no major politician has been willing to engage with the movement on its own terms. All we ever hear from them is words of demonisation or co-option.

However the church is quite a different matter. As Giles Fraser put it recently: “Occupy ..  begins .. with the idea that lasting change is only possible if more people are sucked into the conversation, more of us educate each other as to the workings and effects of a dysfunctional economy… Remember the total non-event that was Tony Blair's Big Conversation? Well, this is how you do it properly”

Or, as the Archbishop of Canterbury himself put it earlier in the year: “A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?”

It is now commonly agreed that debt-based finance capitalism has failed us, and from within Occupy that we need alternative, civic institutions to develop our collective understanding, and transform society. Unlike the state and the market, civil society does not yet have a recognised political form, but through the promotion of its egalitarian Assembly model of decision-making, that is exactly what many in Occupy are hoping to create.

The roots of organised religion are radical and quite relevant today. The early Church was a decentralised, counter-cultural and international movement in which persecuted Christians promoted forgiveness of sins (including oppressive debts), interest-free lending, mutual support and common ownership. Going back further, the Old Testament refers repeatedly to ideals of economic justice and in particular of debt-cancellation and 'jubilee'.  So, in the spirit of the recent Christmas season, and right at the start of a new ('Diamond Jubilee') year, an interesting question comes to mind. Could Occupy and the church join forces in 2012?

Working together, nationally and internationally could we not make alternative civic institutions to develop, quoting the Archbishop of Canterbury again a conversation about  "who.. we are as a society"  and “a long-term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy” ? On the wider, European level, this would chime with the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sack's recent call for European Jews and Christians together to "rediscover .. faith and prophetic voice" and to "recover the Judeo-Christian ethic of human dignity in the image of God. Humanity was not created to serve markets. Markets were created to serve humankind"

In our broken times, with people neglected and the community fabric undone, a well-organised common endeavour between the church, Occupy and other civil society actors could help revitalise the true spirit of our culture, and the church, and transform our ailing European and UK political economy.


From the archives: Naomi Klein - why it’s time to show our face

Naomi Klein tells Mat Little how she put into words what so many were feeling – and why it’s time the new movement showed a public face and built coalitions with others on the left (published in issue 79, January 2001)

radfax 9 January 2012, 15.13

There seems little point for debate as the truth is clear as day.
The church is supposed to be representative of the will of God. The religious leaders of the People are the false prophets for they do not uphold the goodness that is the underlying message and principle for the People’s of the World. Who are these People who say that the only way to understanding the one in all is through them? We are all, we are only devided by those who would wish for us is to be controlled by their misdirections and wars. No one owns all, it is for all, not the few. The message is quite clear, love your fellow human being. It has nothing to do with control, power or the faithless words of men. The plan is for people to look after each other and the planet along with all the creatures. Who are these people who profess to be as wise as the one in all? Beware of the false prophets that bleed you and lead you astray, for they will up and leave you at the end of the day. Whilst we sweat and we suffer for what we believe, take off he cover to see that we bleed. I think of you, I think of me, strive to survive to reach liberty, smile embrace here we go “Free Flow”

Gan 9 January 2012, 21.59

.. here in the US the clergy have been a solid member of occupy movement from the beginning, and now, a new front is about to open up, lead primarilly by Black churches.


Just recently, Rev. Jamal Bryant in Baltimore invited the folks at Occupy Baltimore to work with him, and then declared his 10,000 member strong MEGA-church a part of the Occupy Movement. That’s a huge development. And this is just the beginning.

More info here:

Rose Ardron 10 January 2012, 09.08

The church is a powerful institution (and not homogenous either.) I am wary of embracing wholeheartedly. Some churches/faiths have been leaders and advocates for change, equality and justice. Others trade on their stake in the establishment, working to maintain the current order based on inequality and injustice. One example of poor track record would be womens rights and autonomy.

Any further movement toward coalition with ‘the church’ needs to include some analysis of power and hierarchy. Are we inviting the church to participate in direct democracy or are we trying to appropriate some of their leverage in the establishment and hoping some of their power and position will rub off on us?

Sam Amico 10 January 2012, 12.34

Keep the Faith !!!

Mark 13 January 2012, 09.20

Thanks for the comments everyone! In particular Rose: It’s about inviting the Church to participate in direct democracy, and I agree 100% that we need to be careful in our terms of engagement ..

Some may also be interested in the following event taking place this Sunday at Occupt London / St Paul’s on Martin Luther King day:



Jon 19 January 2012, 11.52

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors – wise words from Jesus. Time is overdue for the biblical year of Jubilee with debt cancellation. Great to see the church rise from its slumber. For millenia the bible message condemning usury was upheld. Recent centuries have seen this evil being accepted. Usury is the basis of debt based capitalism and we need the ancient wisdom that condemned this enslaving practice and promised freedom and care for ones neighbour.

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