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Preaching the Occupy gospel -- or not

Rev. Chuck Currie has sermonized on the Occupy Wall Street movement and shown support for protesters.

Jeremy Hobson: If you were to go to the original home of the Occupy Wall Street movement today -- Zuccotti Park in New York City -- you might find a handful of protesters, but nothing like the tent city that was set up there a couple months ago. In fact, in cities across the country, the public face of Occupy Wall Street is now much harder to find. But the movement's message about income inequality and injustice remains.

And it's a message that some religious leaders are embracing, as Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports.


Mitchell Hartman: Forgive me for what is quite possibly blaspheming, but to hear some preachers from the pulpit these days, you’d think the arrival of Occupy Wall Street is tantamount to the Second Coming.

Chuck Currie: So we have to look in the unlikely places that we might not even expect to hear the word of God.

That "unlikely place" to hear the word of God was the Occupy encampment in Portland, Ore. The Rev. Chuck Currie started helping out as a pastor, then led an ecumenical vigil just before police busted up the protest.

In this sermon, delivered at his Congregational Church, Currie draws a direct scriptural line from the Old Testament... to Occupy.

Currie: So listen to this, Isaiah Chapter 58: "If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your moon be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your need in parched places and make your bones strong. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations. You shall be called the repairer of the breach."

A quick check online found ministers sermonizing on Occupy in Berkeley, Boulder, Worcester, Mass., Edmonton, Alberta. Currie says it’s the most significant spark for Christian activism against poverty since the Civil Rights movement.

Currie: Occupy has done a job that we have been unable to do, which is capture the public’s attention and imagination to make it part of the national debate again.

Mark Tooley: It’s usually problematic to try to identify Jesus Christ with any particular political or economic agenda.

Mark Tooley heads up the Institute on Religion and Democracy. It monitors what it calls the religious left. Tooley says Jesus did tell his disciples to give up their possessions for the needy. Still...

Tooley: You really would be hard-pressed to find any kind of direct evidence that Jesus ever called upon or even implied that the rulers should use all the extraordinary powers of the government, to take wealth from one group of people, and to give it away to another group of people.

Tooley says some Christians may buy the "Jesus-as-economic-radical" image. But most will be turned off by the Occupy style.

Tooley: Taking over public property, disrupting traffic and commuters -- I think that kind of imagery is disturbing, especially to church-going America, who tend to be more orderly and have very strong views about following the rules and the law.

Reverend Currie responds.

Currie: The religious right, they’ve endorsed the inequality that exists. They preach something called prosperity theology that says that if you play by the rules and do things the way they think you should do them, then you’ll get wealthy. I certainly don’t read the Bible that way.

All this leaves middle-of-the-road Christians, well, stuck in the middle.

Ministers I talked to -- from mainline Protestants to evangelicals -- said many in their congregations want to do something. But they’re not ready to become social activists or Occupiers, either.

Dan Paxton is pastor of a Baptist church in Portland. The congregation’s trying to expand its food pantry and give out warm clothes to homeless people. And yet, Paxton finds himself uncomfortable focusing too much on troubles in this world -- at the expense of rewards in the next.

Dan Paxton: Through the Occupy movement, people are searching for something. And for lack of anything else, they search for material possessions. You know, they’re saying they’re the 99 percent. Well, I’m a part of the 99 percent too. But I don’t struggle with knowing what I need because I know I need the Lord more than anything. So I struggle with what to do for them.

In Portland, Ore., I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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I listened to the "Occupy the Pulpit" segment and was disappointed in it. I told my daughter and she suggested that I pass my comments on to you. I am a minister in a "mainline" denomination and very much involved about deciding what to say about this issue. These are my remarks to my daughter:

"I was disappointed in it. It could have been a much more thoughtful piece. The words of
the "Congregational" minister in Portland, Oregon were on target, but the
other two people were a spokesman for the Institute on Religion and
Democracy, a right wing organization behind most of the reactionary
groups in most major denominations, and a pastor who was worried that his
food pantry would detract from getting people to heaven. I like
Marketplace, but they missed the boat on this one.

The real issue is how one can address crucial public issues from the
pulpit without being a political partisan."

The fundamental hypocrisy of the OWS movement is so easy to identify. Obama is the largest recipient, by far, of Wall Street donations, yet they still support him blindly. They continue to blindly worship the most visible target of crony capitalism ever.

Currie did a sermon on John 14:6 and concluded that Jesus is not the only way to salvation. He said the Gospel of John did not belong in the Bible but that the Gospel of Thomas did. That's the tip of the iceberg. So he doesn't believe the Bible is the word of God but he is sure he has found new places to hear it? Indeed.

Re. the prosperity gospel -- conservative Christians whale on that, we don't support it!

I have never said that the Gospel of John should be taken out of the Bible and replaced with Thomas. You've been reading too many blogs.

Some conservatives do reject prosperity theology but the Instititute on Religion and Democracy strongly advocates for economic policies that benefit the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class and those Jesus would have called the least of these. It is important to remember that IRD is a political group with no church ties.

Rev. Chuck Currie

Well … anyone who has taken the time to do an historical study of the teachings of the individual that Christians claim as founder of their faith will know that, he at least, discouraged all social and political activism; because it was a distraction from individual spiritual growth. This is the primary meaning of the “give to Caesar” incident in Matthew 22, Mark 12, and Luke 20, as well at the “remove the mote” incident in Matthew 7, and Luke 6 (and many others). Unfortunately this has never deterred anyone (left or right) from putting words in his mouth and in the mouths of other biblical writers to support their own political or social message. It’s just another deplorable example of false expert syndrome (what better expert than God). Not that the original Christian teachers condemned activism per say; it simply was not relevant to the focus of their message. Living an honest, charitable life is one thing; Christian activism on the other hand is almost a contradiction in terms.

Dmulliga, going into a temple in Nazareth and proclaiming that this is they year of Jubilee/year of the Lord's favor (conveying that now is the time to forgive financial debts and to return properties to their original owners - redistribution of wealth); amassing hundreds of followers and then sending them out in "pairs" into new communities as advance teams; teaching a counter-cultural way of life; asserting that he is Lord, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Son of God instead of Caesar (who had been calling himself by those very terms); and chasing out a bunch of money lenders in a courtyard in the capital city... sounds a lot like "activism" to me.

Religious activism perhaps, but read it carefully, it was not political activism. He did not call for the overthrow of Roman authority, or Jewish authority, or of egregious social practices such as slavery. He urged his followers to be subject to the powers that be; to respect them, but not follow their example. His revolution was a revolution from within. The year of Jubilee … was an established Jewish practice (the equivalent of bankruptcy, rather than redistribution of wealth), which Christ certainly would have supported as a part of his Jewish heritage; but it is clear he regarded it in a broader spiritual sense: as the forgiving of man’s debt to God. (And at the risk of being too picky, it was a synagogue, not a temple.)

Roger - I agree with you 100%. Jesus was a political figure. Even his death was political. crucifixion was a punishment reserved for crimes against the state. Rev. Chuck Currie

Of course if Christ had been a political revolutionary then the Romans would have been legally justified in crucifying him. The gospels however go to pains to point out that he was innocent of that charge; that he died an entirely innocent man. Which is important theologically ; because if he was not innocent, then he could not pay the debt of mankind’s sins.

Dan Paxton, like so many others, is misguided and wrong when he states that the Occupiers are "for lack of anything else...search[ing] for material possessions. " What they are searching for is a level playing field. They are searching for the same opportunities that the wealthy have, but that they have been shut out from. They are searching for justice, for the wrongs of the criminals at the head of the financial industries to be righted. They are searching for a government elected through democratic actions, not corporate malfeasance. They are searching for rights where they have few, compared to corporate henchmen. I just cannot see Jesus standing with corporate management on this one. When Christ entered Jerusalem and overturned the money-changer's tables, he became the first Occupier.

Of course it was the Romans who were the Occupiers. Christ’s objection to the money changers was that they were mixing economics with religion (the same mistake being made by the Christian activists). But to Christ everything economic or political was an irrelevant distraction; he did not take anyone's side on these matters.

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