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Occupy Wall St.

Preaching the Occupy gospel — or not

Mitchell Hartman Dec 29, 2011

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.

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