Occupy the Church
I have been preaching, speaking, and writing about peace and justice from a faith perspective for many years. When I learned of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in September 2011, I travelled to New York to see for myself. While I was there, I connected with people from several churches and with the "Protest Chaplains" from United Seminary, who had come to Zuchotti Park to offer pastoral counseling and prayers. I also observed several interfaith marches, with people from various faith traditions calling for economic justice while holding aloft a "golden calf" similar to the Wall Street Bull. Upon returning to my home in California, while reading the Gospel of Luke, I discovered something I hadn't noticed before—not only had Jesus thrown the moneychangers out of the Temple, but he and his followers had occupied the Temple, day after day, until he was arrested.
The title of this article, "Occupy the Church," is based on gospel accounts in Luke about Jesus and his followers occupying the Temple after he overturned the tables of the moneychangers there.
One of the greatest challenges for Christians is to expand the conversation taking place within our churches. Jesus did not focus solely on personal morality or personal salvation. He also weighed in on the larger patterns of human history, particularly on the systemic violence and injustice affecting the common people in his day. Jesus went directly into the heart of the struggle for a better world. This suggests to me how important it is for followers of Jesus to 1) engage in conversations about social, environmental, and economic justice as matters of faithfulness, and 2) support fledgling peoples' movements that rise up in nonviolent resistance to "overturn the tables" of the present unjust economic order. By so doing, we embody hope for the kind of radical systemic change that will make a peaceful, just, and sustainable world possible.
I am not proposing that readers support any particular organization or movement, although I am aware of many and I support some. Rather, I encourage each person to participate in conversations about these issues in their churches and to follow the leading of the Spirit in whatever movements they believe may lead toward healing and transformation.
The things that make for peace
Several years ago I went through a 30-week guided intensive practice of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The Exercises involve employing the imagination to enter deeply into different biblical passages, to bring them to life.
One morning in prayer I entered into the scene from Luke 19:41-44. I walked beside Jesus as he rode on a colt on his way to Jerusalem. Suddenly, to my dismay, he started weeping. Then he addressed the people, and it was as if he was speaking directly to me:
"If you, even you (yes, even you, Sharon) had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you when your enemies will build up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God."
I was stunned, shaken to the core. I wept with Jesus, and I wept for my children and grandchildren and for the state of the world.
I was relieved a few weeks later when I returned to that scene and Jesus (in my imagination) assured me that yes, I was starting to get it. But I know today that I cannot rest on my laurels or take anything for granted. Knowing the things that make for peace and recognizing God's presence are part of a discernment process that requires ongoing spiritual work.
Why was Jesus weeping? And what is the peace that he offers? I understand it as an inner peace of mind, of conscience, as well as peace with justice in the outer world. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, he was not just weeping for his followers, but also for the larger community, for all the people. He could see the disaster that was coming and it caused him to weep.
Jesus in the Temple
After this scene, Jesus went directly to the Temple, and "began to drive out those who were selling things there" (Luke 19:45). He used the words of Jeremiah in saying that they had turned God's house into "a den of robbers" (Jeremiah 7:11), thus bringing to mind Jeremiah's distress at the coming disaster and his critique of the prophets and priests of his day: "They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying 'Peace, peace' when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 8:11).
Jesus' nonviolent direct action in the Temple challenged the economic system of the Temple and the stability of the religious establishment's collaboration with the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. Jesus not only drove out the people who were selling things, but he and his many followers occupied the Temple: "Every day he was teaching in the Temple" (Luke 19:47), to the dismay of the chief priests, the scribes, and the so-called leaders of the people. At night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, but "all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the Temple." (Luke 21:37-38)
According to Luke, up until then the religious leadership had been hostile to Jesus, grumbling, ridiculing, and cross-examining him, but after this confrontation their opposition escalated and they began actively planning to kill him. They were hampered, for a time, in their plot because "all the people were spellbound by what they heard."
In reading from chapter 19 through the end of Luke, the "power of the people" becomes evident. "When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people" (20:19). "The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people" (22:2). And when Judas consented to betray Jesus to the authorities, he had to "look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present" (22:6).
Although it is not spelled out in Luke, according to John the peoples' movement Jesus led was so successful that the Jewish collaborators with Rome were afraid: "If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation" (John 11:47). The high priest, Caiaphas, explained that this was a matter of national security: "It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (John 11:49-50). Or, in the words of the King James Version, "It is expedient for us that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not." It was expedient. This kind of justification for war, repression, economic and environmental exploitation, and political violence, is still going on today.
Hope for God's future
How are we, today's prophets and priests, treating the wounds of God's people? What is the peace of Christ that we are offering? Is it sufficient and relevant for our day? Are we recognizing the signs of God's visitation? It may be that the Occupy movement and other spontaneous expressions of "people power" are such visitations, movements of Spirit rising up just in time to bring hope and transformation to the world in place of the disaster that is surely coming if we do not repent, change direction, turn around.
It would be easy to criticize these movements and to stand on the sidelines until we see how and whether they progress and mature into something we can support, rather than join in and help to shape them. But what alternatives are out there? Most of what we hear in the mainline media and (sadly) from most of our elected representatives falls far short of what is needed. It is time for people to rise up and challenge the assumptions upon which the current Domination System has been built.
Let's occupy the Church! Let's lovingly raise these important issues of justice within our congregations. Jesus was no stranger to controversy! Let's join hands with other people of faith and conscience and fearlessly demonstrate how faithfulness includes social action and boldly proclaim hope for God's intended, compassionate future.
Sometimes I still weep when I consider the direction we are headed as a species. But more often now I am exhilarated and hopeful. After many years of working on issues of peace, justice, and creation care, it's as if many people are waking up, not just to the many crises we face but also to the power we do have when we join hands and work together for the common good.
I for one feel called to offer whatever gifts I can to help these peoples' movements mature and succeed in their quest to initiate social, economic, and political transformation. I am also challenged, as always, to maintain balance, cling to Christ, and practice the presence of God throughout my days. In these ways, I trust that I am, little by little, growing in my ability to recognize the things that make for justice, compassion, and peace.
Sharon Delgado is a United Methodist clergywoman, author, and Executive Director of Earth Justice Ministries. She lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California with her husband Guarionex, near her grown children and grandchildren. She is available to lead retreats, workshops, speak, and preach. Rev. Delgado's blog reports of her experiences and analysis from Occupy Wall Street can be found at http://sharondelgado.org/blog.