The greatest occupy story ever told

By Dan Webster
Posted Dec 16, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] The Occupy Baltimore encampment was dismantled recently. Police in riot gear evicted 40 or so protesters. There were no arrests. It was a peaceful end to a mostly peaceful demonstration. What the Occupy protests are about has confused some, but TIME magazine seems to think these demonstrations, coupled with the Arab spring events, are important enough to make “The Protester” its person of the year.

In church, as in society, there have been mixed reactions to the Occupy protesters. Some have called them hippies, bums, or worse. Some said they should spend their time getting work, becoming productive members of their communities. Others said they had no idea what moved folks to take up residence on the streets, some for months, to make their point. To be clear, economic justice is the reason for these Occupy protests – as was much of the ministry of Jesus.

Many efforts to end these protests took place during our celebration of Advent. We have been waiting, anticipating, hoping for one more time to get it: what does it mean for God to occupy human nature? This incarnation of God in human form is the heart of the Christian story and that calls us to live our lives differently.

Biblical accounts around Jesus’ birth focus on peace and good will or glad tidings. Sometimes overlooked is that the first witnesses were shepherds, a lowly and somewhat despised class of folks. It was a wandering couple seeking shelter to have a baby that an innkeeper directed to a barn. The creator of the universe begins occupying human form in a dirty, dusty, unsanitary stable. Certainly an inhospitable birth place for any human, let alone the savior of the world. Or so we think.

Throughout his life, Jesus identifies with the poor, prisoners, the oppressed, widows and orphans. His visit to a Nazareth synagogue early in Luke’s gospel gives us a pretty good indication where his heart was when he chose to read from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Lately I’ve begun wearing my red “Solidarnosc” lapel pin from the Polish trade union uprising in the ’80s. I see this as a way to be in solidarity with those who have occupied city parks and streets to call attention to economic injustice in the world. I see it as a way to support clergy who have been chaplains to the protesters. And it makes me think at this time of the coming Incarnation of God that Jesus would be with those who do not share justly in God’s bounty.

As Christmas comes again, I think we need to ask ourselves where Jesus would be in our community today. Where would Jesus choose to become incarnated? And how should we be in solidarity with Jesus; the Jesus born in a barn, who always championed the poor and oppressed, who overturned tables protesting a Temple system discriminating against those who had little?

If we claim our role as Christ’s hands and heart in this world, if we allow Jesus to occupy us body, mind and spirit, then maybe we should not be afraid to champion the cause of Occupy protesters and find Jesus this Christmas with those seeking an end to economic injustice in our world.

— The Rev. Canon Dan Webster is canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.


Comments (5)

  1. Steve Grech says:

    I have been an Episcopalian for over 30 years. It is this kind of drivel which is causing the Episcopal Church to lose members and become irrelevant. A few points:
    1. The shepherds were working! They weren’t hanging around chanting silly slogans. The shepherds had responsibility unlike the protesters who had the means to do absolutely nothing for weeks on end and still be supported (anyone know about the pizzas shipped into Zuccotti park? How about the donated latrines? etc).
    2. Sorry, Reverend, but Jesus also identifies with the rich, the homeowners and the business people, not just what you consider poor. Jesus came to ALL PEOPLE. In your little world described above, you place Jesus in a nice little box.
    3. You wear a pin from the Polish uprisings to show commonality? Are you kidding me? Let’s see, the occupiers in the US have raped women, shot each other, threatened reporters and spouted numerous anti-semetic rhetoric. Lech Walesa, the father of Solidarity, is a staunch Roman Catholic and very pro life. Hmmm maybe you should rethink the whole “pin thing”.
    4. Economic injustice? Who is holding those kids back? I say kids because they are immature like children. They can go to work just like everyone else and work their way up. I’m sure they are able to search for jobs on the mac books and i-phones they were using.
    5. Your thesis limits Jesus to the occupiers. How about the businesses which were shut down? Wouldn’t Jesus be walking with them? No? Why not? The business owners are employing people and were forced to lay those people off because of your occupiers.

    Bottom line is this Reverend: Jesus is for all-not just the politically correct. The sooner you and the Episcopal Church realize this the sooner relevancy will return.

    1. Steve Marlow Macon-GA says:

      What Steve G says is true. If more pastors and church workers had to provide for themselves as the Apostle Paul did to keep himself fed and clothed as a Tent Maker, there would be more sympathy for the middle class who are able to borrow from the rich to start their business, to enlarge their business, to employ those who are willing to learn the skills needed to be employed. It is not the fault of the rich or the middle class that people make wrong choices in learning the wrong things that make them useless to a potential employer. In Jesus’ time, even the Priests had to learn a trade, develop work skills, in addition to book learning. The disciples knew the craft of fishing, business; Jesus knew carpentry and stone mason work. These OWS people need to go back to school, learn a vocational trade, and get into the work force, and get off this “welfare attitude of everyone owes me a living”, and expect everyone to provide them a living while they are in the parks living in squalor with their laptops, i-pads, and cellphones. The Episcopal Church and others in the Religious community should be promoting “we will help you learn a trade if you want free food”. Nothing wrong with that. The Salvation Army says If you want a bed and supper, you have to go to chapel first. And it works for them and no one has a line of lawyers at their door protesting. Should work for us in the Episcopal Church.

  2. Doug Desper says:

    Not long ago Canon Webster asserted in essence that Jesus changed his mind about the worth of a person by the continued insistence of the pleading Canaanite woman. During the commentary it was asserted by Canon Webster that Jesus began referring to the woman as like a “dog” but then became more enlightened as He got to know her. (That reading of the Scripture was perplexing by its first assumption that Jesus began as a bigot, became enlightened, and change then His mind. – BTW: Could it be instead that Jesus tested the faith of the woman by referring to her in terms that she was already used to, and then showed how instead the Son of God embraced her?) Canon Webster’s reading of Scripture again today suggests that one begins with human experience which will then illuminate Scripture, even to the point of defining God, which is a dangerous and often erroneous and misleading. Looking at other comments here I would add that in the rush to listen to the culture some of us have often fallen into the mire of what Jesus Christ came to redeem us from. I am fairly sure that while Jesus would identify with those who want greater justice He would likewise rail against those in the Occupy Movement who: defecate on the streets, steal from each other, abuse drugs, rape and molest, yell at parents with children as they try to inch their way to Wall Street daycares, and on it goes. Listen to the culture, yes, but do not fall into the mire that needs to be redeemed.

  3. Cheryl Kopec says:

    When I first encountered this post, comments had been disabled, so I wrote the following message to the post author. As comments are now re-enabled, I am copying it verbatim here:

    Hello Rev. Webster,

    I just read your article, The Greatest Occupy Story Ever Told, on ENS, while posting an RSS feed on my own church’s website. Unfortunately, comments are closed for your post, but I was disheartened to see that the three comments that did get posted were all negative. I have been active with Occupy Tacoma since its inception, and although I am now branching out into a larger effort (Occupy South Sound — our website is still in progress), I remain committed to the principles of the Occupy movement.

    The first commenter starts off by complaining that the occupiers don’t work. Well, I can say that a good number — more than half — of our occupiers are either working or going to school. Some have more than one job, in fact. And that’s why they’re involved — they see that when they finish school, rather than starting with a clean slate from which to launch their dream career, they will be saddled with the equivalent of a home mortgage and few job prospects that would allow them to pay it off in a reasonable length of time so as to start building a down payment for an actual home and saving up for retirement. Many people with degrees will wind up working for peanuts — low wages and meager benefits — while we have a presidential candidate going around saying that the bulk of his income isn’t actually earned, and what he does “earn” really isn’t much, less than half a million dollars in a year. Yes, it makes them mad — mad enough to spend whatever time they can in public protest.

    And yes, occupiers have off-site supporters — people whose family or work or health or other situations don’t permit them to physically occupy. So they donate food, services, whatever they can to the cause. If I had had my way, our occupiers would have dined on the finest gourmet food three times a day, because it was them braving all the harsh realities of camping out next to a freeway in rain or shine while I retreated to the comfort of my home and nice warm bed each night.

    In his next paragraph, the commenter states that Jesus identifies with the rich. REALLY??? I cannot think of one word He ever spoke in praise of material wealth or those who live to amass it. What did He tell the rich man who wanted to know how to get into heaven? What did He say about serving God and mammon? What did He do to the Temple shysters who were exploiting the piety of the peasants? What was the Sermon on the Mount all about? Etc. etc….

    You wear a pin in solidarity with the Polish uprisings. I wear a green headband every day in solidarity with the Iranian “Sea of Green” movement that arose in 2009. Apparently the commenter has a problem with using any symbols not stamped “US of A,” but he then clumsily attempts to cover his hostility with ramblings about crimes that have occurred at Occupy camps and personal attacks on Lech Walesa. In fact, the incidence of crime at Occupy camps is no greater than would be expected in the same city outside of the camps. Occupy Tacoma’s encampment actually helped clean up what used to be a long-standing drug hangout, which is one of the reasons the city police have never bothered the camp and often stop by to see that everyone’s okay.

    The commenter’s fourth point betrays his utter ignorance on the widening economic divide in America today. I hardly even know how to begin to respond to this. All I can say is that if this comment were my first exposure to the Episcopal church, I would run, not walk, as far away as I could get. Fortunately I do not expect our church to be a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners, so maybe there is still hope even for the hopelessly hard of heart. [Video linked in original comment:

    And as to his last comment — what businesses were “shut down” on account of the OWS movement? Yes, there were the port actions, but here in Tacoma, we opted not to shut anything down. As a rule, nearby businesses have experienced greater traffic, if anything, thanks to the movement. I remember on one of my visits to the park, a young couple walked up with several pizzas, explaining that they had been out walking on the other side of the street, saw the camp, and wanted to do something in support, so stopped in and picked up the pizzas for the protesters. The coffee shop across the street also has a steady stream of customers coming from the park, and the museum next door has been raking in quite a bit in parking fees and fines.

    The second commenter is even more clueless. The OWS protests are all ABOUT the middle class. The commenter wants the church to teach the 99% a trade. Really? Is the Episcopal church equipped and accredited to offer degrees in fields that people can make a living in? I notice he emphasizes “vocational” — well, since when did the church lower its sights from wanting the best for each individual that God created him or her to be, and get in the business of promoting an attitude of “do something, even if you hate it and you have no natural aptitude.” I entered the Army in the early ’80’s as a diesel mechanic out of necessity, but even though I completed my training with very good on-paper marks, I literally sucked as a mechanic in the pit, and it’s only by the grace of God that nobody was killed. Forcing people into occupations they were not meant for isn’t God’s way, and it isn’t the answer to our nation’s economic woes. Radically transforming the system so that EVERYBODY has a shot at a dignified and secure existence is. That’s what OWS is all about.

    The final commenter, I feel, has completely misread your post. But he, too, is quick to point out the regrettable actions of a few within the movement while completely ignoring the vast majority who do NOT “defecate on the streets, steal from each other, abuse drugs, rape and molest, yell at parents with children…” etc. Does he think this kind of thing doesn’t occur in NYC every single day, Occupy or no Occupy?

    Again, I’m sorry I happened upon this post too late to put my comments up on the website itself, because I feel there should have been a counterpoint to the views those three commenters expressed. But since there is no way to offer that counterpoint publicly, I wanted to let you know that progressive, compassionate viewpoints such as yours are what I’m looking for in the Episcopal church.

  4. Doug Desper says:

    Ms. Kopec,
    Are these the types of people that do NOT make up the Occupy Movement? (Read on) –

    By NBC News
    Story updated 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, January 29th:

    Oakland officials on Sunday were inspecting damage inside City Hall that was caused by about 50 Occupy protesters who broke in and smashed glass display cases, spray-painted graffiti, and burned the U.S. and California flags.
    The break-in on Saturday was the culmination of a day of clashes between protesters and police. At least 300 people were arrested on charges ranging from vandalism and failure to disperse.
    At least three officers and one protester were injured.
    Mayor Jean Quan said Occupy protesters have caused an estimated $2 million in damages from vandalism since October. She said the cost to the city related to the Occupy Oakland protests is pegged at about $5 million.

    OK – are they part of the Occupy Movement or not? Just some usual Oakland street activity? Hardly. Sounds like a lot of anarchists more intent on destruction than anything else. How can Occupy claim that they are speaking for and helping the 99% when the actions of the Occupy Movement are costing the 99% millions in fees, resources, taxes, and destroyed property? I think that the Prayer Book quotes the 10 Commandments, especially…”Thou shalt not steal”. I can think of no greater theft in Oakland yesterday than for Occupy to pick the pockets of the community to pay for the destructive self-indulgence by the ones who are “just there to help”.

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