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Daydreams: Spiritual occupation

Religious values at work in Occupy Boston

By Richard Chrisman
On December 2, 2011

You may not know much about religion, but fundamental religious values are at work in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I was at Occupy Boston over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it jumped out at me. The marks of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all over this movement, along with those of Hinduism and Buddhism. The site radiates religious history - if you know how to look.

First, you can't miss Gandhi. The Occupy site in Boston, at Dewey Square across from South Station, prominently displays a grand, nine-foot statue of Gandhi, on loan from the Peace Abbey, a Quaker conference center in Sherborn, Massachusetts. Someone hung a sign from it reading, "The world holds enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed."

The statue was originally presented to Goldman Sach's in Boston for display in its atrium entrance, but it was declined. Now Gandhi stands at the head of the square. He led two political movements (one in South Africa and another in India), all the time propounding the need for spiritual faith in order to endure the hardest physical adversity.

Down one alley of tents, not far from Gandhi, was a site dedicated to sacred practices. Meditation, prayer, chanting and sharing were welcomed and encouraged. Signs representing different religions offered "bread for the journey," a reminder of the spiritual depths into which people must reach when under conditions of extreme deprivation. It was apparent just looking at the few who were still around during this holiday that the Occupy movement is not for the faint of heart.

Religion not only provides support and sustenance for the movement, it also provides a literal impetus from sacred scripture. To denounce greed is to invoke, perhaps unknowingly, the injunctions of the Hebrew prophets against the powers of state and commerce in their time, between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E.

Listen to these words from the prophet Hosea: "Turn back all of you by God's help; practice loyalty and justice and wait upon your God. False scales are in merchants hands, and they love to cheat. So Ephraim says, ‘Surely I have become a rich man, I have made my fortune.' But all his gains will not pay for the guilt of his sins" (Hosea 12:6-8). This is typical of many verses, chapters and entire books of the prophets, excoriating the unfairness of the powerful. Jesus, himself well-versed in the prophets' message, levied harsh judgments on the rich. One clever Occupy sign read, "Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free health care — you're thinking of Jesus."

Income disparity is not just about equality — it's about justice. And economic justice is a religious value. What is called for has many different names, depending on whether you read Paine, Marx or Keynes. But I like Ralph Nader's version most, where he calls for corporations to honor four different constituencies, not just the one they normally serve, namely, stockholders. He names three others— the employees, the customers and the environment (both human and natural) — as part of an implicit and imperative business covenant.

Corporations, Nader emphasizes, are not people at all (as American law currently dictates), but they must be faithful to the personhood of their four constituencies. And, in saying this, Nader is taking a basically religious view of the world, in the direct line of the Hebrew prophets who demanded fairness of us in dealing with each other, especially across power lines.

People have a hard time classifying exactly what kind of civic engagement Occupy Wall St. belongs to — is it a sit-in, a demonstration, a movement, an outburst, a rebellion or a revolution? We will have to see how it evolves, but for me, right now, it evokes the spirit of Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was a spirit of prayerful determination. Those Islamic Egyptians came unarmed to the square and prayed five times a day. Before they were done, Mubarak was gone.

Not all religions are so peacefully inclined at all times, or so universally accepting. The religious track record on social fronts has been pretty bad. And yet there are still religious revolutionaries who remind us of their core values.

The time has come at Occupy Wall Street for a shift of some kind – in strategy, in focus. It is certainly time for a renewal of faith, not just in American democracy but also, perhaps, in God. Bringing these two thoughts together, one sign read, "I'm a Born Again American," held on high by a woman wearing a T-shirt with the "COEXIST" emblem on it.

This may be the time for Skidmore students to "get religion" by taking faith seriously, warts and all. Take advantage of your Religion Program and the religious fellowships and inter-religious programming on campus. Learn from your religious friends. You, like Gandhi, may find the spiritual fuel it takes to remain true to your self in the long and arduous road to change ahead.

Rick Chrisman is the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life. He enjoys looking down on Skidmore from his second story window.


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