Occupy may seem a little passé – having been evicted from most of their protest sites, Occupy now exists primarily in exile, or in the diaspora – but it remains a fascinating subject. Various religions crossed paths with Occupy, and in various ways:
Religion in Occupy
A number of religious groups and faith traditions were present at the protests themselves. A group of liberal Christians called the Protest Chaplains played a role in the Boston and New York camps. They stated firmly that they were not there to proselytise – only to express solidarity and provide support. Their presence was largely symbolic, tying the concerns of Occupy to something far greater. In Boston they had a multi-faith chapel, where people came for Bible study groups, services, reiki, yoga, or quiet meditation. Crosses mingled with Tibetan coloured flags on the cacophonous front wall of this small blue tent. Muslim groups also held ‘prayer rallies’ on Wall Street, as well as joining in the demonstrations. At this protest we hear call and response chants of “Tell me what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like” blending smoothly with “takbir – allahu akbar.” At Occupy Oakland, they had an Interfaith Tent that preached nonviolence, compassion and justice; in the words of the Director of the Seminary of the Street, it aimed to “provide a critical spiritual presence that honored and welcomed all religious traditions and people who were non-religious.” Furthermore, the Tent continues to exist metaphorically – they held an interfaith conference a couple of months ago. On a more abstract level, Occupy itself could be construed as religious – through ritualised protest practices, a collective vision for a better world, a passionate social ethic, and a sense of transcendence generated through collective, emotionally-intense experience.
Religion and Occupy
Nathan Schneider has argued that Occupy needs religion – “the more organised the better” – if it is to truly transform society. Religious institutions have indeed often interacted with the Occupy movement. We all remember the Vatican releasing its call for major global economic reform, which came out last October. It was not ostensibly a reaction to Occupy, but clearly dealt with the same issues, calling for a focus on the common good and ending economic inequalities. Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest post, after the Queen, in the Church of England), followed the Vatican’s lead with a similar call for a reinvigoration of common values and ethical behaviour in the context of global, selfish capitalism. The situation of the Occupy London protests in front of St Paul’s Cathedral is brimming with symbolism. Obviously a ‘religion’ does not exist as some kind of abstract entity with a unitary opinion. People of all faiths can be found arguing fervently on both sides. While some might argue that Jesus would be there with the protestors in Zuccotti Park fighting corporate greed, others argued that he would be there to save them from their folly.
Finally, there have been moves to take the Occupy ethos and practice to religion itself, calling for the reform of religious institutions and dogmas to refocus on the ‘99%’ – the average person of faith for whom the elite structures may seem to serve little purpose. Jewish rituals held at Zuccotti Park gave rise to Occupy Judaism. There are a bunch of Facebook groups out there too, such as Occupy Religion, which has as its byline, “Religion for the rest of us.” The Occupy Church is an ecumenical Christian movement that demonstrates how a shared purpose – in this case, against excessive corporate power – can bring together people from a variety of religious denominations, thus facilitating change within the religion as well.
In the end, religions simply provide symbolic resources that individuals may draw on. Re-telling religious stories (such as Jesus overturning the tables), seeing religious garb, crosses and other symbols (such as the Jewish Fiddler on the Roof on the Wall Street bull), or performing rituals in a new context (such as the Muslim prayer rallies), are all ways to sacralise the cause. In the process both entities are transformed: the religious symbolism is reconfigured, and the cause is deepened and given transcendent meaning and affirmation. Whether this is seen as appropriation or application is irrelevant. Humans require meaning to function in their daily lives, and the use of symbols is fundamental to this. Religions have been symbolic resources for centuries, and the process of reconfiguration and alteration will never cease.