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November 5, 2011

Occupy your faith

Passion of Occupy movement protesters can teach something about personal spirituality

Daily Star

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There sure seems to be a lot of "occupying" in the news of late. Some people have Occupied Wall Street. Others have Occupied San Diego and Oakland in California. Just today, I saw photos of crowds Occupying cities in Germany and in Egypt. Closer to home, there are people Occupying Albany and -- even closer -- there are even some folks (occasionally, anyway) Occupying Oneonta and Otsego County.

I've been watching all of this with some interest and, I admit, some puzzlement. What does all of this "occupying" mean? Why are these people taking to the streets risking their comfort, their freedom, and apparently, their very well-being? What are they trying to accomplish?

As a person of faith, a religious leader, how am I called to respond and engage in this movement? I've heard some people reacting with scorn and ridicule. I've heard others speaking of the protesters with admiration and support. For the religious and the spiritual, what should our reaction be?

I have been watching and listening and deliberating. I think I know my answer -- but it is my answer only. I can't speak for all people, not even all people of my faith tradition. I do know this, however -- something big is happening. This movement is not just a phase or a flash in the pan. The Occupy Wall Street protesters have been out there in the streets of New York City for almost 50 days. The protests have struck some collective nerve and have spread around the country and around the world. A map of the protests available online lists more than 150 of them in more than 30 countries. While it may have started with some young adults and students, the demographics of the protesters has expanded to include all ages, all races, and many faiths. The recent cold weather and snow fall hasn't shut the protests down, either. These people are committed. They are determined. They are passionate. They aren't going away.

While there appears to be no central leader or voice, the protesters appear to have a core message. Their calls of "We are the 99 percent" hold up the economic disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom -- a disparity that has become too great, and has become obscenely unjust. And that is not just a political protest. That IS also a matter of faith and religion and spirituality. How should we treat one another? How shall we care for one another? What principles will we choose to base our society, local and global, upon? These are questions of faith. Perhaps, that is where we will find the answers, as well.

What is your faith?

Are you Christian? If so, there are more than 100 passages in the Bible that deal with economic justice. Perhaps the most appropriate for the Occupy protests is the book of James (2:2-6):

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there' or 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?

Are you Jewish? The Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is pretty clear about which percentage God would identify with. According to the books of Zephaniah (1:11) and Proverbs (11:28):

"Wail, you inhabitants of the market district! For all the merchant people are cut down; All those who handle money are cut off.

"He who trusts in his riches will fall, But the righteous will flourish like foliage.

Admonitions against greed and economic injustice are not limited to the Christian and Jewish faiths. Similar passages, teachings and themes can be found in Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Hinduism. Even the non-religious Humanists have addressed the issue of economic justice in their writings. From the 1933 edition of the Humanist Manifesto:

"(We) are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible."

Or, in words more modern, "We are the 99 percent. And it is time we made the economy work for all of us."

As a Unitarian Universalist, I am called to affirm and promote the inherent dignity of all people, justice and equity in all human relations, and the use of democratic principles in our congregations and in society at large. The Occupy protesters are practicing democracy in its most basic form. They are freely assembling and giving voice to their concerns. They are calling for economic justice, fairness and compassion. How will the rest of us react to their cries?

To "occupy" is to "inhabit, to take a stand." Occupy your faith, whatever it may be. Ask the questions. Find your answers. Live your beliefs.

Occupy your faith, and I suspect, you will find yourself called to join the Occupation, as well.

The Rev. Craig Schwalenberg is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta.