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Would Jesus Occupy?

“Whatsoever you do for the least of My people, that you do unto Me.”
--Matthew 25:40

On Easter Sunday 2012, it is important for American Christians, and non-Christians alike, to reflect on Jesus’ teachings in light of a social movement that put some of his most famous actions into practice. The Occupy movement, in its short history, has firmly established an unwavering commitment to serving the poorest and neediest among us, even in the face of severe state repression.

In the Gospels, Jesus not only preaches the need to take care of the poor and the infirm, he walks the walk. The Occupy Movement calls for reorganizing the economy so that poverty can be eliminated; and, from day one, it welcomed all people into its camps and, Christ-like, gave them shelter, sustenance, and care.

Last fall, Occupy Los Angeles’ vast encampment was very close to the city’s Skid Row, which has the largest concentration of homeless people in the United States; and hundreds of Skid Row residents spent days and nights at the camp. Many visitors to the Occupy LA camp objected to the presence of these destitute, often emotionally troubled, weather-worn souls; but the occupiers themselves never wavered from their humanity. As much as Christ’s caring for the destitute lifted hearts and renewed hope, the transformative effect of Occupy – for the homeless people who were welcomed at the L.A. camp– was palpably evident.

There is no doubt that any meaningful social justice movement in the United States must address the epidemic of homelessness in the wealthiest country in the world. But there is a world of difference between stating that position, or even once a week working in a soup kitchen, compared to what the occupiers practiced in their camps, 24 hours a day, for two months. Many who were sympathetic to the movement counseled that the presence of such rabble would undermine Occupy; and one can speculate that, had the Occupy camps only been inhabited by clean-cut college graduates, people in power would have had one less excuse to object. Fortunately, such arguments fell on deaf ears; and, at least temporarily, the most downtrodden people in our land were accepted in enclaves across the country.

Others said that by welcoming the homeless, there would be more crime, which would offer authorities the excuse to close the camps. However, in Oakland, crime went down while the camp was operating. Of course, official statistics will not include the most significant crimes committed at the camps: the squelching of First Amendment rights and the brutal violence of state authorities.

Much as Christ never wavered from preaching a gospel of love and compassion, even to those who betrayed him, tortured him, and put him to death – a social philosophy in marked contrast to the harsh reality of life in Roman-occupied Palestine. The Occupy movement continues to advocate for social transformation rooted in love and cooperation, which bears no resemblance to the cruel world of market discipline – e.g. home foreclosures, steep unemployment, ever-increasing inequality – that rules mainstream American society.

In myriad ways, beyond sheltering the homeless and holding firm to one’s beliefs while suffering violence at the hands of the state, the Occupy movement emulated the hero of the Gospels. They did this most conspicuously by moving into the city center and putting forward a vision of society rooted in peace, compassion, and caring for all of God’s creations.

I am not a practicing Christian, nor do I believe that the ethical teachings of the world’s great religions were imparted to us by supernatural beings. But I do feel that the story of Jesus set a marker for the dramatic practice of love and caring in the service of building a better world that is, perhaps, unrivaled in the annals of human history.

There are, of course, many prominent American Christians who speak out for social justice and supported Occupy. However, in an era when right-wing Christian fundamentalism is a powerful political force, it seems essential, on this Easter Sunday, both to expose the hypocrisy of the Christian Right, which is aligned with the forces that persecute and silence a movement that practices what Christ preached; and to challenge Christians to join the Occupy Movement, in particular when it distributes free food to the hungry and homeless.

Fidel Castro may claim Christ for the Left, but quite frankly no one can say how he would feel about state socialism. But this we can say with confidence, given what we know of his life from the Gospels: if Jesus were in America these days, he wouldn’t be preaching at a suburban megachurch, nor would he be applauding Rick Santorum’s platform of bigotry and division. Rather, the only kind of movement that Jesus could gravitate towards is one populated by people unwilling to deny compassion for any soul; that encourages people to dream of the best, most just world possible and to start living that world now; and one that the wealthy and powerful are committed to destroying…

Jesus would Occupy.

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