Recently, I joined my coworkers from a Jesuit community organization in Northern Manhattan in a march called “End to End for the 99%,” a day-long campaign to rally support along the length of the island for the Occupiers at Zuccotti Park. We joined the march at 181st Street and carried our banner down Broadway, stopping in Harlem at 125th Street; passing through the throngs at Times Square at 42nd Street, and finally arriving at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan just as the sun set. For much of the march, I felt proud to be calling attention to economic injustice. As I cheered for democracy and for the 99%, I felt part of the movement. But as the afternoon wore on, I stopped hearing the breadth and expansion of “We – are – the 99 percent!” and I started hearing the line between 99 and one, a shift that left me deeply troubled. As I walked, I wondered how a theology of Occupy Wall Street could clarify our purpose and ideology, while inviting Catholics and other people of faith to engage with the movement with confidence and conviction. This post offers the beginnings of a theology for the Occupy Movement. It aims to identify the theology expressed by the movement as it stands and proposes a more consistent, authentic theology that Catholics can use as a resource to open conversation and to guide their decision-making.
Of course, it’s impossible to speak of everyone in the Occupy movements as if they all think alike. They have a variety of motivations and convictions. Still, there are plenty of ideas that can be identified with the movement in general. The movement proclaims the dignity of the poor, the unemployed, and the voiceless. The movement also proclaims the value of human persons and human lives over corporations. Two signs that I saw at the march or at Zuccotti Park expressed that conviction: one said, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” The second sign, more pithy, read, “Love People Not $.” At Zuccotti Park, the Occupiers were working in teams to manage food preparation, sanitation, public relations, and other tasks. They recognize that each member of the movement has something to contribute. Both the statements the Occupiers make and the way the camps are organized express a theological anthropology that is primarily positive (in other words, a theological system that claims the fundamental goodness of human persons).
What’s inconsistent about this theological anthropology is what’s implicit in the chants and signs: it’s the 99% who are fundamentally good. Bankers and financial workers are vilified. A friend said to me, in jest, “Jesus loves the 99%;” the “Occupy, Catholics!” blog has a tag line that reads, “We are the 99%, made in God’s image.” Those statements are meant to counter the prominent mindset, whether it’s expressed in advertisements or our tax code, that money confers worth. They’re not meant to imply that God doesn’t love the 1%, but not all of the Occupiers understand that nuance, I’m afraid.
Furthermore, there have been a handful of signs calling for class warfare. I felt a militant tone that at times settled over the march along Manhattan; one of my fellow marchers had signs calling for the overthrow of our government and claiming that the war had begun. These signs and chants betray a theological anthropology that is not fully positive.
However, the Occupy Movement is committed to subsidiarity and participation. An initial criticism of the movement was its failure to produce any particular demands; its supporters countered that the point was democratic process and participation; in other words, dialogue was the demand. Because of their vast holdings, large banks wield tremendous power to shape not just conversation but our economic landscape. Simply by being present in Lower Manhattan and, later, other communities worldwide, the Occupy Movement serves as a forum to open dialogue and democracy in a setting that leaves too many voices out. The Occupy Movement is embracing participation and subsidiarity by opening this forum, and its strength is in inviting others to the conversation.