For their own reasons, many on both the Left and the Right seem to think that Evangelical Christians ought to stay out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many non-Christians on the Left are against Christian involvement in Occupy because they are distrustful and disillusioned with religion and the church (Do a twitter search on “religion!”). Many Christians on the Right seem concerned about other things – things not on the Occupy radar – abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. The question is, who are these Evangelicals, and can they make a contribution? Might those who are antagonistic now towards them, later actually be able to appreciate them for their contribution?
Defining “Evangelicals” has always been tricky, and it’s only become more complicated over the years. British historical David Bebbington’s four specific hallmarks of Evangelism have often been cited: “… conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.”
Another approach is to describe Evangelicals as “an organic group of movements and religious tradition.” This approach includes “ … groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists….” (ibid.)
To simplify and generalize even more, one might suggest that Evangelicals inhabit the middle ground between the other Right and Left – the religious Right and Left, with Fundamentalists on the Right, and liberal Churches on the Left. As one would expect, within Evangelicals themselves we find the same spectrum, with more conservative individuals and groups on the one end, and more liberal ones on the other. (For instance sometimes the controversial “Emerging Church movement” is considered Evangelical.)
What I’m asking about is whether members of this disparate group, and not just on the fringes of it, but those at its heart, can “occupy.” Can they share the concerns of the Occupy Movement and join their voices with others of the 99% in protesting obscene income inequality, rampant downward mobility of the middle class, lack of accountability and corruption on Wall Street and in Congress, and the slipping away of First Amendment rights, and similar national concerns? To put it succinctly, is there anything intrinsic to being an Evangelical that would or should prevent that? That’s my question, and it’s not an academic one. So many Christian friends of mine and their pastors (also friends) are at best uninvolved or apathetic towards the Occupy movement, and at worst, openly hostile to it, that I feel the need to defend what I believe is obvious. (Not all my Christian friends or friends who are pastors are this way, just to be clear.)
So here’s why I think Evangelicals can Occupy:
1) In the past, Evangelicals have been active in a great spectrum of concerns and issues:
“By the decades prior to the Civil War, a largely-evangelical ‘Benevolent Empire’ (in historian Martin Marty’s words) was actively attempting to reshape American society through Bible and tract distribution, the establishment of Sunday Schools and through such reforms as temperance, the early women’s movement, various benevolent and betterment societies, and–most controversial of all–the abolition movement.” Marcia Pally says something similar, “Evangelical emphasis on individual moral responsibility made them, from the colonial era to World War I, politically anti-authoritarian and economically populist — anti-banker and anti-landlord. Before the Civil War, they created many of the associations that helped build the country and, in the North, were crucially important to the abolitionist movement. After the war, they fought for labor against robber-baron capitalism and supported William Jennings Bryan three times for president on a pro-worker, pro-farmer platform.”
Today, Evangelicals involve themselves in a similarly impressive list: “New evangelicals have been working through their churches on substance abuse, care for the homeless and the elderly, prison ministries, and affordable housing, and they have been developing projects overseas on environmental protection, disease reduction and education.” (ibid.) This is done through education, lobbying and coalition-building.
There is definitely also a specifically “political” piece of the equation: “Since all governments are human and therefore corruptible, new evangelicals understand the vigilance needed to keep politics honest. This is the church’s “prophetic role” — not to become the government but to “speak truth to power.” (ibid.) Recently, the National Association of Evangelicals called on its members — over 40,000 churches — to protest Republican cuts in programs for the needy.” (ibid.)
So, if Evangelicals today refuse to participate in causes and protests like the Occupy movement, they are out of step with, rather than following in the footsteps of, their predecessors.
2) Many “New Evangelicals” today stress the need to move beyond Bible studies, prayer meeting, and service to God that is understood only as serving in the church and sharing the gospel with neighbors, to more of a “taking it to the streets” kind of religion. That includes the critical practices I’ve mentioned (prayer, Bible study, etc.), but acts in this other arena also.
The Biblical writer James says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. ” (James 1:27) This quintessential ministry activity occurs outside the walls of the church obviously – and that’s why while you’re at it, you must take heed to keep yourself “unspotted.”
Evangelicals believe in sharing the “gospel” – the “evangel.” Biblically, such witness is accomplished both verbally and through behavior or actions. The saying “”Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, whether rightly or in error, makes the proper point. Writings by the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good puts it this way: “Much Christian moral witness takes place quietly in families, local congregations, and local communities, as Christians simply go about their daily lives and seek to live as faithful followers of Christ. This is the responsibility of all Christians. … But some Christian moral witness occurs at national and international levels, where many significant challenges to human well-being are often created and addressed. Christians have no choice but to engage religious, economic, cultural, and political institutions with our best efforts to articulate and embody the love and justice of Jesus Christ for the well-being of God’s world.” (And “world” here is the sense of our planet, but also definitely in the sense of it’s people.)
You gain an appreciation for how exciting and thoroughgoing these efforts can be when you read from the “Here We Stand” statement of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good: “We stand against poverty and economic injustice and for dignified and decent economic conditions for all. We seek to be involved in creative efforts to build a more fair and humane economic order here and around the world. … We stand against tyranny and for democracy, justice, and the rule of law. We are involved in efforts to protect and strengthen the culture of American democracy, the unique legacy of religious liberty in this land, and the always fragile rule of law. We look for ways to support indigenous efforts to advance democracy, religious liberty, public justice, and the rule of law in other lands.” (ibid.)
Secular antagonists, fault Evangelicals if you will with the stereotypes that Christians “don’t get it” or “don’t care”, “won’t become involved” or “just want to push their religion down your throat/convert you”, but the evidence is against you. There is not only a rich tradition of activism, but some admirable and radical calls to action being made today from the Evangelical camp.
3) There should be nothing surprising about either what was done in the past, or what is being attempted now by Evangelicals (either “New” or otherwise), because the Bible clearly call’s upon God’s people to be concerned about social justice. Listen to just a few verses from the Bible: “For I the Lord love justice.” (Isaiah 61:8); “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20); “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8); “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24); “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness [Greek dikaiosune, also translated as justice], for they will be filled.” (Jesus in Matthew 5:6); “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” (Jesus in Luke 18:7-8); “Woe to you … for you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Jesus in Matthew 23:23)
David Gushee, who gathered these verses says, “I could have picked hundreds of other verses. By our count in Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Intervarsity Press, 2003), fellow ethicist Glen Stassen and I find in the Bible 1,060 uses of the two Hebrew and two Greek words for justice. In contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear 90 times. There really is no theme more central to biblical faith than the matter of justice. This is very widely recognized to be true for what Christians call the Old Testament, but in our book we show that it is just as true for the New Testament. We offer an entire chapter detailing the forty occasions in which Jesus confronted the powers and authorities of his time over their injustice. We show that justice is one of the core themes of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached about and died to bring into existence.”
“To summarize: for Jesus, as for the Jewish prophets in whose line he came, social injustice consists of misuses of power to create distortions of human community in which greed, domination, violence, and exclusion come to dominate human life. Social justice consists of human acts to resist social injustice by repairing such distortions of human community. We work today for social justice when we seek to create religious and political communities characterized by more economic justice, less domination, less violence, and more inclusive community. When we do so, we can have every assurance that we are attempting to put into practice God’s will and indeed God’s passion for a world that he made for precisely such justice.”
I can already hear the objections, so let me rush to add at this point that it’s not only institutions that need to be renovated and repaired, but the human heart itself. From a Biblical point of view, the fallenness (brokenness, sinfulness) of man touches everything he is and does. It’s not that man is as bad as he can be, it’s that he can never help but leave disgraceful fingerprints on everything he touches, and morally ugly footprints everywhere he goes. What sets Evangelicals apart from others concerned about social justice issues, is this assumption of the need for all individuals to be transformed (not just the 1%, but the 99% as well). It will not be enough to attempt to change only the corporations, the Congress, the police, and the tax rate, etc. (In fairness, I have to say that I have heard this kind of theme also at Zuccotti Park and read it in Occupy materials. An example would be Occupy’s call to boycott shopping on Black Friday in 2011, and instead to donate items you already have and aren’t using to the needy. Another would be the “democratic” approach in decision making in the General Assemblies and elsewhere, where pains (literally) are made to see that every person and his or her view is treated respectfully. The movement is also designed to prevent power grabs so that such equality continues. They encourage a looking inside oneself as well as a critique of others.)
I must also rush to add, just because both lives and institutions must be changed, that there is no excuse for Evangelicals focusing only on one or the other. In the past, Evangelical churches became enamored with the “social gospel”, and many gradually stopped doing evangelism. That was a mistake to be avoided, not a precedent to emulate. Evangelism and work for social justice are two sides of the same coin – and I would dare suggest that this is exactly what you see in the Greatest Commandment of Jesus to each of us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – AND to love our neighbor as we love ourself. If all you give to your thirsty neighbor is a cup of cold water, you deprive him of the “living water” that Jesus offers. If all you offer him is the living water, and you don’t reach out to him with love and help in other ways, at best you lose your “street cred”, and at worst, your own faith is proven by your inaction to be false.
4) If today Evangelicals are associated more with Republicans and the Religious Right (and they are), there is no reason to think either that Evangelicals will not change their political affiliation – or that they will not change the political landscape. (Already Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, formerly known as Governor 1%, proposed a tax plan that, many believe, was shaped as a result of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Republican party used to be much less the party of the rich than it is today, and used to be much more sympathetic to a wider spectrum of concerns. There’s no reason, at least hypothetically, that it can’t embrace many of those former values.
In fact, hopefully a third way will arise that avoids all the polarizing categories and starts anew, with people seeking the truth together. That’s partly what I believe the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been criticized for not embracing a political party-type position, is asking people to do. It’s also what the some New Evangelicals are calling for: “We want to see an engagement of Christians in American public life that is loving, rather than angry; holistic rather than narrowly focused; healing rather than divisive; and independent of partisanship and ideology rather than subservient to party or ideology.”
And even now, there are some who are hopeful about changes already occurring among Evangelicals. In the past (the 20th century) Evangelicals become associated with the political Right. Paully asks wisely “So why another shift in the 21st? One reason is generational, with idealistic youth rejecting the politics of their parents. Another is that views about sex, the environment and global connectedness have shifted nationwide, including among evangelicals. … In a group that takes ethics seriously, still another reason for the change is new thinking about what matters most. The cavalier militarism and the justification of torture during the Bush years, along with the strident in-group-ism of the last four decades, prodded many evangelicals to re-examine themselves and their actions. George W. Bush may have fractured the Christian coalition that elected him.”
I’ve become a news junkie, and for a long time I’ve been a major fan of National Public Radio (WYNC in New York). Several months ago, I had to finally stop listening. I couldn’t listen to the demoralizing news any more. It wasn’t bad news by the “sound byte”, but “in depth.” It depressed me profoundly, and I was kvetching to anyone who would listen about the premature demise of our country, of rampant corruption everywhere you turned, and of the broken social contract that we all now realize we more-or-less depended on. Then, one fine day, I heard about Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, and eventually went down to the park to check it out for myself. That day was a turning point in a process that led to no less than a personal rebirth of hope for me in our future as a country. Yes, I know that “This is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”, but I know that, while I’m here, my world is going to impact me and the people I love (and others that I may be neglecting so far, but need to begin to love). I also know that in return, I can impact that world. This is why I “Occupy”. Let me commend it to you, especially my Evangelical Christian friend