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Occupy Till I Come

As a student of faith, culture and media, I have followed the emergence of Occupy Wall Street with great interest. The unfolding Arab Spring has already provided evidence that internet and mobile technologies are revolutionizing the way people get things done. In America, at a time when political “super-committees” grind to a halt and our nation’s business goes unfinished, those outside the system are mobilizing and taking action. It’s not yet clear what a self-proclaimed “leaderless” (and arguably “message-less”) movement like Occupy may accomplish. What is clear is that the ground beneath traditional institutions such as governments and churches is shifting.

According to Clay Shirky, a leading voice on the social and economic impact of new media, communication and coordination costs have “fallen through the floor,” so that groups can now organize without the aid of institutions. In a 2005 TED talk entitled “Institutions vs. Collaboration,” Shirky hails this as a revolution similar to the one sparked by the printing press.  

The printing press precipitated 200 years of chaos, moving from a world where the Catholic Church was sort of an organizing political force to the Treaty of Westphalia when we finally knew what the new unit was, the nation-state. Now I’m not predicting 200 years of chaos as a result of this.  Fifty.  Fifty years in which loosely coordinated groups are going to be given increasingly high leverage. The more those groups forego traditional institutional imperatives like deciding in advance what’s going to happen or the profit motive, the more leverage they will get. Institutions are going to come under an increasing degree of pressure. And the more rigidly managed and the more they rely on information monopolies, the greater the pressure is going to be.

There is a lot to reflect on here; not just in terms of the Occupy movement but also related to the church’s response to the decentralization of information and organizational capability.  Certainly, the church has come into a period of more rigid institutional management.  This approach has been hailed as the way “forward.”  But is it?  In fact, charting an ideological course seems to risk the same sort of polarization and paralysis that has beset Washington’s political system and caused many to wonder if the government is broken beyond repair. Perhaps the time has come for the church to think about ways to capitalize on the energies of those who resonate with the sentiments of the Occupierswho say “we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians to build a better society.”

The nobleman in Jesus’ parable commands his servants to “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13, KJV) or “do business till I come” (NKJV).  Two of the servants were creative and quick on their feet. They seized opportunities and made good on their investments. The third, however, was so caught up in preserving his portion that business just froze. It makes me wonder: Is the Adventist church equipped to do God’s business in the 21st. century? Or are we like the servant who clung to his well-preserved coin collection? In short, what does it mean “occupy” the world in a responsible way?  

In a recent Adventist Review article, Shawn Boonstra posed the question: “Would Jesus Be in Zucotti Park?”  His answer left me wanting. First, given the nature of his question, he could only speculate. Without first century AD context, WWJD has never been a good theological starting point. Second, to say that Jesus is occupying the Heavenly Sanctuary and therefore is not among those occupying Wall Street seems both clever and dismissive. Would Jesus have been among those marching for Civil Rights in Birmingham, Selma, and Washington D.C.? What does the answer to that question look like now, fifty years later?  And what, exactly, is the difference between opposing racial injustice and economic injustice? 

To claim that Jesus was “decidedly apolitical” or that he was not part of a “grassroots political organization” overlooks the fact that Christianity began as a grassroots effort. Although not allied with any political group or cause, the early Christian movement decidedly challenged the political, religious and social order of its day. While Jesus did not exercise politics on the world’s terms, His message and mission were not without political implications. An entire stream of New Testament “imperial studies” indicates that early Christians expressed their faith as a counter-story to the ideology of the Roman Empire. That alternative script subverted the very symbol of Roman domination, the cross, and elevated those on the lowest rungs of the empire to exalted positions within God’s advancing kingdom. Unfortunately, much of what passes for “Christianity” today in America is nothing more than warmed-over civil religion and seems to have lost this counter-narrative.

It may be, as Boonstra says, that the underlying motive for some in the Occupy movement is nothing more than “covetousness” and clamoring after “stuff.” But is it possible the silence of those not Occupying Wall Street may be due to the very same thing? Certainly, greed is not the motive of all those who speak out in the cause of economic justice.  If it were, we would have to write off the Old Testament prophets, right along with the Occupiers.

In the end, Boonstra punts his question into the Holy of Holies, where presumably Jesus stands above the fray while dealing with the “underlying issues” of sin. Quoting Jesus’ statement before Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), Boonstra mistakenly opts for a dualism that is foreign to John’s theology of incarnation. Furthermore, consistent with his earlier Adventist Review article, Boonstra adheres to a ‘hermeneutic of signs’ that interprets world events as nothing more than painted-on warnings pointing to the end of time. However, Johannine scholars agree that the “signs” (semeia) of Jesus function not as signs, but as symbols.  They consist of everyday images and actions that render God present and, unlike signs, participate in the reality to which they point (so Dorothy Lee, John Painter, Sandra Schneiders and Paul Tillich).  In other words, it is not enough to simply point to the future, we must participate in it. A ‘theology of symbols’ views world events (and our response to them) as opportunities to realize the transcendent and future realities of God’s kingdom, here and now.

I wish Boonstra had stumbled across Walter Brueggemann’s article on “Justice: the earthly form of God’s holiness.” In the Ten Commandments, Brueggemann writes, “the first three commands on the holiness of God and the last six on justice for neighbor show that…holiness and justice always come together.”  At the center of it all stands the Sabbath, “perhaps Israel’s most stunning counter-cultural notion of justice.” With its bold “refutation of Pharoah’s brick quotas” and its “sabbatic provision” for the poor and indebted, one could hardly say the concept of Sabbath holiness is not concerned with economic justice.

Furthermore, if we follow the worship of the Creator into John’s Apocalypse, we find the repeated cry that Babylon has fallen (Rev. 14:8; 18:2).  What does it mean to “come out” of Babylon and to “not share in her sins?” Consider that the sins cataloged in Revelation 18 are expressed in commercial and economic terms, along with a chilling reference to the merchandising of “the bodies and souls” of human beings (18:13). 

True, we may want to be “slow to sign Jesus up for our political causes,” as Boonstra admonishes. But let’s be certain we understand the purpose for which “the hour of His judgment has come” (Rev 14:7). Is it not, in large part, to bring justice to the inhabitants of earth? At the end of the diatribe against Babylon’s economic excesses comes the invitation to rejoice for “God has judged her for the way she treated you” (18:20). Shouldn’t those giving glory to God in this penultimate hour also stand with Him against injustice, wherever that may be found?  Perhaps Adventists taking leave of Babylon will find a home in Zucotti Park, after all.

Steve Yeagley, M.Div., is Assistant Dean for Student Life at Andrews University. Steve serves as an adjunct professor in the Youth Ministry Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and has recently co-authored the book, Seven Principles for Youth Ministry Excellence.

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