Occupy movement is 'very biblical'

  • October 21, 2011

TORONTO - Nobody is claiming Occupy Toronto protesters are a Catholic crowd. Not many have Bibles and copies of Pope Benedict XVI's latest encyclical in their backpacks. But it's amazing how many echoes of Scripture and Catholic social teaching there are in the worldwide Occupy movement, say Scripture scholars and social teaching experts.

"The issue is Mammon. To me it's very biblical," said Redemptorist Father Paul Hansen, director of the Redemptorist Biblical Justice Consultancy.

Hansen spent a day among the protesters camped out next to the Anglican St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto. The demands he heard reminded him of Jesus cleansing the temple (John 2:13-25).

"Bay Street, Wall Street has become a den of thieves," he said.

Hansen sees the protesters challenging a culture that has come to worship money, defers to the rich and mistakes wealth for moral authority.

"I've been a priest 42 years and nobody has ever confessed the sin of idolatry in my presence," he said.

The Occupy Wall Street movement actually started in Canada, with a suggestion by the editors of the Vancouver magazine AdBusters. It's a leaderless movement that has come to include protests over a large number of issues (though there is no list of official demands) mostly targeting financial institutions and government. When Occupy protests spread to Rome things got out of hand. About 100 out of 20,000 protesters began looting. The violent faction damaged a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes and a large crucifix, set cars on fire and inflicted an estimated $2.8 million in damage to the city. Most protests though, have endured days or weeks without violence.

Given events in Rome, St. Augustine's Seminary rector Msgr. Robert Nusca is much more skeptical of the Occupy protesters than Hansen.

"In Rome, people burning cars. Is that a demonstration on behalf of the poor?" Nusca asked.

As a New Testament scholar, Nusca finds common ground with Hansen when it comes to what the Bible has to say about poverty and self-indulgent wealth.

"If it's a question of social injustice, the Gospel has a great deal to say about the importance at all times to stand with the poor and defend the rights of the poor," he said.

Protesters Amy and Carl, neither of whom would give their last names, said their conscience put them outside Toronto's stock exchange holding signs that read "Greed is not worth extinction."

"I've been holding this in my heart for a long time. It's been on my conscience for many, many years," said Amy.

Carl is a former advertising creative director who was once a brand strategist for a private equity firm. He has chucked his advertising career to study art at Ryerson University. Amy said she was never able to find a job in marketing after graduating from Humber College. She has worked as a security guard, a waitress and a bartender.

Jesuit Scripture scholar and Catholic Register columnist Fr. Scott Lewis hears all kinds of echoes from the Bible in the Occupy protests - Isaiah 1:11-17,'

Jesuit Scripture scholar and Catholic Register columnist Fr. Scott Lewis hears all kinds of echoes from the Bible in the Occupy protests - Isaiah 1:11-17,'"I have had enough of burnt offerings.... learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,'

- Michael Swan

The ever multiplying number of issues and demands coming from Occupy protesters doesn't faze Prof. Bernie Hammond who co-ordinates the Social Justice and Peace Studies program at London, Ont.'s King's University College.

"I think the movement should be supported by the Church, with the caveat that there's a whole variety of orientations people have within this movement," he said. "One thing (the protesters) are for is democracy. if you look at their decision-making process, it's a very democratic process... I can only congratulate these people for bringing us back to what democracy is and what is possible in a democracy."

Whether they are effective or not, the protesters are acting on their consciences, said Hammond.

"We can make life flourish for people, or we can build social structures that make life very difficult for people at the lower end of the economic continuum to even survive," he said.

That's not radical thinking, unless Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate is radical, said Hansen.

"What Benedict is doing is pulling together in a brilliant way the social teaching since Rerum Novarum in 1891 and is articulating the commons. Love is caring for the common good," he said.

Christianity was always a little rough around the edges, consorting with the wrong people ever since Jesus sat down to dinner with tax collectors and prostitutes, said Saint Paul University Prof. Fr. John Jillions, an Orthodox priest who teaches Eastern spirituality and has a PhD in New Testament studies. The protests remind him of St. Paul's run in with the merchants of of Philippi (Acts 16:16-40). Like the protesters, St. Paul was aware of his civil rights and was willing to assert them even when magistrates were trying to push him aside.

Protesters who have talked about how banks and corporations have deceived people who trusted in their stewardship of pensions, mortgages and jobs have caught Jillions' ear.

"Satan is a liar. Any kind of deception, the spirit of God is against that," he said. "The whole Christian life is trying to discern what's true from what's false."

Which doesn't mean all Christians will agree with the Occupy protesters.

"In these social questions, there is no one clear answer," he said. "Someone out of their Christian conviction may be sitting as part of the Occupy movement and others might equally be saying that's not part of it."

Jesuit Scripture scholar and Catholic Register columnist Fr. Scott Lewis hears all kinds of echoes from the Bible in the Occupy protests. He cites Amos 5:24, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream," Isaiah 1:11-17, "I have had enough of burnt offerings.... learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow," among others

"In Israelite society there's none of this idea of separation of church and state. It's all one and Israel is God's commonwealth. The idea of a commonwealth is it's always judged by economic and social justice," said Lewis. "It's like the ethical canary, the widows and the orphans. When they start being oppressed, when the poor are sold for the price of a pair of sandals, then you know things are not right."

Though Christians do protest economic injustice, there are always contrary voices, even among the most pious Catholics. Whenever bishops speak about economic injustice there's always a faction in the Church that will dismiss their own bishops, saying they don't know anything about economics, said Lewis.

"People are very selective about their moral outrage," he said.

If there's one thing Lewis worries about with the Occupy movement its whether it can articulate a clear message and not be drowned in chorus of me-too complaining.

"I think they've got a point," he said. "I just hope they can stay focussed on that point."

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