The Theology of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Movement

November 22, 2011 § 16 Comments

*Editor’s note: I am replacing the former comic strip (satire) picture I had with a more evocative one that reflects the actual people in the OWS movement.

The so called Occupy Wall Street (OWS) continues on now; it has been over two months. This movement is a patchwork of folk, mostly college age, demographically, who are protesting the Capitalist Free Market System that has made the American world, in particular, and the Western world, in general, turn. The outcry is against corporate greed perpetrated by the military might of our country as we have engaged in nation building, and then lived off of the backs of the poor and down trodden in the developing and third world nations which we have conquered; either militaristically, or through “diplomatic” moves that impose our will upon the world-wide populace. Much of the OWS has taken shape, intentionally, through Marxist ideology and its theological corollary, Liberation Theology.

I am continuing to read Christian Kettler’s excellent book, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation. In the first section of the book he surveys various modern theologians and their respective approaches to a theological method and how that impacts their understanding of humanity and Christology, in particular. One of the theologians Kettler has focused on is Leonardo Boff, a Roman Catholic Latin theologian who is best known for his articulation of so called Liberation Theology. I thought Kettler provided a timely word for us in his critique of Boff’s Liberation Theology; and so I wanted to share it with my reading audience. Kettler shares the pronouncement made by, then Cardinal Ratzinger against Boff’s Liberation Theology; Ratzinger highlights the problems associated with the kind of revolutionary activity that liberation theology advocates and fosters. We will start with the Ratzinger quote, then we will here a little commentary from Kettler, and then we will here two more quotes from Michael Novak with the problems that he also sees with Liberation Theology and Marxist theory. Here we go:

[M]illions of our contemporaries legitimately learn to recover their basic freedoms, of which they were deprived by totalitarian and atheistic regimes which came to power by violent and revolutionary means, precisely in the name of the liberation of the people. This shame of our time cannot be ignored: while claiming to bring them freedom, these regimes keep whole nations in conditions of servitude which are unworthy of mankind. [Ratzinger]

These sad consequences, which we are all too familiar with in the twentieth century, reveal the intellectual shallowness of utopian ideals through their refusal to consider the alternatives to the status quo or the consequences of their alternatives, if they have any. As Michael Novak puts it incisively, the practical question must be asked:

[W]hich sorts of economic institutions, in fact, do lift up the poor? . . . What institutions will it [liberation theology] put in place, after the revolution to protect human rights? Through which institutions, will it open its economy to the initiative, intelligence and creativity of the poorest of its citizens? [Novak]

The utopian element in liberation theology should be at odds with the concern for praxis, for concrete political and social experience. But this is not so, ironically. As Novak comments,

[O]ne of the most disappointing features of liberation theology is its abstractness and generality. Far from being descriptive, concrete and practical, it is intricately speculative, ideological and academic. [Novak] (Christian D. Kettler, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation, 113)

I think this is a very apt observation for the day in which we live. Revolution sounds noble to many the young ear, but what, in our case, does the ‘Occupy’ movement hope to replace the current ‘Global system’ with? I despise the greed and money-mongering of the Capitalist elite as much asthe next activist (to be honest); but I also despise the alternative that seems to be fueling most of the activists continued drive to thwart the powers that be. In other words, I repudiate Marxist, Liberation Theology and its ideals (metaphysically and ethically); I repudiate the Social Democratism that perpetuates much of the labor movement element that helps to spawn the ‘Occupy’ movement in its global effort. I think both and all systems are equally malevolent and deleterious to the soul of humanity. The history of Marxism, whether in its socialist/communist or fascist forms, illustrates the repressive and oppressive policies that they would foist upon humanity. There is no utopia without Christ!

One could push back at me with; ’Well, isn’t, at least, Marxist communist ideology situated upon better ideals and premises? The principle of alleviating the oppression of the poor and down trodden; the strangle hold that the rich elite in the world have on the 99%?’ And my reply to this is that there is, in principle, no gradation of right and wrong before a Holy God. There is either right, or there is wrong; there is no political or social theory that is more or less proximate to God’s ways in Christ. We cannot collapse God’s system into the political ideology of humanity. That is not to say that God has not broken into our systems and humanity through Christ. But instead it is to recognize that at a systemic level, humanity continues to follow the broad way that leads to destruction; they do this because they love the darkness rather than the light. So even if their ’intentions’ appear to be good; we know (Deus absconditus) that appearances aren’t always what they seem, one way or the other. We know that humanity is still homo incurvatus in se (turned in on their selves), and that movements without Christ as their shepherd only lead to destruction in the end.

So I cannot endorse the ’Occupy’ movement as some of my Christian friends seem to. The quotes above from Kettler help explain why, and then my comments just above also provide some rationale for why I reject both Capitalist and Socially Democratic (so called) political theories as well. And no, I’m not a Christian anarchist either; I am a prophet from what some have called ’the far country’.

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§ 16 Responses to The Theology of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Movement

  • kenny chmiel says:

    That framing of the ideology of OWS is not even close to who these people are or what they believe, its too easy of a target. This group is a truly post-modern mix of ideology, in fact, one ideology isn’t even given assent. I think the marxist tag is completely wrong and if it was correct which type of Marxist are we talking here, since I’m sure you are aware Marxists have evolved from the days of Lenin, are we talking western marxists, feminist, structural, euro etc?
    I would have thought you would have liked Boff since he is a Trinitarian Theologian. I love how he used the Trinity as the ultimate foundation for an ontology of community (politics). It is strange that so many Evangelicals love the trinitarian theology when it stays above in the heavens, but as a means of praxis (in a polis) it seems to get over ruled by the ontology of enlightenment liberalism – the social contract, autonomy of the will and reason.

  • kenny chmiel says:

    Oh, I forgot to say what I think is the “essence” of the OWS movement (at least on the American scene) – Justice, in the Rawlsian sense – Justice as fairness. Equity is a good thing to stand up for, no matter the ideology (of coarse the ideology will determine what the concept would mean). I have a strong suspicion that these people (most) aren’t marxists – they are Americans, raised in the liberal tradition, I think they just want the “American dream” and some of the benefits of their labor and the wealth of the nation. That isn’t Marxist, that is Enlightenment middle class desire.

  • kenny chmiel says:

    sorry B, I’m not trying to blow up your spot but I think this video is felt by many of us OWS supporters and we think it has some good ideas – http://youtu.be/BRtc-k6dhgs

  • Bobby Grow says:

    @Kenny,

    I agree with you that the mix of people being “used” for the OWS movement are a “patchwork,” as I said to open this post up; but I disagree that this is too easy of a target. There is organization, structure, and funding being provided by declared social democratic groups, neo-Marxist groups, Liberation theology groups, and straight up communist and anarchist groups. To say that this is a mix of PoMo ideology doesn’t help critique the movement or provide a better target; since PoMo, given its normative relativism, easily assimilates all of the ideologies I just suggested and more. Yes, I know Marxism has taken many different forms, and its ideas, based on its new forms have taken on new purpose and personal goals (pace whatever agenda); but the basic maxim of the proletariat rising up against the bourgeoisie remains the same—in the name of ‘equity’ for all.

    As far as Boff, his isn’t ‘just’ a simple Trinitarian theology—as you know there are many ways to parse this, methodologically—Boff collapses his Trinitarian theology into a social Trinitarianism that becomes defined from ‘below’, and thus privileges his kind of mode as social ‘praxis’ as definitive by way of analogy for the divine life itself. Further, Boff DOES appeal to Marxist theory and analysis in the framing of his theology of liberation, and yet of course tries to avoid the pitfalls that Marxist theory, in general, offers. He also holds to an idea of ‘Christic structure’ wherein there is a sense of ‘Christ consciousness’ at work amongst the world, and thus humanity, through its socialized structures responds to this universal pervasive of ‘Christic structure’ by being human and acting (praxis) in accord with the evolution of what it means to be human finally epitomized in the archetypical humanity of Christ himself. This again collapses God’s life in Christ into the social structures of humanity, w/o giving proper definition and place to God’s life in Christ or the divine side. Theologically this could be said to operate from an adoptionist christology, and thus one that won’t stand the test of orthodoxy. There must be another way to frame praxis, w/o offering the ‘doxy’ as a sacrifice on the alter of socio-religio-politico activism or praxis.

    I have some quotes, but not the time at the moment, from Boff, to help substantiate what I just asserted, Kenny. It is a healthy understanding of the ‘vicarious humanity of Christ’ that serves to correct the exigencies of both a christology from ‘above’ and ‘below’, and it is this that I am continuing to attend to in my research.

    One more point; Van Jones is a huge supporter of the “American Dream” movement, and has helped to define the structure of the OWS movement. Go look up Van Jones, and the defining features of his ideology. But, there is nothing equitable w/o apocalyptic renewal through the proclamation of the Gospel—which definitely includes praxis, but in that order. I don’t see equity as the defining feature of any movement, in principle, w/o Christ. For it is in him that there no longer remains slave/free, Jew/Gentile, male/female. Boff’s way of interpreting that through a universalist ‘Christic structure’ at play is off, in my view.

  • Bobby Grow says:

    @Kenny,

    I just watched that video. The quote it opens up with “You can’t evict an idea” comes directly from Van Jones, which in itself doesn’t discredit the merits of the video or the movement (the maxim is true). But it lets me know that there is an organic connection between this movement and what Jone’s group ‘Rebuild The Dream’ http://vanjones.net/ is about.

    The content verbalized in the video itself is totally voicing a “Boffian” ideal; just as I noted the ‘Christic structure’ above. Exactly. And so this patch of the movement ‘Sacred Economics’ is open to theological critique because it is seeking to deploy theological paradigms in the name of praxis; a praxis that would like to be what defines the theological ‘discourse’. But this then is not a careful way of parsing how both—the orthodoxy and orthopraxy—mutually implicate one and the other. Again, that’s why a robust doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is needed (which I am still working on, but Kettler already has done much work on this in the book I reference from).

  • Jon Sellers says:

    No matter the origins of the OWS movement, it has been co-opted by Van Jones, Michael Moore, big labor and other nefarious groups. No matter how lofty the original ideals they will only degenerate into some version of failed Marxist/ socialist programs. Von Hayek correctly identified the problems.

    “Von Hayek accurately foretold the fate that would befall dissenters from the plan. They simply could not be allowed to get in the way. Opposition would soon be treated as subversion, with debate shriveling to non-existence under the glare of the state. Those who refused compliance would first be marginalized, then dehumanized, and finally (failing re-education) eliminated. Collectivism and individualism cannot long share the same bed.” from http://www.americanthinker.com/2009/11/whats_wrong_with_socialism.html

    Marxist/ socialist groups require elitist control from the top in order to survive. That ultimately requires heavy enforcement and leads to violence. We are already very far along that road of elitist control in this country with enforcement already seen in heavy handed police, FBI, IRS, child services, USDA, FDA and most govt. agencies that enforce the govt ideals upon the citizens in disregard to freedom and rights. We are letting tyranny take hold little pieces at a time. OWS would only accelerate that to a final solution.

  • Bobby Grow says:

    Great points, Jon.

    There is no answer apart from Christ’s intervention; he’s the hope or there is none! This is why I’m amil and not postmil ;-) .

    But I see what is happening, globally, through protest and all kinds of other movement as accelerating things w/o a doubt. My reading of Scripture does not lead me to think that things will get better but worse prior to Christ’s coming; so bad that even the love of the ‘elect’ will grow cold. I see part of this as a lack of discernment, and not a testing of the spirits (pace I Jn 4, the whole context).

  • kenny chmiel says:

    So social democracy is the enemy, by what standard? It (OWS) is also supported by libertarians and democrats. I think even some republicans can hold to some of the critique they have on the Banking system. We all have a mediated view of the movement and we all select the narrative we want, you see the main backing to be Marxist and social democrats, and you know those words in America are charged, here those words are actual parties with reps in the Norwegian Government, point is – maybe some socialist ideas should be accepted as a good way to organize society, why should the capitalists have all the truth. Do you think the capitalists have all the truth in the realm of political economy? If some of these people have Socialist ideas mixed with liberal ideas why are they wrong, considering the place that a mostly capitalist system has brought the country?

    You want to bring Theology into this discussion, which is fair enough for a theologian such as yourself, but I think in the most basic sense, scripture is quite clear on the oppression of the rich over the poor by dishonest weights, usury, lawless judges, etc etc. If God cared about it then (in the praxis of israel) then why wouldn’t he care about it now, isn’t justice in some sense grounded in God, and if so isn’t it in the trinity and if it is in the trinity, which is the ultimate reality in the universe, why is it so wrong to want to try to construct human relationships on this ultimate model. I just don’t see a problem with this. I think if we are trying to construct a system of human relationship why wouldn’t we choose the truth of the trinity and it’s mutual love exchange over a strange deistic will being distilled into the king, then into the individual as conceived by the enlightenment philosophers as the organizing starting point, here I think Boff does well, and if he takes Marx as an influence, well he would be in good company with many other good Theologians – (Torrance?) Was Marx wrong about everything, was Adam Smith right – Seriously.

    I too believe in the coming Kingdom where all will be well, but until then we must be just and loving and fight for the weak over the oppressor. There is oppression going on in this system and it is our duty to stand up against it.

  • kenny chmiel says:

    Finally, if the OWS is a mixed bag (as you agree) and there IS something wrong going on why shouldn’t christians stand against the wrong and embrace the movement albeit from Prophetic principles? Speaking of Hell, it seems the praxis of doing justice is extremely important –

    31 “But when (Y)the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then (Z)He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be (AA)gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, (AB)as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep (AC)on His right, and the goats (AD)on the left.

    34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, (AE)inherit the kingdom prepared for you (AF)from the foundation of the world. 35 For (AG)I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; (AH)I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 (AI)naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you (AJ)visited Me; (AK)I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 (AL)The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, (AM)to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

    41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘(AN)Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the (AO)eternal fire which has been prepared for (AP)the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not [e]take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into (AQ)eternal punishment, but the righteous into (AR)eternal life.”

  • Bobby Grow says:

    Kenny,

    I don’t totally disagree with you. I am not interested in supporting Capitalism anymore than the next person—I really don’t understand where that sentiment comes from, since I said this in my post more than once. [Btw, Travis, WTM, makes the same assertion contra me (i.e. that I am basically conservative and thus predisposed toward Capitalism) in his critique of me in the post linked above] All I can do is profess what I believe, and I did so in the post. True, some of the stuff provided by Kettler contra Boff is not the last word; but what is of value in his point is identifying a deficit in theological depth that is true to God’s self revelation in Christ.

    But, no, I’m with you on being for the poor and the oppressed; what led you to think otherwise, form the post. Do I have to agree with Boff, Marx or anybody else in order to live out the Great Commission and the subsequent Christian ethic and prophetic role in the world? That seems to be what both you and Travis are presupposing; why? I am not for a disembodied activism, or a metaphysical God behind the back of Jesus method—which is the elicit critique from Travis—instead I am suggesting that the Christian’s political involvement is delimited by the demands of the Gospel itself; and those demands are given shape by the antecedent of God’s life in Christ from the so called Barthian ‘far country’. I don’t see this a retreat into an interior Christianty, but instead as revolt against the world system as it collapses God’s kingdom into man’s kingdom, leaving Christ (the King) behind.

  • Duane says:

    OH Boy Bobby! Here I finally get to agree with you that Amerika is not nor has ever been a “Christian nation” (note the upper case ‘C’) .

    Rush Limbaugh loves to tell a story every Thanksgiving that (I believe) he says his father told to him long ago. If true it seems the Pilgrims along with the non-Pilgrims on their way to the New World on the Mayflower, drew up and ratified the Mayflower Pact. It seems the intent was for the colony to be established by the Pilgrims was to be a theocracy. In this theocracy they, like the church protopatriarchs before them were to “hold all things in common” and to borrow from Marx, they determined to distribute “from each according to his ability (or they might say according to the grace of God decreed them, to each according to his need.” There would be no private property, no rewards for good work, but all belonged to the Lord. Those first years they starved. Too many were content to rest in the summer,expecially since there would be no reward for hard work. So they went back to the drawing board, began to allow each to build an individual prosperity for himself and his progeny, and that is when Plymouth Colony began to succeed. Rush can tell it much more eloquently than can I, but he is sold on the ideals to the utmost degree.
    Me, I’m not so sold. I see that my employer can get away with paying me less and less because of the current job market, and because he has to re-coup that $24 million fine the government waged on him.
    As I alluded to the post pentacost Church “held all things in common”. And yet no-where did the New Testament writers endorse a government based on such a system. In fact even in the church that “held in common” was entirely voluntary. To Ananias “Whilst your property was yours, it was under your power to keep or to give away”. On the contrary, the New Testament epistlers under the inspiration of the Spirit exorted the Church to be in obedience to All authority. Even the authority of Rome. There was no support for any type of zealot’s movement as was extant in Israel.
    Fast forward to 2011. Kenny, you seem to be under some delusion that the United States is a capitalist system. Are you aware that we have social services that feed and house the poor, educate them to age 18 and in many cases beyond (IF they avail themselves of said education), we medicate the poor, often much quicker and more thorougly than the Euro model. We have socialized retirement where at minimum a couple can look forward to retirement in a highrise hovel the equal to that which many Euros spend their entire lives in. With all that we also enjoy a marxist system of global defense, where we buy the arms, pay the military, and send our sons and now daughters to slaughter so that your Europe won’t be overrun by Moslem hoards, which you seem to be intent on handing over to them anyhow, because… you don’t do replacement birthrate. Abortion being one of the modern Liberation theologian’s sacraments, you need the Southern immigrants to support your retirement. Speaking of which sppppllll! Have you even seen the news in the past month? Socialist Europe is about to implode. You have too many people soaking off the system and not enough producing ANYTHING.
    I’m sorry Kenny. But I had to get that off my chest.

  • Duane says:

    Now, I’m ticked about the uber wealthy in my country too. Warren Buffet is one of the wealthiest men in the world. He supports raising taxes on the rich – “income taxes” not taxes on the sources of his money. Such taxes would not touch him. So I watch Fox Business TV. They have no solutions. It perturbs me that our government spent countless billions to rescue Wall Street. But most of us conservatives were vocally against that, and one day the liberals will say that we did it, because we are “pro-big business” even though it was mostly the liberals that supported it as “central planning”.

    Bottom line is, I think what you are looking for is a move of the Spirit that is not forthcoming. If the Spirit is not leading it, then central planning to redistribute the wealth results in the central planners getting the wealth or at least the power, and those who actually produce anything are discouraged from putting themselves out any further than their expected returns, resulting in VASTLY LESS wealth creation, productivity, less food, housing, medicine to go around. Unless you propose Marxist style production quotas?
    Theologically, I believe the Spirit probably moves on the Church in more visible ways. He moves some of my friends to go way out of the way to help the poorest of the poor. A surgeon and his wife go to Haiti to serve the poor. Their churches are involved too. Some of those people make a lot of money at home. The Spirit works in government in less visible ways. What will you do at election time? For me and my house, we will vote to support the weakest of the weak the poorest of the poor: the youngest, and the not yet born. I would vote to end U.S. role as world policeman. Who knows? maybe the Lord would raise another entity up to fill the gap. I know that worked for Neville Chamberlain’s England, while conservatives in the U.S. were being isolationist.
    Again, I am sorry. All over the place here. how do you respond to so many arguments.
    I hope to have my little house paid off by the time I’m 70. Then maybe, I can retire.
    But…what will become of the Euro, and the Greeks? Will you continue to allow them to retire at age 55?
    Peace In Christ

  • [...] McMaken has written a post about me. To this I shall respond. His post was really a rejoinder to this post I threw up last night; I was offering a quote from Christian D. Kettler, wherein he is offering [...]

  • [...] Bobby Grow shared his views of the Occupy Movement. W. Travis McMaken wrote a [...]

  • [...] case, there have been a few attempts at engaging “the theology of OWS,” such as it is. The Evangelical Calvinist has thrown some thoughts into the pot to the effect that OWS shares too many features with [...]

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