Editor’s note: The remarks below were given by Joe Phelps at an Occupy Louisville (Kentucky) interfaith rally on Sunday, Nov. 12. Phelps is pastor of Louisville’s Highland Baptist Church.
The views expressed by me today do not officially represent those of the congregation I serve, though I believe they are in concert with many of our members.
More important, I am confident that they are in concert with the message and actions of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus and his first-century followers.
This is not an attempt to jump in front of the Occupy parade; rather, it represents a desire to come alongside it, and to observe that – whether intended or not – the driving passion and purpose of this movement is in concert with the God of the Bible.
From Moses confronting Pharaoh, the dominant corporation of his day, “Let my people go.”
To Amos, challenging unjust practices of business and politics, “I know your transgressions … you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, who push aside the needy in the gate.”
To Isaiah, who renounces heartless mortgage foreclosures, “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the land.”
To Ezekiel, calling out the leaders who pollute communal resources, “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of the pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?”
To Mary, mother of Jesus, anticipating his birth by singing out: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
“Class warfare!” shout the critics.
“Gospel!” responds Mary.
The Christian gospel is about the Holy One’s concern for a deep economy that ensures none are left out.
Jesus’ inaugural speech quotes the prophet Isaiah, “the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4), and he’s only just beginning.
One of his parables mocks the man who had amassed so much personal wealth that he decided to tear down his barns in order to build bigger barns. Jesus called him a fool.
Another tells of the rich man in Hades for ignoring poor Lazarus at the gate. Still another tells of a shepherd who, in an interesting twist in numbers, leaves the 99 percent to find and restore the lost 1 percent because none are to be left behind.
“What’s your agenda?” demand the religious and political leaders. “Be more specific with your grievances.”
“Blessed are the poor,” responds Jesus. “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Seek first God’s dream and God’s justice.”
Jesus came to occupy this world and to restore us to God’s dream: harmony, reconciliation, redemption, salvation, re-creation.
These words must be used in their largest context and never reduced to religious jargon. The real gospel of Jesus is never simply personal; it is also political, representing the passion of God for the welfare of the people of earth.
Those raised in church will recall singing the children’s song about Zaccheus, the wee little man who climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. It’s a sweet song about personal transformation. But the song stops short.
The real story is the prelude to a revolution. After Jesus called him to share a meal, Zaccheus sees more clearly.
“Half of my possession I will give to the poor, and if I’ve defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
It’s time to sing that song on Wall Street and in Washington, and frankly, more completely in our churches.
For too long the church has been silent on these matters, or has groused about them secretly in the safety of our sanctuaries.
The Occupy movement has picked up the mantle dropped by the church. Thank you, Occupy.
My hope is that, before it’s too late, more religious communities will recognize this mantle and wear it with you, as together we become instruments of a higher cause and a more hopeful day.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.