Smashing the Golden Calf: Religion and The Occupy Wall Street Movement

by Jessica Youseffi on October 23, 2011

NY Daily News image of Golden Calf at OWS

NY Daily News image of Golden Calf at OWS

Jesus is with the 99%, reads one bumper sticker, and it looks like Muhammed, Moses and the Buddha are also joining the international Occupy Wall Street bandwagon. A Faith and Spirituality tent at Occupy Boston serves as an interfaith space for everything from Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayer services, to non-faith based meditation and yoga workshops. There are protest chaplains in New York and DC, and Muslims have gathered in the parks for public jummahs (prayer). Thousands of Jews attended Yom Kippur services, and sukkahs, temporary huts, have been pitched in New YorkBostonPhiladelphiaWashington, D.C.AtlantaOaklandLos AngelesPortlandSeattle, and London. Jewish activists have even united under the label Occupy Judaism, which I tried mapping using Storify. The religious component of the movement is undeniable and keeping track of all the activities has become a near impossible task.

Why are religious groups involved in OWS? That might be a genuine question for many who are accustomed to seeing Jesus invoked at Tea Party rallies, but personally I can’t imagine a protest in support of the poor and oppressed without a strong religious presence. It’s not only a natural alliance for many religious people, it’s their faith in action.

Rabbi Jason Van Leeuwen was inspired to participate in Occupy LA while writing his Yom Kippur sermon about greed, the economic crisis and its harsh toll on many of his own congregants. In his sermon, he echoed Hillel the Elder and asked, “What am I doing out there? And if not now, when?” At that point he put down his pen and called a group of rabbis and Jewish activists, of which I’m fortunate to have been included. By 9 p.m. that night, a plan to set up a sukkah outside City Hall was already in the works, and the following week we organized the event “Not Just a Sukkah, A Just Sukkah for Occupy LA,” attended by more than a hundred community members.

To Jason, to me, and to many other religious activists, our political involvement is not a deviation from our religious tradition, it’s at the heart of it. In fact, being inactive would feel like an act of religious hypocrisy. As I co-led the High Holiday services at USC Hillel I described the prophet Isaiah’s take on the purpose of fasting, read during the morning service. Isaiah criticizes religious behaviorism: people who externally comply with the law but disregard the heart and purpose of the devotion. Isaiah denounces those who fast while continuing to oppress and persecute. He asks, is this the fast that God desires?

“Is it not to…loose the fetters of wickedness, undo the bands of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the homeless poor to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him, and that you do not ignore your own flesh?” Isaiah 58.

Fasting on Yom Kippur, I reminded my peers, is not merely about self-affliction, it’s about sensitizing us to the cry of the oppressed. Just as sitting in a sukkah, is not merely about celebrating with food and drinks; it’s about sensing the fragility of the structures that support us and separate us, and the resulting sense of interconnectivity. These religious observances are not simply ceremonies and customs practiced in the comfort of our sanctuaries that have no impact on our daily affairs; we’re meant to take these values to the streets. That is faith in action.

As much as religion can’t be limited to the pews and parishes, so too God can’t be locked in a box. With or without the religious labels, there is something inherently spiritual about the OWS movement. For many, being part of the movement is more of a religious experience than praying in a church. As Cornel West put it while visiting the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street:

“There is a sweet spirit in this place. I hope you can feel the love and inspiration… You got me spiritually breakdancing all the way here, cuz when you bring folks together, all colors, all cultures, all genders, all sexual orientations, the elite will tremble in their boots.”

The words of the speaker reverberates through “the human mic,” entering your heart, releasing through your own voice. There’s transcendence; the anti-hierarchical movement has no one leader or spokesperson but a collective identity. There’s faith; call it tikkun olam, fixing the world, or call it seeking the Kingdom of God, but ultimately it’s a belief in a better world.

Natan Schneider, senior editor of Killing the Buddha, best summarized the religious nature of the movement in a roundtable discussion on Religion Dispatches:

“God dissolves into the occupation, and God’s name needs no longer be said. Whenever I come back to Liberty Plaza after some time away, there is a feeling of entering unspeakably sacred ground. Yet the moment I arrive, I’m suddenly in a whirl of frantic conversations about worldly things: finances, crises, food mishaps, small victories, marches, and so on. All those things were sacred too.”

I relate to the idea that all these “worldly” thing are sacred. It’s easier to find God with the burdened and brokenhearted sleeping on the streets than the content and overfed praying in their sanctuaries.

The occupiers want to smash the golden calf (or bronze bull) of our nation: greed and the worship of Wall Street. But perhaps we’re also guilty of making an idol out of religion. In the oft-quoted words of Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshuah Heschel, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.” Too often religion is limited to spiritual narcissism, the worship of a dead god for our self-pleasure. The living God transcends the coziness of our churches, mosques and synagogues, and transcends the prayers and ceremonies performed as ends in themselves rather than vehicles for transforming our world. It’s time to quit worshipping our golden calves.

Also posted at Los Pumbedita

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  • Anonymous

    Nice post and well done getting the word out! 

  • Anonymous

    Great post here, tied everything together very well! 

  • http://projectquinn.com/ Emily Gee

    The pictures really added to the post!

  • Anonymous

    I guess the lessons from the holy scriptures are timeless..

  • Maydemia

    I have been trying to explain to my christian friend why I, as a christian, support OWS. It is because my GOD commanded me to speak against oppression. He did it himself in the temple and on the cross. Why would I give up a chance to do his will?

  • Anonymous

    This is a really great post and everything is really thought out and well developed. 

  • Anonymous

    It’s sad that we even have to explain these things. 

  • Anonymous

    Why, thank you. Twas the inspiration. 

  • http://twitter.com/VicKjoss Vic Kjoss

    Great post. I really haven’t seen a lot of material that talked about religion’s relationship to the occupy wall street movement. I think it’s a really interesting relationship to consider

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  • Anonymous

    Taking part in social/economic/political movements aren’t usually tied with religious groups but I think you bring up a great point. So many times we talk the talk but won’t walk the walk.

  • http://iplus.im/dannyrice Danny

    Great post, Ms. JY. I’ve just circled you.
    There’s room for everyone with a heart in the 99%; because for every one of us who stands up, we represent thousands who either can’t [for various right or wrong reasons], won’t, or don’t know well enough to stand for themselves. Doing the right thing is so courageously lonely and exposed, but this Occupy phenomenon is a thing that makes me gush with love and confidence. 

    My heart bleeds for my people. Let’s, on-the-strength, make our world better– and in the process set an example for the years and generations to come.

  • http://twitter.com/kunalbambawale Kunal Bambawale

    I guess greed is the real problem here. Perhaps if people were more committed to religious values like love and empathy, this whole mess would never have happened in the first place.

  • http://twitter.com/Sara4F Sara Foor

    As I watch all the police trying to shut down the different protests I both fear for the protestors and have a true feeling of pride in them. They are exercising their right to free speech and public assembly, and the politicians that speak out against them don’t have a very clear understanding of what they are supposed to be defending

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