Economic Justice: Would Jesus Occupy? – syncroblog 2 on Spirit of the Poor

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{This post is my contribution to the Spirit of the Poor syncroblog with Newell Hendricks, Esther Emery, and Luke Harms.   It is hosted this month by Luke Harms.}

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Why Occupy? 

The year the Occupy Wall Street movement took flight I was in my last year of seminary and was serving as a community organizer at A Just Harvest in the neighborhood of Rogers Park in Chicago for my Urban C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education) placement.

That year, in addition to participating in economic justice campaigns, actions, and marches through my community organizing, I also decided to be a presence at the Occupy encampment downtown several afternoons or evenings.  Because Occupy became quite the controversial topic around the country and it was particularly debated among my fellow seminarians and/or clergy colleagues as to whether or not clergy should get involved in Occupy or other “political” movements, I was asked this question constantly that year:

Why Occupy?

…And though this movement has lost its momentum, the issues thousands of people across the U.S. were Occupying for still remain, and many community organizers, clergy, and community members across the country continue to march.

So why Occupy?  Why take a public stand?

It is a daunting question to answer, as there are so many problems with the current economic and housing crises that have led to such large movements.  Though the list is long, here are a few of the many reasons to take a stand:

INEQUALITY GAP:

According to Henry Blodget in his article Charts: Here’s What the Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About in Business Insider, three years after the financial crisis, unemployment rates in the U.S. were still at the highest level since the Great Depression; jobs are scarce and at least about 14 million Americans who want to work could not find jobs; and the number of Americans with jobs were at the lowest its been since the 1980s.  And though the U.S. economy is adding more jobs and the unemployment rate is now the lowest its been in 5 years, its still “unacceptably high” – according to economic advisor Jason Furman.  Moreover, some of the reasons for the decline in unemployment rates are that more Americans over 16 are dropping out of or not even entering the labor force in the first place, and the longevity of unemployment status in growing.

At the same time, corporate profits hit another all-time high and CEO pay is now 350 times the average worker’s pay.

And according to a 2011 report released by the Congressional Budget Office, in the last 30 years the incomes of the top 1% of Americans increased 275% and the income for the next richest Americans increased 65% while the income of middle class households increased only 40% and the lowest incomes increased only 18%.

Moreover, in terms of net worth, the top 1% percent of Americans own 42% of the financial wealth in the country and the top 5% own 70% of this country’s wealth.

The crisis does not end here.

The richest 1% of Americans have a lower aggregate tax rate than the next 9% of Americans, and this tax rate is not much higher than it is for everyone else in the country.  On top of all this, a few years ago, the banks were bailed out with $14 trillion in taxpayer funds in order to help put money back into the economy and now currently hold $1.64 trillion in cash reserves – the highest its held in history.  Nevertheless, instead of lending to American businesses, banks were buying risk-free treasury bonds and collecting interest for their own profit.

At the same time, while banks and large corporations are still not paying their fair share in taxes, major budget cuts are constantly being proposed on programs for the people who need programs the most.  And the list of issues about this large inequality gap between the rich and the poor and the economic crisis goes on and on.

HOUSING CRISIS :

In addition to all this, the U.S. is suffering tremendously from the housing crisis.  According to The New Bottom Line’s The Win/Win Solution, the banks were responsible for the housing crisis because of their practices of predatory lending and subprime mortgages.  And now, after the Great Recession and the housing crash, thousands of home-owners have been and continue to be at risk of foreclosure.  As of March 31, 2011, in the U.S., 23% of homeowners had fallen underwater on the mortgages and together owed $709 billion more than what their homes were worth to the banks.  And though the housing market seems to be improving since 2012, the housing crisis is from being over.   While the number of households that are underwater are lower than they were during the Great Recession, they are still quite high.  According to a recent report, 6.4 million homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than what their homes are worth.  Additionally, since September 2008, a total of about 4.9 million homes have been foreclosed.  While this January, CoreLogic reports there were around 48,000 home foreclosures per month – which is down from around 59,000 in January 2013 – this is still far greater than the number of foreclosures in 2000-2006, which averaged about 21,000 home foreclosures per month.

Moreover, as more foreclosures take place in particular neighborhoods, the other homes in these neighborhoods lose value.  And since unemployment and/or unfair work wages have become the leading cause of the foreclosure crisis, the “housing crisis and jobs crisis fuel each other.”

… And thus, even with a little improvement over the last 5 years, this cycle continues…

RACIAL INEQUALITY:

Furthermore, the economic and housing crises have and continue to affect communities of color at some of the highest levels, and they are creating a larger racial inequality gap in the U.S.  For more details, see: “Wasted Wealth: How the Wall Street Crash Continues to Stall Economic Recovery and Deepen Racial Inequality in America.” 

…It is for all of these reasons – and many more – that a few years ago thousands of people were camping out on the streets for weeks at a time across the country occupying Wall Street and their cities, and many continue to stand and march for justice.

(Check out this short overview video about how we reached this crisis and the how to create a new bottom line): 

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Occupy the Temple?

So, given the current situation, what does the Bible say about this?

Would Jesus support the Occupy movement and other organizing campaigns?  Would Jesus be okay with clergy and communities of faith participating in such public actions?

Well, for starters, we can look at several of the similarities between the economic situation in the U.S. today and the economic situation of First Century Palestine – which was an important issue for many of the biblical writers and particularly that of Luke.

Just like in the U.S. today, the economic gap between the rich and the poor at the time the Gospel of Luke was written was extremely large.  While the lower and middle classes made up the majority of the population – at least 90% – the small group of elites owned most of the wealth, received special treatment, often did not work for their wealth, and increased their wealth at the expense of the poor.  Additionally, there were great numbers of people who were labeled by society as unemployable – such as the lame and the lepers – and there were no governmental programs that enabled these people to have something to fall back on so that they could take care of themselves.

Not only this, but many of the religious leaders – for instance, the Sadducees and the scribes in Jerusalem – were part of this elitist class and used the temple as a place where they could gain financial profit at the expense of the poor and marginalized.  We see examples of this throughout Luke and particularly in chapters 19 through the beginning of 21.  In chapter 19, Jesus enters the temple, drives out all who were selling in it and declares that several of the religious leaders, merchants, and money changers turned what should be a house of prayer into a den of robbers.

According to Jim Wallis in his book Rediscovering Values, on Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: A Moral Compass for the New Economy, Jesus’ anger in this chapter is not necessarily directed at the selling of items in the temple itself.  In other words, having a “gift shop” or a bake sale or rummage sale in a church today is not necessarily the problem.  Rather, Jesus’ anger here is about something deeper which related to the time of the event – during the Passover.  At this time of the year, pilgrims would travel long distances – often from different countries – in order to get to the temple in Jerusalem.  Once they got to the temple, they were supposed to make sacrifices.  These travelers would not be able to transport livestock from their homes on this long journey to the temple, so the merchants and money changers would sell animals to these travelers in the outer court of the temple in order for them to have something to sacrifice.

However, since the merchants had full control over the livestock for sacrifices, the money changers would inflate the currency rate (because there was only one type of coin that was accepted in the temple).

And this is when Jesus flipped his lid

and the tables in the temple…

literally. 

JESUSOCCUPY

And what Jesus was most ticked off about was that God’s worship place was being turned into a “den of robbers,” where few who had control over the market “accumulated great wealth for themselves at the expense of those who could least afford to pay.”[1]

…What Jesus was angry about was greed and actions made by the people in the temple that took advantage of the poor.

As Wallis states:

“No doubt these money changers would have argued that they were only responding to a demand of the market, but Jesus didn’t seem to see it that way.  What was happening in the marketplace was a spiritual and moral problem, not just an economic one.”[2]

Wallis goes on to ask the question:

So do Christians have a responsibility to turn over the tables of an unjust market?  Furthermore, as the body of Christ, which is the new temple, do we need to provide an economic witness in the marketplace that reflects God’s values of compassion, fairness, and justice?”[3]

Here, as Jesus turns over the tables, we see a Jesus who is furious at the unjust system of the marketplace that was taking advantage of the poor in order for few to satisfy their greed.  And not only does He get angry here, but He also confronts those who are taking advantage of the poor in these ways.

…In His temple outburst, Jesus teaches us that “there are some things that we all should get angry about, that there are situations where the only appropriate response is confrontation.”[4]

After Jesus cleanses the temple in Luke, He continues to teach in the temple and confront and stand up against leaders who take advantage of the marginalized.  In the end of chapter 20, He warns His disciples about the scribes – who walk around in long robes, like to receive special attention and high honors in public places, and who devour widows’ houses.  And in the first four verses of chapter 21, Jesus points out an example of how the elite devoured these widow’s houses: by allowing a poor widow to place two coins – all that she had to live on – into the treasury, and thus leaving her to fend for herself in such a brutal society with no money.

It is because of Jesus’ radical teachings and actions in the temple and throughout the rest of Luke that we might not just ask the questions: “would Jesus support Occupy?… Would Jesus support community organizers, clergy, and communities of faith as they take a public stand?”  But hopefully, these radical actions that we read about will also lead us to consider: if these events occurred today, was Jesus actually occupying the temple?  Was Jesus actually getting ready to organize an economic justice campaign that was carried out throughout His ministry and that He then passed on to all of His followers to carry out after He ascended into heaven?

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Occupy the Church?

 If we are to consider these questions, we might also consider if the Western Church – like the First Century temple – is part of the problem.  According to Wallis, one of the major problems that has gotten us where we are today is that the U.S. is so focused on individualism.

“The value of the individual is central to American history, but extreme individualism teaches that life is all about me and not about ‘them’; about besting and beating our neighbors, rather than loving or even looking our for our neighbors.  It teaches that people basically get what they deserve, and if you start helping those around you, you may be destroying the natural order of a social competition…Advertisers confirm that it’s all about me and tell us that the next new product, purchase, outfit, vacation, car, or home will finally make us happy.  But it doesn’t… [And] community has been replaced by isolated individuals locked in an endless and stressful match to have the biggest house, the largest televisions, the sexiest bodies, the most exotic vacations, and even the most successful children.”[5]

This problem continues to be manifested and developed in the Western Church in the U.S.  In many churches throughout this country, it is pretty common to hear sermons preached from the pulpit about how faith is only a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and thus in order to develop one’s faith, one must read the Bible, pray, and make pure and pious choices in life.  While faith is personal and needs to be refined and developed through piety and spiritual practices, these are not the only aspects of faith.  And when the Church focuses so much on individualism and teaches that faith in Jesus Christ is all about “me and Jesus” or a person’s individual and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, individuals will focus on satisfying their own needs and thus lose sight of the importance of community, justice, and serving and loving others.

Consequently, the Church seems to be contributing to this economic injustice problem in the U.S. by producing greedy individualistic Christians.

In addition to this, the Western Church also continues to manifest and produce Christians who are focused on consumerism and materialism.  For example, how many churches pour thousands of dollars into their buildings and sound systems while – at the same time – ignore the fact that neighbors only a few miles away who are starving and/or struggling just to get by.   And even when churches do use their resources to serve others in the community, preachers and teachers often avoid discussing the sins of consumerism and materialism, and in some cases even preach messages of a prosperity gospel.

However, this is opposite of what Jesus taught about money and materialism.  Not only did He ask His disciples at the beginning of His ministry to give up their possessions and follow Him, but He also established a community that lived simply and emphasized a system of redistributing money and goods to others in the community who were in need.  Moreover, He taught that people cannot serve two masters – both God and money – because they will love one and hate the other.  Thus, His followers cannot serve money if they serve God.

For Jesus, it was/is important that His followers (all of them, not just 12) must not store up treasures here on earth, but rather store them up in heaven… because wherever our treasure is, that is where the desires of our hearts are.

Therefore, we cannot serve both consumerism/materialism and God.

Skye Jethani further explains this in her article Leader’s Insight: From Christ’s Church to iChurch – How Consumerism Undermines Our Faith and Community“The problem is not consuming to live, but rather living to consume.”  In other words, consumerism/materialism/status seeking – rather than faith, community, justice, service to others, service to God, vocation – becomes the reason for and defines the meaning of life.  And so this explains why many Christians live very similar lifestyles to the rest of consumerist/materialistic America.  As Jethani further notes: “most churchgoers have not adopted a biblical worldview, they have simply added a Jesus fish on the bumper of their unregenerate consumer identities.”

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The Church As Occupy-ers?

For these reasons, I believe Christians in the U.S. must begin to confront the issues of greed, consumerism, and materialism by occupying the Church… taking a public stand.  However, we cannot stop here.  We must continuously confront the systemic injustices in the U.S. that oppress and take advantage of the poor and middle class.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in his discussion about the political responsibility of the Church in Ethics: it is “the Church’s office of guardianship that she shall call sin by its name and that she shall warn men against sin…If the Church did not do this, she would be incurring part of the guilt for the blood of the wicked.”[6]

In other words, leaders of the Church must preach to the individuals in their congregations about the sins of the government in order to move these individuals to action in confronting such sins.  If leaders/pastors fail to do this, and if laypersons fail to take action, we become just as much a participant in the sin as those who were already living into the sin.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu

And so Christians cannot sit around and remain neutral during this time where economic injustice prevails as the greedy elite and powerful increase their wealth at the expense of the poor and middle class.
Christians cannot fail to testify the good news of Jesus Christ.
For, to Luke, the good news of Jesus Christ can be summed up in chapter four, where he begins his ministry by proclaiming:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And this year of the Lord’s favor He was referring to was the year of Jubilee – the year that the Jews had been waiting for.  It was the year when land would be returned to its original owners, all Hebrew slaves would be set free, and all debts would be remitted.
It was the ordered way of breaking down inequalities and injustice and making peace.
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Our Opportunity to Protestify:
As Shane Claiborne puts it:

“No doubt Wall Street has some things to learn about Jubilee. Jubilee was God’s alternative to the patterns of Wall Street. As the Occupy Wall Street movement catches the world’s attention, those of us who are critical of Wall Street have a responsibility. We can’t just be defined by what we are against, but should be known by what we are for.  After all, the word “protest” originally meant “public declaration”. It wasn’t just about being against something, but it was about declaring something new and better. “Protest” shares the same root as “testify”.  So It’s time to protest-ify.”

As we begin this season of Lent – this time of wandering in the wilderness – may we be reminded that not only does the Resurrection and the promise of new life come after the wilderness, but that we – as followers of Jesus Christ – are called to help bring forth that new life here on earth.

And so may we find hope knowing that in the midst of these trying economic times – where so many of our parishioners, neighbors, and even family members are struggling to get by – that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to stand publicly for and with them.

For now is our opportunity to protestify!

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Related Articles:

5 Things the world could teach America about economic justice (on cnn.com)

Sermon: “Time to Protestify” (on musingsfromabricolage)

Lift up your Voice!- Joining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Unfinished Movement for Justice and Equality (on musingsfromabricolage)


[1] Wallis, Jim, Rediscovering Values, on Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street: A Moral Compass for the New Economy, (New York: Howard Books, 2010), 34.

[2] Id.

[3] Wallis, 35.

[4] Id.

[5] Wallis, 68-9.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics, (New York: Touchstone, 1955), 345.

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15 responses »

  1. Emily, I was 3/4 through this post when I realized I didn’t know who wrote it. I wanted to say “preach on brother, or preach on sister” so looked up to see whose words I was reading and I was pleased to see that it was yours. You are a very thorough wirter and thinker, and there is a much needed place for this work. My post was mainly the Old Testament foundation of community based economics, and your addition of the Luke references and writings of Christian writers is a great contribution to this topic. Thank you so much for giving such care and thought and work to this issue.
    I went often to Occupy Boston. My son-in-law was a leader in the “labor committee” and my daughter, a children’s librarian, had children’s story hour at Occupy Boston every Sunday at noon.
    I wrote a story about my El Salvador Oratorio, This is what I wrote about the chorus after the death of Romero and the frou Maryknoll women.

    “Somehow the chorus, the people of El Salvador, dug deep into their indigenous roots to gather some perspective. They began antiphonally encouraging each other toward resilience. … The choruses, divided in half, each sang in unison, clearly and strongly, gathering momentum and eloquence. It was like an open mic event at the end of an Occupy Boston march, on the State House Steps – speeches got more and more eloquent as people built on each other’s wisdom and courage.”
    They were exciting times. Thank you for bringing back that energy and conviction.
    Newell

    • Newell, I loved your piece on the Hebrew Testament community economics/Sabbath economics!

      Wow, that is wonderful that you and your family were so involved in Occupy Boston. (Although, the more I’m learning about you, the less this surprises me about you.) Your reflections, thoughts, and stories continue to inspire me in both my personal life and my ministry. Thank you! I am so glad you are continuing this series on the “spirit of the poor.”

  2. I appreciate your research investment in this piece. Wow! You are really deft at tying everything together, and your points hit their target dead on. Your heart is clearly in this piece and your fire for social justice is breathtaking. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insight. This gives me much to think on. Bless you!

    • Thanks, Jamie! This is definitely a passion of mine… I encounter and observe economic injustice daily – as I see and hear from many of my neighbors, friends, and families in my ministry in Chicago who are directly impacted by such injustice. And yet, I also continue to struggle with the tension of seeing and speaking to these injustices (while I, myself, am very privileged and contribute to such injustices). It’s a constant battle. Thankfully, I am not alone in this type of struggle and can learn from so many others who are also trying to discern how to lessen their own carbon footprints and use their feet to take steps in making a change.

  3. I read through your whole article with deep respect and admiration for your deep thoughtfulness, careful research and evaluation.

    When you said, “…Even when churches do use their resources to serve others in the community, preachers and teachers often avoid discussing the sins of consumerism and materialism, and in some cases even preach messages of a prosperity gospel….” my head was bobbing up and down particularly hard. The sins of consumerism and materialism, in the affluent Chicago neighborhood I raised my children in, were never addressed as sins, but instead were applauded as a sign “we were blessed by God.

    You write, “However, this is opposite of what Jesus taught about money and materialism. Not only did He ask His disciples at the beginning of His ministry to give up their possessions and follow Him, but He also established a community that lived simply and emphasized a system of redistributing money and goods to others in the community who were in need. Moreover, He taught that people cannot serve two masters – both God and money – because they will love one and hate the other. Thus, His followers cannot serve money if they serve God.”

    Emily, I confess, in all my years of church leadership I never once heard this kind of sermon; nor did I teach it or live it, myself. I grieve for how my heart used to be, and perhaps still is. I can never go back to that lifestyle, and I’m still learning to live in a more simple, authentic way. I feel like this is the CORE of the Gospel… economic justice. The root of all evil is the love of money… economic justice is very near the heart of Christianity. I have so much to learn, and I’m grateful for the date you’ve passionately compiled. The video is great, too! Thank you 🙂

    • Susan, Thank you for reading this post so carefully. It really is a wonderful study. Emily asked me if had read Ched Meyers and I thought I’d put something I heard him quote here for both you and Emily to read.
      “We read the Gospel as if we had no money,” laments Jesuit theologian John Haughey, “and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the Gospel.”

    • Thanks, Susan, for reading and responding. I hear you: I am continuously learning about this all, as well, and figuring out (and struggling with) how to live it out. And it’s a never-ending journey. I am very thankful we have a community in which we are trying to discern and process these things together!

  4. Emily, thank you so much for believing in this fledgling community project and the kingdom vision we are trying to reach into. You are a challenging voice for me: lots of nuts and bolts and the real deal of actually doing something. I am so, so, so grateful that you have thrown in your lot with us. And do you really preach this stuff in church? How does it go over?

    • Thanks, Esther, for reading and weighing in. I do preach this kind of stuff… although, it looks different in my different settings. (I serve four congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago.) And sometimes I preach this stuff from the pulpit and other times I see myself as preaching it in my youth group settings, my children’s messages, or just my work in organizing the congregations to take action. Each congregation has a different context, though all of them have a very wide range of people within the economic spectrum (and all of them have some members and/or attendees who are quite affluent and who are living below poverty, are homeless, and/or are immigrants or refugees.) The neighborhood, itself, is also very diverse. You can go several blocks where there are multimillion dollar homes and walk only a few blocks away to find public housing units. So I find that because the congregations are all quite diverse, most parishioners are open to these kinds of conversations… Because the need is in their neighbor or is their own. It’s fun because I have run into members from the different congregations at large actions and marches (and even some of them at Occupy Chicago a few years ago.) Several of the senior pastors at these congregations also attend and are very active in community organizing.

      All of my youth – most of whom have their own sets of needs – eat this type of stuff up because it’s actually good news for them in particular… So they are ready and excited to be empowered to find their voices, speak up, work for justice, and “pro testify.” I actually had a community organizer come to youth group last year to train my youth on organizing. And then several of my youth marched with me at an action that touched on a wide range of economic justice issues – including the potential of opening more charter schools in the neighborhood and the continuous public school budget cuts, which would thus lead to the closing of a school several of my youth attend. My 8th grader (the school vice president at the time) got up on the alderman’s porch in front of 500 people and brought the house down! (He was the only speaker at the alderman’s home and talked about how his school should not be closed down.) All that to say, in these settings, it’s been very positive. (And I try to preach to each congregation in their particular contexts in ways they are willing and able to move forward.) I also have preached this type of stuff at other congregations I either used to serve or I visited that are more affluent. Again, I had to preach in a language that would be received and yet would push them quite a bit. I heard great responses from many of the members of these congregations, though I’m sure there were some folks who didn’t like to hear it, as well. (But that’s to be expected through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus: the good news is not always easy news.)

  5. I first came across Jim Wallis back in the 80’s when our Roman Catholic University Chaplain gave some of us a copy of one of his books, ‘Jim Wallis, the New Radical’. Last year I read ‘On God’s Side’. I think his analysis of economic justice and the role Christians should be playing is powerful and prophetic.

    But where is the collective voice of Christians? We have so many denominations, so much division. So many like me who hardly even belong to a church. We often join churches made up of people who think like us so we rarely challenge each other.

    But, your article was uplifting. Hearing such a powerful, well argued piece inspired me. The video was really good too and sadly, the situation here in England is all too similar.

    Thank you for this.

    • Juliet: I, too, feel Jim Wallis has quite the prophetic voice. I had the wonderful opportunity of marching alongside him in a Circle of Protection action here in Chicago a few years ago. A signed copy of “On God’s Side” is also on my bookshelf and one of the books on my reading list.

      I hear you: it’s difficult to get and find a collective Christian voice on economic justice issues when many denominations and/or congregations are so split and focused on bantering about doctrinal differences. However, I have had many opportunities to participate in more ecumenical and collective groups that are working for justice and change. I am a part of an interfaith clergy/religious leader group in my neighborhood in Chicago, which often gathers together around issues of injustice that we see right here in our neighborhood. There are also several ecumenical clergy and faith groups I’ve gathered with in Chicago that do similar things: participate in press conferences, large city actions, etc. It was quite powerful to be a part of a Martin Luther King, Jr. action for social and economic justice on the far south side of Chicago in January where 2000-2500 people from all over the city gathered for a town meeting. I joined at least 30 clergy/religious leaders (from all different Christian denominations and non-Christian faith communities) who sat up front facing the rest of the organized community, and most of the speakers were either Christian (protestant and Catholic) leaders/clergy or rabbis. I think Jim Wallis is doing similar work in gathering and empowering more of a collective Christian voice in his sojourners organization and movement. Do you see any opportunities for this type of ecumenical justice work in England?

  6. Juliet, Here in the U.S., most Protestant denominations gather yearly in Washington D.C. for a weekend conference called Eccumenical Advocacy Days, which ends with visits to Congress. That’s the closest event or action I have witnessed of Christians being united in social justice issues. I was part of a small group that tried to gather Christian leaders in Boston to speak with one voice on Immigration, but that group dissintegrated over how we would present the current situation. The two of us from the Boston New Sanctuary Movement said we needed to address Neo Liberal Capitalism which forced people to move, and Nationalism, which erected punitave barriers to the movement of people. Somehow the group never met again. It was sad, but getting a united voice from Christians on an economic system in which most people are thouroughly embedded is a tough task.

  7. Pingback: Spirit of the Poor, Summary of February posts and comments | Newell Hendricks

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