Cui Bono?

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?

(Mark 8:36, NKJV)

You can buy this t-shirt!

During the discussion after Metropolitan Jonah’s talk at AEI (here), a young man from Occupy DC said that he thought Christians need to participate in the protests. While I think we can, and should, admire the young man’s concern for the economically poor, I think it would be helpful to examine a bit more closely his assertion that the Christian community has a moral obligation to join in the current round of protests.

Not, mind you, that there isn’t cause of concern about the shape the American economy; there certainly is. What I question is not the seriousness of our situation, or even if Christian should engage in social protest but how we might want to think about such protests.

Writing at the Evangelical Portal at Patheos [How Christians Ought to "Occupy" Wall Street (and All Streets)], Jordan Ballor points out that Christians must resist the temptation to identify the current OWS protesters with what he calls “such heroes of the Christian tradition as John Calvin, St. Francis, and John Wesley.” Doing so is not only an anachronism, it overlooks the fact that while “the Christian gospel has inherently social implications and that in some cases direct political action and social activism are entailed, at least for individual Christians working out of their own convictions,”, such “involvement in and support of the Occupy protests do not represent a normative way for Christians of all convictions to engage the world.” At its best, protest is ”in addition to,” not “instead of,” an evangelical witness rooted in personal holiness.

Let me explain.

Ballor argues that Christians “are not all called to identify ourselves with the rebelliousness of the perpetually outraged.” Deepening his vocational (and I would suggest, ascetical) argument and points out that “In identifying the institutions of the church with these protest movements ecclesial leaders risk overlooking the most important occupiers: those Christians who occupy the pews every Sunday morning and pursue various occupations throughout the week.”

Yes Christians who feel called to do so can legitimately participate in protests such as the OWS movement. But their participation needs to be understood—and critiqued—within the context of the “range of cultural engagement by Christians.” However important protest might sometimes be, we can’t overlook or minimize that “panoply of morally legitimate activities in the world” that has characterized the Christian moral witness “from the church’s earliest beginnings.”

As the early apologist Tertullian observed with respect to the Christian presence amidst the pagan Roman Empire, “We sojourn with you in the world, abjuring neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.”

Often overlooked in the call for Christian protest is that “there are Christians who already occupy Wall Street every day in their occupations as businessmen and women, bankers and investors, traders and executives, secretaries and receptionists, janitors and security guards.”  Likewise, in the rush to side with the OWS protesters, church leaders—and especially clergy—risk overlooking  what I would argues is the church’s primary responsibility  to provide all believers with “the moral and spiritual formation necessary to be faithful followers of Christ every day in their productive service to others.” This ordinary, everyday witness is the only real foundation and justification for Christian participation in OWS. Without the day in day out witness of Christians in the world, the OWS protest is merely a distraction.

If we fail to understand this, we undermine the ability of our brothers and sisters in Christ to “occupy the world in their occupations” and so make it all that much harder for them to do

all their work as Christians, whatever it is, “whether in word or deed,” as the Apostle Paul instructs, “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17 NIV). In this way the church finds its most significant and transformative cultural engagement through its affirmation of the daily work of Christians who already occupy Wall Street (and all streets).

As I said above, for those called to do so, the OWS can be a legitimate form of Christian witness. While we can, and should, support those who engage in social protest, such support can’t—and mustn’t—be separated from or opposed to the less glamorous but more essential work of spiritual formation. Christian witness is the fruit of pastoral care focused on helping people come to understand who they are and are called to be in Jesus Christ. It is only on the solid foundation of such personal self-knowledge and holiness that Christians can hope to correct not only the injustices in the economic but do so in a manner that leads them and others into rather than away from a deeper communion with Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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