occupy wall street, the free market, and downward mobility

yesterday morning i logged onto facebook and saw where my friend justin nygren had posted susan brooks thistlewaites article from the washington post about whether jesus was an occupier or free-marketer which was a response to an article on cnn.com from tony perkins of the family research council. i highly recommend reading both the linked articles in full. the following is my response. its long but hopefully worthwhile so grab your coffee and get comfy.

i read thistlewaites article and for the most part i agree. except the part where she calls jesus an occupier. i dont remember him camping out in the public square hoping for his voice to be heard by the social political and economic powers of his day.

but my real concern did not grow from this article. it was when i followed the link to the article by tony perkins that i was really bothered by what i read. i think his is a classic case of not only misinterpretation as thistlethwaite points out but he also commits the all too common mistake of eisegetical cherry picking.

perkins references the parable of the 3 servants in luke 19 to make his point that jesus is a free-market kinda guy. my problem with this is that in the jewish way of thinking the final statement of a parable is the main point but perkins attempts to make his case based on the economic scenario set up by the new king while completely ignoring his parable-ending statement:

“now where are my enemies who didnt want me to be king? bring them here and kill them before me.”

it seems that if this parable were an attempt to extol the free market system then the main character would be heroic in doing so. but instead we have a newly crowned king doing what newly crowned kings do – killing off his detractors. this seems very much in keeping with the sinful broken manner of the world.

but jesus always used parables to subvert the common thinking of his day and i believe this parable is no exception which means the final statement is a condemnation of not only the new king but his way of thinking and imposed economy.

take a look at the context. the preceding passage is the story of zacchaeus – a thieving tax-collector who meets jesus and proceeds to give away half of his possessions to the poor before repaying 4x what he stole to his victims.

ive heard this parable interpreted as showing true repentance which i believe it does but it also comes after several chapters of jesus talking about and living out the kingdom of god among the people. i cant imagine understanding this parable as detached from the kind of kingdom jesus had been announcing. hed been going on about it so much that many of those following him believed he was going to jerusalem to bring it about.


so in keeping with the running kingdom theme and as a follow up to showing how the kingdom was revealed in the conversion of zacchaeus and his subsequent actions luke states that the peoples eager perception is why jesus told the parable in question so it must be understood in light of all this. and we know that after telling this parable they paraded him into town as a righteous  king – throwing their coats on the road before him and shouting:

luke 19:38

god bless the king who comes in the name of the lord!

to which the religious leaders demanded that jesus tell his followers not to say such things. but jesus says that if they stopped the stones would start crying out. there is only one other mention of stones crying out in the bible and given his knack for referencing the scriptures its no stretch to understand this response in light of it.

habakkuk 2:11

for the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.

this statement appears in gods answer to the prophet about why he allows evil merciless people to profit from and dominate his people.  during his answer god decries babylon for “not living as it should” (2:4) lamenting “how long will that nation get rich by forcing others to pay them?” (2:6) he also says that it will be “terrible for the nation that becomes rich by doing wrong.” (2:9) this is then linked directly to babylons idolatry and denounced further.

tying this back to jesus comment isnt difficult given what we already know about the situation. the religious leaders were in bed with the roman oppressors and both were out for their own good at the cost of others. his reference to habakkuk is actually a much sharper rebuke – likening the pharisees to the cursed babylonians.

to which they didnt take very kindly.

jesus then laments the coming destruction of jerusalem before proceeding to the temple where he braids a whip and wrecks the economic oppression going on there – driving out those who would derive profit from the deprivation of others.after this luke tells us that the pharisees wanted to kill jesus. no big surprise given how their most recent encounters with him unfolded. its not long before they make good on this desire -teaming up with the romans to bring about his crucifixion.

with all this as the context for the parable in question perkins notion of jesus randomly advocating the free market system is completely antithetical to what we find in the balance of scripture. jesus whole purpose was to excoriate the idea of such hegemony and warn his followers of the difficult days to come including harsh persecution ranging from financial hardships all the way to death at the hands of the religious leaders and roman empire.

which is exactly what happened in the years following these events.

so was jesus an occupier or a free-marketer? i think the obvious answer is neither. whether u like the occupy movement or the concept of a free-market america dont confuse either with being the way of jesus. his kingdom is not of this world and doesnt look anything like it. in fact it looks like a completely irrational reversal of everything that would normally make sense.

it looks like abandoning your own comfy home for a lesser uncomfortable one. like giving up all your rights to be a servant to people who dont understand you and want you dead. like forgiving them while they crucify you.

philippians 2:3-11

3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

this wasnt gods formulaic means of procuring salvation its the way of the kingdom and many of the first believers followed jesus in this manner straight to their deaths. we cant continue to justify protests and profit margins with scripture. we can only learn the way and walk in it. so whether we prefer to occupy or embrace the free-market we who follow jesus need to remember that our kingdom citizenship supersedes all others and filter everything we do through that lens.

because it will change our direction.

while reading henri nouwens book the selfless way of christ i discovered the concept of downward mobility. in the book he says that freedom is only found in this way bc this is the way of jesus. he goes on to say:

“the way of the cross, the downward mobility of god becomes our way not because we try to imitate jesus, but because we are transformed into living christs by our relationship with his spirit.”

so may the way of jesus becomes our way by his spirit and may we occupy his presence and trade in the free-market of his love.


~ by graceshaker on December 8, 2011.

4 Responses to “occupy wall street, the free market, and downward mobility”

  1. Good Stuff

  2. The Bible spends a lot more time talking about the wickedness of usury than homosexuality. Somehow there aren’t a lot of American Christians bringing that up. In general, I think you give the ‘capitalist’ Christians too much credit. Jesus wouldn’t have been an OWS, but it’s pretty clear he’d think most of the American rich were going straight to Hell.

  3. Kent, you asked for comments, so here’s mine.

    Spiritual view: The Bible does not tell us the way we should organize our society or which economic system we should have. We simply have to read it, understand the context of JC’s life (as a Jewish man living in an occupied land by an Empire that thought “his kind” were a nuisance), then do our best to convince our fellow citizens that Course A or B or C is the one we should follow. Personally, I feel that Matthew 20 is the best summary for what is “fair” and how we should all function, professionally speaking.

    Economic/Political view: While the occupy crowd has a point (greed is bad; many CEO’s are modern day thieves; it’s not “fair”), they miss the larger point — that in America, one has the right to be greedy. The whole point of the American Revolution (1776) was to be able to live freely and one of the outcomes of this is to be able to make a Zillion dollars if you follow the laws and work for a corp. that will pay you this amount. No institution that we have as fallen man is able to “fairly” and justly divide a man’s worth. All historical attempts at this eventually cage society.

    I like corporations … and I’m NOT rich by any stretch of the word (in the U.S.) I like that I can buy a mobile phone from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. I like Crest toothpaste but I’m also glad Colgate is around. I prefer Coke over Pepsi. I drive a Dodge truck but I have options to buy a Ford, Toyota, GM, etc. I might put my money in an account with a huge bank or a locally owned one. I have a choice to invest in a Wall Street listed company or a NASDAQ listed one or exchanges or none at all. I like that I can fly Southwest or American or Delta or I can drive when traveling. I’m glad I can swallow medicine when I’m sick, made by companies who pay their scientists more money than i’m making (otherwise, those bright minds would be doing something else instead of creating the right combo of ingredients to fight diseases). Etc. These are all corporations that improve my life and the lives of everyone I know. Matthew 20.

    I don’t like it when huge banks run themselves into the ground, then the Congress bails them out. This should stop. But this is a different issue from blasting all corporations as thieves who constantly stick-it to the citizenry. It’s time for the “Occupy” fools (my choice of word) to go work and to commit to themselves, society, whomever, that when they are someone in positions of authority, they will not behave like the ones they are presently protesting. Money is addicting and it changes most people.

    My two cents.

    (Sorry for mistypes or wrong wording as I typed fast)

  4. I agree that Jesus would not have been either one. I didn’t read your linked articles, but speaking as a post-Enlightenment 21st Century financially upward mobile American woman, I did not see cohesiveness or much purpose in the Occupy movement, a conclusion which is supported by its virtual dissolution by the time I am finally writing this comment. I have always had, and continue to have an internal tension regarding how best my husband and I can be stewards of the financial resources God has blessed us with the opportunity to earn. I’ll be interested to read more of Henri Nouwen’s thoughts on downward mobility and will look into the book you site. Perhaps one day I will make time to read again. Ha!

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