Occupy Wall Street protesters will hold an “Occupy Christmas” 24-hour vigil at Zuccotti Park beginning late on Christmas Eve, hoping to inject the perceived moral authority — and mainstream cultural appeal — of Christian faith into the cause, much like Civil Rights leaders did to great effect in the 1960s.
Christmas will be the 100th day since the movement’s birth, and though the mass evictions that rippled through the country last month damaged its ability to control the national conversation (and influence Democratic politicians) via appeals to traditional media, Occupiers want to draw attention to economic inequality at a time of mass consumerism, and also appeal to Christian values like charity and even socialism.
“For Christians, Christmas Day is a pretty significant one, and in the current climate it’s one of the worst days: people left lonely, isolated, you can’t buy the kids what the TV tells you you’re supposed to; it’s actually a very unChristian Holiday,” said Sebastian, a lead organizer of the event. “I couldn’t as a Christian just go home and be indoors and ignore the problem.”
He and other members of “Occupy Dignity” will lead a prayer vigil with music and food and offer support to the homeless, if the City doesn’t prevent them.
“Today I found out the NYPD has been taking photos of local business owners, asking, “Why are you helping OWS?” We’ve had businesses have to pull out of providing drinks and food on Christmas day because of intimidation.”
According to a press release issued early Saturday afternoon, the New York Civil Liberties Union hand-delivered letters to the NYPD and Brookfield Properties (the owners of Zuccotti Park) alerting them to the plans.
Should the event be successful, it certainly won’t represent the first infusion of faith into the cause; pastors have been involved from the start, and some local churches were sympathetic to evicted occupiers in the wake of the assault on Zuccotti last month.
But it will represent a sustained appeal to the faithful and puts a different face on a movement many regard as a collection of lazy hippies who don’t know what they want.
“I think there’s still a sense in this country that religion provides a validation to any endeavor, and the attempt to bring in religious leaders not only augments their numbers, but also gives them more authority,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College.
Public religious support — especially from prominent local clergymen — could help the cause broaden its cultural appeal and lead the public to take it more seriously.
“It puts a face of moral seriousness on the movement, not that it didn’t have other such faces,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia and a social movement historian who led Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. “But there’s a particular aura that surrounds the clergy, and we’ve seen its power in bygone decades, both in the Civil Rights movement and anti-war movement.”
Recognizing this, protesters plan to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam”speech, when he shifted his message from rights-based grievances (many of which had been addressed by the 1964 and 1965 civil rights laws) to economic ones just a year before his assassination.
Sustained and effective involvement from members of the Christian community would represent a new era for the Christian Left, which was once a powerful force in American politics — especially during the progressive era at the start of the 20th century. But since the late 1970s, Evangelicals on the right have effectively made Christianity a bigoted force in political campaigns, defined by vociferous opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights.
“It’s pretty clear that first century Christians were Socialists,” said Balmer. “This may be the moment, the coming out, of the religious left [in modern America],” which isn’t new but the “problem is it’s been so segmented and atomized that it has been looking for some sort of moment to congeal as a unified movement.”
Though many would likely recoil at the idea that Jesus was a radical, it is hard to imagine the man who spent his time with lepers and the destitute spurning the Occupiers.
“Jesus was the biggest rebel that ever lived,” added Sebastian. “He was basically a socially active Jew. If you’re going to follow Jesus, how are you not going to be politically activated? He went on the streets and lived with people.”