We’re Looking at Things the Wrong Way: Christianity, the Occupy Movement and Oppression
Let me tell you a story, one that has been rolling around in my head for a few months now.
I attended a Sunday church service, where I’ve been a couple times before and where I know a few people. The large building was full, as was the equally large parking lot – a disproportionate amount of trucks and SUVs dominated it, but that was not unusual for this city. Inside, well dressed people sat and listened to a polished worship band. The crowd was almost entirely white (as many have noted, Sunday morning remains some of the most segregated hours of the week). At one point before the preaching began, what I can only call a commercial was projected on the large screen – a woman talking about how much this particular church meant to her and her spiritual journey.
The pastor came to the front and began speaking on Jubilee. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, Jubilee is the year at the end of a fifty year cycle, referred to in Leviticus chapter 25. In this year, ‘liberty is proclaimed’: slaves are to be set free, debts cancelled and land goes back to it’s original owners. It sounds good, right?
But, as with anything biblical, it’s all open to how you decide to interpret and look at it. This pastor looked at what would happen is we implemented Jubilee in North American. He (always a he…) understood that today’s modern slaves in this context were prisoners but, releasing them was way beyond possible so he skipped right over that. Despite the many calls for prison abolition, even from Christians…
But that’s not where I want to focus. Then he looked at what ‘returning land meant’. He talked about how the people there that Sunday were slaves to debt and how the banks really owned their land. Being where this church was, and looking at the crowd, both he and I assumed that a large majority were ‘land owners’ and held mortgages. He asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were free of these chains, if we actually fully owned the land?’ Jubilee was intended to even the scales – and he saw Jubilee as a way of getting these people out of the bondage of debt. These people’s debts needed to be cancelled for justice to be served, for freedom to come, for God’s grace to be shown.
It’s a familiar refrain in some ways, borrowing from the recent Occupy movements who set up two oppositional camps – the 99% and the 1%. In this, the 1% are the mega rich, the bank owners, politicians, financiers, and mega corporation owners. They are the global movers and shakers whose money decides policies, determines economics, and buys governments. In contrast, everyone else is oppressed in some way by them – the 99%. But, in attempting to create a social movement that was as broad as possible, they sustained some critiques. What about the vast power differentials within the 99%? Was the millionaire who ‘worked for the man’ all that similar to the homeless woman in the shelter, or the migrant worker on the farm, or the Indigenous person on the reserve? There was also the matter of ‘occupying land’ – wasn’t it already occupied by the 99%, who sought to ‘re-occupy’ it and once again displace Indigenous people and their rights to it?
This pastor was working with the same framework. These people ‘owned’ houses and land, they bought their trucks and the gas to drive them, they bought into the consumptive mindset that filled their credit cards… but they were oppressed. They had bought into the ‘American Dream’ and wanted help out. They were not 1% – they were still at the whim of the banks – so they were the oppressed 99%. They could not be the oppressor.
There are other ways to look at. The need for gas drives imperialism around the world and is responsible for the destruction of Indigenous land and environments around the globe. The grocery stores we shop at sell genetically modified food that destroys ecosystems, reduces food diversity, demands cheap migrant labor, and subsidizes food that destroys bodies. It is shipped around the world by gas, we demand the cheapest prices for it. The clothes we wear were made in sweat shops. The land that you want to own outright, was stolen from Indigenous peoples, who were then places on reserves and in residential schools where they and their cultures were beaten/raped/stolen/denigrated/abused/etc… The prisoners who you think are dangerous, are more likely than not there because of their race which makes them seen as dangerous and dictates a ‘War on Drugs’ or a ‘War on Terror’, a cleaning up of the streets. These prisons are dependant on the white suburban family, who is respectable, and the perceived threat of the ‘Other’ who is an intrusion. Which side of oppression are you predominantly on?
There’s more, but what does this mean for Jubilee? Prisoners are to be released? Land given back to its original Indigenous owners (Leviticus saying “the land is not to be sold permanently” is awfully similar to what Indigenous people have been saying for centuries…)? Debts that keep single mothers destitute forgiven? Past debts owed to African slaved payed? How do we recognize we’re part of the equation of inequality, and not on the side we like to think we’re on? How do we balance things? It’s a matter of perspective I guess.
Want to read more? Check out: A Letter to North American Evangelicals Regarding Love and Charity or A Vision of Critical Food Sustainability: A Biblical Call