Christ the Slave and Occupy Wall Street, or Why OWS Should Matter to Christians

Occupy Wall Street went global yesterday–and remember, it started globally too–but I wonder how many of our churches think it matters (and for a whole variety of reasons). I want to make an argument that OWS does matter, for us Christians, and we should be paying close attention at the very least. To state my conclusion upfront: faith in Christ demands that we pay attention. That is, OWS is important not as a matter of “Christian ethics” (like a command to seek justice); it’s a matter of who Jesus is. 

Karl Barth (please stay with me my nontheological and theologically non-Barthian friends) writes about faith as a “recognition” of Christ, saying that:

In and with [Christ’s] self-disclosure He induces and initiates the human seeing and interpreting which attaches itself to the divine act of majesty in and by which he has His being, following and accompanying it, repeating the being which He has on this basis, and therefore becoming and being a relevant human seeing and interpreting (as that which is mastered by Him). CD IV/2, p. 39.

To de-Barthianize this complex sentence: what Karl is saying is if we think we “know” Jesus as some past, historical figure or a figure representing some ethical ideal, we don’t know Jesus at all. “Human seeing and interpreting” of Jesus comes from Jesus’ self-disclosure, from his living and active encounter with us. To “recognize” Jesus is to be encountered by the living Jesus who is Lord, God and human.

This “human seeing and interpreting” is “induced” by Christ, who is the revelation of “the divine act of majesty.” This revelation of majesty is Christ, God coming in the form of a slave (Phil. 2). In an earlier section–a section that is in fact the counterpart to the one I quoted from–Karl discusses what it means that Jesus, who enters into the path of “the sinner,” lives “obediently” before God, “serves” others, and comes in the weakness of “a slave,” is the revelation of God. Jesus is the divine majesty of God, and that majesty comes to us in the form of a crucified Slave.

This revelation–which produces and controls our faith–does two things. First, it shows that Christ came to overturn the powers of sin and death that render God’s beloved creatures slaves. The social, political, cultural, religious, ethical and economic structures of death–the world that produces the slave–is revealed as sin and overturned by God in Christ. Secondly, God defeats sin and death not at the site of the powerful leaders but at the point of the figure that has no status in our world at all.

To have faith in Christ, therefore, is to have a “human seeing and interpreting” that is always alert to the living presence of Christ, given to us in the Spirit, and continuing to disclose to this world that sin and death have been defeated by God. It is to see and live in the world with the powerful memory that God came for, as, and among those who have no standing in the dominant community, those whose lives do not count at all (like what we saw with Troy Davis), or count only insofar as the dominant community can use them for its own purposes and desires (like for medical research).

Faith in Christ is like a memory that “flashes” dangerously in those moments when we are about to interact with others as if we were their masters. Our “seeing and interpreting” is bound to the God who lives and encounters us as the resurrected and enthroned–that is, victorious–Slave (which is not an idealization of the figure of the slave but the destruction of the world that produces slavery).

I’ve suggested, twice actually (here and here), that OWS does not yet represent the positions of those suffering most in the present order of things. But it is, I think, moving in that direction. And, as believers in Christ, this means we should not only be watching and listening. We should be actively pushing this movement in that direction, trusting that, through the Spirit we will be able to follow, accompany, and repeat the life of this God who came as and overturned the world of sin and death from the (non)position of the Slave.

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3 Responses to Christ the Slave and Occupy Wall Street, or Why OWS Should Matter to Christians

  1. Jeremy Alder says:

    Good words, Tim. Could you say a little more about what you have in mind when you talk about “actively pushing this movement in that direction”? There is significant interest in the movement from my church, but we are trying to discern how to engage in a way that is supportive, as well as as critical, and ultimately, faithful to Christ the Slave.

    • Tim McGee says:

      Jeremy–
      I mostly meant to just say that we shouldn’t be just watching from a distance as spectators. My suggestion for one way to push the conversation/movement in this direction is to focus on racial wealth inequality. OWS has put drastic wealth inequality at the forefront of the movement and the wealth gap between white households on one side and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other is extreme. I think focusing attention on this point can help build bridges to these communities who might otherwise see OWS as representing concerns among those recently marginalized within the dominant class. It would also make nonwhite leadership not just an ideal (hey, we’re diverse!) but a pragmatic necessity. I don’t even think you need a concrete proposal to deal with the issue at this point, as so much labor has to go into just making this question thinkable (cutting through all the racist associations of poverty and unemployment, thinking about wealth in terms of structures and not just “personal responsibility” and “character,” and not having this be an issue of white/middle class charity or social responsibility, etc.).

  2. Pingback: Another Kind of Justice: thoughts on Brueggemann and OWS | veeritions

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