The Religious Crisis at the Heart of the Occupy Movement

Notice the religious dimension that was present in 1960s protests, but absent in the Occupy movement.

Martin Luther King had Jesus to appeal to, a readily recognizable symbol in our culture of two key things:

  • the receiving of suffering; and
  • hope.

If you were a Christian, King could appeal to your Christian conscience and ask you to copy the nonviolent Jesus, follow him into suffering, and believe that the “arc is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In turn, Malcolm X, when he became a more pious Muslim, mellowed in his rage toward whites.

And, of course, there were Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Thoreau—all of whom had a deep spiritual tradition that supported them: Krishna in the Gita (Gandhi), Jesus in the gospels (Tolstoy), and the Temple of Nature (Thoreau).

With regard to the Vietnam War, the hippie Hindu and Buddhist scene (as exemplified in Alan Ginsberg’s chanting OM with masses of people in Chicago’s Hyde Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention) served to keep people more otherworldly and chilled out than they might otherwise have been.

None of these things are present in the Occupy Movement with anything like an equivalent force. Since 9-11, right and left have deeply split over the value of religion in society, and most people on the left tend not to appeal to it as readily. And postmodernism has even made the integrity of the self, the Enlightenment, humanism, and Modernism problematic.

This leaves Occupy deeply vulnerable to nihilism, decadence, conspiracy paranoia, and general despair.

Where else can the energies go after the State cracks down? There’s no promise that the arc is long but bends toward justice; there’s no grounding for maintaining a determination to love without retaliation.

There’s only bewilderment.

And rage.

Watch Occupiers increasingly entertain violence or escape into narrower concerns (such as making money).

In other words, there’s a real chance that Occupy will inadvertently accelerate individual decisions to check out of politics as yet another form of vanity—a striving after wind. Leave it to the nihilistic rich and authoritarian Machiavellians to decide on the direction of society. You can’t resist them anyway. That’s what a lot of people might conclude after witnessing Occupy fail to control its violent elements and fall apart in directionlessness.

That whole FOX Noise meme that the protesters didn’t really know why or what they were protesting was meant to be slanderous, but was, at a very deep level, true. Occupy brings attention, not just to the 99% in general, but exposes the nihilistic crisis at the heart of the left.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to The Religious Crisis at the Heart of the Occupy Movement

  1. That “arc” is akin to the rainbow, where God promises never again to destroy the earth through flood. The new “arc” is found in the promise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where through the Brown Scapular and Rosary, the world will be saved through the coming chastisement of fire.

  2. Longtooth says:


    You might be entertaining the fallacy of converse accident a little too much. That is, thinking a special instance or instances is indicative of a general rule. I’m not well acquainted with all the details of what went on around Martin Luther King’s freedom marches. However, it seems there is always some fraction of people who will exploit a mass protest as an opportunity to wantonly rape, pillage, and destroy. They have no interest in the purpose or goals behind the protests, be they lofty or otherwise. Their only interest is using the movement’s coattails as a cover to anonymously indulge their barbaric/anarchistic lusts. In short, judging the soul of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the basis of a few despicable acts that are ostensibly associated with it, is problematic. As before, I think the real test of the movement is what effect it has or doesn’t have on voting behavior come November, and how it affects national politics thereafter.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      You make a fair point. I’ll have to think about that.

      I do feel, however, that there have been, traditionally, mystical trappings to the practice of nonviolence (love and justice as real and powerful forces in the universe). These trappings took on a religious character at one time. Read Gandhi or Tolstoy for examples.

      But nowadays the left uses nonviolence as a pragmatic TACTIC, not a transcendent principle, which means that, if the opportunity presents itself, violence may also be deployed.

      Hedges, because of his Harvard divinity school training, is in touch with the rich spiritual tradition associated with nonviolence in a way that might be perceived by younger Occupiers as a bit outdated.

      Hedges is Don Quixote; a purist and idealist who feels the Occupy movement is getting away from his vision for it.


    • Santi Tafarella says:


      One more thing in response to your thoughts. If what you say is true, that the movement should not be judged by its violent elements, then what story do the peaceful Occupiers tell one another to counter violent elements? King had Jesus; Gandhi concepts like ahimsa (love) and saatyagraha (soul force; the force that adheres with discipline to the highest truths, which Gandhi took to be God, the truth itself, love, and nonviolence).

      Believe in such things or not, they anchor a counter-narrative against violence and give a movement hope absent outward evidence of objective progress.

      What counter-narrative will sustain a nonviolent and liberal Occupy movement, and not allow it to descend into a decadent anarchic or Marxist revolutionary phase?


  3. Longtooth says:


    I’m undoubtedly an optimist about the OWS movement. The extraordinary thing about OWS is the absence of a conventional organizational structure with a single charismatic leader at center. One who provides spiritual focus via appeal to high ideals, as did Gandhi and King. The OWS movement is more like a snake with no head, or better yet an octopus with many heads, but no head in particular at center that continues to grow more heads and tentacles. The hallmark lack of visible central leadership has left a lot of people confused and apprehensive about OWS ability to achieve anything of ultimate worth. It just doesn’t comfortably fit into any familiar mold of successful social activism. All other things being equal, that makes OWS a very remarkable specimen.

    Too answer your question though; I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect the OWS movement to run its course without some modicum of violence showing up in the mix, charismatic leadership or not. I think this is a historically reasonable assessment. Neither Gandhi nor King was able to really satisfy the non-violence ideal. They both anticipated violence from within and from without and dealt with it as best they could. I believe the cool heads within OWS will do the same thing and largely prevail although not perfectly. And I fervently hope without any martyrs.

    Although OWS lacks the transparent marks of a conventional spiritual/religious base that you and Hedges evidently desire, it’s nevertheless motivated and informed by the socially commendable ideal of economic justice across the social-economic spectrum of the middle and lower classes. It’s a movement that speaks that ideal with a profusion of voices from a profusion of different angles. It might be likened to a resurrection of E Pluribus Unum in the face of “In God We Trust”.

    Does a movement’s claim to a socially viable spiritual or ideological identity always depend on the presence of iconic leader at its center, or is it merely what the ages have conditioned us to expect? At the risk of being crass, Hedges disappointment might partially stem from him not being able to eke out a visible position of leadership in OWS for himself. After all, he’s invested a lot of energy in tilting against the corporate state. That, however, is pure speculation. In any case I do think he generically desires to see a religious element at the bottom of any movement he gets involved in, one that might ultimately win merit for his beloved church.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Not to be too cynical, but I’ve got the impression (as you have) that Chris Hedges fears he’s the potential nice-guy lover dropped for the bad boy. He wants the prophetic space and the youngsters might be yawning at him as if he’s the senile and muttering grandpa.

      On the other hand, you’re probably right that Occupy is interesting because it lacks the charismatic leadership. That means the movement is a mirror held up to the left (warts and all).

      It will certainly be telling, should a leader try to rise and unify the movement, who that might be. It will say a lot about the contemporary left who inhabits the daddy/mommy space.

      Of course, there’s strength in saying “no one at all.”


  4. Longtooth says:


    “…. the movement is a mirror held up to the left (warts and all).”

    Held up to all faces across the political spectrum I think.

    “It will certainly be telling, should a leader try to rise and unify the movement, who that might be.”
    “Of course, there’s strength in saying “no one at all.”

    Any successful attempt to seize control might ultimately cause the movement’s demise. Its current power, I believe, stems from it not being the tool of any narrow interest in particular. Most notably also, it stems from not being about personalities, but rather about a social issue that most common folk can imagine a personal vested interest. It holds out the promise that its success might actually improve our material lot sometime in the foreseeable future. A takeover would likely compromise all of that and thus likely destroy the movements appeal.

  5. Smtih says:

    The book “Deep in the Heat of Occupy Austin” by Jim Gober address these concerns eloquently and puts it in the right perspective for the casual observer.

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