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Religious overtones in ‘Occupy’ protests, but some faith leaders are wary

By Reuters
Tuesday, November 15, 2011 9:11 EDT
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PARIS (Reuters) – Religions condemn greed. The “Occupy Wall Street” protests around the world condemn greed. So theoretically, religious leaders should find common ground with the rallies denouncing the inequalities of capitalism.

Some activist clergy have turned up at protest camps. Not long after Occupy Wall Street began in New York, some Christians arrived in Zuccotti Park with papier-mache statues of a golden calf, a Biblical symbol of idol worship.

But the hierarchies have kept their distance – or tried to – even though the protests have religious overtones with appeals to equality, charity and justice. When protesters camped at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, its Church of England staff found itself torn between God and Mammon.

In the United States, Roman Catholic bishops are meeting this week without economic inequality on their agenda. The Jewish Week newspaper called the Occupy movement a “new third rail for the Jewish mainstream”.

Some imams have joined the protests to speak about the advantages of Islamic finance, which bans interest and focuses on investing in the real economy. But the movement has not been a central issue for most large Muslim organizations.

Katherine Clark, from the Interfaith Center of New York, said people from many faiths supported the movement but “the denominations most active with the interfaith service we have been organizing are progressive Protestants.”

An activist rabbi, who asked not to be named, said Jewish groups were mostly silent because the movement was undefined and had no detailed program. “It is too inchoate,” he said.

ANGLICANS CHALLENGED

The diffuse nature of the protests, which have no central leadership or agreed list of demands, make them a difficult partner for established religion even if they seem to share some basic values.

The Church of England found that out the hard way when Occupy protesters camped in front of St Paul’s Cathedral when they could not pitch tents closer to the London Stock Exchange.

The cathedral, closely linked to the financial community, shut its doors and considered clearing out the protesters.

The debate led two leading clerics to quit and prompted several Anglican bishops and other Christian denominations to criticize the cathedral for not showing more support.

“Church denominations very rarely criticize another church at all, let alone publicly,” said Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the theological think tank Ekklesia in London.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion, stepped in on the protesters’ side and said Vatican proposals for sweeping reforms to the world economic system offered possible options.

After that, a think tank linked to St Paul’s published a poll of London City workers showing most felt the gap between rich and poor was too wide in Britain and pay in the financial industry too high.

Despite this unusual support, Church leaders do not tend to be as anti-capitalist as the protesters, said Bartley. The majority think “capitalism is not just neutral but good because it generates wealth, but we need a nicer version of it,” he added.

One of the few other churches to side with the protests was the Episcopal Church, the main Anglican denomination in the United States. Its Executive Council said on Oct 23 that the protest movement “bears faithful witness in the tradition of Jesus to the sinful inequities in society.”

CATHOLICS, JEWS AND A HINDU MONK

The Vatican seemed to back the protests the next day when its Justice and Peace department said the financial crisis had exposed “selfishness, collective greed and hoarding of goods on a great scale” and condemned “the idolatry of the market”.

It called for a global authority and a tax on financial transactions to promote ethical business practices and foster “an ethic of solidarity” between rich and poor countries.

While it won applause from more liberal Christians, the document upset conservative Catholics who stressed it did not come from Pope Benedict and questioned why it was issued.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Justice and Peace department, defended it as part of a long tradition of progressive social teaching in the Catholic Church. “We’re just doing our job,” he said.

He noted that Pope Benedict had made similar suggestions in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) in 2009.

Small groups of activist rabbis in New York and London have also supported the protests and some Jews have held religious services at Zuccotti Park. But Clark, who organizes interfaith services at the park, said Jewish leaders told her “they don’t yet have a community stance on the OWS movement.”

Media attention there has focused on charges from conservatives that the protesters were anti-Semitic, an allegation more liberal Jews have rejected as a smear.

Jewish Week said some activists thought some rabbis were wary of offending donors on Wall Street but it could not find evidence of any donors threatening to cut off funds.

Rasanath Das, a former investment banker who quit Wall Street in 2008 to become a Hindu monk, said he led meditation sessions at Zuccotti Park to help raise consciousness about the greed he says drives the financial industry.

He said more financial regulation might help, but as a practitioner of karma yoga — the Hindu path of selfless service to the divine – he thought only a long-term change in human consciousness could solve the crisis.

“I keep my expectations low but at the same time I keep my enthusiasm high,” the Mumbai-born monk said. “I’ve met so many people who want to make a change. To me, that’s very inspiring.”

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Mochila insert follows.

[Flickr photo by Sunset Parkerpix.]

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