Progressive Spirit: Occupy Finds Its Soul

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, file photo, an Occupy Wall Street activist places tape on a boarded up house during a t
FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, file photo, an Occupy Wall Street activist places tape on a boarded up house during a tour of foreclosed homes in the East New York neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley announced Jan. 16, 2013, they will pay a combined $557 million to settle federal complaints that they wrongfully foreclosed on homeowners who should have been allowed to stay in their homes. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

If you've ever been hounded by debt collectors about an impossibly large bill saddling you through no fault of your own, as many Americans have, imagine receiving a letter that goes like this:

"We write with good news: You no longer owe the balance of this debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached. You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else."

Dozens of people around the country have actually been receiving these letters and the debt forgiveness they describe thanks to Rolling Jubilee, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The campaign has been mimicking collection agencies by buying difficult-to-collect debt for pennies on the dollar. But then, instead of going after the debtor, they are doing the seemingly unthinkable and forgiving it.

The number of dollars and people affected are a pittance so far. But several aspects of this campaign are remarkable, including its explicit religious dimension. "Jubilee" is a concept straight out of the Bible, the tradition of a special year when debts are wiped clean. That the Occupy movement would embrace this biblical concept suggests something new and intriguing about the progressive movement, which has in recent decades been more likely to show contempt than respect when it comes to religion.

Are progressives beginning to get the spirit?

What's happening with the Occupy movement -- the Jubilee project immediately following a Superstorm Sandy relief campaign largely staged out of churches -- suggests yes. As do a spate of rising voices within atheism and humanism calling for partnerships with churches. Together, these signal a long-overdue awakening to the common ground they share with Christianity and rejection of a misimpression that's formed from the decades-long correlation between religion and conservatism in our politics and culture.

"Religious believers and atheists can and should focus on areas of agreement and work in broad coalitions to advance social justice," declares Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book "Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with Religion."

Stedman is right. As is writer and activist Nathan Schneider, who in an article headlined "How Occupy Got Religion" observes: "Religion is ... the means by which many imagine and work for a world more just than this one. Just about every successful popular movement in U.S. history has had to recognize this, from the American Revolution to labor, and from civil rights to today's campaigners for marriage equality -- and now Occupy."

Other examples abound: pro-gay marriage forces reaching out to religious voters and activists and enfolding them into their movement; Hemant Mehta, author of "The Young Atheist's Survival Guide," summoning non-believing students to join forces with their religious peers for common-good service projects; progressive organizers challenging their colleagues to get past the notion that religious people come in only one size and shape (i.e. conservative).

No, you don't have to look far to find counter-examples, either. In an otherwise well-intentioned effort to support budding young atheists, organizers of the "Kids without God" campaign have found a way to belittle religious people. "I'm getting a little old for imaginary friends," read the ads going up on buses in the Washington area. Alas, reducing religion to belief in "imaginary friends" is not a good way to win new religious allies.

One of the latest in an on-going series of atheist manifestos is surprisingly uninformed about the moderate Christians who tend to receive so much scorn from the vociferous anti-religion vanguard. In his recent release "Atheism and the Case against Christ," philosophy professor Matthew McCormick criticizes prominent "moderates" such as Franklin Graham for not speaking out against faith-healing charlatans and prosperity gospel preachers. Franklin Graham, of "Islam is evil" fame, is a moderate? It makes you wonder if this writer even knows of the existence of Episcopalians and United Methodists.

Nevertheless, it's impressive to see more and more of the non-religious engaging in a long-overdue act of disaggregation and realizing there are many in the ranks of religion who could be their next best friends for progressive and common-good causes.

"Escaping religion only burdens the humanist with confronting vaster forces against freedom and justice, so it would be wise to recall that sound minds and good hearts are always needed as allies," writes John Shook of the American Humanist Association. Adds academic Andy Norman, "We need to recognize the diversity within theism, avoid the temptation to lump all theists together, and engage liberal and moderate theists in constructive dialogue."

Take it from these thinkers and the "radicals" at Occupy Wall Street: It's better to befriend religion and religious people (and honor and borrow the best in their traditions) than repel them.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and author of the new book 'The Evangelicals You Don't Know,' to be released in April.

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