Occupying God

Protestors Across the Globe Rely on the Language of Morality of the Great Religious Civilisations


Three cities, three continents, three faiths. In Egypt’s Tahrir square, young secular activists worked together with members of the banned Muslim brotherhood in their shared goal to overthrow Mubarak’s regime. In New York, over 1000 people attended a Kol Nidrei service at the site of Occupy Wall Street. In London, protestors camped in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, causing resignations of many clergy and ruptures within the entire Church of England. Religion has been a surprising but consistent presence in the movement, though its influence has often been implicit rather than overt. Whatever the individual beliefs of its proponents, in the absence of an alternative vocabulary, the Occupy movement has been forced to fall back upon the language of religion to articulate its critique of contemporary society. Today’s challenge to the financial system based on values and collective morality has unearthed a world never fully buried by the Enlightenment.

‘Occupy’ was a brand name given to an already existent movement. Widely accepted to have begun in Egypt, the Occupy movement spread to Spain with ‘Los Indignagos’, to Greece’s anti-austerity campaigners, to Israel’s tent protests and from there to New York and other American cities such as Oakland. Other countries have followed, and Canada, the UK, Australia, Italy and New Zealand have all seen spin off protests. The Occupy movement was, in fact, a response to the seismic events across Europe and the Arab world — from the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the governments brought down in its wake (Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Spain and Italy), to the Arab Spring, which toppled tyrannical regimes. The events operated within an overall domino effect, which continues to spread. While the Western protests attack the financial system and an élite — the 1% — acting in their own interests against the majority — the 99% — the Arab protests call for democracy and regime change. But in both cases protestors are motivated by inequality and disempowerment. Arguably, the events following the collapse of Lehman Brothers ignited the revolutions in the middle east; the end of the boom era and a rapid rise in grain prices (as investors deserted the derivatives market in favour of commodities) meant that governments could no longer paper over corruption and kleptocracy with state hand outs. As a result, we seem to have a global uprising that is relatively coherent, being broad enough (and still largely powerless enough) to encompass socialists, libertarians, moral conservatives, Islamists and many others, revisiting the ‘One No, Many Yeses’ of 1990s anti-capitalism.

Despite this theoretical diversity, the ‘movement’ finds unity, and is distinguished by two key features. The first is a critique of current society, that is so thoroughgoing it demands a wholesale rethinking of underlying assumptions. The second is practical action: the taking and holding of space. Functioning as a declaration of presence by groups in the middle and bottom of society, the right to assemble and live on both public and privately owned land has become a cornerstone of the movement.



Construction of St Paul’s Cathedral began in 1669 in the wake of the English civil war, and the restoration of the monarchy. It was the first post-reformation cathedral in England and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who had designed over fifty churches in the City of London, already a major centre of banking and international trade. By the time it was completed in 1708, England was on the way to becoming a leading economic power. St Paul’s stands as a monument to the triumph of bourgeois capitalism, having seen off the twin challenges of overbearing monarchy from above and radical populism from below. The Church of England at this point was already stepping back from political affairs in a move that would culminate in its eventual relegation to guardian of faith and personal morality. This kind of privatised religion went hand in hand with a new Enlightenment liberal philosophy which championed the individual above the community; the state over the local, and the progressive over the traditional. In economic terms, this meant encouraging flexible and open markets based upon a belief in rational, self-interested behaviour. Issues of meaning and purpose were increasingly confined to the private sphere, as the new and revolutionary doctrine of separation between church and state took hold.

From the Middle Ages up until that point, the church had been the epicentre of a society in which community, politics, ritual and custom were intrinsically bound together. It had offered a vision of a unified, stratified society in which each man had his place, and the sum of all its parts was in accordance with divine design. This system survived many major economic and political developments. Christian socialist R.H. Tawney writes of the 16th century’s ‘constant appeal from the new and clamorous economic interests of the day to the traditional Christian morality, which in social organization, as in the relation of individuals, is still conceived to be the final authority’. Despite the vast economic changes of the late middle ages, the idea that society was a spiritual organ designed for salvation subjugated economic activity to some notion of the greater good.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Church power in Europe was decimated, slowly losing any privileged role as guardian of community and values. But it was never replaced, and its vacuum left a thin social fabric, a lack of third space between work and home, and a public discourse that had difficulty agreeing any set terms for moral debate. The contemporary result of this process is that any movement wishing to build a moral critique of our economic system almost inevitably falls back upon the vocabulary of religion, as the cultural memory of the Church represents our only notion of an alternative society. Hence Occupy London’s language of usury, indulgence, unfair gain and of a breakdown of the social fabric of assembly and community. This is to say nothing of explicit religious slogans around moneylenders and the temple, or the large banner outside St Paul’s asking ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ A pertinent critique has been made of those who profit without creating anything of use, targeting the high pay of those who traded in currencies and derivatives rather than in actual commodities. This is an ancient idea, echoing the words of Gratian, a 12th century monk and canon law jurist:

Whosoever buys a thing, not that he may gain sell it whole and unchanged but that it may be a material for fashioning something, he is no merchant. But the man who buys it may gain by selling it again unchanged and as he bought it, that man is of the buyers and sellers who are cast forth from God’s temple.

This alternative religious ethic appeals to a perfectionist ideal of human behaviour, holding that each individual should do useful work in a ‘real’ economy, and that continuous economic growth is less important than values of stability and community.


The context of Occupy Wall Street is rooted in early modernity. American politics to this day is based around a veneration of 18th century texts and ideas. The Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1787) are steeped in the writings of Enlightenment luminaries such as Locke and Montesquieu. As a result, the place of religion in America today is similar to that of 18th century England: prominent, but part of private life. Religious groups focus on private and family morality, with focal points around marriage, sexuality, abortion and gender roles. Religious activism in public is at its most vocal when the state appears to be intruding on private turf, when the public realm fails to keep its side of the bargain. Such campaigns lead American secularists to label their religious counterparts ‘pre-modern’, but in reality their version of religion is deeply rooted in a particular kind of liberal modernity.

It was to this framework that European Jews had to assimilate when arriving from Europe. The Judaism they had known was a civilisation, a holistic framework combining ethnicity, ritual, culture, localised governance and mythology. Despite the lack of military power, pre-modern Jewish communities had real powers of self-governance; as long as taxes were paid to the ruling powers, communities were free to be sites of politics, welfare and law, with genuine powers of coercion. The new American framework required Jews to put much of this aside, and redefine themselves as members of a religious community, to create a ‘Judaism’ to parallel Catholicism and Protestantism. The relatively small American Jewish community in the 17th and 18th centuries managed this transition fairly successfully,  mostly coming from the Spanish and Portuguese community in Holland where they had already imbibed the tenets of enlightenment religion. The task was much harder for the two million Jews who arrived in the mass migrations from Eastern Europe between 1880 to 1914. Heirs to a rich, complex and border-transcending Yiddish-speaking world, the new immigrants resisted assimilation into the new paradigm of privatised, national religion, preferring to remain in tight-knit communities in the East Coast cities they had arrived in, and continue the integrated and autonomous Jewish life they had led in Vilna, Lodz and Warsaw. Pressure from the existing Jewish establishment to assimilate led to a complex and multi-faceted Jewish identity, torn between religion, race and culture, and a wider community that was unsure whether or not Jews could be categorised as ‘white’ in a heavily racialised society. This culminated in a process of widespread assimilation, and acceptance of the identity ‘American Jews’: members of a religious community wholly integrated into the national collective, particularly after the suburbanisation of the 1940s and 50s. This process, however, was not absolute, and a lingering cultural memory remains in American Jewry, of a Jewishness that is public, international, collectivist and engaged with the entirety of life, rather than confined to the purely religious realm.

The sermon at Occupy Kol Nidrei — preached, via the ‘people’s mic’, whereby each phrase is repeated by the crowd so that all can hear — calls for a Judaism which is explicitly public, engaging with the great questions of society rather than focussing on a private spirituality:

Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for wor-shipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf ? It is the essence of idol worship. It is the fallacy that gold is God. How do we become forgiven for worshipping gold?

The thousand or so participants of all ages and Jewish denominations who came out on Judaism’s holiest day to Zuccotti Park to pray, sing and dance (despite the warning on the official invitation that arrest was a possibility), were drawing upon a Jewish tradition deeper than that of the American Jewish establishment. They recalled a Jewish civilisation in which wages, labour rights, loans and contracts were as much a part of rabbinical jurisdiction as issues of Kashrut and Shabbat, and which contained a mythology that saw itself as trying to build a world of justice through small acts in opposition to the evil empires of Egypt, Sodom and Rome.

In Egypt, Islamic parties are already enjoying the electoral benefits of the January Revolution, following decades of Mubarak’s secularist autocracy. Across the Arab world, religion had never been privatised as it had been in the West; instead it persisted throughout the centuries as the locus for welfare provision and community values. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798, Muhammed Ali, regarded as the founder of modern Egypt, attempted to create a state based on the European model, trying to condense into decades In Egypt, Islamic parties are already enjoying the electoral benefits of the January Revolution, following decades of Mubarak’s secularist autocracy. Across the Arab world, religion had never been privatised as it had been in the West; instead it persisted throughout the centuries as the locus for welfare provision and community values. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798, Muhammed Ali, regarded as the founder of modern Egypt, attempted to create a state based on the European model, trying to condense into decades what had taken Europe hundreds of years. Focussing purely on military and technological elements, while omitting the intellectual and cultural underpinnings of the French Revolution, Ali nationalised all land and most industry, built a huge modern army (which, at its height, ruled from Syria to the Sudan), and created an administrative and military elite who were trained at special colleges in France. The process continued after Ali’s death, with ambitious building works in Cairo in the style of Parisian architecture, including the plaza that would later be known as Tahrir Square. Ali’s reforms created two polarised strata: an educated, westernised military élite, and a fellahin class who remained resolutely traditional and lacking in modern education, of use to the new authorities only as conscripts and cheap labour for state industry. Consequently, the new Egyptian state failed to gain real popular support, and felt, to most, Egyptians like an occupying force even when governed by local figures. Despite the traditional beliefs of the populace, the religious leadership — that had enjoyed a substantial consultative role in the Ottoman era — became marginalised under Ali. But while the state had detached itself from community and morality, Islamic institutions were free to fill that vacuum and have continued to do so up to the present. Today’s moderate Islamists can promise to restore a sense of societal wholeness, or tawhid, bringing together tradition and values with political economy and democracy, in a way that is deeply culturally embedded. The Tahrir Square revolution was spearheaded by secularists; activists for whom the replacement of Mubarak’s rule with any kind of theocracy would be a disaster. But to be a secularist in Egypt is radically different to being a secularist in France: calling for freedom from religious coercion is not to demand a neutral state devoid of values. The revolution’s demands for equality, social justice and against corruption chime with Islamic values, and the dream of democracy — of government representing a large number rather than a tiny élite — has successfully bridged the secular-religious divide. The Muslim Brotherhood, only recently legalised, enjoys huge popular support, and its Freedom and Justice Party has, at the point of going to press, won two thirds of parliamentary seats and is likely to share power with the military. This is a pattern repeated in neighbouring states: in Tunisia, the Islamist party, Ennahada, has just taken 41% of the seats in the new assembly, and the Justice and Development party is by far the biggest in Morocco. All operate in the shadow of Turkey’s AKP, the model of a successful moderate Islamist political party, in power since 2002.


The great religious civilisations have functioned for the Occupy movement as a cultural memory of a different kind of society, buried to varying degrees by the Enlightenment. They have provided a language with which to imagine a collective that operates beyond liberal individualism. But this is not to claim that the religious world offers concrete models of governance that can be directly imitated or adopted. Traditional religious organisations are frequently hierarchical, regularly restrict power to an educated clerical elite, operate in relative secrecy and all too often exclude women from religious and political decisions. In contrast, the Occupy movement has been founded upon an ideal of radical openness and direct democracy, with Occupy Wall Street proclaiming ‘OWS empowers real people to create real change from the bottom up. We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner’. But there are certain key features of the great religious civilisations which can almost be said to define the Occupy movement.

The first is the notion of the ‘holy congregation’ — the Israelites in the desert, the community at Medina, the disciples and the early church — which was founded on the belief that the path to God was through small scale, non-hierarchical communities coming together in prayer, ritual and study. The Occupy movement’s preference for the small-scale gathering, and mistrust of representative democracy chimes in with this tradition, which began as a protest against older and more powerful empires. The second feature is the community of study — the Bet Midrash, Madrassah and Monastery — a place characterised by rigorous methodology and debate and (in theory at least) open to all who wish to learn and share knowledge. The emphasis in Wall Street and London (particularly via ‘Tent City University’) on education — activists attempting to understand the financial system in order to reform it — draw on this powerful ancient model. The third and perhaps most important feature is the network of communities both local and profoundly international and united by the great languages of Hebrew, Latin and Arabic; Jewish communities constituted a transnational diaspora; the power of the papacy continued to stretch across most of Europe until the Reformation; and at its zenith the Islamic empire spread from the Pyrenees to the borders of China.

The combination of local and international governance offers a powerful model to a movement that wishes to express itself through direct, face-to-face democracy, while acting in solidarity with other activists thousands of miles away, as the globalised economy makes purely national struggles increasingly unviable.


It may be that the truer benefactors of the contemporary protest movement are to be found in radical religious groups: fringe sects that prioritised ideological purity over power, and whose distance from the establishment allowed them to pursue a reading of canonical texts that would ‘turn the world upside down.’ To the religious mainstream’s ‘society of meaning’, they added a subversive new element: the egalitarian impulse, for which they found no shortage of sources in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Seventeenth century England was filled with such radical sects, as demands for political and economic rights complemented calls for a new kind of religion, in which priestly power would be abolished and all would have the right to teach and prophesy. One of the most notorious was the Diggers, a group who, in 1649, occupied common land on St George’s Hill in Surrey, with the intention of living, farming and building a community. Viewing themselves as Israel enslaved, and the King and landlords as Babylon, their calls for political change were inseparable from their religious sensibility; one that called for a return to an Eden where the world would be once again ‘a common treasury for all.’ The parallels with the Occupy movement are striking. While the rhetoric was utopian, the group was rooted in action: the taking and holding of space.

Both the Diggers and the Occupiers focus upon inequality, observing that, without resources, a person is at the mercy of the wage system, surviving only on what another is prepared to pay them for their labour. Both are concerned with direct action, preferring not to wait for handouts from an establishment in which they have lost faith. And both are rooted in control of land, the foundation of all prosperity, seeing occupation of territory as prior to any particular set of demands. Echoing the Biblical precept that ‘The Earth is the Lord’s’, the Diggers questioned how human ownership of natural resources could be justified, and how economic hierarchies could be morally possible. In a text that remains richly resonant today, the Digger spokesman Gerald Winstanley set out his manifesto for a more just and holy society:

I affirme that the earth was made to be a common Treasury of livelihood for all, without respect of persons, and was not made to be bought and sold: And that mankind…….was not made to acknowledge any of his owne kind to be his teacher and ruler, but the spirit of righteousnesse only his Maker, and to walk in his light, and so to live in peace, and this being a truth, as it is, then none ought to be Lords or Landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind, to live free upon.

You might also like
1 Comment
  1. […] Occupying God : Jewish Quarterly It was the first post-reformation cathedral in England and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who had designed over fifty churches in the City of London, already a major centre of banking and international trade. By the … Christian socialist R.H. Tawney writes of the 16th century’s ‘constant appeal from the new and clamorous economic interests of the day to the traditional Christian morality, which in social organization, as in the relation of individuals, is still conceived to be the final … https://jewishquarterly.org/ — Tue, 20 Dec 2011 07:58:52 -0800 […]

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.