The building was dwarfed by the skyscrapers that surrounded it. Down in the Financial District of New York City, the John Street Church seemed like a real-life anachronism tucked into the canyons created by the towers looming dozens of floors into the mid-Atlantic sky. It had a humble, wooden sign that protruded in a way that seemed better suited for a British pub than a house of worship amongst the temples of capital. But there it was, housing the oldest Methodist congregation in the United States
I visited John Street Church with my US-2 peers on Thursday night of our mid-term training. The seven of us young adults came from a variety of locations—Detroit, Fargo, Honolulu—and we had spent the day deconstructing the factors that drive contemporary mass migration, speaking on a panel across from the United Nations, and visiting a community organization based in East Harlem. It was already a full day, crisscrossing the island of Manhattan, but we had yet to go to visit Occupy Wall Street that night. So we stopped at John Street Church.
We ate dinner in the basement of the church, which also served as a small museum with artifacts from early American Methodism, including the earliest known portrait of John Wesley. As we munched on Cuban cuisine from just around the corner, Pastor Jason described the relationship that had developed between the 256-year-old congregation and the protestors at Zuccotti Park only a few blocks away. The congregation was a mix of young adults working downtown and homeless folks who tried to scrape by on the streets, of left-wingers who went to every General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street and protectors of the 1%’s wealth. In this mix, what were the Methodists on John Street to do?
As a self-proclaimed radical who was arrested a week prior for refusing to vacate Grant Park as part of Occupy Chicago, I wanted to hear Pastor Jason talk about how bold the church was. Certainly the body of Christ proclaimed a new day of liberation of poor and opened the doors to the Occupiers! Actually…no, not exactly. The John Street congregation decided to use their unique location to proclaim another Christian principle: reconciliation.
Pastor Jason explained that it is clear in the scriptures that Jesus came to proclaim liberation to not only the 99% but the 100%. The one time that Jesus himself used the 99 vs. 1 dichotomy (Matt. 18: 10-14), the special preference goes to the 1. While Jesus taught crowds in ways similar to teach-ins held around the United States at various Occupy movements, Jesus was not really a populist. After all, the crowds wanted to seize him and dispose of his revolution as often as they wanted to make him king.
That’s the funny thing about this grace thing—it’s free to everyone. Yes, the prophets and Jesus showed that God has a special preference for the despised and marginalized of the world, however Jesus also showed that grace is for everyone. At the point when Jesus could have utilized the crowd best—the triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday—Jesus immediately left the city after clearing the temple of the corrupt money-changers.
There was no populist Occupy Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. After all, Jerusalem was already occupied by the Roman legions.
The experience of grace that leads to true metanoia, or what we might call repentance, can occur in all people. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, but Jesus didn’t say that the poor would just walk through either. There is no cheap grace—not for Wall Street, not for Liberty Park (as the Occupiers call Zuccotti Park), not for the neglected ghettos of South Side Chicago, not for the expanses of farms of the Midwest. Grace is terribly and awfully expensive.
And so we proclaim Christ crucified. We do not pay for grace ourselves, but God gives grace by shedding the life-blood of Christ, the begotten Son of God. The payment is wretchedly ugly and ignoble and undignified. It probably looked something like the slow death of Muammar Qaddafi, except Jesus wasn’t hiding when his persecutors captured him.
So what does this have to say about Occupy Wall Street and the Church? I think it says that we still have a lot to learn about this grace thing. It is not summed up in chant-able verses glorifying the 99%. It is not found in leftist ideologies that claim to redistribute the ill-gotten wealth of the bourgeoisie to the wretched of the earth. Grace is found solely in the cross.
So while I will continue to support the Occupy movement, especially in Chicago, I go knowing that my ultimate concern (in the words of Paul Tillich) is with my Lord and God. And that may just lead back to a South Side holding cell (but hopefully not until after my hearing on Nov. 21st). Or it may lead to sharing the Elements with a hedge-fund manager because he needs that grace just as much as I do.
That is radical reconciliation.