Canadian churches and the Occupy movement

Occupy Ottawa (Koozma Tarasoff photo)

The young protesters of the Occupy movement who have been living in tents in urban parks from Vancouver to Halifax are being forced out or threatened with eviction. In one respect, the mayors are inadvertently doing them a favour  — sparing them the discomfort and perils of living outdoors in winter and also allowing them to leave and to plan for their next phase in the srping.  

What has been achieved is extraordinary. The simple slogan (“We are the 99 per cent”) focused attention on corporate greed and growing economic inequality in a way that no one else has been able to do in decades.  It is the willingness of these young people to put themselves on the line that speaks to their contemporaries and to older people as well.

 Points of entry

There are many points of entry and observation here but mine is to ask how communities of faith have responded to the Occupy movement. The Ottawa Citizen carried a story on November 6 written by Mitchell Landsberg for the Los Angeles Times and picked up widely in the U.S. Landsberg wrote that the Occupy movement is secular and that religious influence and participation in it have been rare. He said that throughout much of U.S. history religious forces were prominent in progressive social movements, but that for the past 30 years, the energy around faith-based politics has been on the right, and has coalesced around opposition to abortion and same sex marriage.

In the article, a research chair named John Green said there are some individuals of faith involved in the movement but “relatively little denominational involvement.” He asked: “Where are the Quakers? Where are the mainline Protestants?” Another professor was quoted as saying that the religious left “has lost its voice, has lost its nerve and is no longer articulating the principle in the New Testament.”

Dynamic partner?

That is one side of the narrative and it was circulated widely. It was answered by a piece that I found on a blog called Faith in Public Life. The writer responded directly to the Times article, saying that clergy and people of faith are “a dynamic partner” standing in solidarity with the Occupy protesters.

The example that I especially liked was a report in the Associated Press that talked about the use of religious imagery. In New York City, clergy supporting the Occupy movement carried an Old Testament-style golden calf in the shape of the Wall Street bull to decry the false idol of greed.

There appears to be little, if any, support coming from church head offices – the Catholic bishops, the evangelicals or Southern Baptists, all of them prominent in the U.S. But Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Board, said that while the church has no official position on the occupation there are a growing number of Methodists taking part.

On the website of a group called Sojourners, evangelist Jim Wallis urged church congregations to take food out to the parks and to sit and talk with members of the Occupy movement.

Rome and Canterbury

The movement received encouragement internationally when the Vatican released a document on October 24 calling for greater oversight on global financial markets. A Cardinal named Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was quoted by Catholic News Service as saying: “The basic sentiment” behind the protests is in line with Catholic social teaching…” 

Rowen Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, seemed to echo what the pope was saying, and he called for a new tax on banks — often called a Tobin Tax. He also said that the protest against financial inequality and banking excesses has been seen “by an unexpectedly large number of people as the expression of a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment that shows no sign of diminishing.”

Faith and Occupy in Canada

I have found little that originates from any church headquarters in Canada. I looked at the site of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, that of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches and found nothing. Mardi Tindal, moderator of the United Church, wrote supportively on her blog  – but it does not serve as an official statement by the church.

There is obviously some support at the local level. In Toronto, the occupiers camped in a park owned jointly by the city and the (Anglican) Cathedral Church of St. James. Toronto mayor Rob Ford wants to evict the occupiers but the church says on its website that it is not in favour of that. In Ottawa, a Baptist church provides water to the protesters.

There is also a strong and positive statement from an inter-faith group called ISARC – Faith Communities in Action against Poverty. They said: “The Occupy movements are trying to awaken the call for a sustaining life for all. People of faith are invited to respond to the call.”

Visit to Occupy Ottawa

I visited the Occupy Ottawa site at Confederation Park on November 11, a day when the wind was raw and biting. There were about 50 tents and one of them (quite a small tent) was their media centre. There I talked to a young man who was likely in his early 30s. I found him to be both friendly and savvy. He said that he was an economist and I believed him.

I asked what kind of support they are receiving from faith communities in Ottawa. This seemed to perplex him. He said that they would gladly take support from anyone, including people in churches. I asked if people who identified themselves as coming from churches had offered any such support. He said he could not think of any, although many people had provided gifts of food and some of it could have come from church people. He took my name for their email list – I found that they were well organized in that way, with a website and Facebook and Twitter accounts and a sign up sheet for email messages.

Contemplative winter

As winter and evictions set in, the protesters will have to ask themselves what is next and plan for the future. This hiatus may also provide time for an older generation  to sit back and take stock. When sociologist Reginald Bibby spoke to Ontario’s Catholic bishops in October, he said that more people would come back to church “ if they thought there was something in it for them and their families.” He said that people are less interested in following church leaders into political activity. If true, does this also mean that people in churches are no longer prepared to bring a prophetic perspective to injustice? Have older religious progressives run out of gas? Do religious, Biblical or gospel imperatives speak to the contemporary generation of progressives and activists – or do they arrive at their involvements from other perspectives? Are they nourished in ways that are not explicitly religious? Do they, in fact, see religious faith as irrelevant or worse, as an impediment to their efforts?

A long Canadian winter may be a good time to contemplate these questions. 









13 thoughts on “Canadian churches and the Occupy movement

  1. I wonder if part of this problem is the left’s treatment of believers.

    I recall there was some pushback when the NDP established their Faith and Justice Commission. This was especially bad on websites like (though the online demographic does tend to skew more towards materialists).

    Perhaps there is also a tendency to swallow the New Atheists critique of fundamentalists (which is very leftist) as pertaining to all the religious. Thus faith is seen as the enemy of the left.

    Coverage of the US/UK occupy camps also emphasized things like the Guy Fawkes masks, the symbol of the online Anonymous movement. This movement is heavily libertarian and atheist (not to mention probably anti-feminist and heterosexist). To me, the prominence of the Guy Fawkes symbol was a signal to stay away.

    And the whole thing was started by Adbusters. This group purports to be against consumerism, but really what they advocate is “feel-good” consumerism, consumerism that somehow assuages your ethical scruples. This is no different than straight capitalist advertising.

    Their method certainly got the 1% debate into the media. But so far, that’s it.


    1. Your comment is weakened when you lump all atheists in one group while condemning them for doing just that with fundamentalists. Atheists come in all shapes and sizes, just like people of faith and they requires the same degree of respect.


      1. Jim,

        Perhaps I just spend more time online on specialist IT websites where these movements are dissected.

        My take-away is that the atheist/libertarian tinge of Anonymous and similar groups is more along the lines of the dogmatic New Atheists (whose leading light Richard Dawkins say things like teaching religion to children is “child abuse” and that religion itself is a “virus” i.e. believers are diseased), than moderate atheists such as Robert J. Sawyer, the Canadian sci-fi writer.

        Also take for example Julian Assange of Wikileaks, another hero of this movement, and judging by his reception at the Occupy UK camp, a hero of the Occupiers as well. Putting aside his rape charge, what did Assange turn out to be? A right-wing libertarian who began raving that he was under attack by “revolutionary feminists” in Sweden, the “Saudi Arabia of feminism.”

        The point of Dennis’ article was why aren’t progressive churches/believers represented more visibly in the Occupy movement. My suggestion was that, judging from media coverage, there are elements associated with Occupy that are aggressively hostile to faith, and streams in the movement that at least anti-feminist, if not right-wing. This does not even address the participation of Adbusters, whose anti-consumerist bona fides have been subject to heavy critique.

        I will concede though that most of my criticism of the Occupy movement seem to apply to those camps outside of the USA. The dynamic in NYC for example seems very different, perhaps because of the seriousness of their situation.


  2. Unitarians have been supporting the Occupy movement in Canada and the US, but I agree that our presence is not large or well identified. I have shared the following with Occupy Ottawa: , , , and .


  3. I believe that religion and spirituality have a traditional message that is lost in post modernist Christianity. The call that I get from the gospels is one of both personal transformation and social transformation. We are Faced with a crisis that is the consequence of the collective behaviour of our species on the planet. Transformation of the trajectory of that collective behaviour starts with personal transformation and through that personal transformation we transform our institutions and organizations. The new wine of our personal transformation needs the new wine skins of our institutions and organizations. The question I often ask are the Canadian Churches old wine skins.


  4. I would guess that, certainly in the United States, the majority of people in the Occupy Movement are, as you term them, people of faith. At issue is the formal involvement and endorsement of religious institutions, which is very much a separate issue. The important question, in my view, is why are the churches not supporting their own believers in this cause?

    In my youth, the Catholic church was a staunch advocate for unions, workers’ rights, and for the poor and downtrodden. The only priest ever elected to parliament–Bob Ogle–was a leftist, although he was forced to resign for reasons that always struck me as specious. But it would be mistake to assume that the Occupy Movement is either left or right. It’s about simple distributive justice, more than anything else.

    You don’t need to throw out capitalism to fix it, either. However, you do need to change the narrative that has insulated the very rich individuals and the power elites responsible for the current situation from taking responsibility for their undeniable roles in it.

    If more religions were to expand their views on morality beyond sexuality* to include the moral responsibilities associated with distributive justice, for one example, perhaps their expanded views would allow them to see how their absence from the Occupy Movement renders them morally complicit with the rich and powerful who visited this economic plague on the other 99%.

    *(to many if not most mystified outsiders, mainstream religions appear to be obsessed with sex)


  5. Thank you Dennis for your investigation into church support for the occupy movement.

    I think the lack of church involvement is part of the success of the less than one per cent in destroying any movement of those that might oppose them. Unions went from demanding political change and justice for all members of society to just seeking higher wages and better benefits to their own members.

    Jews and Christian understood that the scriptures were full of stories of God demanding just laws and sharing of wealth. I think of David Lewis, Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth. The less than ninety nine per cent have succeeded, as you point out Dennis, in reducing believers to supporting cruel politics or doing church activities.

    The occupy movement is saying there is something really wrong and if our current course is not changed, the rest of us will be sick, poor, and enslaved. I believe the SPIRIT OF GOD is with all those pushing back against the darkness that has been descending upon us. The silence of the churches speaks volumes.


  6. Church leaders, with laudable exceptions, are usually among those who love to occupy the seats of honor at banquets and to be greeted in the marketplace. Most mainline denominations, incluidng my own, seem far more concerned with the daily challenges of running a corporate enterprise than with proclaiming the gospel of Christ.

    As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to count on church leaders for consistent leadership on the important issues of our time.

    When Jesus walked the earth, he said that the prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before the religous and political leaders of his time. If Jesus was here today, I don’t think he would change that message one little bit.

    When was the last time a church called a press conference to denounce the government for the fact that more than 1 in 5 Candian children live in poverty? When was the last time a church declared the multi-billion dollar puchase of figher jets at a time when there are so many hungry and homeless is nothing short of sinful? How does a government that prefers to use the milatry for war making rather than peace keeping deny that it loves the darkness more than the light?

    Of course, many people pracatice the ersatz Christianity so in evidence everywhere from Sunday morning televison to the highest levels of government. All that pseudo-Chrsitian faiths require is for people to give into their greed and believe that wealth is a sign of God’s approval while denying that our economic system is not an interlocking grid of structurally sinful mechanisms.

    So, don’t look for leadership on the Occupy Movement from the churhes. Again, with notable exceptions, they are far too busy making Christianity respectable.

    “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do what I tell you?” That question, posed by Jesus in his time, is also very appropriate today. As the heroic Brazilian bishop Dom Helder once said: “When I feed the hungry people, they call me a saint. When I ask ‘Why are the people hungry?’ they call me a communist.”

    Churches that beleive capitalism is compatible with the gospel while communism is not have neither the ears to hear the gospel or the eyes to see that greed – a sin in itself – occupies the seat of honor at our ecoomic banquets.

    It is to weep!


    1. Interestingly enough the homeless and the Toronto occupy movement in Toronto are right out side the doors of St James Cathedral. I would like add to your comments Mr. McQuarrie that all those who did the practical things went to be with Jesus:

      — “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

      — “Then the righteous will answer him,[THEY ARE SUPRISED] ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

      — “When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’”

      — “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

      and those that did the religious things went to hell:

      — “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’”

      — “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” [they are also suprised]


  7. I’m a member of the Ottawa Mennonite Church. I visited Occupy Ottawa about 4 times, but I could not camp out at Confederation Park. During my visits I spoke to as many people as I could, and participated in one of their assemblies. In my first visit, I asked a student of History that was a participant if any religious person was more directly involved with OO. He told me a Rabi went there occasionally and showed a keen interest in caring for the homeless at the camp. On my second visit, i spoke to the person at the information tent and asked him the same question. He confirmed the Rabi went there. He also said that a native person was thinking about setting up a spiritual tent. I told him that I was very much interested in the idea. And that I would like to help setting that up. I haven’t had a chance to find that person, though. The person at the information tent liked the idea and said I could propose such initiative at one of the General Assemblies.
    When there were discussions on the upcoming eviction from the park, I suggested on Facebook at least twice for the group to consider asking for asylum for the United Church of Canada (even though I’m not related to it) at their temple.


  8. I have found some evidence in the past weeks of a fair level of involvement of churches and religious individuals with the occupy movement. Here are some examples:

    Story about Mennonites and the Occupy movement on the cover of the Canadian Mennonite magazine: . The story features a few examples of mennonites taking part in occupations in Canada and the US.

    Occupy Faith NYC:

    New York Times: Religious Groups Offer Help to Evicted Protesters :

    Occupy Church DC

    Methodist: Occupy ‘astonishing opportunity for clergy’ :

    There is also good documentation of individual involvement in Twitter with the #occupyChurch hashtag.

    I’m not sure if the traditional media again is saying ‘there is none’ without doing its homework. Another thought is that there may be a discrepancy between institutional positions and what people ‘down at the base’ are doing in practice. I suspect the latter is true.

    Dennis replies: Thanks Gustavo for this comment and for your earlier one (see below).


  9. Hi there,

    Sorry to be so late coming to the conversation. In Toronto there was from the beginning and still is a interfaith connection to the Occupy movement. Check out the Occupy Toronto Protest Chaplains for a sense of the ways people of faith have been involved. Thanks for provoking more people to question this topic and the need for people of faith to question why they aren’t involved.!/pages/Occupy-Toronto-Protest-Chaplains/292151800814707



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