Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Tom BeaudoinDecember 19, 2011

As the media have reported the last few weeks, there has been tension between many in Occupy Wall Street, as well a good number of religious leaders in Occupy Faith NYC, on the one hand, and Trinity Wall Street on the other. Trinity is a venerable Episcopal church at the end of Wall Street in lower Manhattan. Occupy has been asking Trinity for use of its lot at 6th and Canal, next to Duarte Park, as a site for the next stage of Occupy Wall Street after our eviction from Zuccotti Park in November. (This would not simply be a repeat of Zuccotti; Occupy has plans for a different kind of ongoing occupation, with advance plans for security and sanitation, among many other aspects.)

On Saturday I was part of a protest that sought to draw further attention to the appeal to Trinity – as part of the larger drawing of attention to injustice in economic policies in the United States and beyond that has been central to Occupy from the beginning. Several dozen among the protesters went over the fence into Trinity’s property, in a nonviolent symbolic occupation, and were promptly arrested. Among those arrested were clergy and at least one religious, including an Episcopal bishop, a Catholic priest, a Catholic sister, and other clergy and religious leaders, as well as other lay protesters with or without any particular connection to religion.


This is a conflict with multiple reasons given on both sides for their stances. 

If I might inadequately summarize the primary positions taken by each side:

Occupy is appealing to Trinity, a very wealthy church, to share its resources (prime Manhattan real estate, currently empty but presently leased on a short-term basis to a tenant) with the Occupy movement whose social goals are ostensibly the same as Trinity’s – a more just world for more people – and many of whose participants explicitly dedicate themselves to the cause for reasons of religion or spirituality. Some in Occupy use religious language of “sanctuary” for Occupy in their appeal to Trinity, because we were forcibly evicted from Zuccotti and have been hounded out of other public places since then. A religious organization like Trinity, many argue, ought to appreciate a basic point from the theological tradition: ongoing material space that is artistically curated, ritually inhabited, and safely overseen is essential for an ongoing witness to a more deeply flourishing reality.

Trinity has argued that it is under no obligation to provide land for Occupy. Any such occupation would, they say, be potentially unsafe, inappropriate, and not a clear fulfillment of Trinity’s own mission. It is easy to appreciate that Trinity imagines that the liability concerns (legal and otherwise) would be potentially major. There is no true case to be made for sanctuary, they have argued, and here the suggestion seems to be that a major protest movement is not the same as an individual, a family, or even an entire community that is under such threat that it needs the safety and protection, or "sanctuary," of the church. And anyway, they argue, they have already welcomed many Occupy participants to Trinity's facilities and meeting spaces in the Zuccotti Park neighborhood; their support of the basic principles of Occupy, Trinity's supporters argue, is not in question. Of course, even though it rarely comes up in official rationales for the denial of access to 6th and Canal, no one involved thinks that the real estate values of Trinity’s holdings are not also a significant consideration for Trinity in their decision to not let Occupy use the 6th and Canal space.

It is not necessary to cast either side as angelic or demonic. Serious matters are at stake: on one side, the freedom of a church to dispose of its resources of its own will; on the other side, the biggest social movement in a generation with a substantial religious base making a claim -- through the Trinity conflict -- on the conscience and mission of not only a church but an entire denomination (the Episcopal tradition) and religious tradition (Christianity).

It seems to me that in the midst of all this, a theological matter has arisen that has perhaps not gotten enough attention: a theological interpretation of private property – especially the private property of a Christian church.

Often Trinity’s defenders phrase their defense of their space as a defense of the church’s private property. I think, however, that Occupy is challenging (mostly implicitly) the assumption that one can speak of the “private property” of a church in the same way one uses that phrase more generally in Western society. (It is similar to (though of course not the same as) the theological (and legal) challenge that those who occupy Catholic churches that are slated for closing make about who “owns” church property.)

At the risk of sacrificing nuance, and for the sake of brevity, let me be succinct: I think we have a very important theological matter before us when Occupy, through its religious-leader allies, is saying to Trinity Wall Street: We in Occupy -- as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement -- can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place, with negligible negative financial impact (Trinity is a very wealthy community), and with a rare and time-sensitive influence, by using this particular private property to host the next stage of Occupy Wall Street, and let’s meet to talk about the liability issues and any other concerns you have, let’s have that dialogue starting immediately, but in principle we have a substantial theological point worthy of your consideration.

The presumption in this theological claim, which I think is correct, is that no Christian church is – on the very terms of its theological existence – permitted to fall back on the mere invocation of “private property” without also a theological conversation about the spiritual significance of what that concept means and how it is being used.

Two weeks ago, I took my undergraduate class from Fordham University to Wall Street, then into Trinity Wall Street, then on a tour of Zuccotti Park, and then on to Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village to meet with Rev. Michael Ellick, a leader of Occupy Faith NYC, so that they could better understand why and how the Occupy movement raises theological questions about justice, solidarity, equal access to social resources necessary to flourishing, and how all these concerns are deeply related to theological reflection on God. I wanted them to be able to frame the matters at stake in the conversations about Occupy not only in terms of rights or property or goods or freedom, but in terms of the divine and the claiming power that it exerts on our lives according to the theological tradition. It is this very frame that I do not want to be lost in the conversation about space for the Occupy movement -- not only in New York City but around the United States and indeed around the world.

It may be that, in this interim time, another religious and/or social organization may step forward and donate space, or surrender private property, to Occupy Wall Street, and to other Occupy sites that have been evicted in recent weeks. But that will not necessarily settle the theological question raised on December 17 at the protest at Duarte Square.

I believe the right people will see the depth of the theological question, and we will make it through this impasse into a new future that surprises all of us. I hope so.

Tom Beaudoin


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joel Watson
11 years 1 month ago
"If Christ were physically among us today, as He was 2000 years ago, He would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square..."  O Stan, He WAS, and that is the very theological "skandalon" that makes those who see it "blessed."
"He came to his own and his own did not receive him..." the Christ, the God Manifest is not the one Government, Law, Rights, Power, seeks, but in the one who jumps the fence, and says "Take up your own cross, and Follow along with me... And Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do." OWS is offering us all a chance to share in showing where the world's legal justice and legal power and reasoning lead-  and indeed, there is no other Way in the Way of the World. But in the End, this is God's world, all are God's People, God's Church, God-among-us... "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Blessed are they who have eyes to see what you see" Stan, I am certain of that too!

Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 1 month ago
Beautiful!!  I loved seeing that red bishop climbing over the fence :-) ... and tears came to my eyes with the call for JUSTICE!

"Of course, there is an alternative to terrorism. It's called justice." - Arundhati Roy

This is how my friend, Dan Maguire, defines justice:

The English word justice is thin broth compared to the favored Hebrew word for justice, tsedaqah. I experienced its emotive strength one time when I traveled from New York to Washington on a train with a charming old rabbi. We had a lively conversation about all the goods and evils of the world and I sensed in him a strong moral passion for justice, a passion seasoned with a very gentle spirit. As we parted, I said, “Sir, you have in your heart the true tsedaqah.” And he winced. I wondered about that wince for a long time. But the more I studied tsedaqah the better I knew that what I said to him was, “Sir, you have beating in your chest the very heart of God.” And his humble wince said, “Too much, too much.” That’s the power of the word.

Amy Ho-Ohn
11 years 1 month ago
Occupy XXX has plenty of rich donors. Why not ask them to lease the space, instead of simply sending pizzas? If Trinity is not using it and if the liability and sanitation issues are taken care of and if they really support the mission, they should be willing to let it at a very reasonable price. If the pizza-money does not suffice, perhaps some especially-dedicated Occupiers could be persuaded to get jobs to help pay the rent.
Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 1 month ago
I'm sure that Dan would be honored, Thomas.  The quote is actually from his book, "A Moral Code for All Christians".

page 41, “A Moral Creed For All Christians”, Daniel Maguire c. 2005 Minneapolis

Dan is an ethics theologian at Marquette University, and a personal friend.
Amy Ho-Ohn
11 years 1 month ago
Anne Chapman's objection to Occupy is persuasive, but I think there is a more obvious reason the movement has so clearly failed to garner sympathy:

The analysis 99% vs. 1% is just fundamentally misguided. There are 1% who extremely wealthy; that cannot be denied. But the 99% are divided into approximately the 10-20% of truly, desperately needy people, who are on the verge of destitution or outright destitute, and the 79-89% who really just need to get their act together, stop wasting money on luxuries, pay off their debts and live within their means.

The people who Occupy things seem to come predominantly from somewhere in the 60th to 90th quantiles (integrating from zero) when one takes into account that youth, health and education are also forms of "wealth." It is nothing short of obscene to see an able-bodied, healthy, twenty-five-year-old with a university degree or two, lounging around a park all day in a sleeping bag, proclaiming that he is somehow victimized by the fact that he is not as wealthy as the 1%.

I will absolutely support any proposal to tax the 1% for the purpose of providing housing, medical care, heating oil and schools for the 10-20%. But as long as the demands are all that the 1% be hit up to provide more benefits to the 79-89%, forget it. Get a job, sell your house, ride the bus, skip the vacation, give up your cell phone, iGadgets and cable TV.

Until I see Occupy Theology spend half as much time casting its eyes downward in mercy as it spends casting its eyes upward in envy, it's just going to look like Occupy Hypocrisy to me.
JR Cosgrove
11 years 1 month ago

I have little if any sympathy for the OWS movement and find none of their objectives desirable or even reasonable.  However, I am not a big fan of Wall Street either.  As a graduate of a business school with several of my classmates working in Wall Street or realted areas, I know that many of them are quite honorable people and have contributed tremendously to our society.

Having said that, a lot of the activity that goes on is a gaming of the system which provides little benefit to the over all economy and a lot of money to those who are good at it.  I do not see this activity as particularly useful but I also do not see it as particularly harmful either.  Though some times you could point to some specific harmful aspects of it.  To give an example, a well known financial expert said that each day about 3.6 trillion dollars is traded on foreign currency exchanges and only about $300 billion or less than 10% is for actual transactions related to the movement of goods and services.  So 90% or more is for pure speculation and if one guesses correctly, he or she can literally make several million dollars in a single transaction that takes less than a day to consumate.

Our current economic malaise is not due to the enrichment of the few extremely rich on Wall Street nor to any criminal behavior on their part though there has been lots of very unethical behavior by some.  The real worry is due to systemic problems elsewhere.  Curbing the Wall Street excess may be satisfying to many but it no more than making gestures with one's fingers or hand at someone we do not like.  It makes us feel good but has done nothing positive for the underlying situation.

The other interesting thing about the so called fix through taxing the rich, is that if this was done with increased revenues to the public treasuries, little would go to relieve the disparity between the rich and the poor.  Most of our shortcomings of public revenues would go to three main places, medical expenses for the elderly or medicare, medical expensese for the poor (as long as they remain poor) and for public employee salaries.  None of which would remove the income disparity and might even create more of it because the money would be diverted from business which might employ the poor by expanding economic activity.

Finally, if one took nearly everything the rich had it would only solve all the economic worries for about a year and then what would we do.  The real solution is curbing public spending which has become voracious and maybe increasing taxes on a broader spectrum of the public.  But that does not get one votes.
Stan Chaz
11 years 1 month ago
You don’t even need to be religious to understand -and embrace- the idea that "Whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." But many in the 1%, in their blind greed and endless schemes, have forgotten and closed their eyes to this, and to what the word "society" should really mean. Because of Occupy Wall Street, we are finally talking less about CUTS and more about BLEEDING. Instead of demanding m-o-r-e budget cuts -to be borne by the middle class and poor- we are FINALLY focusing on the shameful bleeding that the poor and middle class has endured for all too long. Instead of talking about even m-o-r-e cuts in the taxes of millionaires....we are now talking about fairness and justice - about an economy and a political system that is increasingly run for the rich, and by the rich. Instead of talking about LESS government, we are talking about a government that WORKS FOR ALL OF US, not just a favored few. Thank you OWS, for reminding us that people -ordinary working people- really DO matter, and for helping open our eyes to what’s really going on in this country. Trinity Church should look deep into its collective soul, do the right thing, and help OWS. If Christ were physically among us today, as He was 2000 years ago, He would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square. Of this I am certain... 
Stanley Kopacz
11 years 1 month ago
I hope Trinity opens up to OWS.  I can understand their fears as the Powers may repeat their tactics of infiltrating the group with homeless and mentally disturbed, people who should be given care by the system but are cynically used, instead.  Cunning tactics by elitists with time to plot while drinking coffee in comfortable conference room chairs.
Thomas Rooney OFS
11 years 1 month ago
@beth cioffoletti - Your friend Dan MacGuire's  quote on Justice spoke volumes to me; just beautiful.  I was wondering if he'd give permission for me to use his quote as a subject in my blog? 

Pace e Bene,
11 years 1 month ago
Jesus climbed over that fence with you. "SO THE BAND OF SOLDIERS .....SEIZED JESUS, BOUND HIM" the gospel of John, 18:12.

Will the Trinity Church deny Jesus like Peter or will they show that they are indeed "his disciples".

It was Judas who brought the band of soldiers to arrest Jesus, likewise it was Trinity Church who had the authorities send the police to arrest those in their lot.
Anne Chapman
11 years 1 month ago
There is a difference between requesting Trinity's support and assistance and demanding it. Climbing a fence to forcibly occupy the property shows profound disrespect for the rights and beliefs of the members of Trinity Church.  Some in this movement are trying to ''force'' a specific theological understanding (their own) on Trinity Church members. They have no right to demand or force - they can ask that the leadership of Trinity meet with them to discuss their desire to occupy property owned by Trinity Church as well as to discuss gospel interpretations - but they have no right to demand either and they must respect Trinity's decisions whether or not they ''like'' them.

Many in the US are increasingly wary of the Occupy movement precisely for this reason - they ''demand'' their ''rights'' but refuse to respect the rights of others.  There is growing evidence that the rhetoric and actions of some in this movement are driving away a segment of the general population who were initially sympathetic with the general complaint.  

Thomas Rooney OFS
11 years 1 month ago
Thank you, Beth.

I of course will give full credit and reference to Mr. MacGuire.  And his Moral Code For All Christians may be my next download!
david power
11 years 1 month ago
Amy and Anne,

Sampras and Federer would not take you both on in a game of doubles I am sure.
Crystal Watson
11 years 1 month ago
I've been reading about the Trinity Wall Street subject at the Episcopal Cafe - interesting.  My question .... why is it the Anglican (St. Paul's) and Episcopal (Trinity) churches that come up for occupation - am I right in thinking that no Catholic church has been asked to offer sanctuary, and that no Catholic church has offered it?  Why not occupy St. Peter's?
C Walter Mattingly
11 years 1 month ago
Hard to add much to the well-reasoned commentary added by Anne (#8) and Amy (#10), except to note that perhaps the reason the 99% are supported by only about 33% of the public is that many citizens do not cotton to what they perceive as hypocrisy. When one of the first clear "demands" of Occupy Wall Street is to not pay their subsidized student loan obligations provided to them by the taxpayers, most Americans realize that they witnessing not so much "the biggest social movement in a generation" as another one of the many grabs for taxpayer money masquerading as a social movement, this time led by college students and graduates eager for self-aggrandizement at the expense of the taxpayers who provided them a partly subsidized benefit they sought out by illegal means.
david power
11 years 1 month ago

1980??Is this a dig at the Carter administration?.:)
Why 1980?Was that the birth of greed?.Comfortably allege? I have lost half of my life's savings thanks to all of this so less of the "comfortably" please.
I think that they could not live with the guilt of being as wealthy as the 1% and so they will settle for living a comfortable life without having to deal with the hardsdhips that are a neccessity of life.That guilt though is not a good thing.
It is slave morality and nothing more.The worst part of it all is the overly positive self-image of those who espouse this cause.
They see themselves  in a heroic light even a divine light-WWJD?No doubt he would be attempting to squat at an episcopalian church!! 
How many of them have a credit card?How many participated in the credit industry?Yeah that's right.Most.Now they cry foul.
Why aren't they sticking it to Obama like they stuck it to Bush when he was the Man?I know the answer and so does everybody here but not even on a silent night would I whisper it.I want world peace and food in every belly but do not take out the megaphone as I have no really good ideas to back up this desire.A crusade on my part might get me in some newspapers but the majority of people would just say "Get in line buddy".Is this because they are under the influence of apathy?No.

America and the rest of the world has more need of a Ford or Jobs than a Chavez or Edwards.      
Amy Ho-Ohn
11 years 1 month ago
I really am not able to sympathize with the Occupiers' hatred for "Wall Street." My savings are invested in some relatively safe mutual funds, which are managed by these demonized Wall Streeters, and I am pretty well satisfied with their performance. They have not made much these last few years, but they have not lost value either.

It is true that wealth management professionals are very well-compensated. One reason is that, like doctors, they do stressful, difficult, high-stakes work which is extremely important to their  customers. Another is that, again like medicine, there is a steep funnel effect: the few who achieve success end up with all the rewards and the many who fail end up with nothing. That is how you induce very smart people to do very important work.

If, on the other hand, "Wall Street" is a euphemism, as when one excoriates "neo-cons" or "the Lobby," then I must admit I really have no sympathy at all for that talking point, nor for anybody who talks it.

The latest from america

Richard Nixon called McLaughlin one of the only good Jesuits among “all-out, barn-burning radicals” in a conversation with Billy Graham.
James T. KeaneFebruary 07, 2023
A public policy solution to homelessness may sound good but actually make the problem worse. Who pays for that mistake? (iStock/Dejan Marjanovic)
Anyone involved in choosing public policy, directly or indirectly, must consider the possibility that the wrong option will actually make a problem worse.
Mark PiperFebruary 07, 2023
This week on The Gloria Purvis Podcast, Gloria speaks with Dr. Meg Chisolm, a Catholic psychiatrist, about mental illness and how should people of faith treat it.
The Gloria Purvis PodcastFebruary 07, 2023
A man wearing a cardinals cap speaks into a microphone
In the report made public Friday, Bishop Robert McManus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester said he felt releasing the names “will not accurately reflect the various concerns and outcomes.”