It’s the Year of the Protester: Would Santa Occupy? How About Mother Teresa?

Elsewhere on the interwebs, people have considered which religious figures would or would not be joining the drum circle at their local Occupy encampment, were they alive today. Would Jesus? (No! says Tony Perkins. Yes! says the Archbishop of Canterbury.) What about Gandhi? (Ian Desai says Gandhi would admire the Occupiers’ energy but fundamentally disagree with their tactics. Not so fast, says RD regular Ira Chernus.)

But what about other religious figures? Surely we can also hypothesize about whether they’d have supported the Occupy movement? In a spirit of nerdy parlor-game fun more than serious analysis, I’ve compiled my own hypotheses, sticking within my own tradition of Christianity since it’s the one I know best and since I don’t like plundering other people’s belief systems for levity. But I’m eager to hear suggestions.


Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas (late thrd/early fourth centuries CE) was a bishop in Myra, modern-day Turkey. One of his earliest reported miracles involved his intercession for the hungry people of Myra.

There were some ships carrying grain anchored in the harbor, bound for Alexandria. Bishop Nicholas begged the sailors to take a small amount of grain from each ship so that the people in his town wouldn’t starve. They refused, since it was all measured and the people in Alexandria would be expecting the full amount. Nicholas said that God would see to it that any grain removed would be restored by the time they got to Alexandria—and so (according to the story) it was. Another story has Nicholas secretly paying a family enough money so that the daughters would not be forced into prostitution due to poverty. He went before Constantine to (successfully!) negotiate lower taxes, because the current tax rate was crushing the poor of Myra. And to this day, his remains are said to exude a watery substance that some people collect as a holy relic. They say it smells like rosewater.

Would he be at Occupy? Despite caring for the poor, I don’t think St. Nicholas would join the Occupy movement. I don’t know that he’d see the point, since he would be able to make there be more money and less poverty, miraculously… which some days looks like the most realistic solution on which to pin our current hopes. Plus, something tells me his penchant for destroying rival religious buildings wouldn’t please many of Occupy’s major constituencies.

I do hope his doppelganger Santa Claus visits some Occupy encampments, though.



My favorite weirdo religious sect. But first, the backstory: In the fourth century, after the intermittent regional persecutions of Christians had died down and Christianity had become a legal religion, a big argument ensued. Put simply, the argument was over how bravely you ought to have acted under persecution. During the waves of anti-Christian action, some Christians had welcomed martyrdom, harassment, and imprisonment for the sake of Jesus. They refused to swear pagan oaths of allegiance, or to hand over church documents, or to rat out other Christians. This, er, did not tend to work out well for them in the short-term. Other Christians had been more cagily self-preserving: handing over fake church documents, for example, or procuring forged certificates stating (falsely) that they had performed a sacrifice to the Roman gods. And some Christians just relented and did what the Roman authorities wanted them to do.

Of course, once the persecution was over, lots of formerly-persecuted Christians were eager to become no-longer-persecuted Christians. But how high was the bar? I mean, could you come back and be a Christian if you’d cooperated with the persecutors just a few years prior, thinking that everyone would just forget that unpleasantness of a few years ago? And what if you were a priest? Or a bishop? And what if you were a priest or bishop and you’d been going around recently celebrating sacraments? Is the guy you baptized last week not really baptized, because it turns out you forfeited your Christian standing?

So the hardliners in this fight were called Donatists. The Circumcellions, meanwhile, were an independent group that joined up (some would say opportunistically) with the Donatist cause, but took it, shall we say, in new directions. If the Donatists especially admired martyrdom, the Circumcellions loooooved martyrdom. So much so, that they would try to invite martyrdom by being complete dingleheads—attacking people on the road with sticks they called “Israelites”—and hoping someone would kill them for it.

If that didn’t work they’d jump off cliffs.

Would they be at Occupy? Yes. They’d be nineteen, with black bandannas over their faces, trying to figure out what in the heck they needed to do to get arrested.


Christina the Astonishing

Christina the Astonishing was a twelfth-century Belgian woman who suffered a violent seizure that left her, by all appearances, dead. She regained consciousness at her own funeral, and then reportedly levitated into the rafters and wouldn’t come down because she didn’t like how the sinners in the church smelled. (Let’s remember that this was twelfth-century Belgium. That will be important later.)

Then she spent the next several decades telling people about her visions of heaven, hell, and purgatory; renouncing her possessions; living as a beggar; going into near-freezing water on purpose; going into furnaces on purpose; and going into thorny bushes on purpose. She lived to the ripe old age of 74. It briefly occurred to me that one of her post-mortem miracles might be that no one has yet come up with a highly self-punishing bestselling Christina the Astonishing Diet, promising long life on the strength of her example. Except then I realized that none of Christina’s austerities require a lot of disposable income or trips to Whole Foods, so that’s probably why. So never mind.

Would she be at Occupy? Oh, Christina. You of the sensitive nose and the unwillingness to be near human stank. Here you’re forcing me to contend with the “smelly protester” meme, a late but already-boring variant of the dirty hippy meme (sigh). Many Occupiers reportedly do not shower every day, or something, har har, whatever. You know, most people who’ve ever lived did not (and do not) smell like a Carolina pine forest or fresh mountain springs. (Hear that, Mr. Gingrich? Would you have told Jesus to get a job and take a bath? Hmm, I sense an idea for a future post: Famous historical figures who Newt Gingrich thinks should get a job right after they have a bath. But I digress.) No, I think the decisive question is: Do the Occupiers smell better than twelfth-century European peasants? I’m thinking probably.


Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity, devoted her life to the poor. But as her biographer David Scott points out in Revolution of Love, Mother Teresa’s mission was always to treat the effects of poverty, not to try to eradicate poverty.

Mother Teresa detractor Christopher Hitchens has suggested that she quite liked poverty (because she found a kind of theological beauty in the suffering of the poor) and that “she spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” He points, also, to her willingness to accept money from fantastically wealthy donors for whom she would then intercede before civil authority, all while keeping her order’s financial books secret.

In his book Missionary Position, Hitchens includes correspondence from 1992 between Mother Teresa and Paul W. Turley, Deputy District Attorney of Los Angeles. Mother Teresa had written to Judge Lance Ito on behalf of Charles Keating, prior to Keating’s sentencing. Keating had just been convicted of defrauding 17 people out of $900,000, although in the letter Mother Teresa claimed not to know anything about the details of the case. She simply stated that he had given generously to her order, and ask that the judge look into his own heart and ask what Jesus would do. Although her letter was addressed to Judge Lance Ito, Turley wrote back saying (among other things) that Keating had stolen vast sums of money from vulnerable people—including one poor carpenter—in order to fund his lavish lifestyle, and then suggested that Mother Teresa might also ask what Jesus would do. And should Mother Teresa decide that Jesus would want her to use Keating’s donation to restore the money he had defrauded, Mr. Keating offered to put her in touch with those individuals. He never received a reply.

Would she be at Occupy? No. One need not be a vehement Mother Teresa detractor à la Hitchens to recognize that Occupy would not be her style. Her famous cinnamon-bun likeness can’t even make an appearance, because someone stole it in 2005. At Christmastime. Bah humbug.