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Occupying Faith: What Occupy Can Learn From the Mistakes of The Church

A celebrated Occupy chaplain weighs in on Jesus, the failures of Christianity, and the future of Occupy

Photo Credit: Scott Moore


I’m a clergy, baptized with pepper spray after a Seattle police assault while trying to keep the peace in the midst of an ugly confrontation.  Back in the day before the State crushed the Occupy encampments, I'd venture into them, amazed at how the occupiers looked out for each other.  No one was left out: the mentally ill, the homeless, the drug addicted, the alcoholic, the young and the old were all folded into the community. Granted, much of this benevolence was funded through the generosity of countless of comfortably-housed sympathizers that wanted to support the movement. But it was, in my opinion, as close as I’ve ever seen to the utopianism of the early Christian church, when believers held all things in common.

That’s how the original Jesus Movement started, back before the Roman state got involved and launched Christianity 2.0.  After that, it quickly evolved into institutional forms that couldn't retain its revolutionary fervor. Today, I see the Occupy Movement struggling through a similar phase. Here in Seattle, we wrestle over the ethical issue of tactics. Do we remain committed to nonviolence, or experiment with a diversity of resistant forms?  Do we expend energy on a million causes; or focus on one core issue -- for example, the dismantling of Citizens United?  Do we retain the self-governance of the early anarchic energy of the camps, hoping that a spark will flare up into transformative change?  Or do we negotiate alliances for the institutional reform of the system, choosing to compromise for small victories on the road to long-term change?

These questions are deeply familiar to those of us who know the radical history of the early Christian church. And they suggest that, in this spiritual but unchurched time, a partnership between the Occupy Movement and progressive religious institutions of justice would be both mutually enriching and also enormously creative.  In the words of Joan Rivers: “Can we talk?” 

We have much to talk about because we have so much in common.  When Occupy wants to dismantle the power of Corporations, the progressive justice church has ancient sacred strategies of resistance to Principalities and Powers.  When Occupy promotes Main Street over Wall Street, the church has narratives of the debt-cancelling Jubilee that calls for the revolutionary redistribution of wealth, and the ending of both aristocracy and generational poverty.   When Occupy faces down the police, the church has centuries of teachings on nonviolence, martyrdom and anti-imperialism.   The Occupy Movement can breathe its Spirit-inspired fire into the old, tired bones of the progressive church.  And the old progressive church can offer its wisdom of knowing how to endure despite persecution, knowing how to keep the vision alive while accommodating incremental change, knowing how to build cross-class alliances with a determined patience while keeping our eye on the prize. 

After all, there's nothing Occupy is going through that we haven't already survived. And we’re still here, after all these years -- despite all the divisions and discord, scandals and betrayals, abuses and hierarchal sabotage.  We're still out there offering sanctuary for immigrants, advocating for and building social safety nets, warning against war, promoting marriage equality, and articulating a vision of ecological co-operation. We're housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, visiting those imprisoned, counseling war resistance, organizing to ban nuclear weapons, celebrating inclusive marriage, and bundling together resources and assets to rebuild communities crushed by environmental and political disaster.  There is still revolutionary power even in this compromised institution. Our stubborn survival proves that.

Occupy, in my opinion, is a spiritual movement still in its birthing stage.  It is not yet what it will be, even though it is no longer what it was.  When the original Jesus Movement burst upon the scene, its followers had to decide whether they were a vanguard leading into a new way of life despite persecution and condemnation, or reformers tinkering with the system hoping that it would be less oppressive. The Occupy Movement now faces the same dilemma. Will it offer a whole new way of life, a new vision of how society is structured, a value system of meaning that pulls people together towards common purpose and desire?  Will it, for example, redefine property rights to include the right of a river to run free of pollutants?  Will it redefine borders so that immigration is no longer a relevant word?  Will it redefine wealth so that neither an aristocracy nor generational poverty exist?  Will it redefine economy so that commonwealth trumps segregated wealth?  In other words, will the Occupy Movement evolve into a vanguard that fundamentally transforms, and radically restructures the American way of life? 

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