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

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? 

Or will the fire damp down into a smaller vision of reform that will save capitalism from its excess, essentially redeeming a system sinking under the weight of its own contradictions?  Will a few token successes like minimal banking reform, or the cancellation of student debt, or mortgage assistance, turn Occupy from a visionary movement into the political practice of realism aimed towards the renewal of the FDR wing of the Democratic Party?  

This, I think, is the difficult terrain Occupy has to now navigate.  Although the Movement still carries a wide, sympathetic base of popular support, it is this very depth that becomes its problem.  On the one hand, it was originally the young and disenfranchised who carried the flame that reawakened political consciousness in this country.  The cry from the encampments was to radically alter the economic and governing structures of a system felt to be monstrous.  This cry crept up into the middle class, awakening them to their own insecurity and vulnerability.  

But, on the other hand, the middle class doesn't really want radical alterations. Like it or not, what the middle class wants is reform, a yearning to return to an old way: a way of stable employment even if that employment is wrecking the earth and is dependent upon militaristic imperialism. It is a way of life that gives the shrinking middle more toys, more money, more access to privileges. The beneficiaries of this system don't want an end to capitalism, nor even an end to global corporations. Basically, they just want the dream of a stable job, home ownership, reliable health care, and the ability to get their kids through school while saving for retirement.

Many who committed to the encampments desired a new way of life; but the well-housed sympathizers mostly just want the old ways to be renewed. The campers desire a world that moves towards holding all things in common, a world of military stand-down, and a world of no more borders.   This is not the vision of the majority who admire the courage and passion of the campers, but who do not share the communal values originating there.  Most of the 99% still want private property and segregated, hierarchal wealth.  

As a pepper-sprayed clergy my heart is with the anarchic energy of the campers. But I serve an institution whose heart is with incremental reform, not revolution. And that’s why I think Occupy and the progressive justice church need each other. Both of us have narratives of revolutionary desire, yet both of us are embedded in diverse movements of conflicting values.  It’s not just the 1% who need to be tossed off their thrones.  It is also the 99% who need a radical conversion of desire if all of creation is to survive and thrive.  

Throughout Central and South America, and in East Germany before the fall of the Wall, movements of resistance met within church buildings to strategize for the liberation they sought.   I think a creative partnership should be forged between the progressive justice church and the Occupy Movement that would benefit us both in our efforts to rid this nation of its governing malfeasance and awaken a changed national consciousness.  And it is a long game.  It took the state-corporate forces of neo-fascism forty years to effect their American coup-de-etat.  It may also take us decades to undo the damage, and re-root the tree of liberty. 

What will liberty look like in 2020, 30, 40?  Instead of the evil Koch Brothers calling the shots, will we settle for the descendants of nice-guy Warren Buffet or pseudo-intellectual George Soros to govern a softer cage? Instead of Jeb Bush’s son running for President, will we settle for Malia, Sasha or Chelsea?   Will it be business as usual, just different?

We need to talk and work together. Specifically, Christians need to get out of their churches, join the marches and participate in the GA, and offer their buildings to Occupy for the use of meetings, and strategy sessions, and for nurturing each other.  The progressive justice church can be a bridge connecting the majority who will never march and who fear direct action with those whose actions need a larger network of support and wisdom. And the Occupiers, in turn, might look to our example -- both the lessons we learned the hard way, and the strategies that have enabled us to survive anyway -- for ideas about how to navigate the transition they're now facing.

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