November 16, 2011

What Christians could learn from #OWS

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In a recent conference call I was asked about my opinions on Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations arising after that. To my surprise, I had a lot more in my head about this than I would have thought. So, here's a bit of a brain dump on the subject.

It has been easy for many to write off what has been happening with the #occupy movement across the world. But are things we could, or should, learn from this phenomenon? I think Christians, or at least Protestants of all stripes, should pay attention to protests. Spiritual, ethical, moral and theological protest is a historical distinction for Protestants within the Christian family. What follows is not an attempt to wholesale validate these “occupations.”Rather, it is simply my reflection on what this movement has exposed.

Naming the problems
JR Woodward has made good points about what the #occupy movement has brought to bear and how it relates to the Christian faith. Wealth inequality is increasing. All of us know more and more people who are struggling or terribly nervous about what lies ahead. Economics and poverty are central themes within Scripture. We ought to be wrestling with these texts and living out what the Scriptures require of us regarding the poor and injustice. As Woodward puts it, “This ought to concern us as Christ followers. Jesus had much to say about wealth inequality, just check out the not so popular Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.”

Everyone has a voice, everyone has a role
From my perspective, one of the reasons why the Occupy movement is hard to understand for most people has something to do with the fact it does not flow with the typical consumer narrative. There is not a clear leader(s), there is not just one product or agenda and there is not a clear timeline. This is often what happens when everyone has a voice. The occupations have been intriguing in the fact that a multiplicity of gifts and abilities are able to participate. It reminds me a lot of what the punk rock scene was like when I was exposed to it. As Christians, we believe in the “priesthood of all believers.” What can we learn from the creative inclusions of the many in our own work?

It is (for the most part) non-violent
David Fitch has already mentioned this point here. Still, it is my conviction that fundamental and radical convictions that do not require peacemaking and resistance against violence as core aspects of that conviction will ultimately result in violence. For much of Christian history--and in the mind of its thinkers and teachers throughout time--peacemaking has been a central theme. Now, what the occupy movement has displayed is nonresistance or nonviolence, not peacemaking necessarily. That requires more than occupation of public space and more direct exchange with the “powers”. Nonetheless, these occupations have accomplished much without the use of violence. And as Fitch writes, they are “nonviolently opting out of polluted democratic structures”. Where does violence corrupt our work of sharing the good news of God’s love?

Becoming a peculiar people, or being in yet not of the world
The movement has made a clear distinction in its efforts. It internally functions and externally displays something clearly different than the status quo. This is done in great part to make a statement; the statement that the status quo is broken. We, as Christians, often go to great lengths to be culturally relevant and inoffensive. This, in most cases I think, comes from a good conviction. But it is often poorly exercised. We end up being indistinguishable from the rest of the culture we are within. What might we learn about this movement that reminds of our protest-ant roots?

On Movements:
Don’t call it a movement until it’s a movement
I’m increasingly annoyed by folks that call their new Christian work a “movement.” From my perspective, Christians don’t start movements. We believe the Holy Spirit does. The “movement” begun at Pentecost was ignited by the Holy Spirit. Not Peter or the disciples. The other thing that troubles me is that we call things a movement before they really are a movement, something in which the ideals and values of something move beyond its leaders and initial context and become cross-contextual, based on those ideals—not leaders and resources. #Occupy became that. Most “missional movements” are small networks, not movements.

Real movements often have slow starts and quick endings
From a Western perspective, the #occupy movement owes much of its impetus to the work of Adbusters and its founder Kalle Lasn. (BTW, Lasn’s Culture Jam, is a worthwhile read) Adbusters coined the “occupy” term last summer but obviously didn’t see it realized until months later. And the kind of thing now happening with these occupations is something they’ve long imagined in their work. All this to say, that movements frequently have small and long beginnings that suddenly, and unexpectedly, take off with a life of their own. But the opposite is often true of their endings.

What #OWS could learn:
Listen to yet don’t idealize your elders
So much of what is currently happening comes from high ideals. I applaud high ideals. I’m an idealist myself. But high ideals often repeat history. When I look at this movement I want to know what kind of dialog is happening with the previous generation of protesters. Obviously, many of those protesting during the 60’s grew up and became a part of what they were previously protesting. Is the question being asked what to learn from that movement? What can be avoided? Etc. I see the same problem in many progressive, and “emerging” Christian circles. They are doing the same thing that another generation did. Are you sure you want to do that? Visit most mainline churches today and you will find a lot of dying churches. Are you asking what happened, what went wrong and are you willing to be critical enough of yourself to determine whether or not you are taking steps than will commit you to the same errors? That may be happening. I’m just asking because it does not seem evident to me.

Know who you are
Part of the reason why the Civil Rights movement worked in many respects is because they trained, knew what they wanted and went after that. Its so postmodern to have no agenda, but all agendas. (Sorry, that was snarky) But at the end of the day, I don’t know what results will come of that. It’s okay to not let every agenda co-opt a movement. It seems important, to me at least, that folks involved in this to know what they want and how they imagine getting it. Christians, in particular, who find themselves to be a part of this movement need to know when this fits within their understanding of the Christian narrative and when they go separate ways. Its not an easy decision to make. But it still has to be made, in my opinion. Its okay to say, “I’m with you on [fill in the blank] agenda because it aligns with I see the Father doing. But I cannot participate in [fill in the blank] because it does not fit with the Father’s agenda.” In fact, its not just okay. I think we have to do that.

Nonviolence is only half-way to peacemaking
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus didn’t just teach a way to resist non violently, he taught a way to make peace with enemies. I applaud the urge to go about things without violence (where that has been the case). But there is more excluding the option of violence than avoidance. I recommend Glen Stassen’s Just Peacemaking for starters.

“Occupation” means much the same as “colonialism” in many parts of the world
Just a thought, does “occupy” neglect the terms historical implications in many parts of the world? I would not want to live in an territory occupied by someone else. As a Christian, I would not want my enemies to either.

Today, it frequently doesn’t start in the West
It seems to me that is a bit na├»ve if one were to think that the protests, and revolutions, that arose in the Middle East had nothing to do with the #occupy movement. Locked deep within our Western imaginations we tend to think that everything begins with us. In truth, the marketing and consumerism of the West does have global impact. But due to globalization it’s a two way street now. And it would seem likely to me that much of the imagination of what we now see was sparked by what we saw in the Middle East. Which leads me to my next thought.

We are not the 99%
As a visual shared by Anthony Bradley makes clear, those protesting are not the 99% of the world suffering from abject poverty. This should be taken into consideration. Is this being brought to the forefront simply because the economic crisis is now impacting those of us in the States? Because it has effected many more--mostly in the southern hemisphere--for much longer. How does such an effort as #occupy impact their dire situation? Especially when considering the situation in many other parts of the world, are we grateful for what we do have? This is not to disregard the high unemployment and growing number of those below the poverty line in the States. I am well aware of that as I see the face of homelessness in San Diego change. I simply want to point out that we much more than we often think when we consider the global community. This leads to my last thought.

Protest in the real world
Let me be clear before I make this next point, protestants can, and have made an impact. The demonstrations during the Civil Rights movement, for example, were critical to draw attention to the injustice of racism. Yet, the “living protests” of Clarence Jordan and those of the Koinonia Farms was just as critically important as the demonstrations. Why? They envisioned another way to be human after the protest was over. How can the current critique being articulated and demonstrated be shaped into tangible, sustainable ways of living differently?