Posted by: Titus Presler | December 7, 2011

Mission and the Occupy Movement

Christian engagement with the global Occupy Movement – dedicated to challenging oppressive power structures, especially those controlled by what the movement characterizes as the richest 1% of the world’s population – has proceeded by fits and starts.  This is what one would expect when a new movement springing out of nowhere suddenly seizes the high ground on territory that another movement – the Christian movement – should have seen as its native perch of prophecy, that is, proclamation that challenges oppression.  The church was caught napping and has been trying to catch up.

Theologically, the gist of the Occupy Movement is thoroughly in accord with Christian mission’s concern with justice – fair distribution of the world’s resources and of the fruits of people’s labor – and with the liberation needed to ensure justice.  “How does the Church pursue its mission?” asks the Episcopal Catechism, and it answers: “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love.”  Justice is the anchoring concept in that closing trio of terms, for there can be no peace or even genuine love without justice.  “Justice is love distributed” was William Temple’s shorthand definition.

Yesterday’s Daily Lectionary Old Testament reading from Amos put the church’s call into dramatic relief as Amaziah the temple priest at Bethel is depicted as telling Amos to leave the premises and prophesy elsewhere because his declamations were disturbing Jeroboam of Israel.  “O seer,” he tells Amos, “go, flee away to the land of Judah . . . and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (see Amos 7.10-17).  Right there we see the intertwining of religion and state power that chokes off religion’s ability to challenge economic, cultural and political structures that reserve power to elites and oppress the rest of the population, especially the poor.

Unfortunately, the first Christian engagement with the Occupy Movement that became major news exhibited just such a choking off in the form of the opposition mounted by St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, to the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters camped on the plaza outside the Anglican edifice and declaiming from its front steps.  It was difficult to imagine how the situation could have been more mishandled in both vision and management.  In vision, St. Paul’s lost an opportunity to stand out as a major Christian institution affirming the substance of the occupiers’ critique of the global economic system, a critique thoroughly in accord with the societal critiques mounted by Amos, John the Baptizer and Jesus, among other biblical worthies.  In management, St. Paul’s was startlingly inept as it alienated the occupiers through mixed messages, unnecessarily closed the cathedral for a period, and identified itself with the governmental structures of the City of London.

On one hand, this was not surprising in a state-established church, and it illustrated how state establishment inevitably brings on Amos-Amaziah-type situations.  On the other hand, the Church of England has critiqued societal and governmental actions often enough in other situations that the St. Paul’s debacle was surprising as well as disappointing.

Visiting the London occupation in late October, I was impressed by the juxtaposition of the scruffy encampment with the magnificence of the 1710 Christopher Wren structure.  Yes, it was clear even then that zealous and focused occupiers had a considerable admixture of unfocused and possibly confused hangers-on who were there for the food and company, a phenomenon common in USAmerican occupied sites as well.  Yes, I wondered whether the cathedral was being victimized by protesters who saw the church as a soft touch, whereas they would very swiftly have been ejected from the premises of the London Stock Exchange, their real target.

Yet it was equally clear to me that this was an opportunity for the church to reappropriate a gospel mission.  In the face of the church’s endowments, in the face of its historic complicity at many points with structures of oppresssion both at home and abroad, here was an opportunity to stand in solidarity with the protesters and proclaim what the church truly stands for amid the economic inequalities of today: solidarity with the oppressed and society-wide justice.  On this particular occasion, in fact, the one person declaiming at the cathedral steps was someone preaching on Jesus’ views of wealth and poverty – not preaching terribly well, but nevertheless preaching.

In the event, the cathedral’s leadership had to be overhauled.  Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams delayed any substantive statement until way too late into the crisis: a day after the cathedral suspended legal action to evict the occupiers, he published a statement supporting a tax on bankers.  He is now is reported to be saying that Jesus would be “there” with the protesters this Christmas, “sharing the risks, not just taking sides.”  The Church of England came out of the debacle with its gospel credibility badly bruised.  Meanwhile, the London occupiers say they intend to stay into the Olympics next summer, and today comes the news that they have launched their own record label.

In New York City, where the Occupy Movement started, Trinity Church is wrestling with the request by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) to use for a winter encampment a piece of property, Duarte Square, that Trinity owns some distance away from the church.  On Sunday Rector James Cooper talked with the congregation about the parish’s relationship with OWS, which includes hospitality of various kinds and other forms of support, but he stated that Trinity will not make Duarte Square available, a position put in writing on the parish website.

This past weekend I was struck by the tents of Occupy Harvard set up in front of the iconic statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard, where I was preaching in Memorial Church and offering a forum on the work of Edwardes College in Peshawar.  After the liturgy, there was a well attended session at which the protesters were invited to share their perspectives with the congregation, a helpful and important gesture opening up dialogue between the protest and the university’s congregation.

Meanwhile students at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, are creating an inter-faith chaplaincy at the Occupy Austin protest, reportedly the first such effort emanating from an Episcopal seminary, though students at ecumenical Union Theological Seminary in New York have stood in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protest.  I am heartened by the Austin students’ outreach from a seminary that I headed for several years.

The Occupy Movement is far from perfect, as many commentators have observed.  It can be seen variously as opportunistic and exhibitionistic, leaderless and diluted by mixed constituencies.

Yet I’m grateful to the Occupy Movement because it puts into visible and tangible form the Amos-like outrage we should all be feeling at the economic disparities of today.  What sort of disparities?  You’ve seen countless lists, but here are just two items.  Domestically, corporate executives in the USA today generally make 110 times as much as their average workers, whereas just decades ago that was a factor of 30.  Internationally, in a world of now 7 billion people, well over a billion live in absolute poverty, defined as living on less than $2 a day.  The movement puts into visible and tangible form the Amos-like outrage we should all be feeling at how the world continues to suffer from the financial meltdown of 2008 while those responsible have never been held to account and, indeed, have continued to accumulate vast wealth.

Have I been marching since 2008?  No.  Have I been haranguing my governmental representatives since 2008?  Intermittently but not consistently.  The Occupy Movement reminds me of my duty.

Amos’s outrage was a theological outrage as well as a humanitarian outrage.  God does not intend us to be living this way.  God is outraged.  Thus my response is not only my duty but my discipleship, and that has everything to do with mission.


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