"Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." ~ T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton"

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The End of Occupy?

A lot of you will wonder why I am writing about the Occupy movement on this blog. Well, there are actually a lot of reasons that it appears here. But I’ll give you one or two. Last semester one of the students in my religion and environment class asked me if he could write about capitalism as a religion and its relationship to our food production and consumption. And I let him. He made a good case that our approach to money and to capitalism as a system has led to things like factory farming, overly genetically-modified foods, and the fact that healthy foods are much more expensive than junk foods, which are slowly killing people in this country, most often the poorer populations. Around the same time that he was working on this paper, the Occupy movement was also flowering. And so he went down to the encampment in McPherson Square in Washington, DC and conducted interviews, talking to the people there who were protesting capitalism’s more problematic qualities.

At the same time I was watching all of this: the protestors in Zuccotti Park in New York, those in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square in DC, and those around the country. And something long dormant was stirring in me. My friend, Jeremy, was becoming involved in the encampment at McPherson Square. One day he told me that he and a few other people had set up a “prayer tent” and were having a prayer service every Saturday at noon. He invited me to come. I hesitated initially, trying to figure out what was happening inside of me, what this thing was that was waking up, and whether I should listen to it. I was moved by what I saw in the Occupy movement, troubled by many of the police responses and equally troubled by the silence of the establishment regarding the movement…but I was not yet sure if I was ready to join it.

Then the day before Thanksgiving I spent the day making bread with a friend and at the end of a peaceful day, doing something very simple, but deeply meaningful for me (perhaps at some point I will write something here about making bread), I decided to listen to music as I cleaned the kitchen after my friend left. I pulled up Dar Williams in iTunes, a bit on a whim as I had not listened to her since college, and this song came on.

The next night, after the Turkey had been cleared away and everything was quiet, I wrote this as a Facebook Note to the people whom I thought might understand what was happening in me:

Last night as I was working in my kitchen, making pie crusts and attempting to figure out how to cook a turkey for the first time in my life, this song came up on the computer. I had forgotten about it...and about how in college I could barely listen to it without crying. This was at the time that I was giving speeches about sweatshop labor, leading boycotts against Wal-Mart, and having recurring nightmares of nuclear annihilation. Now about ten years later, I have been reminded of the power and meaning of protest, first by the Occupy movement and then again, more personally, by this song that still encompasses everything I feel about this idea, except now I can add to it economic inequality and dysfunction in a way that I could not before.  These lines resonate the most with me...and what has happened to me, what I have chosen, in the last ten years and what is being awakened in me as I observe the Occupy movement:

And I am your children; I am millions.
And I wanted to sell out, I wanted to try,
but the sky got too low and the ocean got too high.
I tried to take God into my own hands.
Is it too late? Is it over?
Have I sacrificed my family to the great unknown?
There's a war between my conscience and the great unknown.

I am grateful for many, many things this Thanksgiving, but what I am most grateful for this year is that I feel like I have my conscience back in a way that it had been absent from me before. I pray that I may make good use of it.

Those words from that night have stuck with me. The next weekend, I was at Jeremy’s Occupy Church meeting in the Square…and the week after that I was leading the meeting. And I stayed because what I found there was something I had been working toward for most of my theological career…if not my entire Christian life: ecumenical community and care for the poor. Around a small circle sat myself, a Roman Catholic, Jeremy, a Nazarene, a Greek Orthodox man, and people of other various denominations and backgrounds, praying and singing together…and reaching out to others in a very tangible way. I couldn’t help but think that this is where Jesus would be.

I won’t claim to have been very involved in Occupy as an encampment. By the time I had become involved with Occupy Church the encampment was already collapsing. I was nervous to be there alone as it had become something of a haven for sexual predators and substance abusers, though there were still very good, thoughtful people involved. But that being said, almost immediately after I began to go on Saturdays, the People’s Pentagon was raised. On that Sunday evening, I rushed to the park on my bike to be there in solidarity with the encampment as the police took it down. And something else changed on that bike ride. As the wind rushed by my face and my fingers froze in their gloves and I pedaled hard against the wind, I thought of my own social justice tradition within Catholicism. I thought of the Berrigan brothers going to prison in protest of the Vietnam War; I thought of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker houses; I thought of the Jesuits who began the protests of the School of the Americas; I thought of St. Francis, whom I chose for my confirmation name for his simple love of earth and people; I thought of how he abandoned the comfort of the city of Assisi to care for the poor and the lepers who had been left for dead outside of its walls, and on and on and on. And on that bike ride, I knew that I could not go back.  I would enter this part of my tradition; I would follow Christ in this way…and I might get arrested as so many before had. Maybe even that night.

I did not get arrested with the people resisting the demolition of the People’s Pentagon. And I still have not been. I won’t pretend that I am not afraid of that, but I hope that when the time comes, I will do it if it comes to that. Something in me is now demanding that.

But that is my personal story. The encampment at McPherson Square is now gone, dismantled yesterday by the Parks Police. But for me Occupy is so much bigger than a group of tents around a statue. Occupy is the call to wake up, a call to action, a call to conscience. A call to dismantle in my own heart the encampment that capitalism has established there…and a call to dismantle the same encampment in my church and all Christian churches, and the country as a whole. Because if my student is right, and capitalism has become a religion, then we can no longer worship that false idol. This is what Occupy is to me: a call to conversion and in a very real since to revival, not in the way that word has been tossed around in Christianity, but in a way that really does revive us to live whole, healed lives within ourselves and with those around us. At its best Occupy is a call to a better community in which we care for one another and don’t abandon people because of their social class, their education, or their mental state…at its worst, it fails at this spectacularly as we have seen. But even in that failure, the dream of a better world remains, and so does the call: the call to Occupy our churches and restore the social justice aspect of our faith that has always been there but perhaps lain dormant and to empower the social justice work that has always happened…but also the more profound call, without which social justice work cannot occur, which is the call to our own continued conversions. The call to rip our hearts away from capitalism’s pride and greed. The call to heal the world…because a better world is possible.

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