Note: The purpose of this blog is not political debate. I have no desire to argue the merits of the Occupy movement. I am attempting to look at the movement in the same way I attempt to look at everything else - in light of the teachings of Christ. Let’s talk about that.
I am not an expert on the Occupy movement. I am not an expert on economic theory or practice. I am a pastor, and it was with a pastor’s heart and mind that I spent several hours on the weekend after Thanksgiving at the site of Occupy Boston. My son Luke, who had visited the encampment several times, was my guide. What I am writing here is my first attempt at theological reflection of that experience. That it has taken me ten days in order to get to this point is indicative of how significant this experience was to me. I needed time to ruminate on all I saw, heard, and learned.
First, for those who have not been to an Occupy site, there are several things you need to know. While I was only at Occupy Boston, my understanding is that there are similarities to other sites.
* Folks are there for a variety of reasons. As one person who is supportive of the cause told me, “There are some people here just to camp out and smoke pot.” That did not surprise me. When I was involved with anti-Vietnam War protests, there were some there for similar reasons. And when I was involved in anti-abortion protests, I knew one young man who was there to meet women.
* There is age and educational diversity at the Occupy sites. I saw young adults, middle-aged, senior adults, and folks who, due to their homeless situation, made guessing their age difficult. We heard folks who could barely put sentences together - some likely due to the above-mentioned consumption of marijuana, but also because of a lack of education. I also heard literate, reflective, nuanced commentary by highly educated people with considerable experience in academics and monetary policy. Of course, this is Boston, where I have known people with doctorates working behind lunch counters.
* Occupy is far greater than simply those at the encampment. Most of the people who are supportive of the movement are staying at home, going to work and school, and connecting through social media and Occupy events. The size of this support will become more obvious as Occupy transitions from the encampments to rallies and other protest events.
* It is understandable that the Occupy movement has not translated well when interpreted through traditional media. Their practice of “horizontal democracy” means there is not a single voice, a leader to offer soundbites for TV. Into this vacuum the news media grabs whatever it can, such as the video of the college student who wants his loans forgiven, or the scenes of inappropriate violence when the camps have been forcibly moved by the authorities. This no more fully represents the totality of the Occupy movement than was Penn State University accurately represented by the students who protested the firing of Paterno, or sports fans well represented by violence after a championship, or all police officers represented by a few who have treated Occupy participants with too much force.
For me, there were several valuable insights gained from spending time at the encampment.
It seems the one thing that all those present in the camp had in common was a sense of disenfranchisement. They feel disconnected from the political and economic powers that seem to control their lives. They believe that the opportunities they were told are available to Americans are, in reality, available to only a few. They believe the teaching that we can trust in corporations and institutions to make life better is a lie. I heard a conversation concerning the relationship between big business and government. “Remember, corporations are only responsible to make money for share-holders, not to do what’s best for the country. That’s the government’s job. But the government is only doing what’s best for the corporations!” While there is certainly room for disagreement, that statement gives you a sense of the perspective of many involved with Occupy. They are angry with the large corporations, but they feel betrayed by the government.
When we were at Occupy Boston, we listened to a time of “open mic,” when anyone could come up and speak. There were some literate and thoughtful statements, some folks sharing their personal stories, and some comments that were barely coherent.
I thought to myself - what if I went up and took my turn at the mic, and told them who I am and what I do? What if I told them that I want to pray for them? What if I told them that I care about them, and that my church cares about them? My sense was - I would be rejected out of hand. As I listened to the speakers, I came to the realization that the church, or at least how the folks there understand the church, is part of the problem. Many of those involved with the Occupy movement believe that the church has hypocritically spoken the language of love and then lived it out in ways that only reached a few. We have spoken out with boldness about the evil of some sins, while being silent and even supportive - in their minds - of other sins. We have declared some people, even and especially some within the encampment, to be the enemy of God and the church - due to sexual identity and political perspective. We have given up our prophetic role that was beautifully spoken during the civil rights movement (albeit by only a minority of churches) and have become simply a voting bloc within the political process. It was my sense, as I stood there listening to the voices of the Occupy campers, that in my role as a pastor - as a person connected to the church - I am the enemy. I am part of the problem.
But what about my other role - my more important role? What about my life as a simple follower of Jesus? I not only think Jesus would be accepted and welcomed at Occupy; I think it is where Jesus would choose to be.
Those of us familiar with the life of Christ know that Jesus found acceptance with those in his society who were disenfranchised. They responded to his love and teachings in ways that the power brokers and comfortable of his day did not. They did not fit in with those who claimed to be connected to God, yet they found grace and acceptance at the feet of the One who is God. And they enjoyed the moments when Jesus spoke out against the political, economic and religious leaders who relegated them to the trash heap of society.
So - if Jesus would be accepted in this place, and I would not be accepted as a leader of the church, what is the problem? Is the problem with them? Or is the problem with me?