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an evening at Occupy Boston…

By December 5, 2011 One Comment

Occupy Boston was just a few weeks old when I trekked downtown to check out the encampment at Dewey Square. MIT professor Noam Chomsky was speaking on that Saturday night, and I figured it was as good an occasion as any to see what was really going on there. Overall, I experienced a powerful ethos of intentional hospitality and community. The hundreds of us who had shown up for the evening with no plans to set up camp were treated as welcome guests. There was a prevailing attitude of “come and see.” The library tent, medic tent, donations tent, spirituality tent, teaching spaces, and other emerging infrastructure revealed an emerging community that seemed `to be built on the hope that people could come together face to face and put their energies toward re-visioning, enacting, and speaking up for the kind of society they long to see. A society that most of us long to see, really, whether we identify with the Occupy movement or not. 

I was curious to see whether I would feel a personal connection to what was unfolding there, or whether it would feel like I was just watching from the outside. There are plenty of things that the protesters are passionate about that I have not experienced firsthand. I haven’t lost my job or my house, I have stable healthcare coverage, I’m not burdened by crushing student loan debt, I’m not a veteran, I don’t live in fear of being deported. Then again, I sure care about a lot of people for whom these things are true. And particularly as a person of faith, and a clergymember, I find that the passionate concerns of the Occupy movement echo a lot of scripture’s pleas, pleas for a society to care for its poor, its sick, its marginalized. Pleas for systems like banking and education and government to be reformed and accountable in ways that will truly serve all people regardless of their economic status. Occupy voices the deep nationwide fatigue with the way in which the inordinate power of a few is increasingly crushing the empowerment of the many.

I do resonate with some who have scoffed a bit at the movement, noting that most of America’s 99% are really not so badly off on a global scale. After all, most of us live on more than $2 a day, which is more than a very large proportion of the world’s population can say. Yes, in some ways Occupy is a “first world problem.” But it also calls a first world nation to account for its inequality. Indeed, we do have so much prosperity on a global scale. But if we really embody the democratic values we claim to cherish, we must grapple with so many things are not as they should be, and why so many of our systems are broken. It is not okay that one in five children in America is living in poverty, or that so many families struggle with hunger, that so many have lost their homes and their jobs and their access to healthcare, as meanwhile banks have been fed everything they need and executive bonuses continue to be doled out by the millions. It is not okay that racial differences are associated with so many inequalities. It is not okay that we have become a nation in which common citizens seem valued most of all for their retail purchasing patterns (tents in public squares are a nuisance but tents in preparation for Black Friday are a welcome sight) and the real work of democratic process is clutched in the hands of powerful lobbyists and corporations. The Occupy movement in this way embodies the lament that our society is “not the way it’s supposed to be,” to borrow Neal Plantinga’s nickname for our sinful state. People of faith would do well to take note of Occupy’s cry for shalom. We may disagree on what led to our current situation and what will improve it, but at the very least it seems we can agree that it is unconscionable for a nation like ours to continue with its current patterns. But of course, change produces anxiety, and many aspects of the movement are clearly threatening to the powers that be. The near-comic nature of a policeman’s unwillingness to give a protestor a hug (see the end of this article:  ), while there has been no shortage of willingness to resort to pepper spray, reflects this angst pretty well. It is evident, too, on the face of Michelle Bachman who, while speaking in Charleston, was interrupted by Occupy members in the audience who used their “mic check” technique (in which the gathered people speak in one voice) to give her some feedback of their own about the state of politics in America. ( ) “Don’t you just love the first amendment?” she is reported to have said afterward.

I enjoyed reading Jim Wallis’ “Open Letter to the Occupiers from a Veteran Troublemaker” and the way in which he ended the letter, noting that “whatever you may think of organized religion, please keep in mind that change requires spiritual as well as political resources, and that invariably any new economy will be accompanied by a new (or very old) spirituality.” Reading those words, I again recalled a conversation I had that Saturday night at Occupy Boston that left a deep impression on me. It was with a young man from Turkey, educated in Italy, now doing a post-doc at Harvard. He had been down to the Occupy encampment a few times already, and he explained to me that he was really impressed with what he saw. He marveled that the media weren’t covering it more, especially since his friends, and the media, back in western and eastern Europe seemed to be quite interested in what was happening. I asked him if he felt like a participant or an observer to this movement, since he’s not an American, and he indicated that he felt a little of both, but was drawn in by what he saw as a great expression of democracy in action, the kind of democracy for which so many others in the world are struggling. When he found out I was a minister, we talked a little about religion. He explained that his family is Muslim but that he is an atheist. After a pause, he pulled a book from his satchel. It was a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I wanted to read more about how other recent social changes happened in America,” he explained. “I think, for Martin Luther King, Jr., his religious faith was a big part of why he did what he did, right?” I enthusiastically agreed that MLK’s identity as a Christian pastor was foundational to all that he worked for in his lifetime. And I was quietly in awe of how a non-American, non-theist was being moved in this way. If the Occupy movement is, in part, a “spiritualution,” like the sign I saw on one tent claimed, surely the spiritual energy is flowing and emerging in some unlikely places.

In this season of Advent, I am reminded of how it was often “outsiders” who picked up on the spiritual significance of the incarnation, and eventually of Jesus’ ministry and death. The poor shepherds, the elite wise men, the Gentiles. The real spiritual revolution, even scandal, of God coming to earth as a human, occupying flesh, was not necessarily seen first or best by those who were steeped in religious practice. In Advent, we are invited again and again to open our ears, eyes, minds, and hearts to the coming of Jesus and his kingdom. As in the first century, many will continue to be disappointed that the messiah doesn’t bring whatever kind of political and military revolution was hoped for, but perhaps if we linger a little longer at the manger, wondering what is the “point” of God coming to pitch a tent among us in such an understated way, we just might continue to discover how God did and does use human flesh to speak truth to the principalities and powers of this world.

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