Occupy Wall Street and The Episcopal Church: a crisis of legitimation, or a movement of transformation?
By P. Joshua Griffin
Before I went to seminary my discernment committee gave me an assignment. I was relatively new to the Episcopal Church and they thought it would be a good idea if I interviewed several priests from different walks of life about their calling to ordained ministry. One of the priests I met with told me this: “I was committed to the Black Power movement. I had a full scholarship to law school and also to seminary. In the end, it seemed that my call was to the priesthood. It was the best way I could support the legitimate the grievances of the Black Power struggle—and to the extent that the Church was willing to accept that struggle as its own, legitimate the Church.”
Today our churches are facing a similar crisis of legitimacy. With our roots in an established State-church, whenever ‘power’ is in crisis, the Episcopal Church will be in crisis. Though we are concerned for ‘the oppressed,’ many parts of the Body enjoy a tremendous amount of privilege, remaining insulated from the lived experience of oppression, injustice, and violence. As an institution we enjoy a good deal of ‘spatial privilege.’ We have a lot of buildings where we worship and freely spread Christ’s Gospel of Love. We are often generous with what we have and we love to ‘speak out,’ but we are slow to take action toward those institutions that create the conditions we decry—poverty, injustice, and oppression. We focus a good deal on charity, but far less on addressing the power imbalances that render anemic the continued possibility of democracy in this fragile Republic.
The Occupy Movement is a radical-democratic movement, grounded in the principles of truth and justice, and direct action. It is the kind of movement that we venerate in history, yet many people who live comfortably fear it in the present. For my entire life, the last 30 years, our collective striving “for justice and peace among all people” has been modest because it has been divided. One church group works on racism, one on economic justice, one on climate change, one on immigration, one on Native-American wellbeing, and another one works against war—yet the struggle for justice is one. We have written letters, we have lobbied, we have voted. Ultimately we placed our faith in politicians above the Kingdom of God, and we were wrong.
Occupy is no mere ‘protest.’ The brilliance of the movement is its refusal to be reduced to specific policy demands. Occupy remains an insatiable movement of liberating creativity, an irreducible process for generating justice. Yet paradoxically, Occupy is also at it's best when it momentarily coheres into concrete demands—ie. liberating a particular foreclosed home for an unhoused family, reversing Citizens United, or closing the West Coast ports in solidarity with exploited port truckers. It is a replicable model for creating democratic space in a country and world dominated by unaccountable corporations.
We may remember from the Book of Genesis that creativity, to the uninitiated, may appear at times, as chaos. Occupy is not without its imperfections—but this is precisely why we as a church should embrace it and support it, as many have already done. Occupy Wall Street has presented Trinity Wall Street with a thoughtful, conscientious, and respectful blueprint for using a small parcel of property in order to reestablish their visible, public presence in the heart of global finance. The symbolic, or sacramental, importance of such a space cannot be overstated.
This movement is too important to be shunned to the periphery, or rendered invisible—especially with Congress’ alarming attempts this week to suppress political dissent through the National Defense Authorization Act. As Christians we have a responsibility to protect demonstrators from our governments’ reckless use of militarized policing—as evidenced by the brutal beating off a Methodist pastor in Seattle on Monday. Furthermore, it is only by embracing and engaging that we can help ensure Occupy’s commitment to nonviolence, as well as contribute our share of the spiritual resources needed for this transformational long-term struggle for justice. And finally, by providing safe-haven we can help insure participation from those communities who are so often terrorized by law enforcement—especially African-American youth and Latino/a immigrants.
Trinity Wall Street has a long history of supporting progressive dialog through its annual conference series. Over the years Trinity has used its extravagant wealth to support mission projects that serve the most vulnerable around the world. Charlotte’s Place has been a refuge for the Occcupiers even as they organize a campaign to compel Trinity to open its property to them! But let’s be honest. Like most of us, Trinity Wall Street is deeply dependent on the system that Occupy Wall Street is seeking to transform. To allow an encampment to be established on Trinity property may unfortunately require a greater depth of self-examination than the parish is willing to undertake.
This Advent, we remember a struggling migrant family who was turned away from the Inn, and a homeless infant King who was born in a stable. With Archbishop Tutu I invite Trinity to reexamine its position—there is far too much at stake. After he was ruthlessly beaten by Seattle Police on Monday evening, the Rev. John Helmiere, a chaplain at Occupy Seattle, had this message: listen deeply, get upset, and generate Love. The Episcopal Church is very good at listening, and pretty good at loving. Our ironic misfortune is that we may not have experienced enough suffering to always know when and how to get upset. Let there be peace among us, and may we not be instruments of our own, or anyone else’s oppression.
The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin is priest associate at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, OR, and a Ph.D. student integrating environmental anthropology and religious studies at the University of Washington.