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.

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9 Comments
  1. Joshua, thank you, thank you. You articulate what is in my heart but what I could never put into words as moving and eloquent as yours.

    The Occupy movement is a gift to our church, and we must not let our opportunity to embrace the gift to pass us by.

    June Butler

  2. Dianne Aid

    Griff, you mention the variety of groups working on justice issues, and you are absolutly right that they are related. We need to be collaborative, not competitive for the limited resources we have.

    It is time for us to be baptized in the fields and streets, the camps, and in communities who know how to care for one another.

  3. Ann Fontaine

    Read Kathryn Jensen’s comment at The Lead for someone who asks the questions that I have (story about +KJS And +Sisk

  4. revsusan

    Amen! And I will credit where credit is due for tomorrow’s sermon title “Listen Deeply; Get Upset; Generate Love” (Sometimes sermon procrastination websurfing actually payss off! :)

    Susan Russell

  5. An excellent statement and one not just for Trinity Wall Street, but for many of the Episcopal Churches. Thank you!

    Susan Gage

  6. Mark Kessinger

    Seems to me that Trinity Wall Street has long tried to have it two ways, neither of which is particularly compatible with the other. They are trying to be, at once, a parish church trying to live out its call and mission as a community of faith, and also an obscenely wealthy corporate commercial real estate venture. And trying to reconcile those two identities always has been, and always will be, a problem of a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. (And before anybody even says it, no I don’t buy into the ridiculous exegesis that claims Jesus was referring to a particular narrow gate to the city of Jerusalem.)

  7. Murdoch Matthew

    Perhaps this link will take you somewhere near the Kathryn Jensen comment that Ann recommends.

  8. Chris Arnold

    Back to the original interview, did I misunderstand the priorities of the priest who was interviewed, or did he or she imply that the Black Power movement came first, and the call to priesthood was an attempt to bring that viewpoint to the church?

    Onto the topic of TWS & OWS: perhaps Trinity ought to graciously offer its land, but it doesn’t have to do so. OWS might have lots of honest and real energy to it, and it might be “of the Gospel” to support OWS. But Trinity is also a living community with a complex mesh of needs, desires, and responsibilities. If they say no to the use of the park, that is their right, and I support them.

    It is a shame that OWS pushed the issue, backing Trinity into a corner and identifying them with the same powers-that-be that really should be critiqued. Instead, OWS acted as though they were entitled to the use of the park, and in so doing they lost my sympathy.

  9. Stan Chaz

    You don’t need to be religious to understand -and embrace- the idea that “Whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” But many of the 1%, in blind greed and endless schemes, have forgotten this. They have closed their eyes to what the word “society” should really means, what it can mean. But due to Occupy Wall Street, we are finally talking less about CUTS and more about BLEEDING. Instead of demanding m-o-r-e budget cuts -to be borne by the middle class and poor- we are FINALLY focusing on the shameful bleeding that the poor and middle class has endured, for all too long. Instead of talking about even m-o-r-e cuts in the taxes of millionaires….we are now talking about fairness and justice – about an economy and a political system that is increasingly run for the rich, and by the rich. Instead of talking about LESS government, we are talking about a government that WORKS FOR ALL OF US, not just a favored few. Thank you OWS, for reminding us that people -ordinary working people- really DO matter, and for helping open our eyes to what’s really going on in this country. Occupy’s attempt to occupy Duarte Square (the empty lot owned by Trinity Church), is much more than a plea for sanctuary. For like Zuccotti Park, it’s an attempt to carve out a protected space, a living conscience for the city, amid the repression. A refuge …in a city where control-freaks would sweep us under the rug, and out of the way….in a city where they would pen us in, and permit us to death….in a city that tells us to “move on, move on”….. you don’t belong, you don’t count, you don’t have a right to be here…don’t assemble, don’t block the street, don’t trespass, don’t EXIST! They would deny us, deny our lives, and deny our very futures. IF WE LET THEM. But OWS responds, both in word and in DEED, and says: we’ve had ENOUGH – we BELONG, we STAND our ground, and we DO matter! This IS our land, and we want it BACK! The word OCCUPY…says it all! That’s why OWS has captured our imagination. That’s why a living breathing OCCUPIED public space is important for OWS. Like Lady Liberty’s never extinguished torch that burns in our harbor, OWS needs to have a concrete, continuing, persistent presence.. to remind us of what we’ve lost, of what we are, and what we can be ..to affirm, illuminate, and inspire. Trinity Church, with its oft-proclaimed ideals (and its huge land holdings), should look deep into its collective soul, do the right thing, and help OWS secure a space of refuge and hope. For if Christ were physically among us today, as He was 2000 years ago, He would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square. Of this I am certain… 

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