For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘religion

Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, Viking: New York, 2007, 238 pp.

Speaking of FaithI don’t listen to Krista Tippett’s On Being nearly as often as I wish I could, so I was grateful for a chance to connect with her and her show in print form. Speaking of Faith is part personal and professional memoir for Tippett, tracing her own family and religious history alongside remembrances and insights from her radio interviews across the years. More than that, though, it is an ambitious prescription for how to speak about faith in a way that opens and connects, rather than closes and divides. It was this perspective that I found especially helpful at this particular moment in life and ministry, as I serve in a congregation with a wide variety of Christian backgrounds and search for language to engage a secular city.

Tippett begins with the premise that religion and religious life matters, because there remain questions that only religion can address, “how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to one another.” (4) Engaging with Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer and Wiesel, she writes:

We’ve consigned God to the gaps in our scientific understanding, to the wings of our action. We’ve reserved prayer for when our best efforts fail. Bonhoeffer said we would have to rethink the very forms and vocabulary of faith if we were to keep it alive in the center of life, in the middle of the village. (41)

Drawing on her own experience in communist East Germany, she observes that regimes that exert excessive control over people’s outer lives can cultivate rich inner lives within those same people, yet it seems that people in power often have inner lives that are the most impoverished. (45) I found this reminder of religion and spirituality as cultivating a rich inner life a particularly important insight for the work within my own congregation.

Tippett later develops this concept as having “eyes to see and ears to hear.” While that borrows Christian language, she finds the concept in every religious tradition she has engaged.

Something mysterious happens when you train your eyes to see differently, your ears to hear differently, to attend to what you have been ignoring. The experienced world actually changes shape. (115)

This is as good an understanding of prayer and spiritual practice as any I have heard–engaging in spiritual disciplines changes our experience of the world.

Tippett structures the conversations in her broadcast around first-person narrative theology, inviting people to speak the truth they know without condemnation of others. Always navigating fundamentalist or domineering perspectives, she quotes Martin Marty, who does not divide the world into conservative and liberal but “mean and non-mean.” (161) Fundamentalism does not accurately represent any faith tradition. Both conservatives and liberals can practice and articulate their faith in ways that are mean or non-mean. This seems a constant good measure of our faith.

Tippett’s book was interesting and insightful, though not life-changing. I enjoyed it, and recommend it as a good perspective, especially for those who might be outside of faith and looking for a way to engage and understand what is happening in the lives of religious people of all stripes.

 

 

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperOne,2014, 200 pp.

Learning to Walk in the DarkThis book was not what I expected. As always, because it is Barbara Brown Taylor, it was beautifully written, with deep observations and insights, God-tinged at every turn. However, I expected darkness in this book to be far more metaphorical. Taylor’s previous two books, Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, were about her journey into a new and unexpected future outside of traditional ministry and church. I expected this to be an exploration of that new and unknown reality. However, Taylor–ever ready to surprise–responds to her quest with an engagement in real, physical darkness. She literally walks in the dark, in a variety of ways, and then reflects on what she has learned.

One important note (which probably would be more fitting at the end of this review, but preoccupied me and might preoccupy you, so I’ll address it first): How does Taylor address the historic dualism between light and dark, which expands to divide white and black, male and female, good and evil, with one side of the duality always paired with good and the other evil? That equation of darkness with evil has deep implications in the systemic racism, fear and distrust of people of color throughout the world. To neglect addressing it would be to perpetuate it. Taylor does address it, and quickly. While I would have liked more depth in her examination of that painful history in metaphor and reality, she does not ignore it and handles it enough to make me continue reading without a feeling that something important was unacknowledged. More, though, the whole book itself turns out to be a reclaiming of the dark as a place of beauty, a place of God. The fundamental trajectory of the book is her insistence that God is not only light, God is also dark. God dwells in the darkness, not just to illuminate it, but because darkness is also of God and a path to God. So, in the end, her book contributes helpfully to overcoming that anti-darkness legacy, even though I still would have welcomed a more explicit unpacking of that particular part of history.

Taylor begins by identifying darkness as “anything that scares me,” which seems problematic given the issues I just raised, and, again, I do not thing she adequately addresses it. However, she goes on to name the problem almost immediately after, and then to offer her critique of “full solar spirituality:”

…a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. (7)

The danger of this “full solar spirituality” is that darkness or sorrow or trouble in your life becomes a symptom of weak faith. Taylor contrasts this with “lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the seasons.” (9) This book then asks,

What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights? Did I have faith enough to explore the dark instead of using faith to bar all my doors? (9)

The first chapter invites the reader to consider his or her own personal history of the dark, hearkening back to childhood relationships and fears of the dark. It contains one of the most insightful lines of the book, quoted from James Bremmer:

Courage, which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous. (37)

Darkness is the perfect source.

The subsequent chapters look at the scriptures for important events that take place in the night (there are many–think of how much God speaks through dreams); at the ways we are “hampered by brilliance” and need the darkness of night to thrive; and the so-called “dark emotions.” She explores the work of psychiatrist Miriam Greenspan, who sorts out the differences between depression and “dark emotions.” The problem is not the emotions themselves; it is our inability to tolerate them.

When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights… There are no dark emotions, Greenspan says–just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act. (78)

Later in the chapter, she discussed the work of Ken Wilber, who talks about the different functions of religion as translation (helping people understand  and find hope in their hardships to strengthen their selves) and transformation (dismantling the self and dislocating comfort). In American culture, “translation is being marketed as transformation, which is why those who try to live on the spiritual equivalent of fast food have to keep going back for more and more.” (88) I have found this to be a key part of my own ministry. I am often the only person in situations of grief or tragedy that is comfortable sitting with the person in their sorrow, not attempting to fix anything or even hurrying them through or making things easier, better, comforting. As Christians who follow a God who died on a cross, I think we should be far more skilled at being present to discomfort and suffering than we are.

Taylor then moves into more physical experiences of darkness, such as a “blind restaurant” exhibit and a spelunking adventure, before turning to St. John of the Cross, the via negativa and the “dark night of the soul.” She discovers herself moving away from all she thought she grasped about God, toward a mysterious trust in the presence of God even when she feels only the absence of God.

When we can no longer see the path we are on, we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. (147)

Learning to Walk in the Dark is a book about loss, but it manages to avoid being heavy or weighty. Sometimes, I even longed for it to feel a little more hefty. Instead, loss becomes a companion, like darkness, that we need not fear or carry as a burden, but journey with along life’s way. This book is full of all the richness Taylor provides, but without much of the depth of scripture study we have seen in her “churchier” works. It would find an easy home among the “spiritual but not religious,” while also opening new spiritual paths for those of us who stay within traditional religious life. I found wisdom, insight and joy in its pages.

I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”

The basic thesis is this:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.

constitutionAs one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.

Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:

Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?

Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.

Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:

If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?

Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)

I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.

What-is-fundamentalism-300x199Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.

Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)

Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.

The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.

Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.

300px-Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.

Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.

Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.

Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.

A child-safe version of the Bible features a cartoon Jesus on the cover. But a faith based on this two-dimensional caricature won’t hold up in a grown-up world.

At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.

Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”

He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children.  Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel.  Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.

“Last Supper,” by Fritz Eichenberg, shows that Jesus came to dine among the poor, not the pretty.

Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.

God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.

While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair.  We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.

“Pieta” by Paul Fryer, a graphic reminder that Christ came to show love to the worst people in the worst circumstances.

The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.

The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.

*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 418 pp.

James Carroll’s book is like the inverse of Karen Armstrong’s book. Armstrong carefully catalogs the facts of history, and lightly draws inferences of some overarching themes in Jerusalem’s history and lore. Carroll sees mythic stories at work and uses the facts of history to document a narrative of the psychic and spiritual idea of Jerusalem. One is a primarily a historian of religion who is also an adept writer and storyteller. The other is primarily a writer and storyteller who also engages in the history of religion.

I will not try to weigh in on the accuracy of the history as Carroll retells it, but I did not read anything that seemed shockingly different than any of the other histories I have read in recent weeks. What was far more surprising about this book is how little it said about the history of Jerusalem at all. Much of what Carroll discussed in this broad, sweeping tale of human history was the history of sacred violence, from the first hunters who killed to eat to the temple cults of sacrifice to monotheistic theologies to American wars for the mythic ideal of freedom. Carroll attempts to document the phenomenon of “Jerusalem fever,” a captivating obsession with fantasies about what Jerusalem is and what it means. While sometimes that Jerusalem fever intersects with the history of Jerusalem itself, Carroll’s narrative talks as much about prehistoric hunting as it does about King David, more about Abraham Lincoln and John Winthrop than it does about Saladin and Sulieman, and most of all about the human psychology of sacrificial violence.

In the end, I thought Carroll told an interesting story. Like a good journalist, he took the facts and made them into a narrative. He used the idea of Jerusalem throughout history to explore and explain the connection between violence and the sacred. He hypothesizes that religion is born to make sense of the sacrificial killing (38), but the Bible enshrines a counter-narrative of peace, that “God does not sponsor violence, but rescues from violence” (54) and monotheism, when God is the God of all people, offers an opportunity for conflict resolution (61). The book often feels like traveling down a series of rabbit holes, like following an interesting train of thought and ending up somewhere unexpected.

There were several of these explorations that were particularly interesting:

  • The Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple originally held the Ark of the Covenant. After the first destruction by the Babylonians, the Holy of Holies was forever left empty. That emptiness expanded with the destruction of the temple, and then the Western Wall, where people come to pray for what is not there. With this nothingness comes the theology that God is beyond all representation, all idols, all human knowing and captivity—an idea that has potential to overcome conflict and violence. (303) This actually reminded me of a thesis in one of Karen Armstrong’s other books, A History of God.
  • He documents the move in Christian theology from the worship of Jesus for his life and ministry to the worship of Jesus for his sacrificial death and resurrection. That shift is intimately connected with Constantine’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and the “discovery” of sacred sites there, which is directly connected to the relationship between Christianity and empire.
  • He connects the 15th century explorers to the legacy of the Crusaders, including a letter from Christopher Columbus in which he expresses his desire that all the bounty of his discoveries be spent in the recovery of Jerusalem. (153)
  • Lincoln resurrects the vision of America as a New Jerusalem, creating the narrative of the quest for freedom, in order to justify the enormous bloodshed of the Civil War. National “union” was not enough to merit such sacrifice, but a vision of freedom and a New Jerusalem was. Apparently, Lincoln spoke to his wife of his desire to see Jerusalem just moments before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. (231)
  • Jerusalem was the imagination and inspiration for Britain during World War I, as General Allenby desired to inspire the people by conquering the city as a “Christmas gift,” and poet Wilfred Owen compared the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice of soldiers in war. (235)

In his conclusion, Carroll projects a struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion.” Good religion promotes peace, equality, unity, tolerance, and revelation of God. Bad religion involves coercion, violence, dominance, and salvation from God. This struggle is the story of Jerusalem, in myth and in reality.

While I enjoyed reading this book, it was a challenge to follow Carroll’s many threads. There was no clearly developed or cohesive argument that I could outline, just a general thesis about the connections between the ideas of Jerusalem, religion and violence. Carroll is a good storyteller, and I appreciated the tale he wove in this book. He is also dogmatic in his pacifism and in constant struggle with his Catholic heritage, and both those strident attitudes came through strong in the book, for good and for ill. I’m not sure I gained a depth of understanding about its history, but I learned a lot of interesting bits and pieces about how Jerusalem functions in the dynamics of Western history, politics and national psychologies.

My friend Rachel Small at Occupy Wall Street.

If Jesus were here today, it seems obvious he would be sympathetic to the Occupy movement. The Gospels detail his life’s work speaking out against the unjust economic systems and unfair distribution of wealth; railing against the burden of oppressive debt, taxation and extortion from the lower classes to line the pockets of the rich; attending to healing and building a new model of community; trying to change the same old conversation with subversive tactics of protest; revealing the collusion between wealth, power and violence; and taking sides with the poor, outcast and rejected. Among my progressive clergy friends, there have been multiple postings of a graphic saying, “Jesus is with the 100%.” While Jesus loved both rich and poor, he refused to comfort or coddle those who made exorbitant profits by oppressing the poor.  As my friend Rachel’s sign points out, Jesus’ own prayer aligns itself clearly with the stated hopes of the Occupy movement.

Jesus’ life and ministry was most fundamentally about inaugurating a new way of life. It was about building the kingdom of God here, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Early Jesus followers were simply known as “The Way,” because they lived a way of life caring for the poor, forming new community and trying to do things differently. Beyond the notion that Jesus would have supported the Occupy protesters, this idea of “The Way” is the stronger connection between the Occupy movement and the heart of Christianity.  Occupy is not a Christian movement, but it is a movement about a way of life. The daily General Assemblies, shared leadership and direct democracy, sharing of goods and managing of community needs are all about incarnating in practice the ideas and visions of the community of protesters. They do not just carry signs and march down streets to encourage people to their cause—they are embodying the community they want to build by practicing a new way of doing things and being together. That’s an awful lot like our Savior and his followers.

I spent some time at our local Occupy movement, downtown in our city bordering on the south and midwest. I discovered that the experience shared even more parallels to the church—including some of its struggles. Ours was a small group, about 20 in all. When I arrived, they were in a meeting. The small, handwritten sign at the center of the circle indicated that this was an education session, which lasted every day from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with the General Assembly at 7:00 p.m. I stood at the edge of the circle for nearly 30 minutes, and felt completely lost. No one spoke to me, no one invited me to sit with them on a blanket (the ground was muddy), no one even acknowledged I was there. There were words I didn’t understand and strange hand gestures that left me puzzled. Everyone else clearly knew one another very well. The entire time I was there, I imagined that this is exactly the experience that many of these people would have if they walked into our churches for Sunday worship. It was humbling.

When at last someone stepped away from the circle (I couldn’t interrupt, didn’t know the proper hand gesture to be recognized to speak, and couldn’t wait five hours for a break in the action), I followed him and introduced myself. I chose not to start with my clergy title (after all, I did not come representing my congregation), but just my name and my interest in offering support—food, blankets, supplies, whatever was needed. He seemed displeased that I had bothered him, and said they had everything they needed. He did at least take my card when it was offered. I had planned to stay longer, but I felt so uncomfortable that my nerves took over and I left. I’ve been trying to renew my courage to return. Again, a humbling experience.

So, as Jesus-followers today, where do we fit in with the Occupy movement? When I first started writing this post two weeks ago (it’s taken me a long time to sort through my thoughts), there was little or no church presence at the Occupy movement, here or anywhere else. Many of the Occupy participants were (are) openly hostile to religion, especially Christianity, because they associate it with the harm of the radical, prosperity gospel, anti-sex, anti-body, anti-intellectual right wing version of our faith. In this short time, some of that has begun to change. In other cities, the progressive Christian community has rallied to organize itself in support of the Occupy movement, offering spiritual support, communion services, even processing a giant golden calf as a religious symbol of condemnation. (In the interest of full disclosure, many of these folks are my friends, and the links are from their own Facebook posts.) This clergy support work has been welcomed by Occupiers in Boston, New York, San Francisco and many other places.

The question still remains: what is our role as faith communities and Christians in the Occupy movement? I think part of our confusion stems from the fact that we are not at the center of this movement. For the last 200 years in the United States, churches have been the nurseries of movements for social change—abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, fair labor practices, temperance, education reform, on and on. Clergy have been on the front lines of shaping, inspiring and leading movements for social justice. I am a veteran of many protests, and as a clergy person I am used to being on display up front to add moral authority to the cause. Yet the Occupy Wall Street movement happened without us. This is new territory, and, like me hovering outside the Occupy meeting’s circle, we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We might even be dealing with a bit of a bruised ego over the whole thing—I showed up to offer my help, but no one wanted it. In order to connect, we must be willing to be outsiders instead of insiders, to be uncomfortable and take time to learn how things go.

There is an old joke about the radical French intellectual that hears the people marching in the streets and responds: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so that I can lead them.” I am concerned that this will be the approach of the progressive church to the Occupy movement.  Many of us have years of experience in social movements, and it will be tempting to show up and offer ourselves as experts and leaders. I admit that one of my desires after my visit to the local Occupy site was to offer advice to them—about how to welcome newcomers, about how to respond to offers of assistance, about how to incorporate outsiders. I’m still not sure what to do with that impulse. I believe that wisdom might be helpful to the cause, but I also believe it is arrogant of me to step in as a newcomer and offer unsolicited advice about how to do things.

One of the great dangers facing the Occupy movement is whether or not it will be co-opted and assimilated by big money players like unions, the Democratic party, Move On, and others—or whether it can hold its own and do things a new way. One of the great successes of the movement so far has been its ability to change the conversation, to break open the dialogue in a way that those well-established players have not been able (or willing) to do.

While we aren’t as big a player as we’d like to be, I think that Christians may try to co-opt the movement in the same way. We should avoid the temptation to say to the Occupy folks, “Yes, you’re saying just what we’ve been saying all along, what Jesus has been saying for 2,000 years.” What usually swiftly follows this is an invitation to worship, or to join in something we’ve already planned that might interest them. We might even be tempted to think that this movement might be a way to connect with progressive young people and engage them in church. I’m not sure that is a bad thing—I do believe in evangelism!—but I also see an arrogance in it. It is definitely a good thing to show up and demonstrate that Jesus and his followers are not necessarily who you think they are, that Christians stand with the poor and the protesters, and that our faith motivates us to action against oppressive empire. It would definitely be a bad thing to believe that our churches are keepers of the vision protesters have been seeking all along, that going to church is a way of engaging the movement, or that we might hope to sign people up for our next progressive Christian rally.

In other words, I believe we should show up to listen far more than speak, to learn far more than teach, to support far more than guide. We can, and should, simply be one of the 99%.  What it means to be followers of Jesus is to do what’s right, without caring about whether or not we’re recognized for doing it. “The Way” we follow is about incarnating love, justice and peace—not promoting the church’s voice or even promoting  Jesus.   Brian McLaren wrote a similar thought this week in a piece entitled “Why I’m Joining the Occupation.”

I’d especially encourage Christian leaders to do so . . . not as a representative of your church or denomination, but as a human being . . . not to co-opt or control, but to contribute and to learn. As someone who’s had a lot of control (more than I realized) for a lot of years, I’m finding it a wonderful gift to simply be a participant, one voice among many, learning and listening and learning some more.

For this reason, I’ll be going back to Occupy again. Because it’s where Jesus would probably be hanging out today. Because it’s the right thing to do, not just as a Christian but as a human being. Because it’s good for me to know life as an outsider, and because I know that all human movements and institutions have their flaws. Most of all, though, I will go back because I am one of the 99%. I am also afflicted by and implicated in the unjust system the Occupiers call out, and I want this body of mine to be a part of incarnating a new way of being. My prayer remains Jesus’ prayer: “on earth, as it is in heaven.”


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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