Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Occupy My Heart

By Micah Bales

I remember when I first heard about Occupy Wall Street. I was looking at my Twitter feed and saw mention of a demonstration taking place in New York City. I did not take it very seriously. I had seen lots of demonstrations in my lifetime, most of them with little discernable effect.

That was on Saturday, September 17th. On the following Monday, I was not only still seeing tweets coming in out of New York, but they were increasing in number and frequency. They were still demonstrating! I began to click links. I read a smattering of blogs and independent media sources. I learned about the demonstrations bubbling up on Wall Street; how they had "occupied" Zucotti Park; and the way that the police were corralling the demonstrators, and in some cases brutalizing them.

As I scanned the internet that Monday, a strange feeling came over me. I felt a sense that I needed to be involved. This is important. Ever since shortly after September 11th, I had felt alienated from politics, and even more so from protest culture. After watching world leaders ignore the expressed will of the people time and time again (most brazenly in this country when George W. Bush chose to invade Iraq), I had come to the conclusion that mass public dissent was a useless gesture. I was not a protester. I was not an activist. I was too realistic, and too cynical, for that.

Yet, as I read more reports coming out of New York, and watched a flurry of Youtube videos from Wall Street, I was feeling a nudge. Was God asking me to join this movement? Was I supposed to go to New York? I still had lots of reservations about Occupy Wall Street - some cultural, some political, and others theological. But I had to test the leading. This felt too important to ignore.

So, I put out a feeler. I passed along a blog article on Facebook, and I included a comment: "I'm feeling tempted to head up to New York." Almost immediately, I received a response from one of my wife's friends: "If you do come up, you can stay at our house." With way opening so clearly, I made plans to visit Wall Street myself.

My time in New York allowed me to see first-hand the way a totally grassroots, radically democratic movement had taken shape in lower Manhattan. As I expected, I did not like everything I saw. The park was loud, organization was loose, and there was already a problem with unstable individuals using the Occupation as a platform for spouting conspiracy theories or just being disruptive. Yet, there was something powerful happening there.

When we marched on Wall Street, I saw the intense contrast between the lives of the elite financial executives and those of ordinary Americans. I felt the power of regular people coming together - students, the unemployed, unionists and young professionals - to pursue the dream of a more just and sustainable world. I returned to Washington, DC with my leading confirmed and deepened: I felt called to take part in this movement as it spread beyond New York.

I remained connected to the Occupy movement - both Occupy Wall Street, and the growing numbers across the nation who were preparing to occupy in their own cities. Soon, it became clear that there were others here in DC who were interested in getting an occupation started in our town, and I began to participate in online meetings to discuss how to move forward.

On the evening of Friday, September 30th, seven of us met up at McPherson Square, the park in downtown DC where we had decided to begin occupying the following day. Besides the two couples in the group, none of us had ever met before. We were not the "usual suspects" for this sort of thing. We were not professional organizers or seasoned activists. Just regular people with jobs, lives and families who felt drawn to participate in what seemed to us to be the most important social movement of our generation. Together, we would launch Occupy DC.

In the month and a half since then, Occupy DC has grown enormously, from a small band of inexperienced organizers to an experiment in grassroots democracy that has involved thousands of people from all walks of life.

I still do not agree with everything that happens in the Occupy movement. None of us do. When thousands of people from diverse backgrounds come together in open air meetings to express greivances and seek a better world together, things are bound to get messy. Nevertheless, I am convinced that I would be unfaithful if I allowed my desire for perfection get in the way of the good things that God is doing through this imperfect movement. Rather than maintain a safe distance, avoiding association with some elements of the movement that I find questionable, I have felt compelled to cooperate with God in being a influence for good.

To close, I would like to share a passage of Scripture that has become increasingly resonant in my heart in over the course of my involvement in the Occupy movement. It comes from the book of Luke, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has just returned from the desert to his home synogogue and delivers a message in their meeting for worship. He reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to
the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.(1)

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaims the "year of the Lord's favor," the Jubilee mandated by God in the Hebrew law.(2) This radical re-set of the economy - forgiving debts, releasing slaves and healing infirmities - lies at the heart of Jesus' message and mission; and this Jubilee proclamation is the foundation of my understanding of why I am called to be involved in the Occupy movement.

I do not claim any sort of divine perfection for myself or for the movement as a whole. We are all poor sinners, and we fall short even as we try to do what is right. Nevertheless, I feel convicted that I must stand with those who are raising their voices against systemic injustice, debt slavery, corporate greed and a sold-out government. I do not know to what extent Jesus blesses the Occupy movement as a whole, but I do believe that he is blessing me in my participation in it. It is my sense that this is the call of the Lord on my life at this time.

What is the word of the Lord to you today? How are you called to cooperate with Jesus' ministry of loosing the bonds of the oppressed; forgiving the debts of a burdened world; and restoring fullness of health to those who are suffering? How are you being called to live out Jesus' witness of love and compassion, and his courageous call for justice?


1. Luke 4:18-19
2. See Leviticus 25

Micah BalesMicah Bales serves as Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement at ESR. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, Faith Kelley. He is a member of Capitol Hill Friends and of Rockingham Friends Meeting, Ohio Yearly Meeting.

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