Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Prophetic Voice in Occupy - People of Faith in the Public Sphere

By Valerie Hurwitz

There is something a bit comical in the blog post that I am about to write. Micah Bales, who I worked with on ESR’s outreach and social media strategy and who maintains this blog, spoke at ESR’s Common Meal on Tuesday, March 20th. Micah spoke about his history of activism and dis-illusionment with politics after 9/11. Micah went up to visit the Occupy Wall St. camp in September with the question “what’s your ask?” He realized, however, that this movement has no policy platform. Occupy looks to step outside the binary of Republican-Democrat and talk about the distribution of power in this world.

Seven people gathered to discuss starting Occupy DC soon after Occupy Wall Street began, including Micah. This face-to-face meeting is a key point; people got off the internet and met face-to-face. They gathered in a public space and talked. The group began small, with 6 people picketing a Bank of America. The Bank pulled down their shades and shut out customers, eventually calling police and telling them that protesters were breaking into the bank. The police, happily, found this comical as it was clear when they arrived that no one was breaking into anything. Occupy DC, in its early days, took the form of a camp. Micah explained, however, that while the camps were a wonderful symbol they were not sustainable and quickly became a magnet for those who were mentally ill and homeless. While providing food and shelter for such people is an important goal, the serious activism has moved away from the camps.

Micah talked about his ministry within this seemingly secular movement. “God stands in judgment over our economic arrangements” he told us and quoted Luke 4:18-19. Micah told us that some secular Occupiers were uncomfortable with his particularly Christian outlook, whereas many clergy seem reticent to be too radical. There needs to be a challenge to the Christian dominionist view that the government should be run according to conservative Christian values. There is a space between these three, where Christians can have a prophetic role in the secular sphere.

There was some discussion as to where the demarcation is for the “99%”, and whether that was relevant. The top 1% of tax-payers in the US made $343,927 and up in 2009. We also shouldn’t fool ourselves that the bottom 99% is all the same. Life is very different at $200,000 a year as opposed to $50,000 or $25,000 or less. Additionally, this measure of income does not include assets, and ultimately does not include the most important point: access to power. Thus, it is less important to divide the US into 1% and 99% and more important to discuss access to power and a voice in the public arena. Finally, some within the 99% certainly have more privilege and resources than others, and with that comes greater responsibility.

The involvement of young people in religious and public institutions is not an unusual topic of conversation around here. I remind the teaching faculty at ESR (who are all, shall we say, somewhat older than I) that I was too young to vote in the 2000 election. In 2002 my vote was invalidated (it’s a long story having to do with Senator Wellstone). 2004 was the first election I could vote in, and I lived in the second poorest county in Ohio where there were 7 hour waits at the polls and election challengers abounded in poverty-stricken areas. In 2006, I had just moved and couldn’t establish residency sufficiently well enough to vote. 2008 started out well and provided some hope, but the 2010 was pretty uninspiring (partly because of where I live). With the recession, I am one of the few people I know my age who is fully employed. That’s not a very inspiring introduction to adult civic life. Thus, I was really glad to see the Occupy movement got started and involved so many people speaking out and saying, “You know, this isn’t about political parties. This is about how ridiculously out of whack the distribution of wealth and power are in this country are.”

The question we asked Micah on the 20th and I have asked him a few times over the phone is where we go from here. If the camps are not sustainable, how does this movement continue? The US sometimes seems as though it has a very limited attention span. How can a movement looking to mobilize people to talk about power and injustice in this country be sustainable? Micah wants to see General Assemblies and people meeting around the country. He encouraged people to consider practical actions, such as putting your money in a small bank or credit union. He suggests small-scale activism, like the work he has done assisting a woman who was wrongly foreclosed upon in keeping her house. Finally, for those who are spiritual or religious (in a Christ-centered way, or not) there is a great deal of history and a good many bible verses leading to a peculiarly Christian call to economic justice and supporting the poor, orphaned, and widowed. This prophetic voice, as Micah termed it, can and should be a powerful force in the public sphere. Thoughts? What do you think a sustainable Occupy movement looks like?

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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