American Idols

My last several years living in the United States of America has been an exercise in, as my Canadian friends would say, living in the belly of the beast. It hardly feels this way, of course, surrounded as I am by people of good will. I reflect on the wars and the violence, the inequities and injustices, and it is easy to not feel that I am somehow contributing to it. I ignore the reality that the taxes I pay here go to fund things I do not in good conscience support. I float along feeling that if I am not actively contributing to the things that I find objectionable, then I am doing all right. I get momentary flashes, however, when I think, If I am not actively resisting, then I am participating.

That is the nature of living in the midst of what the New Testament calls powers and principalities. The social ills one would actively resist are actually systems, whole networks of power relations. It is difficult to stand apart from a system. Daily life is a mundane series of choices that one makes unthinking, and many of these are aspects of the powers and principalities of the nation.

I like to personify these powers and principalities as idols, false gods, to keep them as personalities before my eyes to better clarify the choices that I make. Idolatry, in the monotheistic religions, is the worship of deities other than the one true God. It is the deification of objects; idols are objects made of stone and wood and metal and are revered as divine. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have prohibitions and limitations on representing the divine. The caution is in mistaking the representation for what is represented, the sign for what it signifies, thus drawing worshippers away from the one true God and toward the worship of symbols and images.

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:1-6).

The Bible describes idolatry as the worship of images and also of polytheistic deities. The biblical language of idolatry (the Hebrew literally means “foreign worship”) is a polemic against the indigenous nations of the ancient Near East, which saw the natural world as imbued with supernatural forces. Hebrew monotheism, by contrast, saw the divine as entirely beyond the world. The pagan religions that surrounded the ancient Hebrew people used statues, talismans, and natural objects in their worship, frequently believing that the divine was immanent within such objects or within certain geographical locations. In setting themselves apart from the nations, the ancient Hebrews shored up their national identity by forbidding the worship of foreign deities, and banishing the use of sacred objects. To do so was unpatriotic as well as irreligious.

Devotion to pagan gods and goddesses was nevertheless not uncommon among the ancient Hebrews, as we read throughout Hebrew Scriptures. No sooner had Moses received the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai, than the Israelites below fashioned a golden calf to worship. They built poles to honor the goddess Asherah and frequently worshipped other Canaanite gods such as Baal.

The prophets and judges decry such infidelity to the God of Israel and frequently lambast the creation and worship of idols. In separating themselves out from other ancient peoples, the Hebrews not only strictly forbade the use of any created thing in worship, they also set limits on ways in which the divine could be mediated or communicated through objects. Though such things as the Ark of the Covenant, or the equipment and vestments of the Temple were sacred, they were not worshipped as such, for God was utterly transcendent.

The Bible affirms that the one true God is shapeless and formless, so no image or idea or created thing can represent God. The reverencing of images is thus forbidden. The Protestant Reformation renewed among Christians the sense of God’s transcendence and the caution against sacred objects and images. Puritanism is the stream of Christianity that is most similar to the Jewish view. The more sacramental currents of Christianity allowed icons and statues to be reverenced as mediators of God’s grace, and bread, wine, water and oil to be signifiers of God’s presence and grace. Our Puritan forebears (those of us who stand in Unitarian and Congregational traditions) were iconoclasts, literally destroying icons, images, and statues in an effort to purify Christian faith and practice from idolatrous distractions.

For each of the monotheistic traditions, the sole object of worship and adoration is the transcendent God. Valuing something or somebody that hinders the love and trust owed to God alone is considered idolatry. God and God alone comes first and God and God alone is foremost in the lives of the faithful. Though God provides many gifts for our use in a life that glorifies him, we are not to confuse the gift with the Giver. Though all of creation speaks of God and God’s handiwork, we are not to confuse the creation with the Creator. It seems to me that we offer our blind and excessive devotion to powers and principalities that are neither God nor godly. Refusal to worship them is deemed unpatriotic.

The idols and false gods that reign here in the United States are militarism and wealth. These are our contemporary American idols. We put our trust in military might. We worship Mammon, the New Testament personification of wealth. We lay waste to the Earth in the name of our economies, feeding its fires with our children’s futures, feeding the voracious appetites of economic growth with no less vigor than ancients fed their own children to the god Molech. Militarism is a false god whose parents are nationalism and violence. Militarism is the belief that a strong military is needed for security and peace, that a strong military must be maintained at all costs, and that the military must be prepared for preemptive and aggressive action in defense not only of the nation’s borders, but of its economic and geopolitical interests.

The ideology of the nation state and the legitimacy of violence are the faith and practices of this false religion. This is most clearly seen in totalitarian regimes. The image of its despotic leader is ubiquitous, its bureaucratic apparatus all-powerful. God is replaced by the state and given the humanizing face of its leader. Its scriptures are its laws and constitutions, its spirituality appeals to blood and soil, its worship military and nationalist parades and processionals. Discipleship with this idol is obedience, patriotism, and an unquestioning loyalty to our own ethnic, racial, linguistic and national group. The theology of the state is its reinforcing ideologies; whether that be democracy or free enterprise, state socialism or Marxism, pan-Arab nationalism or jihadist Islamism.

We are not without our own processionals and parades in the United States of America. We celebrate the American Revolution and the principles of democracy in a haze of nostalgia. We play out the rituals of a constitutional democracy, even as the Supreme Court grants legal personhood to corporations, as lobbyists for banks, oil companies and other industries become government policy makers, passing through a revolving door of influence and governance, as public institutions are handed over to private interests. The republic transmogrifies into an empire, marching ever further away from the ideals of the founding fathers, and we are swept up and carried along in the patriotic parade willy-nilly.

We are a nation at war, and war has become so ubiquitous and unending that it is no longer remarkable. Warfare is the air we breathe. War is our daily reality. Yet we are inured to its violence, its daily death, its very presence. Unlike the Second World War, we are not asked to conserve electricity and other resources, plant victory gardens or participate in a popular mobilization around a war effort. American soldiers, many of them young, working class, and people of color, are deployed again and again, unnoticed and unseen. Lost in a flurry of distractions, we forget the wars that we wage overseas. The wars seem to go on in the background, with the volume muted, not interfering with our day-to-day lives.

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.They have mouths but they do not speak; they have eyes but they do not see; they have ears but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust in them shall become like them.” (Psalm 135:15-18)

Have we become like them? Unspeaking, not using our voice? Unseeing, turning a blind eye from what our actions and inactions are causing? Unhearing, refusing to listen to the cries of the hungry, the cries of the non-human animals, the cries of wounded soldiers and grieving civilians a world away?

The United States government budgets more than one trillion dollars in military spending. The false god of militarism is literally consuming our national treasure. A fraction of the money spent on war and war preparations could fund homes, schools, university scholarships, teachers salaries, and equip homes with renewable electricity.

Our technologies, our wealth, and our economies are three of our other false gods, fed by and fuel for the American idol of military might. Competition for resources, especially cheap oil, is the motivation for our militarism and global belligerence. Americans consume far more than our fair share of the planet’s resources and to maintain our bloated lifestyles of acquisitiveness and overconsumption, we need to maintain by force the steady flow of natural resources into the fires of our economic engines. Our styles of life, based on growth economies that devour the Earth, are quickly rendering the planet uninhabitable.

“If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

In biblical religion, to love and serve God heart and soul, to not be turned away by the false gods, leads to an abundant, lively relationship with the Earth. To be devoted in love and service to the divine, we need nothing less than a conversion, a turning away from domination and violence, hoarding and destruction, limitless growth and greed.

We need to convert our elected government’s priorities from funding endless wars to funding the common good. We need to convert our petroleum fueled war economy of the past into the sustainable, ecologically sound economy of the future. To love and serve the divine is to take seriously biblical and humane values: cooperation and sharing, conservation and stewardship, mutuality and nonviolence, prudence and justice.  We need to be converted anew to these principles as individuals and as a society.

I love the glimpses the Bible offers of a divine dream for the earth; it offers us direct “thou shall not’s” as well as the visions of its prophets. Security and peace are not gained by outgunning the enemy, by clobbering those who we view as competing with us for limited resources. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and others foresaw a time when war and war making were banished, and peace the order of the day.

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor with they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree and no one will make them afraid.”

The causes of war – economic disparity, scarcity – are removed. Everyone has their own land, their own vine and fig tree; everyone has enough. Security comes with having enough.

This is peace in the holistic sense of shalom, the integrity and wholeness of creation. In Isaiah’s vision, animals that typically fight each other lie down together in peace, and even the mountains and hills burst into song, the trees of the field clap their hands, in the day of God’s shalom on earth. The biblical injunction to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy is an exercise in setting limits. A balance of work and play is required in the worship of the one true God. Work is given meaning and dignity, as forms of tending the green garden bequeathed to humankind. Overwork and exhausting the soil are anathema to biblical principles and its Sabbath economics. No person or animal or farm should have the life squeezed out of it by overwork.

The holy invites us into a spacious sense of abundance and plenty by giving us enough. Ostentation and material gain for its own sake are rejected in favor of limits within which we flourish. We need only enough. Mammon is the biblical word for riches, the personification of wealth as a false god. Greed and excessive love of money are forms of idolatry, a betrayal of a trusting relationship with the God who provides us with enough. Mammon is the endless treadmill of wanting and getting, getting more and wanting more. Manna, the food the Israelites ate while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, is the antidote to Mammon. It was provided freely by God and rotted if it was hoarded. Everybody had exactly enough, everybody had exactly as much as they needed.

We read in the book of Acts this description of the earliest followers of Jesus:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. … they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46)

Goods were shared and wealth redistributed to all as any had need.  The economics of manna is a joint venture in everybody having enough, in everybody having a glad and generous heart. This is a small echo of the biblical vision of the Jubilee Year, a time when there is rest for the land, forgiveness of debts, when land is returned to its ancestral owners and slaves are freed. Land, in the ancient world was wealth. If you became indebted and had to sell your land, it would be returned to you in the Jubilee Year. Nobody could buy up land and keep it for him or herself in perpetuity. The fact that the Bible mandates a regular dismantling of structures that might keep wealth in the hands of few points toward a vision in which there is enough for everyone. Wide gaps between rich and poor are not God’s dream for his world. Nobody has more than is needed and nobody hoards. Everybody has enough. This is a vision of work and prosperity for all, indebtedness and slavery being relieved, balance between work and play, and personal and environmental rejuvenation.

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Recommended Reading: Prophetic Encounters

Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition by Dan McKanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011)

In most of the radical social change movements I’ve been a part of or otherwise come into contact with, there has been the distinct idea that “religion” is part of the problem. More often than not, you’ll usually get an ill-informed tirade on how oppressive “religion” is. When pressed, one hears the usual, though clumsily given, examples of crusades and witch trials, the purportedly universal homophobia and misogyny among the religious. All important, of course, and much of it true. But what about the religious impulse to make the world more just? And what about the longstanding place that religion and spirituality have had in radical movements—movements that fought for human dignity and racial reconciliation and peace among nations?

Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters is a good antidote to contemporary progressive activists’ antipathy toward organized religion and spiritual movements. Anyone whose view is that religion’s role in public life is necessarily conservative needs to read this book. In it, McKanan sweeps across US history with an eye toward exploring the relationship that religion and religious traditions have played in movements for radical social change. Indeed, that there is an unbroken radical tradition in the US with a religious element.

Beginning with the anti-slavery movement and moving through the women’s, labor and civil rights movements, Prophetic Encounters documents and discusses the active role that religion has played in each. Key players in each era are considered, from William Lloyd Garrison to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King to Starhawk.  McKanan introduces or re-familiarizes readers with historic figures, painting a biographical portrait as well as a chronicle of their contribution to the American radical tradition. Their relationship to each other and following generations is also outlined. The picture that emerges is of an ongoing radical movement, rather than sporadic organizing around disparate issues.

For readers already familiar with the territory covered here, this history will read like a brief overview without much analysis. The author’s organizing principle is that of encounter—the encounter of white activists and Blacks, activists from the urban North encountering poor Southerners,  among others—and the transformative energy that is created in that mutual encounter. “When human beings encounter one another deeply,” McKanan writes, “in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is unleashed.”

Prophetic Encounters can read like a history of the American Left from a religious perspective and it can also be read as a history of organized religion’s radical stream. McKanan is dismissive toward the critiques of the secular left by Rabbi Michael Lerner and evangelical pastor Jim Wallis. In the journals that each founded (Tikkun and Sojourners, respectively) each has been critical of secular leftists and opportunistic Democrats who either deride or try to manipulate religious constituencies. McKanan describes these as “straw men” for Lerner and Wallis to knock down; he finds the antireligious attitude of leftists to be far more benign.

It is true that the division of Religious Right and Secular Left is too simplistic, and the fertile ground tilled by religious leftists and leftist people of faith is demonstrated in this important work. But the hostility toward faith among leftists is real and often spiteful.  Participants in organized religion in the US will benefit from reading McKanan’s history whatever their politics; the recovery of this tradition within American religion is important, if for no other reason than to recognize themselves, their forbears and their coreligionists in movements long stereotyped as militantly secularist.

For those people of faith who are interested in social justice and the progressive tradition in American religion, along with those interested in the story of US radicalism but who lack knowledge of the country’s religious history, this is the ideal book.

Provoking the Powers: The Palm Sunday Action

The Canadian journal Adbusters is known for its provocative design. It makes use of a technique known as détournement—literally “derailing” or “turnaround.” The Adbusters artists call what they do “culture jamming.” They take familiar media figures, like Joe Camel, the cartoon promoter of Camel cigarettes, and put him in a hospital bed, redubbing him “Joe Cancer.” The logos and campaigns of Nike, Coca-Cola, and Shell Oil are similarly subverted in ways that highlight those companies’ labor and environmental abuses. Sometimes, the likeness to the actual media campaigns of these corporations are so realistic, viewers are fooled.

That’s the point. Not to fool viewers, but to mimic the propaganda of the powerful and so unmask their motives—is this really an advertisement for pollution and the exploitation of workers?

It was Adbusters that provided the spark that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last spring, it published a call for protesters to flood lower Manhattan and camp out on Wall Street until a federal investigation of the corporate influence on US politics was begun.

Wall Street is a street in New York City, yet when we say “Wall Street” what we actually mean is: the finance industry, the banks, the stock exchange, the market. The location is highly symbolic. Protesters have taken over Wall Street in the past, of course, and for this very reason. On the 50th anniversary of the stock market crash in 1979, protesters occupied Wall Street, blockading traffic to protest the nuclear industry and arms manufacturing.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I was involved in an activist group that was famous for its graphic designs and theatrical actions to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the political crisis surrounding it, including the slow governmental response. It was called ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  It began in New York when playwright Larry Kramer called for direct action to pressure governments and drug companies into acting. The first protest was on Wall Street on March 24, 1987 and was dubbed No More Business As Usual. Activists protested the unholy alliance of the Food and Drug Administration with the pharmaceutical companies producing the only approved HIV treatment at the time and the profiteering of Big Pharmacy.

Certain symbolic actions work in a similar way. Gandhi marching to the seaside to make his own salt. People of different colors sitting together at a lunch counter to be served. Michael Moore escorting youth who were shot during the Columbine massacre, with the bullets still lodged in their bodies, to the corporate headquarters of Kmart, which sold the ammunition to the Columbine killers, in order to give those bullets back. The agitprop gesture itself is speaking to much larger issues in the society—salt tax and empire, segregation and institutionalized racism, gun violence and access to firearms.

Dollar bills, piggy banks, Monopoly playing cards are some of the visual cues that protesters on Wall Street have used, along with costumes—the mask from the graphic novel V is for Vendetta, a banker with bowler hat, monocle and cigar. Without ever being granted an interview by the media, these protesters effectively get their point across. Without ever being granted the ability to explain their demonstration protesters use images with which most people are familiar. This is a form of protest known as guerilla theatre.

Using familiar images, easily recognized characters in costumes and masks, and symbolic actions, guerilla theatre is able to summarize, in a few short visual bytes, an entire political position. In quickly understood symbols and gestures, guerilla theatre summarizes whole economic and social analyses. Through enacting and ritualizing power relations in dramatic forms, the powers that be are provoked, the effects of their power unmasked.

Guerilla theatre, détournement, symbolic actions are practices of those who would protest systems of domination and exploitation. Imaginative and humorous use of images, characters, and stories are practices of those who would bring about a change in awareness, consciousness, who would transform the political, social, cultural and economic landscape to be more just, more peaceful, and more equitable. Satire, parody, irony simultaneously make people laugh and question the powers that be.

The Jewish prophets knew something about guerilla theatre. The visionaries of ancient Israel, they were constantly using attention-grabbing antics to convey God’s displeasure. Hosea marries a prostitute, symbolizing the people’s unfaithfulness to God. Jeremiah burns a linen belt, he smashes a clay jar in front of the priests, to illustrate God’s coming punishment of Judah; he puts on a yoke and parades around with it on, to illustrate living under the oppression of Babylon. Isaiah goes naked and barefoot for three years. Ezekiel lies on his side for 390 days and eats only measured amounts of food, food cooked over human dung. (When Ezekiel protests, God relents and lets him use cow dung, but the message is the same: the people will be restricted and defiled when they are in exile).

Jeremiah stands at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem and yells at everybody going in. “Don’t think that you are safe just by being in God’s temple and praying. Only through social justice, not oppressing the marginalized and not shedding innocent blood will you be close to God.” The prophets in general targeted the elites in Jerusalem and their association with the Temple. Since the beginning of the monarchy in ancient Israel, God called upon certain visionaries to proclaim an alternative vision of the social order free from the abuses of hierarchy and domination. The prophets rose up to proclaim the alternative to monarchy. So when we read the prophets, we find Jerusalem and the Temple targets of their wrath as well as hope for the redemption of Jerusalem and the Temple.

By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was the center not only of Jewish aristocracy, but also of its collaboration with Roman imperial rule. The Romans, in acquiring lands for their empire, generally allowed local customs and religion to continue, as long as tribute was paid annually to the emperor in Rome. The Romans commonly used local wealthy elites to rule on their behalf and collect the tribute. Jerusalem and the Temple, then, had become symbols both of domination by elites and by foreign powers. The people were being increasingly forced into debt, their land confiscated outright or foreclosed upon, all in funding the payments to Rome, and the payouts in land to the Romans and their local collaborators.

What’s more, faithful pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem needed to pay for the animals that were to be sacrificed for them by the priests. They had a store of such sacrificial animals for those traveling from far, which could not be paid for with Roman coins. This secular money had forbidden images on it, and so the money was exchanged in the Temple for Temple currency. And in so doing, the Temple charged a fee. Because the celebration of Passover necessitated the ritual sacrifice of an animal in the Temple at Jerusalem, the faithful multitudes, already overtaxed and indebted, were further gouged.

Passover was a tense and turbulent festival in Jerusalem. It was, after all, a celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery, a fact not lost on either those who wanted to be liberated from Roman rule or on the Romans themselves, who tightened security during the weeklong observance. The city became crowded with pilgrims and large crowds could easily become mobs in rebellion against Rome. This had in fact happened within memory at the time of Jesus’ arrival to the city.

The Roman governor of the region, Pontius Pilate, made sure to come to Jerusalem with reinforcements. Usually stationed on the seaside Roman city of Caesarea Maritima, Pontius Pilate and his soldiers paraded, in a show of force, from the east up to Jerusalem. Banners emblazoned with Roman symbols of empire and might waved as the procession marched along. Legions of professional warriors, helmeted and heavily armed, were surrounded by lightly armed auxiliary forces. Shields, swords, javelins, bows and arrows, slings were all on display as the army made its way on horseback to the Roman fortress on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. People no doubt gathered along the way, watching, in awe, in fear, in resentment.

Jesus, too, paraded into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In what I suggest to you was an act of guerilla theatre, Jesus and his fellow protesters staged a mock military parade parodying the Roman one. The Roman governor and his army arrived through the east of the city, Jesus and his followers from Bethany and the Mount of Olives, from the west. Jesus did not come riding on a horse, but unarmed and without armor, rode a donkey. Jesus likely entered the city by the Golden Gate, where it was believed the messiah would appear. Protesters waved branches, palms according to John’s gospel, symbols of triumph and victory. They covered the path before Jesus as he went along, a sign of honor and homage.

The donkey added humor and pathos to the parade; the humble, stubborn beast made a mockery of the Romans with their horses. It also harkened back to the messianic visions of the prophet Zechariah, who saw the coming ruler of Israel “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah continues: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:9-10) Banishing weapons and war, this king would usher in peace. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose a donkey; the messianic vision would have resonated with the crowds, a king of peace. Jesus’ followers shouted out that he is the son of David, the heir of the David’s throne, also political and messianic affirmations. The rule of the Romans will end and the messianic era, the rule of God will begin. The kingdom of Caesar will fall and the kingdom of God will be ushered in. And systems of domination will fall as systems of right-relation, justice and righteousness will prevail.

Imagine the laughter and excitement at this demonstration, the astonishment at this act of provocation, this détournement of a military parade. Imagine the underlying sense of awe and hope.

The Romans rode into town from the east. Jesus rode in from the west. One procession represented the force of empire, the rule of military might, the powers of domination. The other represented the force of love, the rule of peace, and the powers of cooperation. One way of life was based on power over others, on exploitation, on the hoarding of resources. The other way of life was based on power within, on equity, and the sharing of resources. One a social order of fear and scarcity, the other a social order of faith and abundance.

Which of these two parades do we, today, find ourselves in?

The next symbolic act of guerilla theatre that Jesus performed, in his campaign to highlight the incoming rule of God, was to target the profiteering of the Temple elites. He came into the place in the Temple where secular money was exchanged for Temple currency, and where animals such as doves were being sold for sacrifice. He drove them out. He upset their tables, scattering their coins as he dumped everything onto the floor. Jesus and his followers then blockaded traffic in that area of the Temple, not allowing anybody to carry anything through. It was a sit-in, this blockade. No more business as usual! Jesus condemned the Temple elite as thieves, robbers who were hiding out in the Temple. Like Jeremiah before him, he decried those hiding in the Temple, thinking they were holy, when in fact they sanctioned injustice, oppressed the marginalized, and turned a profit from people who simply wanted to get close to God.

This event is frequently misrepresented as Jesus “cleansing the Temple,” as if the Temple needed to be pure and this purification meant ridding it of money, filthy lucre. It should be a house of prayer, not a house of commerce. This obfuscation of the gospel spiritualizes this action, and in so doing drains it of its import and power. Jesus was making a point about the power relations of his society, how the Jewish aristocracy had acquiesced to Roman power, allowing the Romans even to appoint and remove chief priests at their will. Jesus targeted the Temple in this way to highlight this situation.

In quickly understood, dramatic, symbolic gestures Jesus summarized his whole economic and social analyses. Using familiar images and easily recognized characterization, Jesus was able encapsulate, in a few short visual bytes, his entire program and mission. A social order based on compassion, forgiveness (including the forgiveness of debts), and peace was at hand. This was to be God’s imperial rule that stood in opposition to Roman imperial rule and all forms of rule that included domination, exploitation and inequity.

Jesus made his message known not just through his words, his stories and parables. He also enacted his message, choosing actions that would convey more than words could. His détournement of Pontius Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem is a good case in point, using humor and song and parody and symbols that readily conveyed his message that there was a more powerful ruler in the world than Caesar, and this power flowed with grace and humility and peace. Referencing the prophets, using messianic symbols, everybody watching would get the point even if they never heard of Jesus or heard him speak. His interrupting business as usual in the Temple was another case in point, gestures that conveyed his message of judgment against the unfair powers that be.

Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment reserved for insurgents and those guilty of sedition. It was a gruesome form of public execution meant to quell any further forms of dissent. When I hear the mission and teaching of Jesus characterized by people as: “Jesus taught his followers to be nice to people,” I always laugh. Be nice to each other? You do not get executed by the Roman Empire as a political criminal for walking around telling people to be nice to each other! You get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for antagonizing their interests, for challenging the legitimacy of their rule. You get crucified by the powers that be for suggesting that another world is possible.

I can’t help but think of all of those who have stood on the side of love and paid for it with their lives. Who have told the world that another way is possible—individual lives rooted in the practices of kindness, forgiveness and empathy, a social order rooted in the values of compassion, mercy and mutuality. I can’t help but think of all the other protest movements that have stood on the side of love, on the side of peace, on the side of justice. I can’t help but wonder if the powers that be will always win, if domination and war and wastefulness are the fate of human beings and human communities.

Which procession do we, today, find ourselves in, which parade up to the Passover feast, the celebration of liberation? The military procession of empire or the protest march of freedom?  Are we following the processions of militarism and money or the procession of prophecy and peace? We can stand by the side of the road in fear or jump in to the laughing, dancing throngs that are hailing the news: another world is possible. 

Recommended Reading: “Healing the Heart of Democracy”

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, by Parker J. Palmer. (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

 

You may remember the huge electrical blackout a few years ago that shut down nearly half of the continent. I was living in Toronto at the time, serving a congregation there as its summer minister and living a block away from the church.  When the hydroelectric power in the city shut down, something interesting happened at the intersection where the church and I were located. It is a major intersection of two avenues, which are main arteries of city traffic. The blackout struck just as rush hour was starting up. The traffic lights at major intersections throughout the city suddenly went dark. There at this intersection, two pedestrians leaped into the middle of the intersection and began directing traffic. I watched them, gesturing first one way and then another, choreographing getting cars to stop, pedestrians to cross, motorists to turn left and so on. I watched them do this for at least half an hour before an emergency vehicle arrived on the scene and an official took over. I saw in the actions of these two citizens, actions that were repeated, apparently, across the city that afternoon, a parable. A parable about what it means to be a citizen.

Do we believe we have the power, the responsibility, and do we act accordingly? When the public culture has a need for us, do we jump in to help? Or do we remain a cynical or passive bystander? What gives us permission to jump in and help? What prevents us from doing so?

Freedom – the spirit of democracy – is a way of life, an attitude, an orientation toward the world. It is the spirit of active participation and participatory action. Democracy is the self-rule of equals, free from coercion, tyranny, violence and the threat of violence. Leaders and decision makers do not draw their power from the gods, wealth, or tradition, but rather the will of the people. Institutions and habits keep this system running in a healthy way: a free press, an educated, informed, literate electorate that is ready to exercise its power. And we are responsible for exercising our power.

In his new book, Parker Palmer moves in the space of these queries about individual participation in democracy. He writes eloquently about the heart of democracy, and picking up on Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century essay Democracy in America, on the “habits of the heart” that sustain a democratic polity.

Chutzpah and humility are two such habits Parker enumerates. It takes chutzpah—a spicy blend of courage and moxy—to know absolutely, I am needed here, I better jump in and make something happen. It means “knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.” This personal sense of agency in citizens is essential for a polity that puts the power in its citizenry. Politics cannot be a spectator sport.

Humility involves “accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all—so I need to listen with openness and respect…” This is particularly true in the encounter with those who are different from us—who hold political views that diverge from our own, who are from class, cultural or sexual backgrounds that are different from ours, or whose life experience and social location differ from that of our own.

Parker advocates persuasively for the virtue of hospitality which “rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive…” In democratic societies, in which diversities abound, being actively engaged with one another across differences is absolutely necessary.  Diversity (ethnic, political, etc) flourishes in the democratic ecosystem; only totalitarian régimes enforce uniformity. Openness to the other is a practice that makes civic dialogue and collective decision-making by the people possible.

This means, of course, be committed to the greater whole and being able to hold tension in life giving ways. It means be dedicated to the practice of community.

Too many citizens have become dispirited about our common life, turning away from politics in cynicism and despair. Palmer describes his own heartbreak about the situation in the United States. He uses that experience of a breaking heart for his discourse about the human spirit in politics. Hearts can simply break, or they can break open, and when they break open the longings therein are set free. Approaching the landscape of US politics, littered with the debris of a once-vibrant democracy, with a heart for human wholeness, empathy, accountability and other virtues absent from political discourse, is the path to social transformation.

Of particular interest to me is the chapter on the classroom and congregation as sites that could cultivate the habits of the heart needed in a democracy. I have long felt that the practice of democratic, covenanted congregational communities of faith can be schools of the spirit for an engaged involvement in the social and political order.  Any religious community worth its salt is cultivating in its adherents hospitality, empathy and accountability.

The danger of focusing on the habits of the heart, on the behavior of the individual citizen, is that the value of collective action gets lost. Changing our personal lifestyles can be satisfying, as it is largely within our control when so much of what’s wrong in this world is not. Individual lifestyle changes may have an impact. But it is not enough. Cultivating these habits is only a prelude to bringing them to bear in the practice of democratic politics and pro-democracy movements. The means must justify the ends, and activists seeking to renew American democracy must surely embody democratic values in our organizing and in our lives.

Larger forces at work in the body politic call for motivated citizens to act en masse. Democracy—people power—is citizens taking collective action, using social, political and economic leverage for social change. Though Parker never takes us there, I trust that this work can be thought of as a primer for pro-democracy activists, the personal and small group work that would sustain a larger social movement on behalf of democracy and not an end point in itself. It is certainly a useful resource for people of faith concerned with the renewal of democracy.

I’d be gratified if Healing the Heart of Democracy produces more individuals willing to take over, to jump in, when the traffic lights go out. Those kind of empowered citizens, acting on behalf of the common good, are needed in abundance.

 

Occupy Main Street

Police removed Occupy Wall Street protesters from Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park) at one o’clock this morning. This evening, they have returned, as determined as ever to inhabit the space once again.

With winter approaching, many have wondered what those who are staying camped out in public squares as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement are going to do next. Kalle Lasn, whose original call for a Tahrir Square equivalence in lower Manhattan last July sparked the movement, yesterday called for the movement to declare victory, have a huge celebration and then move indoors. In a “tactical briefing,” he says that after the global victory party:

Then we clean up, scale back and most of us go indoors while the die-hards hold the camps. We use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad [number of] projects ready to rumble next Spring.

If the movement becomes entirely about the parks protesters are occupying, along with all the issues that come with being an open, urban encampment of diverse people creating community together, and police actions against them, then something will have been lost. Those who oppose Occupy Wall Street would like the news stories to remain about the drug use and deaths, trumped up sanitation and safety issues, and whether the First Amendment of the US Constitution protects camping as free speech. They want to keep attention diverted from the issues of social inequities and economic injustice and focused instead on how “unsavory” the protesters are.

Whatever the General Assemblies in various cities decide, I think it’s time to move into a next phase of this social change effort. Call it “Occupy Main Street.” A sustained protest movement in suburbs and small towns as well as in urban centers could sustain the movement through the winter and through police repression. Marches and rallies can take place in those squares where encampments once stood, or are being inhabited by the faithful remnant. And they can take place in towns across the country.

I appreciate that many groups working on issues of economic justice have been invigorated by the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But I personally would hate to see this movement co-opted by MoveOn.org or the Democratic Party or even the labor movement. Its vibrancy has been in its obstinate refusal to play by the rules of politics as usual, transgressing all of the expectations people have (leaders, demands, spokespeople). It chose exactly the right target: Wall Street. And it chose exactly the right tactic: outraged protest. I really would hate this movement to go home and start writing letters to the editor or raising money for sympathetic politicians’ election campaigns. So I’m hoping that’s not what the next phase looks like, not entirely. This is essentially about protest and direct action.

At a recent event at my church, we were having a discussion about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Conversation quickly turned from material and moral support for Occupy Boston toward actions we could be taking in our town, a rather tony suburb. Should we leaflet customers going into banks? Should we picket Bank of America? How difficult will it be for all of those people who are not camping out, but who support the cause, to start nonviolent direct action campaigns in the places where they are? I’m thinking: boycotts, picket lines, rallies, teach-ins… pressing for change in our tax system, regulation of Wall Street, federal spending, fair elections, the “personhood” of corporations and their undue influence on government. Keeping it in the streets, even if we’re not (all) camping there. In each of our towns and neighborhoods, we could gather a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to take our democracy back from the corporations and banks as well as the politicians they have bought off.  (Oops, a little ACT UP just snuck in there!). And then we would sustain the energy of this protest movement and keep it going until, well, until we win.

As they said tonight at Zuccotti Square: You cannot evict an idea whose time has come. 

Another World is Possible: Biblical Visions

When I meet somebody new, one of the first things they inquire about is what I do for a living. When I tell them (I’m a clergyperson), I almost always find myself deep in conversation about religion. They haven’t been to church in a long time, they will tell me right off the bat, and then proceed to defensively list the reasons why. They tell me why the Bible is wrong about certain things, or how Jesus never really existed, or they want my opinions on fasting, the efficacy of prayer, or other spiritual concerns they are having.

What nobody ever says is, “So you’re religious, what do you think about how Wall Street should be regulated?” They never ask if I think the Bible justifies wars of aggression or what my faith teaches me about the morality of greed, violence, and social inequity and what I might therefore think about the financial industry, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or health care reform, poverty or immigration. None of these, to the modern mind, are religious questions. Religion, in our modern day and time, is concerned only with spiritual matters. These are defined as private and relegated to the sphere of private opinion.

The separation of church and state in the United States does not mean that citizens cannot be shaped by their faith traditions. Nor does it mean that citizens will not be motivated by their faith to be involved in the civic life of their community and nation. This is not simply true of those people of faith concerned with denying reproductive rights or marriage equality, but includes progressive, liberal and other folks as well. War is a moral issue. So is poverty. “Values voters” include those of us concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable people in our society, those who want to protect our environment, those who advocate for equality.

As the progressive evangelical pastor Jim Wallis says, “Faith is always personal, but not private.” There are public consequences to faith, and people of faith have played essential roles in forming social change movements, including the anti-slavery and temperance movements, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Communities of faith are often at the center of local anti-poverty and hunger projects, reaching out into the community in a variety of ways to serve the needs of others.

The ancient world did not divide these up into separate spheres, and indeed saw no division between religious practice and civic society, spirituality and the public sphere, religion and the economic order. It was all of a piece. This is one of the reasons I look to ancient sources of wisdom, including Earth-centered and biblical traditions, which encourage a more holistic view of faith and practice. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of explicit ways in which the most marginal in society are to be protected, ways in which the most needy are to receive their just share of common resources

Here’s my take on the biblical witness.

The biblical narrative is one of a God who redeems a people, who rescues them from oppression. God leads a people, his people, out of slavery, inviting them into an adventure of moving outside the land of slave masters, of kings and emperors, beyond the land of kingdoms and empires. God delivers them out of oppression and into the Promised Land, promising them something better than they have known, a life of abundance in a land that flows with milk and honey. Out of the nations of the world, God forms a new kind of people, a holy nation that will be a guiding light to other peoples.

God makes an agreement with this people, a covenant. God is to be their only king and the Torah, God’s instructions, is to be the guidebook, the manual, to their common life. God instructs his people not only in how he is to be properly worshipped, and other “religious” matters. Much of the Torah is about the social order for this new society, including trade and farming and debt. God cares as much about his people’s material wellbeing as he does their spiritual wholeness. One could honor God, and the covenant with God, through how one treated one’s workers, how one collected a loan or negotiated a debt, how one harvested one’s field in a way that allows the poor to glean from it, how one was honest in business dealings, or how one treated foreigners, widows, orphans. These actions, among many others, were ways of being faithful to God.

The formative event for the ancient Hebrews was the exodus from slavery in Egypt. This liberation story informs the covenant God makes with them, and they with each other. Never again will they be enslaved, and no worker in their social order will be indentured forever. The covenant calls for periodic release of slaves and indentured workers, redistribution of property and cancellation of debts. In some sense, ancient Israel was to be an alternative to the imperial economies, such as the one in Egypt, which relied on domination, expropriation and war. The Hebrew nation was meant to be countercultural, distinct from the nations around it by its practices of freedom, social equity, mutual support and cooperation.

The covenant was enforced through a series of blessings and curses. God will bless the people if they carry out these instructions and abide by the covenant, and God will curse them if they do not. In the 27th and 28th chapters of Deuteronomy, we read a full list of blessings and curses: “Cursed is the man who moves his neighbor’s boundary stone! Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow! Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by not carrying them out!” (27: 17, 19, 26) Abiding by God’s covenant ensures a blessing on one’s barn and kneading trough, one’s crops and livestock.

“The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.” (28:12)

The Israelites established themselves in the hill country of Palestine. Theirs was a commonwealth of federated agricultural communities. Prophet-leaders, or judges, such as Samuel, interpreted the will of God for the people. The Israelites established themselves as distinct from the nations of the world, including not merely the peculiar holiness codes and dietary laws or the practice of circumcision, but also by not being governed by kings or warlords. God claims leadership of this people who are not to have kings the way other nations have. God is their only king.

Soon enough, however, the Israelites want to be like the other nations. They betray God’s desire for them to be a nation set apart, a nation unlike others in which God alone was ruler. The Israelites want a human king, a king they could see and revere. So they demand of Samuel a king.

“Samuel, do everything they want you to do. I am really the one they have rejected as their king. Ever since the day I rescued my people from Egypt, they have turned from me to worship idols. Now they are turning away from you. Do everything they ask, but warn them and tell them how a king will treat them.” (1 Samuel 8:7-8 CEV)

The people are told what it would mean to have a king: a king would make them his slaves and soldiers, servants of his palaces and of his wars. God reminds them of the things that kings do, with their invasions and war mongering, their domination and conquests, their empire building and centralizing of power, their taxation and military drafts. They want a king anyway. They abandon the vocation they have of being unlike other nations, of being a people ruled by God alone.

What follows is a succession of kings, from Saul to David to Solomon, a long line of kings, some of them good some of them not so good. Wars with the surrounding peoples are fought, a capital city is built and the wandering Ark of the Covenant, representing the presence of God, is installed in an elaborate temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. A priesthood is established and ceremonies of sacrifice take place in the temple.

And yet God’s dream for his people, for his world, his creation, is not forgotten. God does not abandon his vision and plan. God makes sure that for every king, there is a prophet. For every national ruler, there is somebody who reminds the king and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with him. The Hebrew prophets are the counterpoint to the Hebrew kings and lords, God’s way of countering and questioning the habits of nations, conquerors, and empires. The prophetic voice reminds the people of their covenant with God: God will bless, prosper and defend the nation if the people create a society of justice, righteousness and abundance. God withdraws his blessing in the absence of justice. The prophets are constantly calling the people back to faithfulness with God. Come back to the Lord, they say, and do what he wants us to do. Sacrifices and elaborate ceremonies are not what God desires. God desires justice, mercy and intimacy with his people.

The Hebrew prophets were the critics on the margins, the thorn in the side of every ruler. They proclaim justice and a redeemed world of peace and plenty. They pull wild stunts, display signs and wonders, engage in guerrilla theatre. They provoke the status quo. They interrupt business as usual. They call on the people to be unlike other nations—to abandon the ways of war and empire, to abandon unfairness, exploitation, and greed. They call to mind the covenant with God, recalling God’s vision.

Jesus of Nazareth appears as one in line with the Hebrew prophets. Jesus’ basic message is to change one’s thinking, one’s consciousness, for the direct rule of God was arriving and taking place here and now (“repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”) In line with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus was calling the people back to being ruled by God and God alone. In line with the Hebrew prophets, he reminded the rulers and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with God, although, Jesus’s followers universalized this message for all peoples. Jesus was promoting a way of thinking about God and being in relation with God outside the official sacrificial system controlled by the religious elite, the Temple elite that was collaborating with the Roman Empire.  This was an unauthorized, unmediated relationship with God. One’s relationship with others was similarly re-imagined. The lines that divide people can be traversed, boundaries that separate people can be crossed – national, ethnic, sexual, religious – these are false divisions that keep people from seeing “that of God” in their neighbor. The change in how one orders one’s thinking and one’s relationships (shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice) revolutionizes the social order, the political order.

The metaphors that Jesus used for this transformation, the changed relationships with God and neighbor, were political. He did not talk about the family of God, nor did he talk about the school of God. He talked about the kingdom of God. Having a direct, unmediated, intimate relationship with the living God and the resulting transformations of daily life put oneself in the kingdom of God, God’s order and rule. The titles that Jesus was associated with – messiah, Christ, son of God, savior, lord – are political titles. The language his followers used – kingdom, gospel, assembly (“church”) – were all taken from the Hebrew and Roman political lexicon. This is political language. And it is clear from the gospels that Jesus was proclaiming a new order, a different kingdom, a counter-realm of peace, mutuality, cooperation, justice. My kingdom, Jesus tells the Roman governor, is unlike the world’s kingdoms. If it were like them, my followers would have violently opposed my arrest. (John 18:36) My kingdom is not worldly, not armed, not violent.

Jesus was renewing the covenant of God and the covenantal relationship with neighbor. He reminded his listeners of God’s blessings and curses, reminded them of God’s liberating power to bring them out of slavery and into a life of abundance. His listeners suffered a number of Roman military conquests, and were increasingly taxed and indebted. Not only were they responsible for paying a tithe to the collaborationist Temple elite, and the Roman tribute as well, in Jesus’ lifetime, Galileans also needed to fund the Herod who was now located in their region. They were exhausting their reserves, borrowing from the wealthy at high interest rates, and increasingly at risk for having their property seized or foreclosed upon. Jesus’ blessings and curses speak to the desperate economic circumstances of his listeners and followers. His blessings and curses evoke those in the Torah, and were meant to bring his listeners into line with the original covenant.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20-26)

Much of what Jesus said and did was around what people do with their resources. Many of Jesus’ parables as well as stories about him involve debt and talents, wage earners and unfair bosses and vineyard laborers, taxes and coins, bread and credit. The prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray petitions for sufficient food and cancellation of debts. He taught first and foremost that all that we have ultimately belongs to God. God is the Creator and we simply stewards of God’s creation. The person who believes that they have created or earned their own wealth displaces God as lord of all. Jesus also teaches that our resources are to be used for the benefit of all, for the common good. He consistently privileges the needy—those who are marginal; he calls us to look to such persons when deciding how to best use our resources. Will our actions increase the livelihood of the least of these? Will our actions help or harm the least of these?

The covenant to which Jesus called his listeners back is one of fundamental concern for the neighbor, for the wellbeing of the entire community, the entire household of God. They are to ensure, as acts of faith, that all have access to the resources needed for an abundant life, and that all fully participate in the life of the community.

It is particularly exasperating to me how much of the political force of the biblical vision of economic justice and peace has been drained of its power by the religious status quo. This is particularly true of Jesus, who was especially confrontational toward the powers that be (one did not get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for anything less). His teachings and actions have been so spiritualized their actual, full-bodied meaning in his cultural and historical context are almost lost. I hope that all who take the Bible seriously (if not literally) are able to read and hear the voice within its pages that calls for the re-ordering of our communal household to embody the divine care and concern for the most needy and vulnerable, that describes a vision of the world redeemed—the world at peace with all peoples living in security and plenty, that calls for a social order marked by mutuality, cooperation, justice, and that sings a joyful song of a new day in which the hungry are filled with good things and rulers are brought down from their thrones. May that day come soon!

Move Your Money From Wall Street to Main Street

A campaign on Facebook and elsewhere has designated November 5, 2011 as “Bank Transfer Day.” Ordinary people are being invited to divest from the Wall Street banks and move their money into local banks and credit unions. The 1% of the US population that controls more than a third of the nation’s wealth will wake up on November 6 and know just how powerful the 99% can be if we act together.

I recently moved my money from one of the big banks to a local one. It’s easy to do:

  • Open a new account in your local bank or credit union
  • Order cheques and a debit card for your new account
  • If you have direct deposit at work (or anywhere else) have your employer redirect your deposit to the new bank. If you pay bills automatically, make sure these all have your new information. Make sure these have all been switched before closing the old account (it can sometimes take a few pay cycles).
  • Transfer your money to your new account
  • Close the old account, following the procedures of that bank. Don’t just withdraw your money and leave the account open—they will charge you fees for an inactive account, fees for a low balance, fees for just about anything they can think of!

Find a local bank or credit union near you at the Web site of the Move Your Money project. You may want to tell the person at your old bank that assists you why you will no longer be their customer. If there is a segment on their form (there was with mine) for the reason you are closing the account, insist that they fill it out. Better yet, write a letter to the branch manager letting them know that you withdrew your money and why.

Why should you move your money?

  • better rates and fewer fees
  • more personal service
  • keep money in your local community
  • increase local economic development—and help create more jobs.
  • take a stand in a system that is unfair, raising your voice for economic justice

There was a public outcry after the Bank of America announced it would start charging its customers $5 a month to get access to their own money using a debit card. It seems that the bigger a bank is, the more fees it charges you!

My community bank charges almost no fees. If I get charged an ATM fee, I get it refunded at the end of the month. More and more community banks and credit unions offer ATM surcharge-free networks. On average, community banks and credit unions charge less in fees. I also found the highest interest on my deposits at my local bank and a local credit union. The tellers and even managers at the branches of my community bank all know me by name, know my profession, and ask about my work when they see me. Local banks and credit unions have higher customer satisfaction ratings than the too big to fail banks

The largest five banks held 13% of US deposits in 1994; today they hold 38%. Because these banks were considered “too big to fail,” they got bailed out using taxpayer money, but never became any more accountable to taxpayers after they crashed the economy and sent many taxpayers into the unemployment lines. The reason they were propped up was supposedly to ensure the flow of money. They continue to use ordinary people’s deposits for risky trade investments, not loans to small businesses, which are the engine of the economy. Local banks and credit unions, on the other hand, do a disproportionate amount of lending to small business owners.

The big Wall Street banks will probably continue to use your deposits for risky, unregulated investments. This is precisely how they crashed the economy in 2008. No bank should be “too big to fail.” If the government continues refusing to break up the big bank monopoly, a united front of ordinary people can achieve a similar effect by withdrawing our money from them.

MOVE YOUR MONEY ON OR BEFORE NOVEMBER 5… Guy Fawkes Day!

How You Can Support Occupy Wall Street

There are many ways that you can support the growing Occupy Wall Street movement:

JOIN IT. Visit an occupation site near you. There are currently more than 200 in the United States alone. In Boston come down to Dewey Square, outside of South Station in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Talk to the people who are there. Stay for a General Assembly. Make a sign and carry it. Participate in a protest march (these are frequently announced on the Web site beforehand; check back often). Bring a tent and stay awhile.

START AN OCCUPATION. Figure out what resources you need, learning from what other Occupy groups have done.  Gather together friends, family, co-workers, and members of your faith community, labor union or school. Reach out to existing anti-poverty and economic justice groups active in your area. Choose a space. Bring a sleeping bag and/or tent. Call the press. Create a Web site.

Instead of occupying a public square, how about organizing a picket line (outside a Bank of America location, say, or a federal building). How about a rally? How about a vigil? What could your theme be, and could there be costumes, theatre and music?

PROVIDE MATERIAL, MORAL & SPIRITUAL SUPPORT. Many of the Occupy groups have Web sites. Check them out for what they need in terms of supplies. Some of these sites also make it possible to send financial contributions either on line or to a mailbox. Be generous. Check with the group what they need vis-à-vis food. Many Occupy groups have set up kitchen tents, so check in there. Visit and stay awhile, encouraging the protesters who are sleeping there with your positivity. Remind them of the support they have among many ordinary people in the US and around the world. Pray for the protesters, and if possible include them in the “prayers of the people” in your faith community. Hold them in the Light.

TAKE ACTION ON THE ISSUES. Marching, protesting, and camping out in public squares are not for everybody, and that’s okay. Even if it is okay, here are some other things you can do to support this broad-based social change movement:

  • MOVE YOUR MONEY. Withdraw your support of Citi, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. You can close all of your accounts with these banks and transfer your money to a local bank or credit union. The too-big-to-fail banks are more interested in continuing the risky (and still unregulated) practices (using your money!) that led to the economic crash. Local banks and credit unions do disproportionately more lending to local small businesses, did not engage in these risky practices, do not give their CEOs millions in bonuses, and have fewer fees. Divest from Wall Street and invest in Main Street!
  • CALL YOUR STATE’S ATTORNEY GENERAL. There is mounting proof that the big banks falsified documents, encouraged bad loans, and lied to investors–illegal actions that led to the housing collapse, costing the world economy $7.7 trillion and causing the Great Recession. Now five of these banks—JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Ally Bank—want immunity from prosecution in return for a settlement of just $20 billion. President Obama will give this to his Wall Street cronies, a slap on the wrist and nothing more. This amount is a fraction of what the banks cost American investors and homeowners. But this deal relies on the agreement of state attorneys general. The New York, Minnesota and Nevada attorneys general, are not going along and are conducting their own investigations. Encourage your state’s attorney general not to accept this deal and to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley can be reached at (617) 727-2200.
  • BRING THE PUSH TO AMEND THE CONSTITUTION TO YOUR COMMUNITY. Help reverse the Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court, which enshrined the “personhood” of corporations and granted them First Amendment rights of free speech. This has sealed excessive corporate influence over our democracy, allowing corporations and unions to flood political candidates with unseen and unlimited financial contributions.
  • CALL AND WRITE YOUR LEGISLATORS. QUESTION POLITICAL CANDIDATES. Who is paying for their election campaign? What are their budget priorities—endless war or Medicare? Will they reinstate Glass-Steagall? Will they give the Securities Exchange Commission more regulatory powers? Do they support the overturn of Citizens United? Will they pass the Fair Elections Now Act? Will they protect social programs from budget cuts? What do they think of Occupy Wall Street?
  • SCREEN THE ACADEMY-AWARD™ WINNING DOCUMENTARY “INSIDE JOB” IN YOUR HOME AND COMMUNITY AND DISCUSS IT. Most public libraries have the DVD. What will your audience do about what you have seen, heard and learned? What actions will you take together?

HELP THIS MOVEMENT EVOLVE. The Occupy Wall Street movement is weeks old. Yet in weeks, it has galvanized older social change campaigns and altered the political discourse nationally. What matters most to you about this changing climate? What do you hope for? Be sure to articulate this, and your own reasons for joining or sympathizing with the movement. Talk, write, blog, preach, teach and/or sing about what is important to you. In so doing, you are helping shape the discourse about both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the issues.

SHARE YOUR STORY. Are you struggling to make ends meet? Are you on an ever-running treadmill of overwork just to keep your head above water financially? Do you have a family member in the armed forces deployed overseas? Are you a returning veteran? Are you being foreclosed on? Have you lost your retirement savings? Do you have thousands of dollars in student or other debt? Will you go bankrupt paying or trying to pay medical bills? The Occupy Wall Street and We Are The 99% movement has broken the silence for many people—sharing their stories publicly for the first time. What is happening to you is not a sign of your failure; the whole system is failing. By telling your story, speaking frankly and openly about your situation, you are giving permission to others to do likewise.

And in so doing, helping the 99% find itself and its voice.

Resurrection City: MLK and Occupy Wall Street

Today in Washington DC, the new memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dedicated in a ceremony and his legacy heralded with speeches and parades. At the same time, Occupy DC and Stop the Machine marched against corporate and financial malfeasance, social inequities and war. Walking in the warm sun, we approached the Washington Monument chanting Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Main Street! Occupy everywhere and never give it back! as other marchers, demanding jobs and racial justice converged with us to mutual cheers and together we merged into the crowds already gathered around a stage by the monument.

It was a heartwarming celebration of Dr. King’s legacy.

In the last months of his life, Dr. King publicly connected the dots between racism, economic injustice, and war. In the months leading up to his assassination in April 1968, Dr King was increasingly critical of the war in Viet Nam, speaking publicly against the war for the first time in 1967. He was moving steadily toward a more radical critique in the truest sense of the word: getting to the root of social evils, which King began to see as unequal economic power.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation invited Dr. King to give the annual Massey Lectures, which were broadcast in November and December 1967. In his lectures (published in book form as The Trumpet of Conscience), King explained his newfound outspokenness against the war; he saw funding for anti-poverty programs being diverted to a military build-up in Viet Nam. He said: “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continues to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube.” Dr King continued: “And so I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such.” The war in Viet Nam, King went on to say, “was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily higher proportions relative to the rest of the population… I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”

“The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”

Dr. King concluded the CBC broadcast by describing what was to become the Poor People’s Campaign, an undertaking of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Poor People’s Campaign was envisioned as being the largest, most extensive civil disobedience operation yet seen. King referred to this economic justice movement as the second phase of the civil rights movement. Using the nonviolent direct action tactics that characterized the first phase, Dr. King wanted to focus the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty. In the same way that the movement had drawn attention to racial injustice and forced the hand of legislators and politicians, King sought to evoke a citizen’s movement for an economic bill of rights, which included a thirty million dollar anti-poverty package, a commitment to full employment, and increased construction of low-cost housing.

The Poor People’s Campaign was going to bring a “multiracial army of poor people” to Washington DC to build–guess what?–a tent city on the Mall and paralyze the nation’s capital with acts of civil disobedience until the federal government redirected funds from the war in Viet Nam to this effort to abolish poverty. To his fellow members of the SCLC, King described this upcoming movement as a “question of restructuring the whole of the American economy.” He called for the nationalization of certain industries. “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters,” King said in a trip to Mississippi in February 1968, “but now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.”

This deliberately mulitcultural coalition would bring together not only poor people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, but all of those citizens who were dreaming of a new society, all Americans who envisioned a more just and equitable social order. It would be the culmination and fulfillment of the social change that the civil rights movement, the first phase, had begun.

Dr. King was of course assassinated in April 1968, while helping to lead a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He didn’t live to see the Poor People’s Campaign, which went ahead despite his murder. Demonstrators arrived in Washington DC in May 1968 and were housed in tents and shacks which they called Resurrection City. Without King’s charismatic leadership, however, and because so many legislators were and indeed President Johnson was so alienated by King’s criticism of the war, and because it was suddenly overshadowed by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Poor People’s Campaign packed up in June 1968 without much success.

It was more comfortable, for most Americans, to decry injustices in the Southern states. Looking more closely at poverty and economic justice in their own backyard was more difficult, more demanding, more costly and most would rather look the other way. Dr. King’s economic justice campaign did not galvanize them in the same way. King increasingly came under fire from former allies as well as critics for his outspokenness against the war, for going beyond civil rights to create more far reaching social change.

The Poor People’s Campaign has largely faded from the historical memory and is the most overlooked aspect of Dr. King’s legacy. Today, with the Occupy DC and Stop the Machine tent cities camped in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, respectively, it felt like Dr. King’s vision for a campaign to end economic injustice had been resurrected. I somehow felt that the work to which Dr. King was devoting himself in the last months of his life was coming alive. This was precisely the kind of movement he was building when he was murdered. It has become easy to pay lip service to the hero, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honor him with statues, memorials and a national holiday. An important part of his living legacy, however, is in the Resurrection Cities of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Why I’m Protesting

Preachers frequently give their listeners the sermons that they themselves need to hear. I recently preached a sermon on the power of nonviolence and the courage of being a true practitioner of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, or soul-force. I said: Would I camp out in Tahrir Square? How about Wall Street? There are moments in our lives when the question of what we are living for becomes more urgent.

I am living such a moment in my life today. I have been watching with interest the growing protests on Wall Street, and have been going down to Boston’s financial district to show my support for Occupy Boston (where I was especially pleased that the Peace Abby loaned the protesters a statue of Mahatma Gandhi for their encampment). I have been studying and thinking about economic justice, and watched the online gurgling before the gush of protests burst out. Occupy Wall Street was suggested by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters on its Web site in July, and before that, a group calling itself Stop the Machine was organizing a broad-based coalition to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in a Tahrir Square-like protest. This group committed itself to arriving en masse in Washington on the tenth anniversary of the US war in Afghanistan (October 6) if we still had troops in that country on that date. They were making the connection between the military-industrial complex, corporate influence on policy makers, social inequities at home and the seemingly never-ending wars overseas. As a passing thought, it occurred to me I could go to Washington DC and participate.

This historic moment now presses me with its urgency. I ask myself what I am willing to do. How am I going to live my convictions about justice, equity and compassion? Would I stop cursing at the newscast and actually get off of the couch and do something? The dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit are urging me to get up.

The courage of the young people in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston ignited something in me, something between nostalgia and hope—nostalgia (when I was a youth, I camped out on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, protesting nuclear armaments and cruise missile testing in Canada) as homesickness for my own youth, and hope that a movement toward positive change was actually happening. Hope should not be the exclusive domain of the young, I decided, and cynicism is the logic of the chronically complacent.

I’ve written letters and made phone calls. I’ve given my time and treasure. I have attempted to be a witness, in the pulpit, to my faith and hope. The time has come for me to take my witness to the street. Protest movements (though not the be-all and end-all of social change) have their place, and I believe I have a place in this one.

I am joining the protests because we are shoveling our national treasure into the burning furnaces of endless war. At Occupy Boston, they chanted: Want to fix the deficit? Stop the wars! Tax the rich! The billions of dollars we are spending annually on warfare could be building schools and paying teachers, rebuilding infrastructure and creating jobs. Our armed forces and their families (mostly middle and working class folks) are disproportionately making sacrifices for these wars, and the middle class is paying for them. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and tax loopholes for corporations have insured that the financial cost of the wars is being borne by middle class Americans. This does not seem fair to me. I am joining the protests because I want the so-called Bush-era tax cuts (they are now actually the Obama tax cuts) for the wealthy to be repealed.  I am joining the protests because I think sacrifices must be borne more fairly, the loopholes should be closed, and hiding funds offshore should be prohibited. I am joining the protests because I personally paid more taxes than General Electric did last year.

I am joining the protests because I want the Wall Street financiers who broke the law to be investigated and prosecuted. They helped cause the 2008 financial crisis and are not being held accountable while millions of middle and working class Americans are suffering because of their misdeeds. The protesters cry: They got bailed out; we got sold out! I called Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (at 617-727-2200) and asked her to refuse any settlement deal that would give big banks wide immunity from investigation and prosecution. And I think more pressure needs to be brought to bear, especially on the Obama administration, made up as it is of many former barons of Wall Street. I am joining the protests because I think this kind of revolving door between industry and government is detrimental to public policy and the rule of law. I believe steps need to be taken to limit the influence of lobbyists and industry insiders in writing legislation.  I believe the right of former government regulators to work for the corporations or industries they once regulated needs to be curtailed.

I am joining the protests because I believe the Glass-Steagall regulations need to be reinstated. I believe the Securities Exchange Commission should be given stricter regulatory powers. I think the Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court needs to be overturned—and I want to support the efforts that have begun to introduce a Constitutional amendment, as cumbersome as that is, to reverse this decision that gave corporations and unions the status of personhood and granted them First Amendment rights of free speech, opening the floodgates of unrestricted spending on political campaigns by these “persons.” I am joining the protests because I want to see campaign finance reform, including the passage of the Fair Elections Now Act.

For good measure, I believe the Consumer Protection Bureau should be strengthened, and compassionate aid should be provided for foreclosed homeowners that were victims of predatory lending. I would like to see basic financial literacy taught to people from across the class strata so that all citizens are equipped to make good choices about mortgages, credit card debt and managing household finances. I believe the “circle of protection” around social programs (including Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security) needs to be reinforced in all discussions of government spending, and that US Senator John Kerry and other members of the US Congress “Super Committee” need to be told so in no uncertain terms. Housing, health care and higher education are becoming less affordable to more people—both because of spiraling costs and depressed wages. I am joining the protests because the growing social inequities in US society are deeply disturbing to me and I think are detrimental to the health of our democracy.

I know the protesters have been criticized for not having demands, and for being incoherent (though I’m not sure “demands” are what they are about). But when I think about the issues that have brought them out onto the public squares of America, I see a tangle of interconnected issues—a corporate and military-industrial-complex stranglehold on government pushing us into expensive wars that are unduly being paid for by middle and working class Americans—who are being actively and increasingly impoverished—and, fired by an engine of unlimited growth, devouring our finite planet, rendering it uninhabitable. I can only speak for myself and for what motivates me, and I hope I have articulated here a sense of what—for me—these protests are all about, as multifaceted as it is. And why I feel compelled to put my voice and my body onto the public square in support of what I see as basic issues of fairness.

I am in Washington DC for several days participating in the Freedom Plaza protest. I don’t expect everybody who reads this to agree with me or join me. I think we can have a robust conversation about these issues—that is what Occupy Wall Street is about. How do you answer the question: How are we to be together as a nation and society, with fairness, prosperity and democracy the markers of our common life? I am answering the Inward Light in my actions in what I understand to be the best way I can.

One percent of the population of the United States controls upwards of a third of the country’s wealth and have a disproportionate influence on public policy and the exercise of the rule of law. The protesters insist: We are the 99% and this seems to me like the vital call of the democratic spirit.

They cry out: We are the 99%! And we are too big to fail!