Friday, March 30, 2012

British Quakers Support Occupy - Can We Go Further?

I learned recently that Quakers in Great Britain issued a statement expressing their support for the ideals of the Occupy movement. My first reaction was, "well, it's about time!" On further investigation, however, I realized that Britain Yearly Meeting issued their statement back in November. A pretty rapid response from a national religious denomination!

I am grateful for the willingness of Friends in Britain to embrace the message of economic justice that has been trumpeted by occupiers across the globe. This should be a no-brainer for us as Friends. Quakers have a long track record of at least paying lip service to the need for a more equitable economic system, and making a statement of support for the ideals of Occupy is a fairly small ideological leap.

The greater challenge is actually doing something about it. We Quakers talk a good game about peace, equality and economic justice, but we often lead lives that are fairly typical of the middle class of our respective nations. Many of us are well-informed, responsible citizens within the safe confines of bourgeois respectability; fewer of us have found ways to live into the more radical modes of engagement that our spiritual forebears have modeled for us.

I applaud Friends in Britian for publically minuting their support for the ideals of the Occupy movement. That is more than most Friends bodies have done. Yet, it is easy to write minutes and issue statements. Words come easily, but concrete commitments are more challenging.

What are ways that we as the Religious Society of Friends can move beyond words, committing ourselves to the radical social justice message of Jesus? How can we move beyond the mere affirmation of ideals and get our hands dirty in the messy business of the gospel? Expressing our ideals is important, but putting our faith into action requires much greater bravery. As we open ourselves to the Spirit that inspires all courage, we will receive strength to change our lives, putting flesh and bone on this vision of justice that we have talked about for so long.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Diversity in the Body

Now... if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. - 1 Corinthians 12:15-20

As a grassroots organizer within the Occupy movement, it is easy for me to get carried away. There is an intensity in my sense of calling to this work, and a part of me insists that everyone should be involved. And there is some truth in this. I do believe that we are all called to the struggle for greater love, truth and justice in our society. We all have a responsibility to hear and respond to the Spirit's movement in our hearts, however we are directed. But responding faithfully looks different for some than for others.

For my part, I have felt drawn into the kind of grassroots organizing that we do in Occupy Church and Occupy Our Homes DC. Rather than primarily seeking policy changes, or reform within the financial sector, I feel called to pursue direct engagement with families and communities. I feel that I can be most faithful by helping to develop grassroots networks that empower ordinary people to have a voice in the way local communities are impacted by the big banks, big government, and the interests of the wealthiest 1%.

But there is more than one way to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. This grassroots action that I have been called to is important, but there are other, complimentary ways that we are engaging simultaneously. We need the folks who are laboring tireless for policy reforms to curb the abuses of the financial sector. We need the courage of those who are working within multi-national corporations and big banks, to take the risk of advocating for more just and sustainable policies within their organizations. We need lawmakers who are responsive to the needs of their human constituents - not only the demands of their corporate creditors. There are many ways that we are working for justice, and each of us is called to be faithful in our particular role.

The work that I and other grassroots organizers are doing fit into a larger picture. Our efforts are crucial, but we cannot succeed alone. Rather than insisting that everyone engage in the same way as me, I must learn to cooperate with those who are seeking to be faithful in a variety of different contexts and callings. If we hope to see real change in our society, we will need the cooperation from all our parts. We cannot heal the body by hacking off limbs. We need restoration, not amputation.

I seek to stay open to all those who are working for a more loving and just society, even when their forms of engagement look very different from my own. Rather than demanding that others engage in the same way that I am called to, I will honor the varied roles and responsibilities that have been given to different individuals and communities. I will be the feet. Will you be the eyes? The ears? The mouth? The hands?

Friday, March 23, 2012

This American Spring

Here in Washington, the winter is over. Cherry blossoms are in bloom, birds are singing, and folks in my neighborhood are already mowing their lawns. Spring is always a joyous time, a relief after several months of darkness and cold. It is as if the world had fallen asleep, and is just now waking up.

This spring is particularly special. We just marked six months since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. The Occupy movement was an autumn counterpart to the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East last year. We sought to participate in a living, grassroots democracy where each person has a voice, regardless of the size of our wallets. Yet even as we occupied public spaces across North America and the world, we knew that the fall was just the beginning. Even greater things were in store for the American Spring.

Now, spring has arrived. What does this American Spring look like? In a word: different. The initial groundswell of spontaneous demonstrations, encampments and direct action is giving way to new strategies and tactics. Encampment, street protest and rallies - these all have a place in our toolkit. But in Occupy 2.0, we are working to develop organization that can sustain a long-term movement for justice. The American Autumn was an expression of our passionate refusal to cooperate with unjust structures, and the American Spring is about developing positive alternatives to those structures. We are not merely protesting - we are organizing.

One of the most common critiques of the Occupy movement this fall was that we refused to have "demands." Rather than attempt to promulgate a list of policy positions for the movement, we focused on a very simple message: "A small group of wealthy individuals and giant corporations are dominating civic life and political expression, and we will accept nothing less than the restoration of a government of the people, by the people and for the people." This was exactly the right tone to set in the fall. It was a stroke of collective genius that we did not attempt to nail down specific policy objectives to deliver to lawmakers. That would have played right into the hands of a corrupt system that has long experience in dealing with idealistic troublemakers.

As we emerge into the American Spring, our simple message of economic democracy has resonated throughout the culture. Talk of "the ninety-nine percent" and "economic inequality" has become a staple of our public discourse, and the Occupy movement is part of the national narrative. The work of the American Autumn is complete. Occupy 1.0 was successful in delivering our very simple message of grassroots democracy and economic justice. Now comes the hard part. It is no longer enough to sound the alarm about the threats facing our democracy and the lives of ordinary working people. Those with ears to hear have gotten that message. The time has come to mobilize for specific objectives and concrete victories.

The Occupy Church is embracing the American Spring by focusing on a few areas where we believe we can make a real difference. One example is our partnership in foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes DC. Working alongside homeowners and tenants in Prince George's County, we have already helped to ensure that Bertina Jones - an accountant, grandmother, and pillar in her family and community - will be able to stay in her home, despite the unjust dealings of Bank of America and Freddie Mac. And we are just getting warmed up. Our ultimate goal is to build a base of ordinary citizens who are equipped to stand up to predatory banks.

Another way we are moving forward is by developing materials to help congregations, organizations and denominations invest their funds in institutions that do not exploit the poor. We are in the early planning stages of a program to equip the Christian community to engage in stockholder activism, and to move its money out of the most exploitative banks and into local banks and credit unions.

One unique way that Occupy Church is participating in the American Spring is through the development of a theological basis for this movement. As Christians, we feel called to participate in the Occupy movement because of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who began his earthly ministry by declaring that he had come to bring good news to the poor. We understand the Jubilee tradition of debt forgiveness as being central to Jesus' message. As we develop a scriptural understanding of how God is at work in the lives of the poor, we are discovering how the Holy Spirit calls us to the work of reconciliation and economic justice. In addition to individual writing and study, we are exploring whether Occupy Church might release a declaration outlining our sense of how the Spirit is speaking to the churches in our present context.

If the American Autumn was about raising awareness, the American Spring will be a time of building on that basic awareness and moving into a positive program for change. While Occupy 1.0 was primarily centered in public encampments, the next phase of this movement is playing out in offices and living rooms, coffee shops and schools. This spring, we are rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty in the messy business of grassroots organizing.

We are just getting started. The events of the last six months have raised up countless new leaders with a huge range of experience, skills and spiritual gifts. This spring, we will begin the process of nurturing these emerging leaders, equipping ourselves for the work that God is calling us into. We know from first-hand experience that the Lord calls the most unlikely of people to do God's work in the world. As unworthy as we are, we in the Occupy Church pray that Christ will walk beside us and teach us how live into this calling. We trust in his promise that he will never leave us, even as he invites us into work that we are incapable of doing on our own.

What is your sense of our next steps as a movement for economic justice and freedom? What are some concrete actions you feel called to this spring? How can we move into this American Spring, embracing a long-term struggle to make visible the Reign of God?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beyond the Culture Wars

We live in a world that is divided between ideological poles: Left and right, liberal and conservative, red states and blue states. This dynamic plays out not only in popular culture, but also within the Church. Our congregations endure vicious arguments over hot button issues like gay marriage, the ministry of women and abortion - yet both sides in these debates lack a compelling and positive vision of what the Church is called to be. Both extreme liberals and extreme conservatives are more interested in ideological purity than in building up the Body of Christ and seeing real, practical changes in the way that we live as a community. If this were not so, we would spend less time on theological debates (important as these are) and much more time on outreach and service to our neighbors.

The most profound division in our society is not between left and right. Rather, it is between those who want to preserve the status quo and those who seek radical change in the way we live and see the world. Despite appearances to the contrary, both sides in the culture wars are wedded to a fearful, uncreative view of the world. While conservatives want to "go back" to an imagined golden age of prosperity, liberals have projected their own prejudices into an utopian future, in which everyone will become as enlightened as they themselves already are. Both camps of culture warriors are stuck in the same place: fighting yesterdays battles, clawing desperately to preserve their own comfort and privilege.

But there is an alternative. We do not have to pick a side in this false battle for the heart and soul of our society. Rather than getting caught up in these bipolar disputes, many of us are being called into an engagement with the real problems that confront our culture and our churches today.

This is a challenging path. It requires us to recognize how we participate in a world that values wealth and security more than the Truth. Rather than blaming others, we must confess that the ills of our culture stem in our own failure to lead lives of humility, trust and love. Looking within, we must recognize that all the world's problems are present in microcosm within our own hearts. Acknowleding this, we are empowered to humbly work for change in the world, recognizing that we are all responsible. Our call for heart-change within the Church and the wider culture begins with the recognition that we ourselves must be transformed.

We know that the culture wars are not from God. These debates are fueled by a smug sense of self-righteousness and superiority more in keeping with the spirit of the Pharisees than with the Spirit of Christ. Any ideology is false that calls for others to change without first confessing our own shortcomings and need for transformation. God calls us to lives of humility, endurance and self sacrifice; and when we live in Christ, we experience love and compassion for others - not a bristling sense of superiority.

How can we move beyond the false dichotomies of red versus blue? Is there a third way that we can live into? Is there a way that seeking the truth together could become more important than winning? Opening ourselves to the living presence of God, can we receive the surprising answers that the Spirit will give us?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fifty Years Later, Segregation Lives

I have drawn a lot of comfort and inspiration recently from reading Andrew Lewis' book, The Shadows of Youth, about the young activists who were the backbone of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been a delight to read about how women and men in their early twenties - like Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, and John Lewis - had the courage to stand up against cruelty and injustice, and in the process helped to shape the character of the United States for decades to come.

Despite the gap in generation and historical context, the lives of these daring civil rights activists provide perspective on my involvement with the Occupy movement. I am intrigued about the many similarities that present themselves: the tension between reform and revolution; clashes between the old, pragmatic establishment and the young, idealistic activists; the friendships that hold the movement together; and the personality conflicts that break it apart. There is so much wisdom to be gained from the hard-earned lessons of those who have come before.

Reading about the civil rights movement is affecting me many ways. In addition to giving me insight about the nature of grassroots activism in general, it helps to sensitize me to the dynamics of race and class in the United States. Some of the stories told in The Shadows of Youth are so extreme as to be almost unbelievable. A prime example would be how the Freedom Riders of 1961 were met by violent mobs of white citizens who, with the cooperation of local police, beat these college-aged activists with baseball bats, chains and whips. White America was stridently committed to the perpetuation of Jim Crow, and it required great courage by black activists and white allies to be willing to take the insults, beatings, torture and murder that awaited them.

The sheer moral power of this guiltless suffering, captured by reporters and broadcast to the nation, had a huge impact on the culture. By the end of the 1960s, de jure segregation was no more, and though the pace of progress was slow, African-Americans were increasingly finding their voice in public discourse and governance. There was real reason for optimism.

Yet, as I read about these remarkable historical struggles that changed the face of our nation, I cannot help but notice how far we still fall short of the dream of racial equality and economic justice in this country. Despite the fact that segregation is no longer legally enforced, Washington, DC is deeply divided along racial and class lines. Of course, the strong links between race and economic class only increase the dynamic of de facto segregation.

I live in Deanwood, a neighborhood in DC that lies to the east of the Anacostia river. Those who are familiar with DC will know that white folks do not generally venture into this part of the city, known as East of the River. Many here are afraid to even visit my neighborhood, much less live here. On the other hand, since very few of the city's cafes, supermarkets and shops are located East of the River, we frequently leave our part of town to buy groceries, or meet up with friends.

It is a strange sensation to people-watch as I commute from Deanwood to Capitol Hill. As I start out from my home, I am surrounded by my African-American neighbors. Kids returning from school. The man hawking newspapers at Benning Road and East Capitol Street. When I cross the river, the picture changes dramatically. Immediately, there are large numbers of well-dressed professionals and middle class white people. By the time I reach historic Capitol Hill, all I see are white folks jogging, walking their dogs and strolling with their babies. I am in another city entirely.

I cannot help but wonder: is this what Lewis, Nash, Carmichael and other civil rights activists thought they were putting their lives on the line for? De facto segregation in the nation's capital? A city divided by enormous gaps in wealth and privilege, where most of its black residents are consigned to one isolated quarter of the District? Seeing the dynamics at work in my town, I am reminded that the long struggle for racial equality and economic justice is far from over. I wonder how I, as a white man involved in the Occupy movement, can humbly make space for a next step in the liberation of those who are marginalized in our culture and economy. How can I stay aware of the injustice that continues to hold sway in our society? How can I change my own ways of thinking and living in the world, to live into the dream of true peace and reconciliation?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Growing in Trust - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #40

Dear friends,

It is shaping up to be a beautiful spring here in Washington. Even as God guides me into new and challenging work, we are experiencing the Lord's presence and blessing in our midst at Capitol Hill Friends. Lately, we have had quite a few new attenders, and our community feels like it is growing in strength. I am constantly giving thanks to God for my brothers and sisters at Capitol Hill Friends, and for the ways that I see us growing together in maturity - both individually and as a Meeting.

The beauty of the spring is all the more radiant for me because of how challenging the winter has been. From November through February, I felt almost overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. The process of looking for a home in the DC area left me gasping for breath. The Occupy movement began its transition to a post-encampment stage, and for a couple of months it felt like everything was falling apart. As new homeowners, many new expenses emerged and stress over finances grew.

I got very anxious about how we were going to be able to pay the bills, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. With a mortgage to pay and a combined household income less than a starting schoolteacher's salary, I felt the pinch that is familiar to so many of us right now.

I began to succumb to the temptation to put financial security above obedience to God's leading. In all my anxiousness around money, it was hard for me to hear what God was truly calling me to do. I wanted to feel in control, to have a sense of security in my finances. I felt tempted to abandon the work God was calling me to in order to get a job that paid a livable wage.

Ultimately, I needed to get out of DC in order to get my head on straight. In mid-February, way opened for me to make a visit to Friends in Philadelphia. I had opportunities with a number of folks who were clearly putting God first, allowing the Spirit's leading to shape every aspect of their lives. In some cases, this had profound financial implications. I was inspired by the example of Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison, who are focusing on the ministry that God has given them to do. They are demonstrating their faith in the Lord in very concrete ways.

Instead of working for money and giving God whatever time and energy they have left over, they are setting their sights first and foremost on the mission that God has for their lives. They are seeking first the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness - trusting that God will provide for all of their temporal needs as they are faithful in the work. Rather than getting unrelated jobs, Jon and Maggie are exploring ways to make this work financially sustainable.

This was a huge breakthrough for me. I came to my senses, and realized that Jesus wants me to be focused on the work that he is calling me to, and to trust him to provide for my needs. My tendency is to tell him, "Yes, I will follow you. Only first let me go and make sure my bills get paid." But Jesus tells me, "No; let the dead bury the dead. I will provide you with everything you need. But first, follow me."

In the last several weeks, I have begun to understand that what God is requiring of me at this moment is to focus my attention on the Occupy movement. In particular, I am feeling God's call to throw myself into full-time organizing for the Occupy Church, an ecumenical Christian witness for economic justice in our local communities. One concrete way that I and other Christians are bearing witness is through our partnership with Occupy Our Homes DC.

As part of Occupy Our Homes DC, we are resisting the unjust and illegal lending practices of the big banks. We have already claimed our first victory in the case of Bertina Jones, who was going to be thrown out of her house despite her willingness and ability to pay the mortgage. As a result of our direct action at the offices of Freddie Mac, who presently own her mortgage, we were able to secure a committment from Freddie Mac and Bank of America (the original lender) that Bertina would be able to stay in her home and resume her mortgage payments.

As we continue to nail down the specifics of a final deal in the case of Bertina, we at Occupy Our Homes DC are ramping up our engagement in Prince George's County, where thousands of families live under the threat of eviction. We are canvassing neighborhoods, showing up at foreclosure auctions and meeting with local community leaders in order to build a broad base of support for a just resolution to the foreclosure crisis.

Occupy Church has a particular role to play in all of this. I, and other Occupy Church organizers, are working to develop relationships with clergy and members of area churches with the ultimate goal of building a coalition based in the local community that can stand up to the abusive lenders that are forcing families out of their homes. In the months ahead, I will be focusing much of my energy on this effort, as we seek to stand with the families that are being ruined by the callous greed of the big banks.

I am still surprised to be involved in all of this. Six months ago, I had little interest in activism. I was mostly focused on nurturing my local Christian community and sharing the gospel as best I knew how. But now I am convinced that this form of engagement is what Christ's gospel requires of me. I have been astonished as God has clearly called me into this work, despite all my protestations and anxiety. With every day that passes I am all the more aware of my weakness and inability to accomplish anything on my own. Yet, I am convinced that God is directing me in this work, and I have to trust that the Lord can use even me.

God has a long track record of using the young, the inexperienced, and the weak to bring God's plans to fruition. I have decided to step out in faith, despite my trepidation, and to trust God to provide for my needs. With divine assistance, I pray for the courage to seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. I want to follow Jesus, even as he takes me far outside my comfort zone.

I am grateful for the way that the Spirit is helping me to grow in trust. Through much wrestling and prayer, the arc of the last month has bent towards courage. God has been at work in my heart, releasing me from fear and inviting me into the risky work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers and encouragement. May the blessing of God's living presence be with you and your communities.

In the light of Christ,


Friday, March 09, 2012

Occupy and the Rise of the Millennial Generation

The Occupy movement has been an emotional roller coaster. At first, there was great surprise that this movement was even happening. As we occupied the streets, parks, banks and public buildings, surprise gave way to elation. After all these years of waiting for someone else to take charge and set our country back on track, we were compelled to put our bodies where our hearts were. We stepped into the streets and out of a lost decade of fear, disempowerment and despair.

For many occupiers, the past ten years had been a time of intense darkness. A wordless despondency had crept over my generation. We watched with tears as war finally came home on September 11th, 2001. We groaned in helpless outrage as our nation's leaders took advantage of our collective trauma and fear to invade weaker, oil-rich nations. We despaired as we saw America abandon any semblance of respect for the international community, instead striking a belligerant pose of imperial might.

Though few of us could clearly articulate it at the time, we knew that this new posture represented weakness, not strength. We, the generation who had come of age at the "end of history," were beginning to realize that history had only just begun. America would not last long as the world's sole superpower. The economic collapse that began in the fall of 2008 confirmed our suspicions that we were nearing the end of the American Century.

Yet, there was hope. With the election of Barack Obama, many of us dared to believe that America might change its trajectory. Using the economic crisis as an opportunity for spiritual growth, perhaps we could once again become a respected and respectful member of the world community. With new leadership, we could begin to address the climate crisis that threatens all of us. I personally held out hope that this new regime would focus more on education, health care and poverty reduction - rejecting the pattern of endless military build-up and systematic reduction of civil liberties established during the Bush years.

After a couple of years in office, however, it was clear that Obama would not bring change we could believe in. We had been duped once again by a politician who promised a fundamental shift in our society's way of operating. In practice, he mostly propped up entrenched elites - the financial and banking industries, the military-industrial complex, pharmaceutical companies and Big Oil. As thousands were losing their homes and poverty soared, we saw the political landscape with new eyes.

We watched with disgust as virtually all of our lawmakers colluded with powerful, elite interests that ignored the needs of ordinary working Americans in favor of their own narrow interests. Many of us were becoming convinced that neither Democrats nor Republicans offered solutions for the multiple crises that we were facing as a country. All of them - Left and Right, Democrat and Republican - were more interested in the concerns of the wealthy elites than they were in the long-term health of our nation as a whole.

So, when young people in New York City began to "occupy" Lower Manhattan and call for justice for the "99%," we knew exactly what they were talking about. Not only did their words resonate, but we soon began to realize that public dissent and direct action were the only ways that we could exercise our civic duties as citizens. The ballot box had been reduced to a choice between Pepsi and Coke. Only the streets, parks, and public spaces of our cities remained free. It was there that we could make our voices heard and begin to take part in a real conversation about the direction of our country.

In a very real sense, many of us became citizens for the first time as a result of this struggle. Always before, our voices had been confined by the straightjacket of the corporate-controlled two-party system; but now, we were free to express directly our rejection of a system that privileges the greed of the wealthiest 1% over the needs of our whole society.

Though the Occupy movement initially rallied around a shared rejection of the status quo, we are quickly discovering ways that we can put forward a positive program for change. In recent months, occupiers have thrown themselves into practical, positive work for a more just society. At this early stage, foreclosure resistance figures prominently in our efforts. We seek to thwart institutionalized theft by predatory banks and to empower ordinary homeowners and renters.

This is a hard struggle. There were several weeks in December where I almost completely dropped out of the movement. I had to, if I was going to retain my sanity! Everything was happening so quickly that being involved in Occupy DC meant living in a constant state of crisis. Clearly, that level of stress and anxiety is not sustainable.

The first months of the Occupy movement were a process of birthing a new reality. Across the country, thousands of new activist leaders emerged in a matter of weeks. We are now discovering together what it means to live out a vocation as organizers for positive social change while maintaining our spiritual grounding and living healthy, sustainable lifestyles. Many of us are brand new to this whole activism business. All of us are learning how to be effective change-agents in this new space that has emerged as millions of Americans awaken to the urgent reality of economic injustice and ecological crisis.

This movement is messy. There is so much to do, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that we have taken on. Some of the smartest, most kind-hearted people I know feel like they are in totally out of their depth. Thousands of us have been thrown fresh from college or unrelated jobs into the trenches of street organizing and grassroots activism. We were not prepared for this!

But the work itself is schooling us, and as time goes on more experienced organizers are stepping up to give us the practical training that we need. The learning curve is steep, but we are climbing it. We are testing our limits and pushing our breaking points.

This is just the beginning. The Occupy movement represents nothing less than the activation of the practical citizenship of my whole generation. In just a few months, Millennials have stepped out from the fearful conformity of the 2000s and are embracing our power as a generation that can make real change, now.

As someone who has spent most of my adult life working under the supervision of people over fifty, it is amazing to be involved in organizations like Occupy Our Homes DC, which is made up almost entirely of people under the age of thirty-five. All of our lives, we have looked to the Boomers for direction, guidance - and permission. But in this movement, we have definitively stepped outside of the old generational hierarchy. It is a joy to see that we, the Millennial generation, are taking leadership and inviting our elders to join us in the struggle for heart-change as a society.

We know that slight modifications of the present order will not be enough. We need a fundamental revisioning of our whole way of life. We must examine the ways in which our own entrenched attitudes and habits have contributed to a society in which a small elite controls most of the wealth and dominates public discourse. Now is the time to have these conversations. We have a window of opportunity to profoundly reshape our national self-understanding, to live up to America's founding creed of liberty, justice and equal opportunity.

As my generation is moves out of the trauma-induced paralysis of the 2000s, we are finding our voice as equal participants in the national conversation. I hope that elder generations will take this shift seriously. Just as the rise of the Baby Boomers in the 1960s forever altered the nature of America's public discourse, so too will the coming of age of the Millennial generation. One thing is certain: Business will not continue as usual.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Occupy Our Ideologies

I was at an organizing meeting recently where we were discussing our vision for moving forward a particular campaign. Our group had already experienced some major success, and we were considering how we could take these efforts to the next level, and what our shared objectives might be in the long term. It had the potential to be a good discussion, to clarify how we wanted to work together to achieve concrete goals.

Instead, we engaged in a mostly fruitless debate about macroeconomic principles. We had among us moderate supporters of the Democrat party, Libertarians, Anarchists, Socialists and Christians. Each of us had a different take on what an ideal world would look like. Rather than focusing primarily on the specific objectives that we as a community could accomplish, we were sucked into an airy discussion about how to landscape utopia.

For those of us involved in the Occupy movement, it is easy to get seduced by ideology. We are idealistic people, and sometimes we simply assume that everyone else in the movement shares our own particular ideals. But in reality, the Occupy movement is made up of all sorts of people. We embrace a huge variety of dreams and visions. This ideological diversity can be frustrating, and it is easy to fall into an endless debate about what the world should look like someday. There is a temptation to try to hash out ideological uniformity before moving forward.

Yet, it is a temptation. If we choose to go down the road of ideological purity, this whole movement will stall out. The participants of the Occupy movement come out of a variety of irreconcilable worldviews, and we are not going to harmonize these views by talking through them - much less convince everyone to adopt a party line. If we attempt to do so, the Occupy movement will disintegrate into theoretical squabbling that distracts us from the real business at hand - making concrete gains for ordinary working Americans.

None of this is to say that ideology is bad. We all need a vision to help keep us on track, and many of us are part of communities gathered around a specific vision. These groups can help to empower the whole movement. But the Occupy movement is not primarily an ideological movement. Certainly, there are certain broad principles that occupiers everywhere hold to - that 1% of the population should not control most of the wealth and dominate public discourse, for example - but the Occupy movement does not represent a monolithic vision for what, exactly, a just and democratic society should look like. We are part of a broad movement, encompassing a whole spectrum of ideologies and organizations.

I say all this as someone who has a definite ideological bent. There are certain ways that I would like to see our society run, and I hope that the Occupy movement will move our society closer to that vision. Nevertheless, I recognize that there are other perspectives within the movement, many of which are sharply at odds with my own. Despite these differences, we can work together harmoniously when we focus on concrete actions, rather than some distant, philosophical endgame. Today, we are making practical gains for justice. We can continue to do so, despite our disagreements about what utopia looks like.

As a Christian, my ultimate desire is to see all people living in the peace and beauty of God's power. I want to see the fearless love and radical justice of Jesus fill the world and transform our whole society. Yet, I recognize that this kind of total transformation comes through small acts of practical faithfulness - caring for modern-day orphans and widows, and seeking liberation for the oppressed. I trust that if I am faithful in the work that I have been given today, God will take care of tomorrow. Rather than trying to determine what the whole structure will ultimately look like, I can be most faithful - and, ultimately, most effective - by simply picking up the brick that I have been given and setting it in place.

Friday, March 02, 2012

All Things Hold Together

The stresses and pressures of life often act like a centrifugal force, pulling me away from my center. All my calm whisks away as I get sucked in by a whole host of worries - about friends and finances; chores and appointments. Many times, I become so ensconced in the details of what needs to get done that I forget why they need to be done at all.

When my stress levels become high enough, I am forced to become aware of my distraction and mis-guided priorities. I feel so overwhelmed by life that I begin to ask, "why?" Why must I complete these tasks? Why must I nurture these relationships? Why am I so anxious? And then I remember how Jesus taught us to renounce anxiety. I remember how Jesus urged us to trust in God's guidance day by day, leaving tomorrow's problems for tomorrow. And then, for the first time in far too long, I take a breath.

Of course, I had been breathing all along, but I had forgotten. I had forgotten to pay attention to my spirit, and to the way that breathing can draw me back into awareness of God's presence. Yet now that I have become aware of my anxiety, and the way in which my mind is scattered in a hundred different directions, I am invited to come back to the center. If I am willing to slow down and listen, I can sense the principle of God in my heart, my spirit, my breath.

When I wait in stillness, I re-discover the hidden power that draws all my scattered parts back together. Seeking to accomplish my own will, I chased after so many things; but now, I remember that only one thing really matters. As I wait in my breath, I encounter a deeper Breath that breathes in me. I am reminded that I am grounded in something much deeper than my own desires and ambitions. This life within me is greater than all my plans.

Somehow, as I wait in my breath, I experience Christ within me. If I give myself over to his love, he gathers me up and unites all of the competing voices in my head. Waiting in his presence, I am restored to my deepest and truest personality. This Holy Breath empowers me to lead the life that I was created for, turning away from the darkness, selfishness and addiction that has held me back. When I allow him to breath in me, he liberates me to live in simple, naked faith. When he takes his place at the head of my life, all things hold together.