The Spirituality of Occupy

alter at occupy

Votive candles line an altar to the death of capitalism at Occupy Oakland on November 2, 2011. Activist imagination drives the movement's dissident spirituality. Credit: Alana Yu-Lan Price.

“In the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, we decided to be a nonreligious movement,” said the middle-aged man to my left. “So, if we’re going to debate nonviolence as a tactic, fine, but not as a religious ideology.”

This statement continued to trouble me for the remaining two hours of Occupy Seattle’s General Assembly. I had been serving as a chaplain in the movement and was the subject of a media stir in December 2011 after the Seattle Police brutally beat me and threw me in jail during an Occupy action. At the time of the beating, I was clad in clergy attire and crying out for peace.

I had come to the General Assembly to listen and participate in a discussion and vote on the place of nonviolence in Occupy Seattle but found myself disoriented by my neighbor’s assertion that “religious” values had no place in the movement’s dialogue. I felt muted by the insinuation that my spirituality, which is at the core of my identity, was unwelcome.

Since that General Assembly, I have come to believe that while some veteran spiritual activists are able to ignore the presence of an underlying religiophobia (an ingrained distrust of religious people/language/symbols) often present at Occupy events, there are many less-hardened spiritual and religious folks who are hesitant to join the movement because of it. The movement’s dominant rhetoric is currently devoid of the language that most powerfully motivates us, and its tone is hostile to spiritual people.

However, we cannot blame the Occupy movement for this detrimental predicament. Rather, it is the responsibility of spiritual leaders to bridge these divides by illuminating the spiritual dimensions that we see in Occupy. We must inspire current Occupiers to rethink their assumptions about the relevance of spirituality to the movement and simultaneously inspire greater participation among our own. As one voice in what I hope will be a growing chorus of spiritual leaders, I would like to name one of the profound spiritual impulses that runs deep within the Occupy movement: imagination.

Occupy meditation

Occupy Wall Street protesters meditate in Zuccotti Park on October 16, 2011. Creative Commons/David Shankbone.

The spirituality of the Occupy movement is not one that references God, the Divine, or even the numinous, but instead is found in the imaginative transcendence of the consumerist, individualistic, hierarchical constructions of the self and society that we in America are spoon-fed from birth.{{{subscriber|2.00}}}

The exercise of imagination is at the heart of my understanding of spirituality. By imagination I do not mean idle escapism, but rather the ability to envision and pursue a personal identity and social reality that is more expansive than the hedonistic materialism and more genuine than the fantastic utopias that sometimes seem to be our only options. The Occupy movement is an eruption of precisely this sort of transformative imagination. For me, a United Methodist minister, this imaginative exercise is rooted in my understanding of and encounter with God. While I remain unsure about what is fueling the imagination of Occupy (and worry that this ambiguity may be a liability), I can highlight a few instances of the emphatic creativity in which I see the spirituality of Occupy becoming manifest.

A nearly spontaneous explosion of activist imagination has brought forth the people’s mic, the 99 percent slogan, discussion forums, makeshift libraries, tent sanctuaries, and arts stations in the camps. This creativity has breathed new life into the use of working groups and the General Assembly and its attendant sign language. It is evident in the decolonization principles crafted by oppressed communities and even in the notion of “occupying” economic centers in cities across the country instead of political centers. While the Occupy movement is built on wisdom from past liberation movements and subversive prophetic voices, this past has been used as a wellspring of inspiration in the creative endeavor rather than as an anchor of authority weighing down its potential.

My first experience with Occupy Seattle revealed its creative core. A few friends and I brought a heaping vat of soup made by Valley & Mountain, my spiritual community, to Seattle’s Westlake Shopping Center. I intended to eat a bowl, participate in the General Assembly, and start camping but I quickly learned that a few days earlier the police had begun arresting anyone who sat on the ground after 10 pm. Following many arrests for civil disobedience, participants in the movement were looking for a new camp location. Amid all the turmoil, they had decided to take a night off from the business of the General Assembly and have a dance party instead. I was reminded of the words of Reverend Humberto Ramos Salazar, a member of the Aymara indigenous community in Bolivia, who said, “A community that does not celebrate is a dead one.” Someone told me, “If you want to join, we’re marching in solidarity with Oakland in thirty minutes.” Occupy Oakland had recently weathered a violent crackdown. “Where are we marching?” I asked as the young man walked away. “Wherever we want,” he replied.

It took me some time to realize not only the tactical brilliance of this idea, but the symbolic genius as well. Our spontaneous, unpermitted, uncharted march was a declaration: we reserve the right to express ourselves and exercise our freedom and conscience. In what I believe is a deeply spiritual move, Occupy is actively seeking to transcend the herded consumer identity and name us free creators.

And yet, personal creativity and freedom do not produce a social movement and would not have flourished in the Occupy movement if they were not situated in an imaginative community. Whether or not it was originally envisioned when occupiers started congregating on Wall Street, the camps fomented relationships, friendships, and the stability necessary for genuine community. After too many years spent in social justice meetings that reflect the segmentation of the wider society, the diversity I have encountered in Occupy Seattle is enlivening. Professors and punks, hippy activists and young anarchists, homeless folks and middle-class professionals are not only in the same room together, but many actually care about one another. Since Occupy is a radical democratic movement, everyone gets to speak at the general assemblies, regardless of those aspects that amplify or mute voices in our current political process.

The Occupy movement is by no means a perfect embodiment of Dr. King’s Beloved Community; internecine conflicts remain in the form of unexamined privilege, subconscious attitudes of supremacy, and acts of micro-aggression. Still, while true inclusivity is an elusive ideal within the movement, the effort to embody a genuinely egalitarian community nonetheless stands out as an imaginative—and dare I say, spiritual—contrast to the dominant model of society in which isolated individuals jostle for position on a social ladder.

The police have all but wiped out the camps, and a mature alternative for society has not yet emerged within the Occupy movement. At times, the absence of a definitive vision put forth by Occupy reminds me of a period in the Exodus narrative when Moses, Miriam, and Aaron have led the people out of Egypt but lack a future plan. This undermines the trust of the Israelites. But then I remember that even though Occupy uses symbols, songs, rituals, and narratives as profoundly and deftly as a political party or religious community, it is neither of these. Occupy does not have an agenda or a plan to save the world, and it is not trying to create one. It is simply issuing a call to democracy, and the movement is imaginative enough to realize that until private money stops flowing unchecked into politics, it is useless to try to issue this call directly to the politicians themselves. Regardless of its future iterations, the spirituality of the Occupy movement thus far has brought me new hope and a new imagination for who I might be and for what this world might become.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


Reverend John Helmiere is the founder and convening minister of Valley & Mountain, a radically inclusive faith community in south Seattle. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, he is ordained by the United Methodist Church.

Source Citation

Helmiere, John. 2012. "The Spirituality of Occupy." Tikkun 27(2): 22.

tags: Activism, Rethinking Religion, Spiritual Politics   
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