What’s Next for Occupy

Nativity tent occupation

A nativity scene occupies the yard of Trinity Chirch, which initially supported Occupy Wall Street but later barred protesters from camping on church-owned land. Creative Commons/Poster Boy

Everybody wants to know what is next for the Occupy movement, and no one knows. Nor may we. Nor will we. Nor should we.

What Occupy has done is reinvigorate the art of the surprise, the craft of worship and ritual, the soul force in activism. It has changed the conversation and occupied the holiday tables of America. What will be said at Seders and Easter dinners? What will be said on the Fourth of July? The genie is out of the bottle. A kind of truth is being spoken—clumsily and consistently.

Occupy has unseated the pragmatic from its throne and replaced it with a mighty emptiness. That emptiness is as pregnant as any womb before fertilization, any wound before its healing, any glass before its filling. During the week before Christmas, on the fourth night of Chanukah, forty or so faith leaders gathered on three days’ notice. One faith leader from Occupy D.C. said, “It was like I was liquefied and poured out.” Our introductory go-around was to tell each other what we were like before Occupy and what we are like now. The theme was: I was politically depressed. Now I am spiritually and politically awakened. I used to be a pacifist. Now I am an occupier. I used to be unemployed. Now I have work to do.

Pragmatism is a very good thing in a prophet. And it is not enough. We have been flattened by our own pragmatism. We have been spiritually deadened and issue-organized into smithereens. The mizraim come to mind. The mizraim are the set of boundaries and pigeonholes that separate you from the whole and narrow you into their narrow way. What, you aren’t fighting for abortion while fighting for tenants’ rights, while being anti-racist and multi-faith all at the same time? Instead of being liquefied and poured out, pragmatic, issue-oriented prophecy has hardened us into parts and their partiality. Pragmatic organizing made us worry about what we weren’t doing while managing by objective what we were doing.

Occupy—with its glance at all issues, deep enough to see their roots—has radicalized us. Radical is the drilling to the center of the problem.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} What we have seen is that the issues are connected. The unnecessary suffering of the woman who needs an abortion due to her lack of access to contraception is connected to the unnecessary suffering of the senior whose building is being sold so the landlord can make more money off it. The unnecessary suffering of the more than 846,000 black men in prison, jail, on probation or parole—more black men than were enslaved before the Civil War began—when for less cost to taxpayers they could go to Harvard, is connected to the constant harassment of Muslim Americans on the street. And there are more connections.

If you are the type of prophet who reads my sample of sufferings and wonders where your “issue” is, I understand. I used to be that kind of activist. I only worked on immigrant rights—until I realized we weren’t going to blunt any instruments without economic rights for all Americans, including those who now question their support for Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the notorious proponent of racial profiling against Latinos. Through the Occupy movement’s theater and ritual, and through worship and its consequential dethronement of pragmatism, the issues-based prophets have come to see that “issues” organizing is too flat to succeed in its objectives. It is too dry. It doesn’t see how culture and economy, sexism and poverty, and queer exclusions and not bothering to vote are interconnected. One root of our troubles is the unjust economy that tries to pretend it works for all but instead just trickles down on people’s heads. A second root is a political system that is run by the same money—and has no intention of working for a just economy. Better said, in the old language of the issues-based prophets, like my former self, the root of the problem is a political economy, which is protected by untrue, well-funded stories about itself that are so effective that we have internalized their message. You have debt? You are unemployed? It must be your fault. Anybody who works hard enough in America can get ahead. Anybody who threatens the “old way” of the American family must be immoral. Fear begets fear, which begets more fear. Fear needs an enemy. Enter violence against gays, then immigrants, then Muslims. Kind people turn into monsters, so afraid are they that the American Dream may actually be just a high class of bullshit.

Before Occupy began, my parishioners were embarrassed to tell me they had lost their jobs. They had internalized the blame that failed capitalism uses to outsource responsibility for its debasement. But now, what Frances Fox Piven calls the “insult” of poverty has begun to disappear. People no longer feel that they are wrong. They are beginning to understand that we were wronged. The notion that executives deserve to be paid more than anybody could ever be worth and the notion that homeless people are the cause of their own homelessness are being exposed as harmful zombie ideas. Racism is at the heart of these “lazy” ideas. Because of Occupy, people have started to question everything, including punishmentalism, the idea that the poor are responsible for their poverty. Punishmentalism is a theology underlying much misinterpretation of the divine. Piven argues that the genuine pain of poverty, which we have glossed with insult attached to it, can change if the 99 percent understand that we are one, not separated. Homeless people are great organizers.

What Occupy has done is to core us. It has driven us to our core, our corazón. We have ended up in each other’s arms, with nothing on the throne but us. We are disorganized, underfunded, and unsure about which of the tentacles that bind us to pull on first. We are also awakened, as in woken up, shook up, internally bubbling and pouring.

At the December faith leaders’ meeting in New York, we even had absurd struggles with language and jolly conflicts about direction. Some wanted to assault state power; others wanted to befriend the police. Others wanted to talk about how delightfully transgressive the movement is. Still others just wanted to help people understand why they would be paying off their student loans at age sixty-eight or how they got underwater on their mortgage in the first place.

The biggest conversation was about nonviolence and how we are tired of the word. We don’t want any more language with a negative before a negative. The same fatigue pushed aside the word “noncooperation,” and also the fatter phrase, “withdrawing cooperation from structural violence.” We got interested in Satyagraha, although most Americans don’t know why we would use a Sanskrit word, even if it means “soul force.” We ended up coring on the language, “the third great awakening.”

The Occupy movement is forcing religious leaders to make some hard decisions about principles and practice. Trinity Church, an Episcopal church at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street in New York, originally supported Occupy Wall Street but later refused to let the movement set up an encampment on church-owned land. When as great a man as Desmond Tutu issues two statements about the Trinity situation—the first appealing to Trinity to accommodate the protesters and the second urging protesters not to force their way onto Trinity’s property without permission—we know that some profound confusion is afoot. What people have begun to see is that the economy and its gung ho protection of private property rights are the true violence, that the police have been trained to say or do what they are told by people who are actually hurting them economically. We could spend a lifetime and a long movement unpacking Tutu’s two statements. We could spend a lifetime and a movement finding out how to confess our own participation in punishmentalist, state-sponsored capitalism-gone-foul thinking, acting, living, behaving. We could also welcome our own confusion and pray to get the wag out of our finger and the soul into the whole system. What Occupy has awakened is the power to be less judgmental and more loving. That is awakening. That is soul force. It will take a generation or more to understand what it means.

I am an evolutionary. I have always loved worship and always known that street theater has the power to move and shake. I have never forgotten the Velvet Revolution in Prague, in which the police joined the protesters who were “just jingling their keys.” Or Tahrir Square or Tiananmen Square. I have always giggled when a parishioner of mine has put down worship on behalf of activism. In truth, the two are not so separate. Those who see them as mutually exclusive have missed the whole point of the arms linked in song and the mic check’s deep call and response.

What’s next in Occupy is a worship service that you conduct in your city. This ongoing service will shift our innards, our bowels, and our bases around. It will happen in the streets and will become theater. The ritual will unfold in Poughkeepsie and Pasadena and Los Angeles and New York. There will be no prayer books issued for now. We are in the unfreezing stage. We are beginning to make great shifts in our thinking. We are not leaderless but leaderful. We are not making pragmatic or issues-oriented or even “just” political or “just” economic change.

Instead, we are ritualizing, coming alive, waking up—while we are doing all the rest at the same time. We are resetting our alarm clocks. That is what worship does: it coheres and cores and awakens.

Note also that we are simultaneously making pragmatic change. You can see it in the fact that Governor Cuomo made concessions to progressive demands on the state budget—not enough, but five times more than he would have without Occupy. We are making issues-oriented change, providing cover for every political candidate to care about issues out loud as opposed to quietly in the privacy of his bar car. We are making political change. This movement will prevent the right wing from taking over the White House. It will also help people see that a moderate Democrat is not good enough to lead great people toward their soul, their justice, their constitutional guarantee of a political democracy. There will be constitutional amendments about getting money out of politics and changing corporations back into corporations. They are in the womb now. We are doing all these things at the same time because one links to another, and we have walked out of the narrow way into the wide way.

The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun‘s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article. Click here to read a PDF version of the article.

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

Donna Schaper has been Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church for five years. Her life goal is to animate spiritual capacity for public ministry.

Source Citation

Schaper, Donna. 2012. "What's Next for Occupy." Tikkun 27(2): 24.

tags: Activism, Spiritual Politics   
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