Occupy Church

Occupy Church
Rev. Douglas Taylor
12-4-11
 

In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:2-6).

He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”

This little parable has grown on me over the years.  I imagine a small older woman who keeps showing up each day in this judge’s court to plead her case.  Every day she shows up.  “Oh, great here she is again,” he probably thinks to himself.  “Doesn’t she ever take a break?”  The passage says she “kept coming to him with the plea.”  It may be she would follow him home some evenings.  She’d see him in the grocery store, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  They would bump into each other at the post office, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  He would check his facebook page and she’d have posted on his wall, “Grant me justice against my adversary.”  Constantly, incessantly, relentlessly she keeps after him.

Finally he throws his hands up and says “I’ll see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out.” It says, you will win not simply because your cause is just, but because your cause is just and you are persistent.  One of the things I really like about scripture is that there are layers of meaning and interpretation.  One interpretation of this passage is that it is not about seeking justice at all, that it is really a metaphor about seeking a spiritual life and how we need to be persistent and constant in that.  But the interpretation I want to work with this morning says that seeking justice is exactly what this passage is about.

The persistence of the people who seek justice, who accomplish reform, who make a difference, is remarkable.  The persistence of those who stand up to injustice though the odds are stacked against them, of those who stare unjust authority in the face and say, “grant me justice against my adversary,” is remarkable indeed.  The persistence of those who strive for justice is the key to accomplishing justice.

This story reminds me of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is nothing if not persistent!  Day after day after day the people keep saying to those in power, “Grant us justice against our adversaries.” Grant us justice against a system that has failed to care for the common good; that has allowed such injustice to flourish.  Grant us justice against the corporate greed that has poisoned our civil government.

I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has been a long time coming.  Occupy Wall Street began on September 17th 2011 when people gathered on Wall Street in New York City to demonstrate against the financial district.  It was preceded by the similar demonstration in Wisconsin earlier this year as well as the revolutionary events in Arab countries and the protests in Spain, Greece, and other locations.  The Occupy Wall Street movement is a grassroots effort against economic inequality, corporate greed and corruption, and the financial sector’s undue level of influence on government.  A month after it launched in New York City, it had spread to include a multitude of cities.  By the middle of October over a thousand “Occupy” locations were listed, (including in other countries) forming a single, massive, unified protest.

This Occupy Wall Street movement is a new thing.  It reminds some of Dr. King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” of 1968, in which poor people of all races established a tent city in the nation’s capital.  But this is happening in several locations and several weeks so far.  It is a landmark experience in the life of this nation.  The media and pundits can’t figure out how to critique it and dismiss it effectively because the Occupy Movement is a new style of civil engagement.  It is the new generation’s moment.  And I believe it is shaping into the biggest protest event this nation has seen and will have a revolutionary impact on our nation.

What is the Occupy Wall Street movement all about?  What are the demands?  I talked about this in a recent newsletter column.  The complaints are that the group has no clear leaders, no clear issues, and no clear focus.  “They are too various,” the criticism goes.  “They are unfocused, all over the map.”  They are against hydro-fracking here and against poverty over there; some are anti-war, others are anti-greed; and many just want to tax the wealthy.  So which is it?  What is the focus?

And that is a key difference in the new generation.  The older style – the style the media knows how to critique and dismiss with boilerplate scripts – the older style of prophetic activism was to rally people around an issue, build a protest event, demand change, and when the event is over people go home.  The new style is to gather people together first, listen to the ways things are broken, allow the issues to arise and a consensus to emerge – all of which is happening while people are doing what looks like traditional protesting. 

But we do have demands, a general consensus has certainly emerged that the focus is on corporate greed.  We are frustrated with the economic inequity created by a broken economic system, a system that has allowed corporations to destroy the underpinnings of our society while largely avoiding its share of the consequences and dodging any meaningful new regulations.  These corporations are “holding onto more than $2 trillion in cash and liquid assets–assets that could be used to put people back to work but are instead being hoarded by the already wealthy.” (According to William Schulz, CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in his article, “Why the Left Is Often Late to Tea”)

Oh, the Occupy Wall Street movement does have a focus, but it is a dangerous and radical one.  It has a real focus.  I’ve been preaching against greed and corruption regularly.  We often have an emphasis on the commons, on our interconnectedness as Unitarian Universalists.  Unitarian Universalism and the Occupy movement is an easy match up.

Unitarian Universalists have been supporting Occupy protest movements in cities and towns around the country, joining protests, providing food, and leading worship.  I thought it was delightful when the local paper was reporting on the various types of protesters at the Occupy Binghamton events.  There were the anti-fracking people and the labor coalition and the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Vets for Peace.  I love it – we were listed as a cause-base! 

But that’s what’s been happening for UUs all over the country.  The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, Utah has been allowing protesters to camp on the church’s front lawn a few blocks from city hall. Similarly, the front lawn of The UU Society of Northampton and Florence in Northampton, MA has been an Occupy site with a few tents up since mid-November. It helps that they are located right next to City Hall.

Occupy protestors in Grand Rapids, Mich., are camping in the portico of the Fountain Street Church, a non-denominational liberal church that has been led for many years by Unitarian Universalist ministers. The protestors had been camping in the church parking lot, but were invited to move under the cover of the church portico for a bit of shelter from the oncoming cold.

Unitarian Universalist principles and values line up very well with what is happening in the Occupy movement.  Our prominent position on plurality and our easy acceptance of ambiguity are two examples of what our faith communities share with the Occupy movement.  It’s an easy fit. 

There was an article in our UU World Magazine Online from November 11, 2011 entitled “The spiritual Heritage of the Occupy Movement” by Daniel McKanan. McKanan is a historian and is the Emerson Chair at Harvard.  One particular line in the article says this:  “As the twentieth-century economy built on cheap oil and mass consumption unravels, [the] challenge is to create social and cultural wealth with fewer material resources. If [we] succeed, it will be because [we] have embraced the sort of cooperative and spiritual practices that so many are now trying out in the Occupations.”

The spiritual practices McKanan is referring to is aspect whereby the people’s voices are heard, people gather and are empowerment by sharing the commons.  But it is more than simply an individual desire for empowerment.  Were that the case I would not find it remarkable.  The remarkable aspect is the way this activism is tangled up with public space, with what used to be called ‘the commons.’  As the Occupy folks gather and searching out the root of what went wrong with our country, they do so in parks and on public lands. 

A key part of the message is that as the people are reclaiming the people’s land, they are also reclaiming the people’s place in our government.  We have as a deep part of our American democracy a promise of equality and liberty, yet evidence of this equality and liberty is grossly absent these days. 

The Occupy movement is seeking to reestablish our society as a fair and just society, a place where values such as honesty and shared responsibility can bring us a new day with room for all. We are occupying the commons, those locations where we all have a stake in the land – the parks, the schools, the bridges, and these public locations are also metaphors. It is about what these public locations represent.  Thus, the movement is also about occupying the voting booth and the public conversations in our society.  The movement is about reclaiming the common good for the people. 

As it gets cold and as some local officials crack down on the tent cities that have sprung up, some worry that the movement will fade away.  But I say the movement will live on because the occupying of a location was always only a symbolic act of getting the people together, of reclaiming the commons, of reminding ourselves that we are not impotent in the face of corruption and shameless greed.

As winter settles in, the movement will not die when most of the people pack up their tents and go home.  The movement will not die as local officials crack down and evict the people from the public spaces.  The movement to occupy will shift as it already has to the movement to march across bridges.  The movement to occupy will shift as it already has to the movement to post and blog and tweet.  The movement to occupy will continue because the people are right and it has been noticed and it is working. 

Go down to our local Occupy Binghamton movement.  By all lights it looks that our Occupy is not going to be moved by cold or cops. So go down and, (as it says in our new mission statement,) Explore, Encourage, and Act.  The people involved in the Occupy movement have started what we may hope is the biggest peaceful revolution in our country’s history, restructuring our government to serve us rather than ruling over us. “Grant me justice against my adversary,” the movement is saying over and over again.  Though some in power care not for the high principles on which our country was founded, though the powerful and wealthy who pull the strings care not for god or man, we shall persist until we wear them out.  Grant us justice against the inequity and greed. Grant us justice and grant us peace.

In a world without end

May it be so.

 

Opening Words

Mic check

Mic check

We gather as a people of faith

To engage with spiritual issues

And to wrestle with ethical topics

We hold this space open

For all who will come in peace

To worship with us

 

We stand firm in the conviction

To walk together

In the ways of truth and affection

As best we know how

And that there is mutual strength

In willing cooperation,

And that the bonds of love

Keep open the gates of freedom.

 

In that spirit we gather

In that spirit we pray