In this 'tents' situation could Jesus be the (legal) saviour of Occupy LSX ?

By Jonathan Bartley
October 31, 2011

"The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us" Gospel of John 1: 14

Anyone who visits the Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral can’t fail to notice the religious imagery and slogans.

From people dressed as Jesus, to Bible verses, to the simple question: “What Would Jesus Do?” in big letters on banners draped from tents (which the Bishop of London referenced yesterday in his speech outside St Pauls) not to mention the backing of Christian groups, the protest has developed a significant religious dimension.

This may become even more significant as the legal case is pursued by St Paul’s Cathedral and the Corporation of London to remove the camp.

This is all going to be about tents. The case for removal will not be made on the grounds that there should be no protest. It will likely be made on the basis that the camp and tents breach planning and transport by laws or as the Met Police have said based "on the complaints made against the protestors."

The defence of the camp’s right to be there may well therefore depend on a similar case and a well known appeal – Tabernacle v Secretary State for Defence 2009 - where the MoD tried to remove a women’s peace camp from Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston. There the Secretary of State lost an appeal during the Government’s bid to remove protestors.

The appeal too was all about tents. It rested on whether the camp was part of the message of the protest itself. In his judgement Lord Justice Laws singled out the “manner and form” of the protest. He pointed out that in some cases:

  • "This ‘manner and form’ (of the camp) may constitute the actual nature and quality of the protest; it may have acquired a symbolic force inseparable from the protesters' message; it may be the very witness of their beliefs.” (37)

In other words, if the camp is integral to, and part of, the actual message of the protest then there is a strong case that it should stay.

The language of ‘witness’ and ‘belief’ will immediately resonate with religious people. As the protest has become increasingly about the camp’s right to be there in the face of opposition from St Paul's Cathedral (as well as a protest against Capitalism) it has acquired a distinctly religious dimension. And this hasn’t just been in the slogans, banners and media reporting. We have seen for example Giles’ Fraser’s comments upon his resignation that he could see Jesus being born in the camp. There have been other references to the symbolism of St Paul himself being a “tentmaker”.

Tents within the biblical story and Christian theology have huge significance, such as the word “Tabernacle” (coincidentally used in the Aldermaston case as it was the surname of Kate Tabernacle who was one of the participants). As my colleague Jill Segger pointed out a few days ago, the protest camp represents an equality when compared to the hierarchy around it. Similarly the expression "To your tents, O Israel," can be an idiom for "a survival from a nomadic, egalitarian past”. Tents point to a different order, a different way of organising. They are deeply symbolic.

The Church itself too has form when it comes to bishops who use tents as a form of protest.

In 2006, the Archbishop of York very publicly camped out in his own cathedral, to protest against what was happening in the Middle East. He said his actions mirrored those of countless numbers of people caught up in the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, who were having to sleep rough and without proper food.

For him the medium was the message. The protestors may well point out that they too are in tents - like the Archbishop - to draw attention to the plight of many around the world who are suffering – including those sleeping rough on London’s streets - as a result of Capitalism and the financial crisis.

When this is all taken together it does seem that there might be a legal case for the camp to stay, based on the principle that the “manner and form” of the protest is the protest itself. And the case is certainly bolstered by the religious dimension.

But it is also potentially undermined by religious people. As far as the opposing case goes, the success of moves to get rid of the camp - as the government found over Aldermaston - may rest on whether it can be demonstrated that there is a pressing social need to get rid of it.

And this would mean the strength of St Paul’s own evidence against the camp could also be a determining factor.

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