Lessons from the Church of Occupy?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
16 Nov 2011

“The Word became flesh, and pitched a tent among us…” (John 1. 14)

Not least because of the provenance of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Occupy London Stock Exchange (OLSX) tented protest concerning corporate greed, financial injustice, inequality and alternative economics, OLSX has attracted a huge amount of comment concerning the ‘religious dimension’ of what it stands for and against – and indeed how it stands (or sits!). [1]

A statement was made in October 2011 by ten Christian groups [2] expressing solidarity with OLSX in distinctly theological terms, at a time when Canon Giles Fraser had resigned from St Paul’s over a potential forced eviction from Cathedral grounds and a majority of senior staff in the Chapter appeared in favour of removing the camp.

The Occupiers welcomed this support, but some have continued to express distinct unease about the (potential or actual) ‘Christianisation’ of their protest by believers. A faiths and beliefs working group was established early on in the occupation to ensure that those from different religious backgrounds, together with those of no belief or non-religious convictions, could work together effectively. The Saturday ‘Sermon on the Steps’ events at St Paul’s have biblical resonance (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount), but are actually open to all and based on non-hierarchical conversation and exchange rather than unaccountable preaching.

At the same time, the protest has put the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ on television and computer screens across the world. The radical roots of Christianity in early and dissenting movements has been highlighted on front pages and in leader columns and opinion pieces in most major newspapers. The ‘Christendom’ tension between a top-down Established Church and a grassroots community has been highlighted dramatically and visually. And all this has come about not because someone is trying to foist religion on the masses, but because of a debate arising from the tension and conflict between top-down Church and bottom-up moral community.

Meanwhile, the Cathedral, under pressure from the world and the media (as well as from many voices within the Christian community) has engaged in something of a turnaround. What it started out seeing as an administrative, financial and PR problem interfering with its work (worship) and procedure (maintenance and fundraising) has come to be seen as a wider issue about ethics, community and purpose – even theological commitment.

In this metanoia process, bishops and other church leaders have been required to leave their palaces and safe citadels to talk with ‘ordinary people’ (the laos). The question has been raised about how ‘great and good’ discourse, embodied by the worthy but safe deliberations of the St Paul’s Institute, might gel or contrast with ground-up perspectives and protests. How can movement help shape alternative structures and possibilities in a world (and church?) mired in greed and hierarchy?

The economic nature of community generally and of church community specifically (cf. Acts 2 and the sharing of goods among many early Christians) has also come into the spotlight in a variety of ways. Jesus’ eviction of the money-changers from the Temple courts has been contrasted with the original attempts by the court of St Paul’s to throw out those criticising the money-changers in the City of London – whose domain is, please note, Paternoster [Our Father] Square.

In Anabaptist-influenced circles, the talk is of Christendom and post-Christendom – the institutional church of power and the community-based church of vulnerable discipleship. Jill Segger, writing for Ekklesia, spoke of the strangely symbiotic relationship between St Paul’s and what a Religion Dispatches correspondent called the #Church of Occupy [4] in terms of a contrast between vertical and horizontal church. [5]

The issues of what Occupy signals for a radical Christianity focused on the recovery of non-conformist biblical values and practices has also been brought into focus by the recent revealing exchange between a newspaper columnist and OLSX.

In the of the Independent on Sunday (13 November 2011), Tom Hodgkinson [6] wrote:

There is something fantastically theatrical and medieval about Occupy St Paul's. The occupiers have created a spectacle which drips with symbolism and historical reference. In the Middle Ages there was the phenomenon of the Weepers: gangs of men and women who would walk into town and sob histrionically on the steps of the churches. It was a cathartic act: they spoke for the whole city and expressed its grief. You also had the adherents of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who refused to work and would wander from town to town crying, "Bread for God's sake." Then there were fanatics such as Savonarola and his bonfire of the vanities, when he encouraged the bourgeois of Florence to chuck all their vain baubles – mirrors, make-up, hairbrushes – on to the fire. And who cannot but be reminded of Jesus and the turning over of the tables of the money-changers? Or even a medieval siege?

A gigantic banner on the steps reading "Root Out Usury" is another medieval touch. The church in the Middle Ages actually proscribed lending money at interest because it was considered to be morally wrong. This didn't stop people doing it: families such as the Medicis made fortunes from it. But it was regularly and powerfully denounced. It was seen as acceptable for banks to make commercial loans, but not to charge interest on loans made to the poor. It was argued that the poor debtor had simply suffered bad luck and it was unfair for the rich man to profit from his poverty.

Usury was also condemned because it was fundamentally uncreative. The usurer did not make anything or even work: he just sat around and waited. He sold time, and time was not a commodity. Aquinas also argued that usury sets up an inequality, because money cannot produce more money.

This is the reason that St Paul's and the church has decided to let the protesters stay: because this is a fundamentally Christian protest. Christianity is a friend to the poor. It introduced the idea of charity to the world.

Occupy LSX responded [7]:

Tom Hodgkinson a positive and thoughtful review of his experiences at the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp, and came to the conclusion that the Occupy protest was a “fundamentally Christian one”.

While it is easy to see how one might come to this conclusion, one must ask, does Christianity have the right to hold sole claim to morality in this way? Does any religion, in fact, have this right? Are we really in a society that has become so blinkered by our own cultural preconceptions and stereotypes, that we can no longer tell the difference between religion and morality? A society that believes that people are moral because of who they are, and not because of what they do?

Many people have struggled to put a simple definition or label on what the Occupy movement is all about. The reason for this is because the definition is not simple. There is not a single term that can define the Occupy movement that doesn’t ultimately end up alienating some aspect of the movement. The movement is made up of diverse individuals concerned about a lot of complex issues, which ultimately come back to one simple thing. It’s about people. The Occupy movement is about humanity.

When people like Tom Hodgkinson use phrases like “fundamentally Christian” to describe the Occupy movement, regardless of their intent, they often forget to take into account all the people that are being excluded by such a phrase. What about those of other faiths, such as Muslims, Hindus, and Pagans, amongst the many different diverse faiths that are present in the UK. What about non-religious supporters, be they hard-line Atheists, or simply Humanists or Existentialists?

Evidence shows that there is in fact a diverse cross-section of faith within the Occupy movement, and it is only because of the local issues with St. Paul’s that Anglicanism has reached such high profile within the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest itself. Far from being “fundamentally Christian” or even “fundamentally religious” the focus of the Occupy movement is on something much more meaningful that few people have a hard time arguing with, and therefore are wanting to spend more time trying to hide under as many different labels as they possibly can.

The Occupy protest is a fundamentally moral protest.

It is hard not to sympathise with both sides of this discussion. Hodgkinson is pointing to the subversive dynamic of the Jesus movement and of dissenting and ‘primitive’ forms of Christianity (though he does not mention Anabaptism or other movements such as the Levellers) - as well as ignored elements within the mainstream tradition (Aquinas on usury).

For their part, OLSX seek not to deny the significance of radical Christianity, but to resist attempts to ‘baptise’ their movement in a way that fails to recognise its diversity, plurality and practical basis of dialogue and cooperation.

Nonconformists (whatever their denomination) will share this concern not to ‘Christianise’ through compulsion or imperial designation. Many, perhaps most, of those associated with Occupy in Britain and across the world do not own Christian labels, doctrines or commitments. Yet there is a synergy, an interest and an overlap between the style and content of what they are doing and the style and content of radical Christianity, too.

Similarly, there is a fascinating irony in the fact that while inherited church forms struggle to connect and evangelise in a culture which is increasingly materialistic, secular and mixed-belief (multi-faithed and ‘spiritual but not religious’) all at once, so a group of people – many alienated from church ethos and language – have landed on one of their most prominent doorsteps. The initial impulse to push them away surely reflects an unfortunate Christendom-style reflex of territorialism and unconscious disdain. [8] That has now been recognised as a major mistake. What to do next is more complex. [9]

So what are radical and Anabaptist-shaped Christians [10] to make of all this, and how shall we respond to the long-term possibilities it opens up? [11] More time for digestion and reflection is certainly needed. But at the very least, I would suggest, the juxtaposition of movement and institution represented by OLSX on the steps of St Paul's dramatises vital issues concerning the hopeful, uneven transition from (vertical) Christendom to (horizontal) post-Christendom. [12]

NOTES

[1] Many of these have been positive. However, atheist Toby Young, writing in the Telegraph, declared, rather peremptorily, that the Occupy movement “will go down in history as one of the least successful protests ever staged.” The Mail, the Sun and Sky have also sought to discredit OLSX.
[2] ‘Christian Solidarity with Occupy London’: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15609
[3] See comments underneath the statement on the Occupy London website: http://occupylsx.org/?p=388
[4] Jill Segger, ‘St Paul's and Occupy: the vertical and the horizontal’: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15584
[5] Religion Dispatches (US) roundtable discussion: ‘God dissolves into the Occupy movement’ (16 October 2011) http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/5268/god_dissolves_in...
[6] Tom Hodgkinson, ‘Fundamentally this is a Christian protest’, Independent on Sunday. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/tom-hodgkinson-fundame...
[7] Occupy London, ‘Fundamentally Christian?’ http://occupylsx.org/?p=1092
[8] See my Third Way article (November 2011), ‘Tents that shake the establishment’s complacency’: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15708
[9] See Jonathan Bartley, ‘How the churches can seize the Occupy moment’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15642) and his warning, ‘Occupy LSX and the Church: Why the danger isn’t over’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15643).
[10] This paper was written as a discussion starter for a session at the Anabaptist Theology Forum, meeting in Leamington Spa on 16-17 November 2011.
[11] Ekklesia’s full coverage of the Occupy movement – news, blogs and comment – can be found at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/occupy
[12] It is important to recognise that there are many in the 'inherited' church institutions who recognise that something important is going on here. Among them is the thoughtful and eirenically provocative Bishop Alan Wilson. See: 'St Paul's: Showing off, shutting out or showing up?' http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15624

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and helps coordinate the Anabaptist Theology Forum, part of the Anabaptist Network UK.

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