The Occupy movement and the challenge to take sides

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
11 Apr 2012

“The great Creator... made the Earth to be a common treasury,” wrote the radical Christian leader Gerard Winstanley in 1649, shortly before his Digger community was evicted from common land. “Not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.”

I quoted Winstanley's words as I was dragged by police from the steps of St Paul's Cathedral on 28 February. I had been kneeling in prayer during the eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange.

The occupiers had arrived on the cathedral's doorstep in October, after they were prevented from protesting closer to the Stock Exchange. The proximity of the camp to the cathedral turned Christianity's relationship with radical activism into headline news. The Occupy movement attracted a surprising degree of public sympathy. Christians, like others, were challenged to choose sides.

There are people who argue that churches should be politically neutral. I have never read a better answer to this claim than the Kairos document, produced by Christians in South Africa. They said that many South African churches were aiding apartheid by proclaiming their neutrality. They were refusing to take sides between “good and evil”.

There are situations in which principled neutrality is appropriate, such as when doing relief work in a war zone. On other occasions, a decision not to take sides can mean supporting the side with the most power. If I see someone being raped and decide not to take sides, I am allowing the rapist to continue.

The world has enough food to feed everyone in it, but thousands die every day due to poverty. The UK government is slashing public services and benefits, but settling for little more than warm words when it comes to corporate tax-dodging. To be neutral in this situation would be scandalous.

Taking sides does not mean showing less love for people with different views. Jesus challenged the wealthy and corrupt Zacchaeus – and gave him chance to change. It is possible to stand alongside the Occupy movement without agreeing with every aspect of it. Indeed, many of the occupiers do not agree with each other. Churches have a great deal to learn from their acceptance of both diversity and healthy debate.

In taking a stance, we will make mistakes. We are fallible, fallen and frequently wrong. Committing ourselves to a cause doesn't change that – as Jesus' disciples learnt all too quickly. Critics of Occupy London Stock Exchange argued that it attracted “vulnerable people”. Is this a bad thing? The charge could equally be levelled against the Church.

I spoke with a woman called Jess hours before the eviction. Three months earlier, she had walked past the camp while homeless. Her instinct was to ignore it, but then she realised that these people shared her own anger at inequality. She found a warm welcome as she moved into the camp. She was crying during the eviction.

No-one denies that the camp began to have serious problems with alcohol abuse and mess. It may well have been better for the occupiers to find a new focus long before February. Of course there were mistakes. Occupiers are not untainted by the system against which they protest, or by the broken world of which they are part. As we look at the mess of a fallen world, it is absurd to moan about the inconvenience caused by the camp while ignoring the damage done by the City of London. This is like finding your house is on fire, but complaining that one of the firefighters has got mud on the carpet.

Not everyone who challenges economic injustice finds themselves thrown from church steps. Lots of Christians are writing letters to MPs, providing people with relief from poverty or supporting each other through the struggles of life. Their quiet actions are examples of discipleship as much as any direct action or public evangelism.

Since the eviction, I have been repeatedly asked why I, a Christian, would refuse to obey orders from police officers. It is a sad day when it is thought that Christians don't believe in challenging authority. The Bible is full of stories of people standing up to the powers of the world.

For the last 2,000 years, the powerful have found it helpful to snatch some lines of Romans 13 out of context. Paul wrote that governing authorities have a legitimate purpose. Paul did not say that breaking the law is always wrong. It is inconceivable that he would have done so. Early Christians broke the law every day, by refusing to worship the Roman Emperor. The dominant values and ethics of our society are still based on false gods. Idols of money, markets and military might are revered by government and corporations. I suggest that as Christians, we should be the first to take sides against them.

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© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and a founding member of Christianity Uncut. To read his blog, and for links to more of his writing, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

This article appeared originally in the April 2012 issue of Reform, a monthly Christian magazine published by the United Reformed Church. Please see http://www.reform-magazine.co.uk.

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