Why I'm Joining the Occupation

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I never would have chosen the name "Occupy" to brand a movement. "The 99 Percent Movement" works a lot better for me. But I'm glad I didn't get to choose, because I notice the term "occupy" is kind of growing on me.

What I don't like about it: it sounds aggressive, like the (to me) ugly and unacceptable language of "taking back the country." For a movement to avoid violent actions, it needs to avoid violent rhetoric as well, as Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount. And deeper than rhetoric, it needs to be careful with the narratives it taps into. A case in point: "taking back" (to me) walks the line of a revenge narrative, implying that the country used to be "ours" and "they" took it away. That scenario is problematic for a number of reasons, so I'd rather steer clear of that kind of thinking—and language—entirely.

A term like "occupy," then, must not be employed unadvisedly or lightly. Its strength must be tempered and its potential downsides managed. And so far, that seems to be happening (here in the U.S., at least).

I was thinking about all this last Saturday while I was participating in the local occupation. About 300 of us walked down the sidewalk on both sides of our little town's main street (we wouldn't all fit on one side). Occasionally some chanting broke out, but for most of the time, we marched in silence; I would use words like reverent and pregnant to describe it. (One observer described it as "charged with secret extremity and transcendence.")

As we walked along, I kept thinking about Jesus' use of the term "kingdom of God." I've been fascinated by the term for a while now, devoting a whole book to it in 2006 (and then revisiting it in a 2008 release). Like "occupy," kingdom of God was a dangerous term for a nonviolent movement. It borrowed the language of the Roman empire whose pax was maintained by slavery, militarism, public torture, and frequent executions (i.e., crucifixion). It was overtly provocative—bursting out of the private sphere of spirituality into the public world of kings, lords, and laws. It threw down a gauntlet before the powers that be, challenging their legitimacy with a higher authority.

If I had been around, I would have counseled Jesus' against using the term.

Once again, I'm glad I wasn't consulted. It's rather obvious now that Jesus knew what he was doing. "The occupation of God has begun" might inspire the same fear and hope among people today as "the Kingdom of God is at hand" inspired in the first century.

The term "occupy" is winning me over because it puts an ironic spin on one of our most questionable national habits—occupying other nations: occupying Iraq, occupying Afghanistan, supporting Israel in occupying Palestine. Like kingdom of God, it turns that familiar language on its head.

The term "occupy" is also winning me over because it's about presence, making our presence known and felt in public spaces. These public spaces—from economic markets to political processes—have been colonized by powerful corporate elites (the 1 percent, or maybe the 10 percent), elites driven not by an ethical vision but by the relentless demand to maximize shareholder return. The 99 percent are realizing how destructive this colonization of public spaces has become, and by simply coming back—by re-inhabiting public spaces—we are demonstrating that we see what's happening and we are not going to tacitly comply with its continuing.

After our local occupation last Saturday, a smaller group of us stayed around to hold an informal planning meeting. It was a good process . . . and reminded me of how different grassroots democracy looks when compared to public politics. Demonizing and vilifying the person you're sitting next to—it won't play. Neither will dominating and filibustering or attempting a "live" impromptu version of political attack ads. Learning to differ firmly and graciously, acknowledging the concerns of an alternate viewpoint, searching for common ground, asking for clarification rather than assuming the worst possible interpretation, agreeing to seek greater understanding through honest private conversation after the public gathering . . . these are among the skills and virtues needed to make grassroots democracy work. They are seldom demonstrated or even valued among our political elites. Could that tell us something about why the Occupy movement is needed?

Nobody knows how the movement will play out. Lots of folks will wait on the sidelines and maybe dip their toes in later on. But I'm in, and I would encourage others to join the occupation. I'd especially encourage Christian leaders to do so . . . not as a representative of your church or denomination, but as a human being . . . not to co-opt or control, but to contribute and to learn. As someone who's had a lot of control (more than I realized) for a lot of years, I'm finding it a wonderful gift to simply be a participant, one voice among many, learning and listening and learning some more.