The young protesters of the Occupy movement who have been living in tents in urban parks from Vancouver to Halifax are being forced out or threatened with eviction. In one respect, the mayors are inadvertently doing them a favour — sparing them the discomfort and perils of living outdoors in winter and also allowing them to leave and to plan for their next phase in the srping.
What has been achieved is extraordinary. The simple slogan (“We are the 99 per cent”) focused attention on corporate greed and growing economic inequality in a way that no one else has been able to do in decades. It is the willingness of these young people to put themselves on the line that speaks to their contemporaries and to older people as well.
Points of entry
There are many points of entry and observation here but mine is to ask how communities of faith have responded to the Occupy movement. The Ottawa Citizen carried a story on November 6 written by Mitchell Landsberg for the Los Angeles Times and picked up widely in the U.S. Landsberg wrote that the Occupy movement is secular and that religious influence and participation in it have been rare. He said that throughout much of U.S. history religious forces were prominent in progressive social movements, but that for the past 30 years, the energy around faith-based politics has been on the right, and has coalesced around opposition to abortion and same sex marriage.
In the article, a research chair named John Green said there are some individuals of faith involved in the movement but “relatively little denominational involvement.” He asked: “Where are the Quakers? Where are the mainline Protestants?” Another professor was quoted as saying that the religious left “has lost its voice, has lost its nerve and is no longer articulating the principle in the New Testament.”
That is one side of the narrative and it was circulated widely. It was answered by a piece that I found on a blog called Faith in Public Life. The writer responded directly to the Times article, saying that clergy and people of faith are “a dynamic partner” standing in solidarity with the Occupy protesters.
The example that I especially liked was a report in the Associated Press that talked about the use of religious imagery. In New York City, clergy supporting the Occupy movement carried an Old Testament-style golden calf in the shape of the Wall Street bull to decry the false idol of greed.
There appears to be little, if any, support coming from church head offices – the Catholic bishops, the evangelicals or Southern Baptists, all of them prominent in the U.S. But Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Board, said that while the church has no official position on the occupation there are a growing number of Methodists taking part.
On the website of a group called Sojourners, evangelist Jim Wallis urged church congregations to take food out to the parks and to sit and talk with members of the Occupy movement.
Rome and Canterbury
The movement received encouragement internationally when the Vatican released a document on October 24 calling for greater oversight on global financial markets. A Cardinal named Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was quoted by Catholic News Service as saying: “The basic sentiment” behind the protests is in line with Catholic social teaching…”
Rowen Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, seemed to echo what the pope was saying, and he called for a new tax on banks — often called a Tobin Tax. He also said that the protest against financial inequality and banking excesses has been seen “by an unexpectedly large number of people as the expression of a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment that shows no sign of diminishing.”
Faith and Occupy in Canada
I have found little that originates from any church headquarters in Canada. I looked at the site of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, that of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches and found nothing. Mardi Tindal, moderator of the United Church, wrote supportively on her blog – but it does not serve as an official statement by the church.
There is obviously some support at the local level. In Toronto, the occupiers camped in a park owned jointly by the city and the (Anglican) Cathedral Church of St. James. Toronto mayor Rob Ford wants to evict the occupiers but the church says on its website that it is not in favour of that. In Ottawa, a Baptist church provides water to the protesters.
There is also a strong and positive statement from an inter-faith group called ISARC – Faith Communities in Action against Poverty. They said: “The Occupy movements are trying to awaken the call for a sustaining life for all. People of faith are invited to respond to the call.”
Visit to Occupy Ottawa
I visited the Occupy Ottawa site at Confederation Park on November 11, a day when the wind was raw and biting. There were about 50 tents and one of them (quite a small tent) was their media centre. There I talked to a young man who was likely in his early 30s. I found him to be both friendly and savvy. He said that he was an economist and I believed him.
I asked what kind of support they are receiving from faith communities in Ottawa. This seemed to perplex him. He said that they would gladly take support from anyone, including people in churches. I asked if people who identified themselves as coming from churches had offered any such support. He said he could not think of any, although many people had provided gifts of food and some of it could have come from church people. He took my name for their email list – I found that they were well organized in that way, with a website and Facebook and Twitter accounts and a sign up sheet for email messages.
As winter and evictions set in, the protesters will have to ask themselves what is next and plan for the future. This hiatus may also provide time for an older generation to sit back and take stock. When sociologist Reginald Bibby spoke to Ontario’s Catholic bishops in October, he said that more people would come back to church “ if they thought there was something in it for them and their families.” He said that people are less interested in following church leaders into political activity. If true, does this also mean that people in churches are no longer prepared to bring a prophetic perspective to injustice? Have older religious progressives run out of gas? Do religious, Biblical or gospel imperatives speak to the contemporary generation of progressives and activists – or do they arrive at their involvements from other perspectives? Are they nourished in ways that are not explicitly religious? Do they, in fact, see religious faith as irrelevant or worse, as an impediment to their efforts?
A long Canadian winter may be a good time to contemplate these questions.