Guest column: Why Occupy? A personal response
December 8, 2011 · Updated 12:35 AM
Something has gone very wrong in the world and the world is responding.
When someone asks me what the Occupy movement is about and what those of us who are involved in it want, I tend to turn the question around. What does it mean to you and what do you want it to be? Occupy belongs to everyone, including you. It is a personal journey for each of us who happen to be sharing the same path for a time, with our own personal reasons for being here and a personal vision of what it means. No one speaks for the movement (other than to convey what our general assemblies have decided). Each of us speaks of our own personal experience.
So rather than attempting to explain what the Occupy movement is or how it relates to our local community, I’m going to write about why I’m aligned with the movement and what it means to me. I’m going to encourage you to find your own connection, your own meaning, and your own vision. I’m going to challenge the apparent complacency of my own community and its complicity in helping to marginalize those we should be helping.
On a recent Saturday morning in Liberty Square, New York City, journalist and author Chris Hedges spoke of the noticeable silence of communities of faith outside the Occupy Wall Street movement. I am a person of faith who has, for the past 30 years, watched as the making of money has taken on an almost sacred quality. The so-called free market has, to many, become virtually god-like and the importance of the quality of each human life has been rendered subordinate to it. I have listened to people of faith extol the virtues of prosperity and blame the scourge of poverty on a lack of faith, or some moral failing on the part of the poor. I have heard many of them say that God wants us all to be rich, and that if we are not it is because we have somehow failed in God’s eyes.
It is ironic that some of the greatest spiritual teachers in history were poor and homeless, including Jesus and the Buddha. Almost everywhere he went Jesus was harassed by the rich and powerful of his time, and in the end they killed him. The Buddha was an Indian prince who was protected throughout his childhood from the sight of ordinary life outside the walls of his palace. Upon leaving the palace and witnessing the suffering of the world outside, he abandoned his position of privilege to live and die among the people.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement began, and more recently when the local offshoot of that movement (Occupy Bremerton) took shape, I found myself wanting to join with them as a matter of conscience but I also needed to know why that was important to me. I asked myself where my teachers would stand today. I could not imagine them taking the side of Corporate America and its wholly owned government subsidiaries. I could not imagine Jesus outsourcing the jobs of his disciples or privatizing the distribution rights to the loaves and the fish he used to feed the hungry. I could not imagine him throwing families out of their homes, requiring proof of insurance before healing the sick, or sneering at the homeless and hopeless, ordering them to take a bath and get a job. I could not imagine the Buddha as a Republican or a Democrat. I couldn’t imagine him pepper-spraying elderly women or defenseless students. I could only imagine each of these great teachers as one of the people, caring for those who were suffering, and demanding nothing in return.
While Jesus and the Buddha were always loving, they were not silent and they did not avoid controversy. Each in his own way challenged the establishment and demonstrated a willingness to say no to power. Jesus famously chastised the ruling class and cleared the temple of the merchants and lenders who had co-opted it. The Buddha found his own path to enlightenment, much to the consternation of those who thought they knew better. Each of them lovingly — but deliberately — inconvenienced others when it seemed like the right thing to do and each of them faced some cost for doing it. They focused on actions, not outcomes. They saw things that needed doing — right now — and they did them.
When the time came for me to choose, I couldn’t think of a single good reason not to follow their examples as best I could. I wonder how any person of faith could choose otherwise but I understand that some do. I wonder why every person of faith in America is not in the streets with the children of today’s revolution; the young among us who have seen their economic futures gambled away by banks and multi-national corporations that never asked their permission and that now arrogantly refuse to share their billions in profit, either for the creation of jobs or for the alleviation of the suffering they have caused. I wonder why every house of faith in America has not opened its doors to shelter the occupiers after their government, in an unprecedented, nationwide, coordinated action, violently evicted them from the tent cities that have come to symbolize their nonviolent movement. I wonder how any faith community can justify silence in the face of this.
In his speech, Chris Hedges reminded us of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ And there comes a time when a true follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that’s neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take a stand because it is right.”
Why do I occupy? Because I truly believe that my teachers would also be here, now, doing this. I occupy because it seems like the right thing to do.
I won’t ask why you occupy, or why you don’t. I won’t ask what it means to you. I’ll encourage you to step outside your own palace walls and take a look at the world around you. Is it the world you want to see? And if not, are your actions leading toward that world or away from it? Occupy your heart and find your own answers there. When you have, you’ll know what to do.
Todd Penland lives in Manchester