Since the Occupy protests began, I’ve been struggling with what is so objectionable to so many people about protest. Perhaps I am as pinko as my former rector, Matt+ says I am, but I’ve never found protest in itself to be ugly. Between my own limited experience and the research I’ve done, criticisms of protests of most sorts are entirely wrong. Wrong in tone, if not substance.
In this age, we remember fondly the Civil Rights Movement and its champions; exalting the pain they endured while, even now, some thugs continue to spit in their faces. The associations with violent protests are told as bogeymen, haunting safe, suburban America. A dozen protestors threw rocks! It was chaos! The American way of life was under siege! We had to respond with tear gas, rubber bullets, tazers, and batons! We had no choice!
Even our 21st Century protests have been incredibly orderly and peaceful, turning ugly only after riot police get involved.
As I wrote the other day, I was moved, not by the thought of Bishop George Packard getting involved in Occupy Wall Street, or the image of his going over the fence or his being arrested. I was moved by the image from Twitter of him in handcuffs surrounded by these really normal people. On his face is an expression of listening and of knowing. It really was the image of Christ in our midst, struggling to help us break free from the bonds of our culture. This bishop, the quintessential image of churchly order was sitting in our image of civil disorder. The profundity of Christ in our midst, in Advent, left me utterly speechless.
There is something really telling about the American condition, particularly the pernicious Protestant work ethic, so constant and domineering, that demands greater efficiency and respect for a person’s work (but not necessarily their character, gender, DNA, or existence). We are perpetually worried about the impact of civil action on our personal lives in the form of inconveniences, but rarely give a thought to those that are real grievances. When a person blocks the sidewalk, we are thrown in a tizzy at them for the small inconvenience they have made for us, but the condition that places them there: be it poverty, desperation, hope, or perhaps providence: well, that can’t possibly be our business.
The federal and state governments’ use of protest zones and most city government’s use of armed force to remove people from public property are signs, not of any liberty, but of a preference for order. The clockwork movements of people getting to work and meetings is orchestrated to maximize our profit potential. None of this allows for spontanaity or holy intervention. There is no opportunity in these highly efficient pathways to power to allow for Christ to be among us, to surprise us unawares. We would, no doubt, have our heads down, anyway, unable to see His face, even when three feet from our own.
The real tension the Occupy protests have revealed, and it is fitting that many have moved to housing occupation; giving voice to the issue of bank foreclosures. This is particularly revealing, not simply the banking practices and our own indifference to the financial health of our neighbors, but to the very concept of people being removed from their homes. The very image of people being relegated to the street. And once there, the city can round them up and deport them from downtown, sweeping these Christs away like the dust we all are.
[Featured Photo: Bp. Packard (Andrew Burton - Reuters)]