When the Oppressed Become the Oppressors

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I received an email the other day from Faithful America, a progressive online community motivated by faith to take action on the pressing moral issues of our time (from their website)—you can read the article and plea for signatures here. Normally, I can appreciate what Faithful America has to say…normally. But I struggled with this email. The subject was: “URGENT: Church arresting Occupiers!”

Immediately, I thought, What? As I read it my heart began to sink, and not for reasons one might immediately think. Evidently Occupy Wall Street protesters are looking for a new place to “occupy”. The occupiers have their eye on a vacant lot called Duarte Square owned by Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church. But the church has been reluctant to allow it because they don’t feel the space is adequate (no bathroom facilities, for starters) and because it is leased to another organization (read Trinity Wall Street’s response here).

Trinity has been outspoken in its support of the Occupy movement, and has even allowed their other property near Wall Street to be used by occupiers. But they have good reasons to not allow the Occupiers to take over Duarte Square. Now the occupiers are trying to pressure Trinity Wall Street with petitions.

I could be wrong in my assessment, but as I have seen city after city trying to work with occupiers to address their concerns and begin dialogue, I have also watched occupiers become more and more emboldened in their disrespect of public space (space we all own and are responsible for and should have the right to enjoy). Cities have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars each to clean up the urine, excrement, trash, and destroyed landscaping after occupiers have left or been removed. If I was the pastor of Trinity, I’d think twice about letting them on my grounds, too, not because I don’t support them, but because they have this arrogant sense of entitlement and lack of respect for others who are in the boat with them!

I strongly disagree with those who hold up signs to the protestors that say, “Get a job!” If they could get a job they wouldn’t be camping out in public parks and squares. If a strong majority of the wealth and resources of this country weren’t occupied by a small percentage of people, it wouldn’t be so difficult to get a job and they wouldn’t need to be where they are and doing what they’re doing. The movement speaks to a real issue: the ever widening disparity between rich and poor. The wider that gap gets, the more fragile and dangerous our economy and the world economy becomes, and the less safe and secure we all become, rich or poor or middle.

Maybe that’s the problem. We are trying too hard to support a “way of life”, rather than trying to work with the world to help everyone make a living and live in true community. Maybe if we focused more on trying to improve or maintain the quality of life for our neighbors as much as ourselves, we might not be in this precarious predicament with an economy that continues to be on the verge of collapse as according to many economists. Sensationalist? Maybe. But just look at what is happening in Europe. This thing is global and it is directly linked, in my Christian mind, to the ministry of Jesus and his efforts to help the poor and forgotten discover strength and power in their oppressed conditions, and to help the “haves” (the 5-10% at the top) to recognize their responsibility to promote the safety and security of everyone, not just their cronies.

I want my family and me to be safe and secure in our home and in our community. If I want my family to be safe, then I have to work toward making my neighborhood safe, and that means looking after my neighbors to make sure they are secure. If not, then my neighbors can quickly become threats to my safety and security. And if I want my neighborhood to be safe, I have to work toward making my wider community safe and secure, otherwise the entire community becomes a threat to my neighborhood’s safety and, thus, my family’s safety and security.

If the poor and middle class do not feel safe, then the poor and middle classes will always be a threat to the rich as the lower social strata try to get what the rich have in order to gain some security themselves, and the cycle continues. The only way for our country and our world to be safe and secure, or at least to begin working toward that end, is to do the hard work of building up and securing a strong and active middle class world-wide. I know, it sounds very utopian and might even sniff of some communism. But, isn’t that the vision Jesus tried to share with the world? A world where people respect one another, especially when opinions differ, but who work together none-the-less to make this world a better place for everyone, not just the few. Robert Putnam, quoted in Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging (2009), calls it Social capital—“acting on and valuing our interdependence and sense of belonging.  . . . the extent to which we extend hospitality and affection to one another” (p.5). I can’t help but think of Jesus’ response to the scribe who asked which of the commandments were the greatest. Jesus responded: Love God with your whole being, and secondly, love your neighbor as God loves you (yes, my interpretation). This was such a pivotal concept in Jesus’ ministry, it’s mentioned in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Mat. 22.32-42, Mark 12.25-35, and Luke 10.22-32).

And, coming full circle here, trying to force a church to open the gates to its property is not promoting safety and security among the 99%. It is the depletion of social capital. Getting petitions signed against a faith community that has otherwise supported the movement in a number of ways is not building up the neighborhood. I’d even go so far to say that the Occupiers are doing exactly that which they claim to be fighting: bullying by people with power (in this case, the occupiers have the power of voice and numbers, and even the threat of violence if the parks and squares they have occupied are any indication). But if they are not responsible with that power, they will lose it as people stop listening. They have the country’s attention. Use that power wisely or everything you are fighting for will fall apart.

Integrity is vitally important in a movement such as this, and that includes trying your hardest to not become that which you are fighting against. Every civil rights movement—slavery, women’s suffrage, black rights, and the most recent GLBT rights movement—has had to struggle with the integrity of the movement, staying true to their message or the narrative they are trying to promote. In each there have been groups within the movement that have sought to push harder than the current movement leaders would push. And in most cases these pushy factions have pushed the movements back several steps away from their goal. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “moral integrity.” Be careful not to become that which you are fighting against.

SIDE NOTE: A truly fascinating commentary on this concept of “not becoming that which you are fighting against” can be found in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, The Hunger Games. It is a fantastic read, and has a lot in it about power, politics, oppression, and social capital!

I also find it interesting that those predominantly involved with the Occupy movement fall into the demographic of those who are least likely to exercise their most basic right to vote. Something to think about. Have they tried to use the system in order to transform the system? Have they tried to challenge the glass ceilings and closed doors by addressing the policies and practices that allow a very small minority (really the top 5-15%) to commit such abusive acts against the majority? For the most part, I don’t believe those means have been exhausted.

I support the premise of the Occupy Movement, I struggle with their means and praxis. I wonder if we could all learn more from the “protests” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, and Mohandis Ghandi, and their peaceful protests that did more to change the system by shame rather than force, but always trying to stay true to the message or narrative being promoted. Trinity is your partner, Occupy! Don’t allow your zeal burn that bridge! And all this raises the question in my own mind: What narratives are important to me, and how are my actions and praxis encouraging those narratives and what might be violating those narratives?

1 thought on “When the Oppressed Become the Oppressors”

  1. Just a quick note to say, from the title, I totally thought this was going to be about the Hunger Games. Glad you mention it. I’ll second the recommendation (and come back and finish reading this thoughtful post when I have time).

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