The Occupy movement has been controversial since it began, calling attention to structural injustices in our society while consciously violating laws in the name of “peaceful protest.” It’s resulted in sympathy from many but often triggers frightening clashes with police and vocal criticisms. The controversy surrounding Occupy has rightly raised the question, "What should the Church do, if anything, with this movement?"
As with many movements, there are twin dangers that the Church must avoid: apathy and assimilation.
Apathy is what happens when we ignore the changing world around us. Sometimes we do that willfully. For instance, I refuse to acknowledge that the pop icons of today are Justin Bieber and Bella Swan (both fictional characters in my mind) despite my 17-year-old sister’s protests that I am completely behind the times. My apathy on this matter is probably harmless. Apathy becomes dangerous, however, when we ignore really substantial changes in the world. The revolutions in the Middle East over the last year or so tell us that region will never be the same. To try and treat it as if it were could be disastrous. Likewise, the Occupy movement reflects a drastic change in American society. Similar to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we are seeing an awakening of voices that have been systematically shut out of the American political process and they do not appear likely to be silenced anytime soon. Major changes are brewing, and to ignore that is simply dangerous.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the danger of assimilation. This is when we wholesale adopt the ideas of a movement without questioning it and become a sub-group of that movement. For many, the blind support of the Christian Right for the War in Iraq is a prime example of such assimilation, turning evangelicalism into just a sub-group of the larger category "Republicanism." Just as dangerous, however, is the idea that the Church, or a part of it, could become nothing but a voting block for whichever party harnesses the energy of Occupy.
So how can the Church avoid these twin dangers?
First, the Church has the unique opportunity to serve as a "mediator" of sorts. Isaiah famously calls on God’s people to “Defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (1:17, NIV). Occupy presents an opportunity for the Church to step into the fray and offer a place for peaceful dialogue and discussion. This can happen a number of ways. In New Haven, where I live, a Church on the city green has discussed allowing the encamped protestors to move onto church property to protect them from expulsion by police. Other churches have started "protest chaplain" groups that allow clergy to meet with and discuss the issues that protestors are raising. Others have held town hall meetings for public discussion.
It is important to note that these things can be done without the Church taking sides in the debate. A church need not declare that it is part of the Occupy movement to host a town hall meeting in which representatives from Occupy have been invited to speak. Nor does it need to claim it stands for everything Occupy stands for to extend protection to protestors who are facing violent expulsion by police. Such actions can be taken in the name of mediation, for the sake of promoting peaceful dialogue and ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.
Second, the Church has the opportunity to act as a "laboratory" for experimenting in solutions to society’s problems. If you have paid attention to the Republican presidential race you may have heard the idea of states as "laboratories" experimenting in different ways of solving problems like health care or job creation. While the idea of the states competing with one another seems a bit counterintuitive to me, I think the Church can do something similar by experimenting in different ways of reaching out to those in need in their own communities. Churches themselves already reflect a community of Christians, people who have at least some significant beliefs in common and share a common hope that God will restore all things. Using that already existing community, churches can reach out to their wider community and offer a lifeline for those who are struggling and a prophetic voice to challenge corrupt influences in society. Whether this be through something as traditional as opening up a food pantry or as complicated and radical as pooling resources to live in "intentional community" or opening up a community center in a disadvantaged neighborhood, churches have the unique opportunity to become involved in many different things that can play a major role in addressing the problems our society faces.
In doing so the Church has the chance to show how the Gospel still speaks to our changing society. By intentionally listening to the cares and concerns of our communities and simultaneously offering community and Christ-driven responses to those issues, the Church is embodying Christ to its neighbors in a way that is both sensitive to the changes taking place in our society and is firmly grounded in our Christian identity. Neither ignoring nor wholesale adopting the Occupy banner, the Church has the opportunity to make a difference in many lives and be an active part of the public discussion of issues facing our country and world.
Alex Marshall is a graduate student at Yale Divinity School and an intern at the Episcopal Church at Yale, a university campus ministry. He is the author of the blog Musings and Philosophizings and is a contributor and editor on the blog Restless, Young, and Reforming.