Sunday, January 29, 2012

Launching "The Sounding"

     Early in February, the Orthodox Christian Network (or OCN) will relaunch its blog, "The Sounding".  The OCN, headquartered in Forth Lauderdale, Florida, is a media agency of the Episcopal Assembly of North and Central America, an inter-jurisdictional assembly of Orthodox bishops that come together to coordinate Orthodox life on this continent.  It uses modern media to raise the awareness of the Orthodox Faith in the minds of the general population.  (The bishops of our own OCA are an integral part of this Episcopal Assembly.)
     The OCN's blog is entitled "The Sounding" in reference to a nautical term about measuring the depth of the surrounding waters. The blog aims to do precisely that--to probe the depths of the Orthodox Faith.  Along with other authors, clergy, laity, and bloggers, I will be one of the regular contributors to the blog, posting once a month.  You can find the blog here at:  A video promoting the blog may be found here.  I hope that you will look at the new blog regular, and that you will enjoy my own posts there.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What's Wrong with Gay Marriage?

The best place to access the views, questions, prejudices and challenges of the World is, I believe, the office water-cooler.  The next best places would be the Huffington Post and (for Canadians), the CBC.  The water-cooler however retains its pride of place as the site more often visited by the common man who, if he retains his common sense, tends to avoid the Huffington Post and the CBC.  Anyway, it was at the office water-cooler that the common man (in this case, a woman) was expressing the common view on gay marriage, and asking with some anger, “If two guys love each other, why can’t they get married?”  The anger accompanying the question indicated that the speaker thought that the traditional prohibition of gay marriage was morally abhorrent (my phrase, not hers), and she was reacting angrily, I suspect, because she discerned in the opposition to gay marriage just one more wretched example of how those wretched Christians are wretchedly imposing their narrow, irrational, bigoted and wretched views on the rest of us.  In the old days, we wretched Christians were blamed for incestuous orgies (what else would all that secret talk about “the Kiss” and “brothers and sisters” mean?), and for cannibalism (“eating the Body and the Blood”?  Eh what?)  Now we wretched Christians are blamed for the sin—rapidly becoming the hate crime—of “homophobia”, which is apparently defined as any dissent from the secular view that homosexual orientation and life-style are equally on par with heterosexual orientation and life-style.  The Secular Inquisition has made its ruling; such dissent is no longer allowed in polite society.  Enthusiasm for Gay Rights is required, and marching in the Gay Pride Parade is acceptable as sufficient evidence of such enthusiasm for those aspiring to political office.
So, what is wrong with gay marriage?  It’s a reasonable question for water-cooler philosophers:  if two guys love each other, why can’t they get married?  The question strikes us as reasonable only because we are modern.  Ancient people (that is, earlier than 1960), be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim or pagan, would have regarded the phrase “homosexual marriage” as essentially oxymoronic, a contradiction in terms.  Yes, pagans too.  Pagans such as those living in the Roman Empire in the time of Christ generally had no problem with homosexuality (word had it that even Socrates could swing both ways), but they separated it entirely from marriage.  Pagans, in other words, though not the slightest bit illiberal, could at least think.  They had no problem with a man fornicating (or “hooking up” as we call it today) with any number of women, or with any number of men, or any number of boys.  But all this sexual activity had nothing to do with marriage.  Marriage, as ancient pagan, Jew, Christian, and Zoroastrian knew, involved man and woman, and resultant babies whose legitimacy was rooted in the legal obligations the biological parents owed to each other.  Accordingly a pagan man might have a wife and legal heirs, as well as other women (and men or boys) on the side.  Presumably he had the sense to keep them a reasonable distance from each other.  (We think of the toast:  “To our wives and sweet-hearts—may they never meet.”)  For the ancients, marriage was the institution in which babies were produced and family happened.
It is therefore difficult to answer the question, “what’s wrong with gay marriage” because we have forgotten what marriage is, and we have forgotten this because we live in a culture of contraception, one which has pretty much sundered sexual activity from its usual result, which is procreation.  For us moderns, love is a feeling, and marriage is simply one way of celebrating this feeling.  Why shouldn’t gay men who have the feeling also be allowed to have its celebration?  Marriage has nothing necessarily to do with children, but rather with this feeling of love.  Children are not necessarily a part of the package.  They are considered optional, and not a part of marriage’s essence.
Do not misunderstand the use of the phrase “culture of contraception”.  Like Fr. John Meyendorff (in his book Marriage: an Orthodox Perspective) and other contemporary Orthodox ethicists like him, I accept that artificial contraception can be used responsibly by devout Orthodox Christians.  I do not agree with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae which famously outlawed artificial birth control for Roman Catholics, nor do I agree with his view that each sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation.  (I do not even think that this view is self-consistent, since it allows for Natural Family Planning, which precisely aims at allowing a sexual act without the possibility of procreation.  It uses calendars more than rubber, but the goal is the same.)  My problem is not with contraception as a practice, but as a culture.  We now no longer assume that sex and babies go together, and if sex (or “hooking up”) results in pregnancy, we are shocked.  Our reigning culture, through countless movies, novels and popular songs, teaches us to expect that sexual activity is always:  1) free from emotional complexities; 2) expected of all adolescents and adults, so that a “Forty Year Old Virgin” is lamentable and a fit subject for a comedy, and 3) not likely ever to result in pregnancy.  When any of these taught expectations are not fulfilled, we are surprised.  You’re pregnant?  What’s wrong with you?  I wanted us to keep having sex.  Who said anything about babies? 
The ancients stood outside this culture of contraception (partly perhaps because they lacked the technology for such a culture).  For them, marriage, defined as the union and partnership between man and woman, had as one of its main goals the production and rearing of children.  That is, marriage (or “family”, to give it its other name) was the factory wherein the human race was manufactured.  It was in the family that a child had the safety to grow and learn what it was to be a man or a woman, and how men and women were expected to behave, and to treat one another.  Books were not often produced to teach that, nor were they really required.  Children learned by watching.  They watched Daddy and learned what it was to be a man, and a father, and how men should treat women, children, and other men.  They watched Mommy and learned what it was to be a woman and a mother, and how women should treat men, and be treated by them.  Just as according to Hilary Clinton, “it takes a village to raise a child”, so according to the witness of human history, it takes both a dad and a mom to effectively transmit gender roles.  A single gender alone cannot do the job, because gender roles are not concepts to be learned, but realities to be absorbed, and one needs to observe the complementarity of both genders interacting to absorb the differences properly. 
Gender is basic to human nature, and its lessons, learned by watching, usually reinforced the basic way they were created.   Thus nature and nurture alike contributed to their healthy adult functioning as men and women.  That is how society replenished itself, and maintained stability and equilibrium throughout the centuries.  (It is also why the State has a stake in the institution of marriage.)  Sometimes nature slips up (though I suspect when one cuts through the barrage of propaganda one finds that instances of true sexual inversion are comparatively rare).  Sometimes nurture slips up, the Daddy and/or Mommy do a supremely bad job of imaging healthy gender roles and of raising emotionally healthy children.  But the general theory, which holds that both nature and nurture have a role to play, seems to have worked out in practice and produced generation after generation of stable and healthy children.  If the theory were fundamentally unsound, the race would have lost its stability long ago, and we would not be here.  Family as factory for the manufacture of the human being, I suggest, has been doing okay.  And the transmission of gender roles is a major cog in the machine producing healthy men and women.
It is just here that the concept of gay marriage becomes problematic.  The problem is not only that nature decrees that two gay men cannot reproduce and that their sexuality can never result in children.  Our culture of contraception finds no problem with that, since it has already separated sex from procreation.  Two gay men can have children by adoption (see note below).  But though nature can be side-stepped like this, nurture cannot.  Two gay men cannot image or transmit by example to the adopted children what it means to be a man or a father, because they do not know or experience it themselves.  Two gay women cannot image or transmit by example what it means to be a woman or a mother for the same reason.  To be sure, they can transmit many other worthy things—things like compassion, courage, a good sense of humour, and social conscience.  But the crucial ingredient of gender role remains beyond them, and that lack makes it impossible for them to fulfill the historic role and task of being fathers and mothers, which is one of the purposes of marriage.  Children raised in such an environment will retain a skewed understanding of human nature—one which sunders procreation from the essence of marriage and which remakes the concepts of masculinity and femininity according to utterly new (and untried) canons of the brave new homosexual world.
This does not mean, of course, that if society allows Gay Marriage, and a Justice of the Peace or some liberal clergy pronounce them “man and spouse” then the wheels will fall off western civilization by a week next Thursday.  But it does mean that changes will have been put into place which will eventually work themselves out in many unforeseen ways in the generations to come.  Gender is sufficiently basic to human nature that messing with it and altering the nature of marriage so fundamentally will produce many far-reaching changes.  The family factory is not that busted, and if we “fix” it or tamper with it, the resulting human product will be altered in many unforeseen ways.  Obviously I cannot elaborate in which ways, or they would not be unforeseen.  But fifty or a hundred years after putting the leaven of gay marriage into the lump of what it means to be a family, we may be confident that the lump will be pretty thoroughly leavened.  And this resultant bread (to continue to metaphor) will not be Wonder Bread.  It will not (as Wonder Bread originally advertised) build strong healthy bodies twelve ways, nor contribute to the health of our civilization.  Why should Gay Marriage be disallowed?  Because it eventually will alter what we mean by family, men, and women, and this alteration will not be for the better.  If and when that happens, those gathering at the water-cooler generations hence will not look back on us with favour.

Note: I note in passing that this means that child-rearing in a homosexual world must of necessity be culturally parasitical–or if you like, dependent upon others.  That is, ‘gay’ couples can only rear children because ‘straight’ couples have them for them.  This is not the case for adoption on the part of ‘straight’ couples; it is only accidently dependent upon others, whereas in the case of homosexual couples it is dependent upon others necessarily and essentially.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Back to the Catacombs

            Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his essay “A Meaningful Storm”, described the history of the Church as consisting of a series of layers.  The earliest layer (and most fundamental, I would suggest) is that of the early church, a time of pagan persecution when the Church lived its life in the catacombs as a hounded and illegal sect.  (Well, it lived in the catacombs metaphorically speaking—the Sunday service never was actually held in the catacombs, which were places of burial.)  Then came the second layer, after the Peace of Constantine, when the first Christian Emperor called off the dogs of persecution and gave the Church a privileged place in the sun, beginning the long and glorious Byzantine experiment of Church-State symphonia.  After about a millennium, when the Empire suffered increasing reversals and eventual overthrow in 1453, this was followed by the third layer, characterized by the growth of national churches in the various territories of what used to be the Byzantine Empire.  It has been called Byzance après Byzance, (Byzantium after Byzantium) when the double-headed eagle of Byzantine Rome made a reprise role among the newly-formed nations in the Balkans. 
            The Orthodox Church in North America, of course, while inheriting all this layered history, never experienced it directly, being far from the territory of Byzantium.  North America did, however, experience wave after wave of immigration, and became a kind of receptacle for a whirlpool of piety and practice from the Old World.  And though some would minimize the Christian foundations of America, it can make a credible claim to have been a Christian nation:  Abraham Lincoln called its citizens on three separate occasions to “a day of humiliation, prayer and fasting” in times of national crisis; the motto “In God We Trust” is famously inscribed on its currency; and Christian holy days still offer the occasions for its public holidays.  Even north of the US border, in the previous generation of the ‘50’s, pretty much everyone went to “the church or synagogue of their choice”.   It wasn’t exactly Byzantium or Holy Russia, but it sure felt Christian (especially, one imagines, to its Jewish population).   
            As anyone can see who hasn’t just emerged from a long snooze like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, things have changed.  Our long kick at the Byzantine can is over, and we now live in a militantly post-Christian culture.   Witness the notorious 1989 “work of art” by American Andreas Serrano “Piss Christ”, consisting of a picture of Christ in a container of urine, and show-cased in the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Witness the current debate over homosexual marriage— for it doesn’t matter which side “wins” the debate; the very fact that it can be held reveals that a Christian cultural consensus has been lost.  Culturally-speaking, it is always open season on the Christians, for Christian symbols and beliefs can be openly mocked in a way no others can in North America.  (If you doubt this, ask yourself what the reaction would’ve been to a “Piss Mohammad” art exhibit, and whether or not an art gallery of a major city would have allowed it to be shown.)
              So what does this mean?  I would suggest it means that it is time to “return to the catacombs”.   Please don’t misunderstand me:  this does not mean that we opt out of public debate, or cease to vote, or refuse to run for office.  It does not mean that we no longer value the good things in North American culture (including the freedom of speech to debate unpopular things).  It does not mean that we eschew patriotism, as if love of country and love of God were somehow incompatible.  (Byzantium at least taught us that.)  It does not mean that we fill the moat, pull up the drawbridge and retreat into a frightened and paranoid huddle, fearing any contaminating contact with the world. 
What then does it mean?  Life in the catacombs simply means that we acknowledge that to be a confessing Christian involves embracing a life that is now in open conflict with the reigning values of our culture.   And, I further suggest, this involves the following:
1.  We must at all costs retain the world-affirming sacramental approach of Orthodoxy and refuse to adopt a cultish mindset.  In a lecture in Delaware in 1981, Fr. Alexander spoke of the need to live “between Utopia and Escape”, avoiding the extremes of imagining we could create Utopia through our own efforts, or of making a retreat from the world, escaping into closed communities dedicated to re-creating Byzantium, Holy Russia or some other mythical version of our past.  It is significant that the liturgies of the early church reflect a world-embracing concern for all, giving thanks for everything and offering it back to God in a spirit of peace and joy.  One would never know these liturgies were prayed by people under threat of arrest and death.   In “the catacombs” especially it is important to remember that “the whole earth is full of His glory” (Is. 6:3), and to retain the joy of living in God’s world. 
2.  We must recover a sense that to be baptized means that we have come out of the world, and now belong not to this age, but to the age to come.  The attitude to overcome is that which equates being a Christian with being a respectable member of an earthly culture.  In fact Christians have always been “a third race”—neither Jew, nor Greek (i.e. Gentile of any kind, be that American, Canadian or any other people), but the Church of God (see 1 Cor. 10:32).    We must recover a sense of being different, of being, as St. Paul says, “blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).  Baptism brings us out of one culture and into another; it is an act of spiritual emigration from this world to the next.  All immigrants know they have left one country and entered another.  We too must recover this sense of distance from the culture around us.
3.  Finally, living as a catacomb people will give us a particular love for others who share that space, even if they are not of our jurisdiction—even if (dare I say it?) they are Christians who are not yet Orthodox.  Don’t get me wrong—our ecumenical mandate to heal the schisms remains.  Bluntly put, we still need to offer the fullness of the Faith to all who love Christ, and pray for them to become Orthodox.  But living as part of an increasingly-marginalized Christian minority means the things we share with non-Orthodox Christians are more important than the things which separate us, and nothing drives that point home like persecution targeting all who confess the Holy Name.  It is possible that what the World Council of Churches could not accomplish, increased hostility from outside the churches will.
            In conclusion, one might think that a “catacomb” existence would be a cramped one, darkened by fear and hopelessness and depression.   I assert the opposite.  The catacombs (as the early church knew) are illumined by the light of Christ, and made spacious by His joy which swells the heart.  And when things get really bad, we have been told to straighten up and lift up our heads, because our redemption is drawing near (Lk. 21:28).  Life in the catacombs will be just fine, because in the catacombs or out of it, we live as glory-bound children of God.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

E Pluribus Unum?

The Latin phrase e pluribus unum is found on the seal of the United States, adopted by an Act of their Congress in 1782. It was considered de facto as their national motto until 1956, when the motto “In God we trust” was officially adopted. E pluribus unum means “out of many, one”, referring to the many individuals and states becoming one single nation. It was, and is, a good motto.
The phrase could be taken also as God’s call to the many Orthodox jurisdictions in North America. There are many such jurisdictions, such as the Greek Orthodox, the Antiochian Orthodox, the Serbian Orthodox, the Romanian Orthodox, and my own Orthodox Church in America (aka “the OCA”). The list is, sadly, an impressively long one, containing both numerically large jurisdictional bodies and small ones. Each has its own gathering of bishops, its own infrastructure, its own methods of fund-raising, its own ecclesiastical department of external affairs, whereby it relates to other Orthodox and Christian bodies. And each of them acknowledges, at least formally, that the current status quo of many jurisdictions co-existing on the same geographical territory is uncanonical and needs to the changed. The ancient norms, enshrined in the canons, assumes and calls for one bishop per city, so that all Orthodox Christians in a given geographical locale are not simply sacramentally united (i.e. in communion one with another), but organically united as well, looking to one and the same bishop, and sharing the same ruling presbyterate. Having differing groups of Orthodox in the same area divided into ethnic groups is clearly contrary to the canons. From this verdict there is no dissenting voice. The bishops of all the Orthodox jurisdictions can read, and all agree that the canons require this sort of unity. We didn’t get into this jurisdictional mess overnight, but we do need to get out of it. In the terms of the old American motto, the “pluribus” needs to become “unum”.
Some Orthodox have suggested that the time for such jurisdictional unity is not yet, because Orthodoxy on North American soil is too young and immature. In this view, we need to wait until we mature more and meanwhile stay under the protection of the various mother churches in the Old World. I regard such a view as utter gas, and scarcely worth a sensible reply. We have, in fact, been on North American soil for over two hundred years, and if after that time we are still too immature to run our own organizational show, we should simply pack it in and let the adults in the non-Orthodox churches be the ones to serve Christ here. We Orthodox are, as a matter of fact, quite capable of discerning the will of Christ for the New World (as others call our home), and of striving to fulfill it.
But if all the bishops and theologians and seminary professors agree that such canonical unity is desirable and is God’s will, then why don’t we have it? In a word, because as a whole, American Orthodox don’t really want it. If we truly desired jurisdictional unity, we could have it by next week. It would require courage in dealing with the mother churches of the Old World, and humility in dealing with one another. The fallenness of the human heart and our long-entrenched stubbornness would provide lots of opportunities for patience in working with each other. But it could be done more or less immediately, if we as a total group possessed the political will for it. Why don’t we have such a political will? That is the real question, and the answer to it reveals what is really wrong with Orthodoxy in the New World.
I am a Canadian, and can speak of the Canadian situation with greater ease and certainty than the American (or Mexican) ones. But I believe that an analysis of the Canadian situation will have some applicability further south as well. Up here in Canada, Orthodoxy is tribal. That is, it defines itself and therefore survives (i.e. funds itself) in ethnic terms. No one is simply Orthodox. The Greeks are Greek Orthodox; the Serbs are Serbian Orthodox; the Romanians are Romanian Orthodox. (The O.C.A. are an embarrassment, because they have since 1970 famously and self-consciously chosen to buck this tribal trend.) This analysis and theory can be tested in a thousand ways. For example, in my neighbouring Vancouver, the church hall of the large Greek church has the names of famous Greek philosophers ingrained in wood on the four walls. Not St. Athanasios (I give him a Greek spelling for his name, although in fact he was African); not St. Gregory Palamas. Not St. Kosmos the Aetolian. Aristotle, and Plato and Sophocles. What matters fundamentally in the church wood is not faith, but famous Greek ancestry. Or take the church sign outside the local Serbian church—the lettering (in Cyrillic script) is painted overtop the Serbian flag.
This Canadian experience finds cultural confirmation in American films. When in the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” a nice American boy converts to Orthodoxy and is baptized (in a pink wading pool, no less), he exults afterward to his fiancée, “Now I’m Greek!” Orthodoxy is being defined in exclusively ethnic terms. The church finds its core membership and its financial support on this basis. Who needs evangelism when one has abundant immigration?
I believe that this is the real reason for our corporate lack of urgency in pursuing Orthodox jurisdictional unity. Such a unity would inevitably involve some dilution of our various ethnic self-presentations to society, and a change in our various jurisdictional self-understandings. A change from the status quo is considered by some as too risky, as possibly imperilling financial survival. It is easier to give lip service to our “spiritual” and sacramental unity and live with what we have.
The problem, however, is that what we have does not give adequate expression to the Gospel. It consists too much (I won’t say entirely; that depends upon individual bishops, pastors and congregations), of presenting ourselves to the world rather than Christ. We are famous for our Food Festivals (with a church tour tacked on for those who might be mildly interested in such exotica), not for proclaiming Christ as the Saviour and hope of the world. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he preached not himself, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and as himself as their servant for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor.4:5). In making our main message not Christ, but Orthodoxy (i.e. ourselves in our various ethnic dresses), we are doing exactly the opposite of what the apostle did, and preaching not Jesus Christ as Lord, but ourselves. The reluctance to trumpet the Gospel and to call our neighbours to repentance is deeply ingrained in North American Orthodoxy (the exceptions to this will forgive me), and the reluctance goes far up the hierarchical ladder. In reading the Ecumenical Patriarch’s well-written primer and presentation of Orthodoxy to the common man, entitled Encountering the Mystery, I could not find a single instance of our primus inter pares calling his neighbours to repent, forsake their former religions, and become disciples of the risen Son of God. I did, however, find a long section explaining the history and significance of the office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It is easy to preach ourselves. Preaching Jesus Christ as Lord to a hostile world is a lot trickier.
But tricky or not, it remains our task. The current jurisdictional disunity witnesses to and reveals our underlying weakness. We need to become truly Orthodox Christians first, and Greeks, Romanians, Americans and Canadians second. Pride in ethnic heritage is good, but it is not a fruit of the Spirit, and in this case the good has become the enemy of the best. We need to recover a burning desire to preach Jesus Christ to the mass of North Americans who do not know Him, and those who do not worship Him in the fullness of the Orthodox Faith. If this is our deepest desire, we will not fear to sacrifice the current jurisdictional status quo for something else. Our hearts will be anchored in Christ, not in our national pedigree. E pluribus unum. Out of many, we can become more truly one, and out of that unity, we can more effectively help our North American neighbours encounter the saving mystery of Christ.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The "Occupy" Movement

Anyone who has not been comatose for the last several weeks has heard of the “Occupy Movement”, which began with the call to “occupy Wall Street” and then spread to other cities in the U.S. and Canada. I suspect that whether or not one’s city has had their main street or social venue “occupied” depends largely upon the relative size of the city. My own neighbouring city of Vancouver has been occupied. The town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, I think, has not.
In my area, the Occupy Movement has fizzled somewhat; the movement has moved on (as movements are wont to do). I suspect it had a bit to do with the cold weather that comes in a Canadian winter, and also with the (correctly) perceived lack of public support, which made the occupiers unwilling to defy court orders to disband. The occupiers occupied major venues in public spaces, (the Vancouver occupiers camped in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery), and this effectively meant that those public spaces were no longer public. The public was very patient, (one might say “long-suffering”), but eventually they wanted their public spaces back, especially when they could not discern any real reason for their loss. I predict that when the history books documenting the significant events of the 21st century are written up, the Occupy Movement will be consigned to a small foot-note. Even now it is becoming something of a joke. I remember seeing a poster exhorting, “Occupy Mordor—because one ring should not be allowed to rule them all”. For now, before it vanishes into historical oblivion, I would like to ask the question, “What is the meaning of the Occupy Movement in North America, and what, if anything, is wrong with it?”
People of my vintage will recall that the first people to occupy anything in America were the university students, who occupied the offices of the university big-wigs, such as those of the university dean or president, inspired by the protests used by those striving for justice in the American Civil Rights Movement. The occupation was then called a “sit-in” because it consisted of the protesters sitting in the offices of those in authority and refusing to leave until their demands were met, provoking arrest and forcible media-covered removal. The media was indeed happy to cover the sit-ins, which meshed with the hippie movement of that time. (It was followed, culturally speaking, by “love-ins”—which one imagines involved postures other than sitting, and issued fewer demands.) The sit-ins were part of an evolving culture of student protest, fuelled by youthful objection to American involvement in the war in Viet Nam. In these protests, the protesters had an argument which, even if delivered through a bull-horn loudspeaker, had least possessed coherence. They articulated a position, made specific demands, and invited a response. The inconvenience occasioned by their sitting in was intended to provoke this attention and response. Since the situations they were protesting were widely regarded as unjust, the protesters often felt the warm glow of self-righteousness. They were, in their own view, standing up against a powerful and unjust regime at great personal cost. Sitting in and marching and burning draft cards and incinerating the American flag and dodging the draft were all a part of the same protest movement.
These sit-ins are, I believe, the cultural ancestors of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Those sitting in on Wall Street have a message—namely, that the greed of Wall Street (vaguely defined) has gotten the American economy into a tremendous mess, so that the greed of the rich 1% of the population, aided and abetted by the government (“The Man” in the words of their 1960’s ancestors) resulted in much misery for the other 99%. It remains a valid point. But this fairly basic message (“greed is bad”) seemed not to be followed by any concrete demands that anyone could easily discern. This being the case, the occupation grew by reason of its very lack of concrete demands, as everyone with a grievance against anything joined in. In the Occupy Vancouver tents one found the perennially homeless, some students protesting high tuition fees, and people protesting the enforced pasteurization of milk. The local Canadian Union of Public Employees also joined in with their banners, though they had no discernible demands. It seemed as if everyone who was young or unemployed or angry or some mysterious combination of any of the above felt this was the place to be—at least during the day. Some of them went home to their warm houses at night. But they were back in the morning. Getting a warm night’s sleep, however, did not produce a more coherent or unified message, nor any concrete demands, much less any suggestion as to how the demands might be met. It seemed as if their message was, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore”, but couldn’t articulate what exactly they were mad as hell about. It looks as if they were simply angry at the fact that people as a whole were greedy, and some people—about 1% of the human race—were able to do something about it. This observation is correct, but occupying public space more or less indefinitely will not change it.
I am not here advocating defeatism or suggesting that the oppressed masses should love their chains. But I am advocating realism, and the recognition that we live in a fallen world. The misery caused to the 99% by the 1% in America feeds directly off the stupidity of the American banking system and the mess they made in the economy. This situation is new (especially for Americans), but the fact that the rich occupy (no pun intended) a privileged place in the world is hardly front-page news. In this fallen world, the rich have always oppressed the poor, and the strong have always oppressed the weak. More powerful races and tribes have often beaten up on weaker races and tribes, and nations with better armaments have usually always made life difficult for their weaker neighbours. (Ask the Scottish, the Welsh or the Irish.) This is not wonderful, and especially not wonderful for the poor, the weak and the less well armed, but it should not be unexpected, given the fallen state of the human heart. One can say to the rich and powerful, “Please do not oppress me”, and if their fallen hearts have been touched by the grace of Christ, they may indeed decide not to oppress. As Christ said, with God all things are possible, and sometimes the camel does indeed go through the eye of the needle. But not often. That is why it is ultimately useless for the protesters to protest what is, after all, the universal human condition. If one says, “I will not leave my tent here on Wall Street until the rich decide not to oppress the poor”, one will be there for a long time. The truth is that Man is greedy—and also angry, lustful, devious and lazy. A quick look at the world news will confirm this, as will a quick internal examination of conscience. This cannot be altered by hunkering down self-righteously on Wall Street. It might be altered somewhat by hunkering down prayerfully in church.
This then is my first observation about the Occupy Movement—that what it is protesting is simply the fallenness of the human race. It is not wrong to protest this, though it is mostly futile. But there are, I suggest, two things that are wrong with the movement.
First of all, the Occupy Movement divides the human race into Them and Us, the 99% and the 1%, the Oppressors and the Oppressed. This leads to a tremendous sense of self-righteousness for the 99%. This defiant sense of self-righteousness is dangerous spiritually, because those protesting the fallenness of the human race are not less fallen than anyone else. Whether the sin is greed or lust or anger or deviousness or laziness, we are all a part of the 100% of those afflicted by sin. The division of the world into two very unequal parts promotes a fanciful view of humanity. It says, “You 1% are evil, and I, as part of the 99%, am pure”. It would be more accurate to say, “We are all 100% of us equally fallen, but you are fallen in such a way as to make life economically difficult for me”, but that does not produce a Pharisaical warm glow. Avoiding a dichotomy which places us among the unfallen and pure is the safer path. The world will one day indeed be divided into a true dichotomy of sheep and goats, but that time is not yet, and none of us have the wisdom to make that division. Meanwhile, dividing the world into Us and Them contributes to our blindness and the inability to see our own sins.
Secondly, the Occupy Movement, entrenched in self-righteousness and committed to protest, misses the true opportunities that exist to change the world. We cannot persuade all the rich and powerful of the world to share their wealth and instead store up for themselves treasure in heaven. But we can help some of the other 99% by sharing what we have. It is just here that the dichotomy of 1% / 99% especially betrays us. It is true that 1% of the world owns most of the world’s wealth. It is also true that you and I in North America , as part of the 99%, have more wealth than others—such as the others in Africa, and even in your occupied home town. I could sit in my tent and protest the hard hearts of the 1%, or I could leave my tent and walk the streets and help those others of the 99% who have less than I. The Lord’s words were not directed merely to the super rich. They were also directed to me. On the day when He divides the world into two groups, placing one group on His right hand and the other one on His left, He will not ask me, “What did you protest?” He will ask me, “What did you do?” Now is the time to make sure that I can offer Him an acceptable answer. It is not about the sins of the 1%, nor about their missed opportunities. It is about my sins, and the opportunities now given to me.