Occupy Nonviolently: Opening remarks to a conversation between James Lawson and Harvey Cox
In the early twentieth century, a great theologian made a famous claim: theology’s task is to answer the questions of the age. That is, our world poses certain questions. Our experience demands attention. The theological task, Paul Tillich taught, is to engage matters of ultimate concern (to use his language) as the ultimate appears in each time and place. The task of theology is to offer the truth of Christian answers to the questions of existence. Not once and for all, but persistently. The task of theology is to provide these theological answers in the terms in which the questions arise. This means that Christian theology must be contextual. Christian theology must embrace the changes of time and space.
The occupies that now are claiming our attention and our cities – not just nationally, but internationally – are our context. These occupations are desperately needed. These occupations are theologically sound. The physical presence and the collective determination of the occupiers is a cry of communal lament. Intolerable injustices are being perpetuated in the idolatrously deified name of late capitalism.
Like Rachel, whose voice continues to ring out from Ramah, we, occupiers, will not be consoled by easy answers. And this, I believe, is good. Even when those who approach us appear to be or even are our friends, we need to remember Job. We must not mistake well-intentioned ‘reasonable solutions’ with the satisfaction of our embodied cries.
As a Christian theologian, I do not stand apart from, but as a part of this lamenting community of occupiers. Indeed, my theological work must be accountable to the occupying community. It is my community. I am an occupier. My theology is part of my occupation. Occupying is part of my theology.
When I think ‘occupy’ theologically, Galatians 2:20 immediately comes to mind: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” What greater hope can there be than to be occupied by Christ? I think Incarnation: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” – which more literally reads: “and the Word became flesh, and pitched his tent among us.” Or, as Jake Erickson wrote at TheologySalon recently, “occupation means fleshy, fragile bodies taking up political space together….When bodies incarnate movements of love and justice, creativity happens.” I think of Ruach, Breath, Spirit: God’s encompassing and excessive love, which fills our lungs and brings us life. And so I could go on.
But we must not – I must not – forget that ‘occupy’ has a very painful history. From first century Roman occupations through our last decade’s military presence in Iraq, occupation has been intimately related, if not fully synonymous, with domination, with violence, and with death. Certainly, incontestably, this is likewise evident throughout the history of the Christian churches and Christian theology.
Today, the violence of occupation resonates in our language of the 99%: the 99% that will take back what is being denied it by the 1%. Violence is evident in the iconography of the raised fist, which hovers over a lone solitary figure of the 1%. Violence lurks, crouched and waiting, wherever we identify our enemy or designate a target. And over the past couple days, we have watched the violence escalate in Oakland. What a marked contrast there is between what is happening with Occupy Oakland and what is happening with Occupy Albany. In Albany, the police defied the order of the mayor and governor to insist that they have not the need or the will to combat peaceful, nonviolent demonstration.
We continue to need to learn strategies and techniques of loving resistance from the traditions of nonviolence. Just as nonviolence permeates the theology and presence of the Reverend Doctor James Lawson, we need it to permeate ours. Rev. Lawson, we continue to need to learn from you. We continue to need to learn with you. Like all of human existence, occupation – as a word, a metaphor, or an act – is ambiguous. We need to think carefully about nonviolence and our enactments (or should I say encampments) of occupation. May we all do this together in love.
Delivered as prefatory remarks on the task of theology to a conversation between James Lawson and Harvey Cox: “From Civil Rights Movement to Occupy Wall Street: A conversation on Nonviolence in the 21st Century” on October 26, 2011 at the Cathedral of St Paul, Boston, MA.