Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ecclesia and Occupy: Through a glass darkly

From 80 Court Square, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Paulette Moore speaks about Occupy Harrisonburg,
at the #Occupy Empire conference last month.
Arun Gupta has a great analysis of the Occupy movement's history (albeit brief) and current state of affairs, posted at the Al Jazeera English site: What happened to the Occupy Movement?

Especially powerful in my reading is his section, "Colonised by consumption," where he argues that the public commons has been eroded or "colonised over decades by full-spectrum consumption - shopping, eating, drinking, entertainment and paid spectacle." Occupy embodied a recreation of a public commons, enacting something different in the creation "mini-societies" within places like Zuccotti Park in Manhattan's financial district. Gupta states that:
The scene of hundreds of people exchanging food, art, music, knowledge, politics, healthcare, shelter, anger, ideas, skills and love was unlike anything else in our consumer societies - because not one exchange was lubricated by money (of course the goods were paid for at some point).
This "alternative society" aspect of Occupy is what keeps my theological interest engaged in the movement. It is in some ways a vision, as through a glass darkly, akin to what the church should look like in public: a distinct assembly (ecclesia, what we translate from Greek into "church") that lives its collective public life amidst other bodies politic.

But it is the military-consumerist/entertainment complex(es) of this nation state which have starved the church's political imagination, preventing the body of Christ from embodying and expressing itself as the sign and foretaste of the emerging kingdom of God. And with globalization, it is indeed the case that the rest of the earth is being colonized by consumption, though the national interests of states ensure they remain the gatekeepers of ultimate reality for those within its territorial borders.

What if the church looked more like the Occupy movement instead of the Rotary Club? Imagine Christian assemblies (local congregations) embodying the kind of radical politics of occupiers (minus some of the ideological baggage/incoherence). Would Christians be drawing the ire of corporate interests whose hands are now firmly gripped on the levers of American political machinery? Would they be pepper-sprayed or beaten with clubs for their radical witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, something the first Christians had to endure an earlier version of in the Roman Colosseum?

The Occupy movement is not the church catholic. While some of my language may seem to imply that, I  intend not to conflate the two, because their constitutive narratives and practices are strikingly different. Rather, I'm consciously using the "through a glass darkly" metaphor from Paul (in 1 Cor. 13) as a means to ask: Why does the church in America constitute such a "weak culture"? (To borrow a phrase from James Davison Hunter.)

My comments above about consumerism and globalization are some of my own responses to that question. Others, like Stanley Hauerwas and Rom Coles, make similar kinds of connections in their book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, and William Cavanaugh's political theology is always instructive here in regard to how the nation state has basically "de-publicked" and "de-commonsed" society. This process created the opportunity for capitalism to take over the social imagination of the body politic, seeing only citizens and consumers in relation to a state, thereby replacing pre-modern forms of societal organization which were a dense social tapestry of groups and affiliations, each having their own "weight" in public life.

The body of Christ in American life is emaciated. It's time to put some meat on those bones.

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