Forty days ago I was struck by a car while I was walking. Thank goodness my injuries were not life threatening. For this I am very grateful. However, I have been left wounded; I am still hobbling on crutches, limping without crutches, and going through the too long and arduous process of healing. All of this has taken place as the Occupy movement has come to Seattle and set up its tent. I have been forced to watch from the sidelines shaking my crutches in frustration that I am unable to offer my time and presence. It has been my sense that I would not be a pastoral presence to the occupiers, a mediating influence between them and the police, or an effective witness in the street. All I have been able to do is pray...from a distance. And pray, I have done.
Seattle, by its nature, is a liberal city. For assistance during the most recent election, I turned to a progressive voting guide. Where else would one do this and find candidate after candidate equally acceptable to the progressive voter? Mostly, a person had to choose the issues that were of most importance and vote for the candidate that shared a passion for it. It was a liberal v liberal election, a progressive v progressive election. Given the overall liberality of the city, it didn't take long for the city council to consider divesting money from big banks and explore more ethical means of banking. The mayor praised the movement and committed to ensuring its ability to maintain its presence. A town hall was held to discuss the city council's decision to affirm and support the general principles of the movement. But, like so many things, the Seattle-Occupy relationship fast became complicated.
Skirmishes with police dotted daily proceedings. The town hall was interrupted by occupiers who decried the process. The daily worker grew frustrated that protests ostensibly geared for their benefit were disrupting their sleep and obstructing their streets. I have followed the conversation and watched it unfold, but I have not been able to be part of it.
Then, yesterday afternoon, the Occupy Seattle Facebook page indicated that the afternoon's protest was being met with an even larger police presence. This lit up the Livestream conversation as people wondered if Occupy Seattle would be going the way of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Portland. Was the tension about to reach an untenable level? Would the police, militarized and frustrated, about to ratchet up the confrontation? "Come down," the cry went out. I looked at my crutches, felt my swollen knee, and knew that I could not come down. I could neither parade nor process, much less carry a sign or wear a robe. I read the feed.
As most in the nation know, tensions did finally mount to a breaking point. The police, claiming to do nothing more than keep the streets clear, pepper sprayed the group and arrested several people. Among those in the melee were a pregnant woman, a United Methodist colleague, and a wonderfully prophetic 84 year old Seattle woman. Dorli Rainey is a character who cannot be summed up in a sentence or two. If you want to know her, visit her website. Yes, she has a website.
Agitating for change is a dicey process. On the one hand, change won't occur without agitation. On the other, the desired change will be elusive if the agitation shakes off needed support. The Occupy movement has struggled to find the balance between too little and too much agitation. Those who maintain that protestors "should" do it legally without upsetting anyone don't understand that the goal of the movement is not simply to vent frustration "at the man." Rather, the goal is to question and demand change in political and economic decision making processes and the policies which they create. Any system that consistently and relentlessly values the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is a corrupt system. To those in the Abrahamic traditions, it is an evil system. Moreover, it is such an ensconced system that a lot of agitation is needed to force it to change. That is why agitation and even confrontation are needed. That is why lawful protest won't work. It won't agitate enough to upset large and deeply rooted institutions, processes, or policies. Heck, lawful protest wouldn't even garner attention of the press, which is vital in creating change. On the other hand, those who yearn for confrontation for the sake of confrontation do so at the peril of the overall goal. Commuters are part of the 99% as are police, fire fighters, and neighbors trying to sleep. Neighborliness must be a part of the movement if the movement is going to really be about a better society - a better community.
I have not been able to be part of Seattle's Occupy community - to either turn up the heat of agitation or provide a calming presence that fosters neighborliness. This timeout for me has been a great lesson in humility and patience. Despite daily hopes of heading out to be present with folks, to hear their stories, to pray with those who need, or to witness the yearnings of so many who hope for so much better, I have been sidelined. And, somehow, miraculously, the people continue to walk, chant, and agitate...all without me. Amazing. (I hope you are reading the sarcasm in my fingers that type this.)
Movements like this need us all. Yet, movements like this are bigger than any one of us. The church is like this. It needs every caring hand to reach out and every gospel changed heart to pray. But, church is bigger than any one of us. It is about a dream, a hope, a vision of another world, a new heaven and a new earth. We are not indispensable as individuals. Yet, we are vitally needed. I don't know what will wind up happening with the overall Occupy movement, especially as cities begin to crack down on them. On this point, the Occupy movement could learn from the Jesus movement. We certainly faced steep odds in the face of enormous empire, and we found a way to thrive. What I do know about the Occupy movement is that its work is not done. It has achieved an amazing amount by casting the whole nation into conversation about banks, the economy, the intersection between greed and the environment, and the ruthless treatment of the poor. Mazel tov! There is more to be done, though. Money is still the language of politics. Money still flows to the wealthy and not to those in need. Money will always threaten to displace honest and sincere dialogue about the common good. The goals of the Occupy movement will still be there when my leg finally heals and I can walk with them down this journey. But, part of me wishes that this were not so. The better part of me wishes that all of the concerns would be addressed so that my ambulatory self would be unnecessary. The better part of wishes that the powers and principalities that so desperately want to hobble the Occupy movement would themselves be hobbled such that their limitless power no more could hurt, foreclose, outsource, defraud, and impoverish the working class and the unemployed.
I am in a reflective mood these days. it is hard to let go. It is difficult to know that all that I have to offer are my prayers. But, perhaps that is my lesson this time around. Perhaps it is my gift. I have prayer to offer. I have perspective, distance, and prayer. I do not need to hobble the Occupy Seattle scene with my presence. Rather, I can use my wounded body to remember all who are wounded, all who struggle to make it through a day, all who cry out in pain. I can carry my crutches as a reminder that our culture leans on oil and other dirty energy. Every time I lean forward to swing my hurting leg onward I can think of how we lean on the least and the last and allow them to hold the rest of us up and provide us with cheap goods. Every time my knee spasms or my back hurts I can feel the pain of those without work, those losing their homes, those who do not think there is anything good left to feel. And, I can hope for the time when I will be free from these crutches, unencumbered and truly myself once again just as I hope for police who act with restraint and city councils who do not turn deaf ears to the cries of pain in their communities and a Congress that will seek a common good and a president who will move the country toward peaceableness, clean(er) energy policies, and neighborliness throughout the world. I cannot be in the streets right now, but I can pray for those who are. And, pray I will.
I will not hobble the Occupy movement by withholding my prayers.
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