The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Movement and the Moment

The Anglocat knows and has great affection for the good people at Trinity Wall Street. So it is with some perturbation that I see the hardening of lines between Trinity and the Occupy Wall Street movement:
The displaced occupiers had asked the church, one of the city’s largest landholders, to hand over a gravel lot, near Canal Street and Avenue of the Americas, for use as an alternate campsite and organizing hub. The church declined, calling the proposed encampment “wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious.”

And now the Occupy movement, after weeks of targeting big banks and large corporations, has chosen Trinity, one of the nation’s most prominent Episcopal parishes, as its latest antagonist.

“We need more; you have more,” one protester, Amin Husain, 36, told a Trinity official on Thursday, during an impromptu sidewalk exchange between clergy members and demonstrators. “We are coming to you for sanctuary.”

Trinity’s rector, the Rev. James H. Cooper, defended the church’s record of support for the protesters, including not only expressions of sympathy, but also meeting spaces, resting areas, pastoral services, electricity, bathrooms, even blankets and hot chocolate. But he said the church’s lot — called Duarte Square — was not an appropriate site for the protesters, noting that “there are no basic elements to sustain an encampment.”
Yesterday, the OWS folk jumped the fence, led by the Rt. Rev. George Packard, in full cassock:

Bishop Packard was arrested, along with approximately fifty other "occupiers". In the wake of these arrests, Rev. Jim Cooper, the Rector of Trinity, released a statement leaning rather heavily on the argumentum ad verecundiam (that's the "argument from authority" when it's at home):
We are saddened that OWS protestors chose to ignore yesterday’s messages from Archbishop Tutu, from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and from Bishop of New York Mark S. Sisk. Bishop Tutu said: “In a country where all people can vote and Trinity’s door to dialogue is open, it is not necessary to forcibly break into property.” The Presiding Bishop said: “Other facilities of Trinity continue to be open to support the Occupy movement, for which I give great thanks. It is regrettable that Occupy members feel it is necessary to provoke potential legal and police action by attempting to trespass on other parish property…I would urge all concerned to stand down and seek justice in ways that do not further alienate potential allies.” Bishop Sisk said: “The movement should not be used to justify breaking the law nor is it necessary to break into property for the movement to continue.”

OWS protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years. The protestors say they want to improve housing and economic development; Trinity is actively engaged in such efforts in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and indeed around the world. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours.
I find this argument less than compelling, in the context in which it has been deployed. First, one need not embrace OWS; but Trinity has chosen to do so. It's one thing to say of a movement, "we do not believe it serves the common good" and decline to support it, and quite another to justify a decision to refuse a request from a movement one has publicly embraced. Instead, Trinity grounds its decision in a rather--forgive me, but I can't think of another word--paternalistic statement that it knows best for OWS what would serve its mission. As to Trinity's mission, it is unclear why leasing, for a limited use (because of the prior lease) and on limited terms (to address safety and health issues), a vacant lot which Trinity owns would effect its mission in any negative way. Certainly if OWS declined reasonable terms, that would be grounds for Trinity to deny a lease; likewise if OWS overstayed, Trinity would have the moral high ground. Instead, well, as the comments at the Lead, a pretty mainstream Episcopal news blog show, Trinity's commitment to social justice (of which it rightly is proud) has been drawn into question, and a key question asked, by Jim Naughton (a well established blogger), "whether we can examine the notion that Trinity is an ally in attempting any real economic reform."

I think the question as posed is unduly harsh; but Jim makes a larger point--which is whether Trinity, and other Episcopal parishes, spend so much time focusing on ameliorating the harshest results of our system that they do not reckon with more fundamental challenges to it inherent in Christian ethics. In 1921, Charles Gore sardonically described the viewpoint of so many of his brethren that the laissez-faire system was divinely ordained:
It must have been expressed originally in sublime unconsciousness that the whole industrial system, then in its glory, had been built up on a basis of profound revolt against the central law of Christian morality, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ There are few things in history more astonishing than the silent acquiescence of the Christian world in the radical betrayal of its ethical foundation.
I think that Gore's words remain pertinent today, as demonstrated by the widespread valorization of the market, whether in the cognitive dissonance of professed Christians adopting the explicitly anti-Christian writings of Ayn Rand or the "insipid heresy" known as the prosperity gospel. The 2010 Trinity Institute, Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace, addressed some of these issues, but in an academic/intellectual way. OWS's request provided Trinity with an opportunity to seize the moment, and put itself into relationship with those speaking for the casualties of our system, a chance to put its ideas into action. The bishops are quite right that the decision was Trinity's to make, both legally and morally, but one can regret the chance not taken, and the opportunity foregone in the name of safety.


Anglocat said...

Bad form to comment on one's own post, but I inadvertently forgot to add the source from Bishop Gore. It is from Gore, BELIEF IN GOD (1921), reprinted in RECONSTRUCTION OF BELIEF (1926) at 22-23.

stanchaz said...

Trinity Church & OWS: Re Trinity Chuch & OWS: You don’t need to be religious to understand -and embrace- the idea that "Whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." But many of the 1%, in blind greed and endless schemes, have forgotten this. They have closed their eyes to what the word "society" should really mean, what it can mean. But due to Occupy Wall Street, we are finally talking less about CUTS and more about BLEEDING. Instead of demanding m-o-r-e budget cuts -to be borne by the middle class and poor- we are FINALLY focusing on the shameful bleeding that the poor and middle class has endured, for all too long. Instead of talking about even m-o-r-e cuts in the taxes of millionaires....we are now talking about fairness and justice - about an economy and a political system that is increasingly run for the rich, and by the rich. Instead of talking about LESS government, we are talking about a government that WORKS FOR ALL OF US, not just a favored few. Thank you OWS, for reminding us that people -ordinary working people- really DO matter, and for helping open our eyes to what’s really going on in this country. The attempt by OWS to occupy Duarte Square (the empty lot owned by Trinity Church) is much more than a plea for sanctuary. For like Zuccotti Park, it’s an attempt to carve out a protected space, a living conscience for the city, amid the repression. A refuge a city where control-freaks would sweep us under the rug, and out of the a city where they would pen us in, and permit us to a city that tells us to “move on, move on”..... you don’t belong, you don’t count, you don’t have a right to be here...don’t assemble, don’t block the street, don’t trespass, don’t EXIST! They would deny us, deny our lives, and deny our very futures. IF WE LET THEM. But OWS responds, both in word and in DEED, and says: we’ve had ENOUGH - we BELONG, we STAND our ground, and we DO matter! This IS our land, and we want it BACK! The word OCCUPY...says it all! That’s why OWS has captured our imagination. That’s why a living breathing OCCUPIED public space is important for OWS. Like Lady Liberty’s never extinguished torch that burns in our harbor, OWS needs to have a concrete, continuing, persistent in-your-face presence.. to remind us of what we’ve lost, of what we are, and what we can be affirm, illuminate, defy...and inspire. Trinity Church, with its oft-proclaimed ideals (and its huge land holdings), should look deep into its collective soul, do the right thing, and help OWS secure a sanctuary...a space of of refuge and hope. For if Christ were physically among us today, as He was 2000 years ago, He would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square. Of this I am certain...

John Merz said...

That was an excellent summation on the TWS position. Being one of the clergy involved and arrested, I am glad to see that there is stuff like this out there. I was even more astonished by the PB statement than either that of Cooper or Bp. Sisk. She outed herself as someone so completely out of touch with events on the ground and the ows movement that it was japparing to particular when she mentions "taking up arms"...holy smokes.

Anglocat said...

Thank you Stanchaz and John Merz, for reading and commenting. I'm especially pleased, John (if I may!) with your comment, and your own active participation to have drawn your comment, as I read your letter to the bishop of Long Island over at the Lead, and am very glad you think the post captures some of the dynamic. I'm grateful to you both!