Last year, I wrote in this column that my church had endorsed the Occupy movement in Fort Wayne, and I encouraged other churches to do the same.
Since then, Occupy protesters have been evicted from most of the physical places they have settled in across the country, including Freimann Square in Fort Wayne, but their spirit remains very much alive, speaking truth to power.
That spirit was exemplified when, on May 1, retired Episcopal Bishop and Veterans for Peace member George Packard was arrested in Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in New York City as he participated in the Occupy demonstrations. He, along with 15 other military veterans, were taken into custody after they linked arms to hold the plaza against a police attempt to clear it.
This was Packard’s second arrest as part of the Occupy protests. Just before Christmas, he was arrested when the NYPD stormed and eradicated the encampment in Zuccotti Park, where Packard and others were encamped. If found guilty, he faces up to three months in jail.
Is this any way for a man of the cloth to behave? According to Packard, it’s the only way.
“The spirit is calling us now into the streets, calling us to reject the old institutional orders. There is no going back. You can’t sit anymore in churches listening to stogy liturgies. They put you to sleep. Most of these churches are museums with floorshows. They are a caricature of what Jesus intended. Jesus would be turning over the money-changing tables in their vestibules.
“Those in the church may be good-hearted and even well-meaning, but they are ignoring the urgent, beckoning call to engage with the world. It is only outside the church that you will find the spirit of God and Christ.
“And with the rise of the Occupy movement it has become clear that the institutional church has failed. It mouths hollow statements. It publishes pale Lenten study tracts. It observes from a distance without getting its hands dirty. It makes itself feel good by doing marginal charitable works…
“We need the church to have a real presence on the Jericho Road. We need people in the church to leave their comfort zones, to turn away from the hierarchy, and this is still terrifying to a lot of people in the church and especially the church leadership.”
Pretty strong words, but I doubt that anyone in the church, especially the leadership, would refute them. To do so would be like refuting the words of Jesus himself: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew: 5-9).
In fact, most of what I know about Jesus is that he was a troublemaker who challenged the status quo, the rich and the powerful, not unlike the occupiers.
Much of what I know about the work of Christians who take their religion seriously takes place outside, not inside, the church.
A couple of friends of mine, Cliff of North Manchester and JoAnne of Indianapolis, are members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Their motto is “getting in the way,” as they are sent to crisis situations and militarized areas around the world at the invitation of local peace and human rights workers: Palestine, Africa, Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, along the U.S.-Mexico border and other “hot spots.”
Even at the age of 75, JoAnne continues to be a true peace and justice activist. I stood with her last year as Veterans for Peace and Code Pink and other activists were arrested at the White House, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in Quantico, Va., where Pvt. Bradley Manning was being held in solitary confinement for allegedly turning over classified documents to WikiLeaks, the most damning of which was a video of a U.S. helicopter gunship gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters journalists.
Nearly 30 years ago, when I was a much younger man of 50, Cliff and I and another friend sat in at a local senator’s office protesting the Contra war until a U.S. marshal was summoned from Chicago to arrest us. Cliff and JoAnne both have been active in CPT for decades, “getting in the way.”
Forty-five years ago April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a powerful sermon at Riverside Church in New York City, calling on the clergy of America to condemn the war in Vietnam, saying “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own government.”
This weekend I will stand with JoAnne and thousands of others protesting “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” at the NATO summit in Chicago.
I call upon the churches, including my own, to answer the “urgent, beckoning call into the streets and to engage with the world.” I believe that Jesus would like that.