Be The Change

December 4, 2011

Thomas Jefferson was something of a sceptic about religious things. He was nominally a Christian, but he had very particular ideas about what he thought fit with Christianity and what didn’t. He is famous for going through the Bible, cutting out all the bits he thought didn’t fit, and leaving the rest out. He called the rest “The Life and Morals of Jesus”. You can find it online: I find it fascinating what he chose to leave in, and what he left out. He believed that Jesus’ ethical teachings were the finest the world had ever seen; but he took out any reference to anything which could be considered supernatural or miraculous.

This approach to Jesus is very popular today; yet I believe we miss something, when we focus only on ethical teachings and not the root of those teachings – something that I think Jefferson realized himself. I found a quotation from him this week that said, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” And I agree with him. God is just, and God is not particularly pleased with what we describe as “just the way things are”. I think about how I participate in the way things are, and I tremble – not because I fear God’s wrath, but because I know how far “the way things are”, and my part in it, really are from the justice of God.

The source of our ethics – and of Jesus’ ethics – is the knowledge that God is a God of both justice and love, and as someone once said, “Justice is Love in Action”. This is the proclamation of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is her prophetic song: that God stands on the side of justice; that the will of the one who created all things is that justice be done on earth as it is in heaven; that the poor not be oppressed by the rich and the weak not be trampled by the strong. Mary never heard of democracy. She never heard of capitalism, or socialism, or communism, or any combination of the above. But she knew that some things, God does not want.

Who knows? Today she might be right down there on the street with the real Occupy protestors: not the ones who are abusing public officials or using the protest as an excuse to defy city law; the ones who are on the streets of cities all over the world because they know it is wrong that the super-wealthy make their money off the backs of working people, poor people, in North America, and around the world. They know that there is something wrong with a country in which multinationals or wealthy lobby groups can buy the policies of their choice in a supposedly democratic system. They know it is wrong when a poor, racialized lawbreaker is held to strict sentencing at the same time as a wealthy white male who steals from thousands of people gets off scott-free. Mary didn’t live in a time like ours, but I think she’d recognize that something is wrong – that something has to change. And she would say, echoing the voices of the prophets down through the centuries, that God wants that change – no matter how much it might upset us or trouble us or discomfort us. God wants to see a change in the way we operate. God wants generosity to trump greed, God wants freedom to trump authoritarianism, God wants the voices of the lowly to be lifted up and the mighty to be cast down from their self-appointed thrones.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the Occupy movement since it started. I absolutely agree with the message they’re trying to send; I agree that they have a right to be heard at least as much as any corporation president or career politician has the right to be heard. I don’t really understand those that approach the movement from an anarchist perspective – those that believe there is no legitimate authority in the state or anywhere else, and that to make demands would simply be giving the state power it ought not to have. I don’t know about the whole tenting idea, and I definitely disagree with any violent or abusive act. But if you pay attention to the news, most of the violence and abuse has not been at the hands of protestors – it’s been at the behest of governments – especially in the US – who’ve decided that they don’t want to hear it anymore. The protests have inconvenienced the public life of cities, so the cities – and many of their citizens – have decided the protests have to stop. I was chatting with a Victoria police officer the other day, and he said he’s not bothered by the protests at all. He figures the Occupy people should be allowed to stick around as long as they want. It’s the sewage problems and the fire safety issues and the drugs that concern him. He figures one of the best things that could happen is to establish a public “speakers’ space” in Victoria – something like Hyde Park Speakers’ corner, where folks who have something to say can come and say it, without fear of reprisals from authorities or anyone else.

A lot of people have reflected on the Occupy protests at greater length and with more depth than I have. Several of my colleagues have been part of the Occupy groups in other cities, and they’ve been impressed by the quality of dialogue and by the spirituality that underpins much of the protest. One blogger on a site called The Parish [] writes, “Some of my Christian friends have been horrified by the image of seated protestors being pepper sprayed, women being dragged by their hair, and unarmed protestors beaten with batons. Many, unfortunately, have not. It is indefensible for people who worship a messiah who innocently suffered violence to support police efforts to batter and pepper spray peaceful protestors into compliance with a status quo that supports no one but people with more money than they will ever need, more than their grandchildren will ever need.” He goes on to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was well-timed in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation [in this case].” There haven’t been any beatings or abuse in Victoria, that I know of, but it’s certainly happened many other places.

One of the most respected theologians of the 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, cautioned us that groups are always more immoral than individuals. There are probably many moral bankers, corporate officers, investment fund managers, etc – you probably know them yourselves. But the system itself, without checks and balances, quickly becomes immoral. This is true, whether we’re talking about capitalism, communism, or socialism. It’s even true when we talk about religious systems – especially when we forget that at the head of that system is a God of justice and of love. If our God can’t find justice and love going on in the communities that call themselves Christian, doesn’t see us Christian people caring for the poor and lifting up the lowly, giving a voice to the voiceless and advocating for those on the margins – well, God can find some other people to work with.

It’s interesting to see how differently Christian churches have responded to the Occupy movement in their cities. In London, England, St Paul’s Cathedral shut their doors to the protestors after some incidents of vandalism, and even considered evicting them. One member of church staff resigned over that decision; another resigned when the uproar over their decision hit the press. Now the church’s doors are open again, and they’re even hosting a weekly “Sermon on the Steps” as outreach to those in the Occupy the London Stock Exchange camp, where bishop and clergy dialogue with the protestors. In Toronto, St James Anglican Cathedral opened their doors, offering them hospitality. I’m guessing our prophetic Mary would applaud. This is the woman who raised Jesus. This is the woman, who along with Joseph, taught her son about God and what God wants for the world. I doubt Mary ever forgot what it felt like to be lifted up – to be told that she, simply by saying yes to God, could be part of something that would change her and change the world.

The Occupy protesters are something of a mixed bag, as are those whose ears they want to reach and whose power they wish to see curtailed. As Neibuhr said, groups tend to be less moral than individuals – in the sense that people are too often swayed by “group think” or a sense of apathy that says, “there’s lot of us here so someone else will deal with it”. We all know about mob mentality and the bystander effect. But we mustn’t forget the lessons of previous movements for social change, either. Christians have both been on the forefront of positive changes in society, and opposed them with all their might. They have walked with those who sought justice, and they have wielded the batons that beat those justice-seekers. They have actively supported these movements, or they have watched from the sidelines and criticized. So what would our God say about us, today?

What would our God say, this God who, according to Luke’s Mary, “ has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” As Christians, we might change that a bit, and instead say, “Be the change GOD WISHES to see in the world”. Mary’s song confronts me with something I don’t want to hear – but need to, all the same. How about you?

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