In the days following the ugly confrontation between Occupy movement protesters and Seattle Police in downtown Seattle on Nov. 14, images of an 84-year-old woman and Seattle clergyman covered with pepper spray went viral. The Seattle pastor, Rev. Rich Lang, wearing full, white clerical vestments, stood between the line of peaceful demonstrators and spray-wielding police officers.
Lang is part of a team of “Occupy chaplains” who come daily to the encampment sites to lend spiritual support and pastoral care to the scores of protesters braving the winter rain and cold. As the nation’s Occupy Wall Street movement continues to spread, even worldwide, the nation’s religious community has been conspicuously silent about the economic justice issues protesters are raising, he said.
“The chaplains have been listening posts and calming companions for a very young movement,” said Lang, senior pastor of University Temple United Methodist Church. Lamenting the absence of other Seattle clergy at the Occupy sites, the 55-year-old minister cited the movement’s ethical imperatives. “The Church has strong economic justice narratives, but they aren’t preached much, nor do clergy put them at the forefront of the Christian story. Congregations have been silent about that, but as the economy and culture worsen, I think those narratives will come back into play.”
Occupy activist, Neal Bernstein, a 48-year old research chemist and native of New York City, sees deeper reasons for his involvement. Raised in a Jewish family but a self-described atheist, Bernstein believes that the ecumenical community and Occupy participants find common cause in their concern for the perilous economic meltdown now engulfing the country.
“The church deals with spiritual issues on several levels,” he said. “The Occupy movement is similar, but we’re seeking redemption from our government and corporations, and to be better in the same way that the church seeks to make better people. When the religious community gives us its blessings, it has a duty to participate. Stripped to its bare core, the secular and faithful both do good works. Our movement encompasses both believers and nonbelievers. We’re the 99 percent.”
Indeed, religious leaders like Rev. Grant Hagiya, Bishop of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, believe the growing conversation about the nation’s worsening economic crisis and wealth inequality raises profound moral questions of justice.
“The broader implications for us as a church, and more importantly, as a society, are that we awakening from the slumber of complacency and apathy. For too long, we have just accepted the status quo without any prophetic challenge to it," Hagiya said. "What I see in the Occupy movement is a return to grassroots civil engagement, much like I experienced directly during the Civil Rights and Vietnam protest era of the late sixties and seventies. We believed we were working for a better world then, and I think the same can be said of those who Occupy Seattle and the other 100 cities.”
Alice Woldt, co-director of the Faith Action Network and former executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and Washington Association of Churches, concurs. “Connecting with our community is what our faith is all about. We are not only concerned with providing charity, but also being advocates. Many of our churches do one without the other. We do need to be concerned about equity and the people who are oppressed by the systems we have created.”
Many in the Seattle ecumenical community, like Wes Howard-Brook, look to local communities to take the lead. Howard-Brook, who teaches theology and biblical studies at Seattle University, believes the Occupy movement has succeeded in framing the conversation.
"They have done a great job naming, with much prophetic power, the evils, and injustices of our corporate economy and political reality,” the religious scholar said. “In practical terms, for today’s movement, this means seeking change not via government or expecting the corporations themselves to be other than what they are [by law and by practice], but to form communities that embody radically different economic principles, as we hear in the gospels.”
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