I live and work a block away from the tent city that has sprung up next door to Wall Street, and so I walk through the middle of their encampment several times a week. At first, I rolled my eyes along with many other passersby: the extreme and raggedly disorganized range of complaint made many say, “What aren’t they protesting!?”
But the longer I have paid attention, the more I have noticed.
The protesters represent one end of a larger spectrum, intentionally exposed, and like St. Francis, they are choosing extreme action to make a point. They are the injured knee with torn ligaments that is screaming in unbearable, inarticulate pain. The knee doesn’t know how to fix its tear, but it knows how to draw attention to a problem that affects the whole. They have drawn attention by the means they have.
The striking thing about the larger demonstrations that happen every several days around the hardcore protestors is how Normal the participants appear - there are students and teachers and priests and ironworkers and office workers. They actually have a pretty clear and focused message: There are deep but resolvable cracks in our system of governance, which has artificially rigged the possibility of extreme profit at the expense of the greater good. The most articulate spokesmen identify a single, most pressing need for action: that Congress reinstate HR1489, the GLASS-STEAGALL ACT, set up in 1933 and repealed in 1999, removing conflict of interest safeguards between investment and commercial banks (this doesn’t make for vivid evening news video-clips, so you’ll have to Google/Wikipedia it.)
Standing right next to the craziest demands (abolish all government) are extremely articulate proponents for the rule of law and the rights of citizens, and I have seen the most brilliant community organizing taking place, where a “preacher” is using repeat-after-me call and response to send a memo to thousands gathered, relaying plans to link together the best next ideas of groups gathering in other cities. The protesters’ current purpose as part of a living organism - the screaming knee - seems clear to me: it is to draw attention to a problem many of us are aware of, even deeply affected by, which we are waiting for a “them” to do something about. In part, they are calling attention to our own abdication.
One of the taglines most seen and heard on the street is “We are the 99 percent.” It has an unintended double-entendre. It points to the supermajority who are suffering the systemic manipulation by ruthless profiteers, but it also points to the fact that we are all complicit in creating (and resolving) what ails us. And from my perspective it doesn’t go far enough: We are the 100 percent.
I write and preach regularly that in God’s economy there is only an “us,” and whenever we fall back to us-and-them thinking, we are contributing to a powerful but failed system that Jesus came to tip into collapse. Jesus in his Resurrection, steps beyond death and creates a new dimension. There is no retribution for his killers, how could there be? – he has just stepped into larger life where the only message can be: ‘Come on, join in the party.’ Any act of scapegoating - it’s their fault; this one is to blame - feeds the old death-bound beast. Making something new is making something together - receiving something together from a God who gives all.
Pretty as it sounds, it’s never smooth; there is huge upheaval and conflict along the way to larger life; there are huge risks and uncertainties, and there’s always the underbelly of human fear and insecurity that all of us strive to overcome. Jesus is pretty patient, since it’s taking us awhile to get it.
Trinity Church stands at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street, where the country’s formative revolution swirled around its feet and through its doors, and it has spent more than 300 years learning how to be part of the 100 percent. We have built deep relationships with all of lower Manhattan, and our new neighborhood center, Charlotte's Place, is providing pastoral care and respite to our new neighbors while we are discussing how to convene meaningful conversations among people of radically diverging viewpoints.
None of us fully understands what’s going on right now, or where it will go next, but we are confident in our role: listening, convening, listening some more, speaking the challenge of Good News, and keeping our doors wide open in the middle of the whole mess of humanity. This is not a wishy-washy stance. We speak, listen, challenge, convene, and converse with the 100 percent as an anchor, not as a compromise or for lack of conviction.
That is an often-uncomfortable place to stand, but it’s very solid.