Last week I went to Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, my alma mater, for an Occupy Faith National Conference, a three-day gathering of people from various faith traditions who support the Occupy movement. I met people from all over the country, including New York, where the Occupy Faith movement started in response to the Occupy Wall Street encampment. We were hosted by people from the Interfaith Tent of Occupy Oakland. We visited Oscar Grant Plaza one evening and led an Interfaith service that was well-received by the people there.
I arrived at the Occupy Faith conference with a question in mind: Is there a good reason to organize a distinct group made up of people of faith to support the aims of the Occupy movement? Or is it enough to support and participate (or not) as individuals who are informed by our various faith perspectives? I am convinced that the Spirit is present in Occupy and is a motivating force in compassionate actions and in nonviolent struggles for justice wherever they may take place.
But I have come to the conclusion that organized Interfaith coalitions can make unique contributions to Occupy and to the overall movement for social, economic, and environmental justice. We can serve priestly, pastoral, and prophetic functions in ways that further the effectiveness and credibility of the movement as a whole. If these terms turn people off, let me explain:
By “priestly” I do not mean promoting religious hierarchy or favoring particular religious traditions, but rather invoking and acknowledging the presence of the holy in the struggle for a more compassionate world. At the Occupy Faith event, symbols of various faith traditions adorned the tents that were placed around the altar. A Native American woman welcomed us to the land of the Ohlone, and a Buddhist centered us with a gong to invite us into silence. A rabbi blew the shofar, a Wikkan invoked the power of the four directions, and I led us in singing the New Testament-based spiritual “Eyes on the Prize.” Not all at once, of course, but at various openings, closings, and transition points along the way. It was also acknowledged throughout that some people are “spiritual but not religious.”
By “pastoral,” I mean compassionate listening, supporting people who are struggling, and offering prayers with them and on their behalf. For instance, many Occupy groups around the country are involved in supporting people whose homes are being illegally seized by big banks. (No, people don’t just “lose” their homes as if they have to look around to find out where they went. We know where they went.) Interfaith coalitions can offer personal support and provide a place for deep listening and sharing that can help heal the shame that comes from feeling alone in such painful and unjust circumstances. Ministries with people who are oppressed by the economic system are already a part of many faith traditions, and we who are connected with Occupy are in a unique position to link such ministries with the movement for justice.
By “prophetic” I mean analyzing and interpreting current events from the perspective of different faith traditions, as an antidote to the dominant culture’s focus on the goals of instant gratification, financial success, and worldly power. Most spiritual traditions call adherents to a life of simplicity, compassion, and just dealings with our fellow human beings and all parts of creation. As we share insights we can gain new perspectives about where we are as a human family and where we need to be. And in those places where we agree our voices will be amplified as together we speak truth to power.
At the Occupy Faith conference we decided on a national action based on New York Occupy Faith’s proposal for an Economic Truth Commission. We will be working out details, but it will include the following elements: 1) The gathering of stories of individual victims and survivors of the current economic disaster and the story of how this economic disaster came about; 2) An economic truth telling bus tour to various cities to highlight these stories and their significance; and 3) A national day of action in Washington, DC on January 21, 2013, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the third anniversary of the Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision. More will be decided as details and funding get worked out through a smaller committee we convened at the conference.
I came home thinking that there are good reasons to form an Interfaith coalition here in Nevada County so we can consider together what we can contribute uniquely to the struggle for a peaceful, just, and sustainable world at this time when people are realizing what is at stake and are rising up. I also plan to stay in touch with the Occupy Faith network, and to support our joint efforts through that network in any way I can.
Interfaith coalitions can help move us toward a way of being that leaves religious conflict behind and manifests justice and harmony in the world. It can also demonstrate, as the Occupy movement in its best moments does, that “another world is possible.”