Archive for October 2011

Bless the Police

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. – Jesus in Luke 6:27-28

After more than a month of systematic police brutality across the nation, police in Oakland, California ratched up the repression of peaceable assembly and free speech. Using tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades, police in riot gear brutally dispersed nonviolent demonstrators. Among those injured in the attacks was Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq, who was critically wounded when a police officer shot him in the head with a tear gas canister.

Here at Occupy DC, we have been extremely fortunate in our good relations with the several police services that operate in our city. Our interactions with police have been generally cordial, and we have not felt threatened in any way. The police violence that our friends in Oakland – and many other cities – are suffering stands in stark contrast to our experience here in DC.

Nevertheless, the crack-down in Oakland has struck a nerve here. We have seen images out of Oakland that make us wonder about the direction our country is choosing. For many, these images have reenforced preexisting wounds (literal and figurative) and anger surrounding police. Many of us are very angry.

This came to the surface on Wednesday night, when folks at Occupy DC rallied in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Oakland. Folks at the rally were fired up, furious about what had gone down in California. When the police arrived, some of our young men had to be physically impeded to keep them from picking fights with the officers. Lots of emotion; lots of testosterone.

As the repression of this movement grows more serious, it is crucial that we re-commit ourselves to unconditional nonviolence as a movement. The nonviolent occupations around the world are a severe challenge to the powers that be; however, any hint of violence on our part will undermine all the gains we have made. Our moral authority depends on our willingness to be struck rather than to strike; to receive injury rather than to injure. Ultimately, our authority can only be founded on truth and love.

We occupiers are really good at the “truth” part. Most of us have highly developed analyses of the problems facing our country. We do a good job at pointing out what is wrong. But love is harder. Love requires us to lay down our own selfish interests and act for the sake of others. It means seeing the reality of God’s love for others, even those who want to do us harm. Real love goes far beyond strategic nonviolence.

When we are grounded in love, we seek the spiritual and physical wholeness of every person. Love empowers us to see the broken humanity of each individual, and to have mercy on each one for Jesus’ sake. When we are living in both love and truth, we are able to stand firm in the face of violence without needing to retalitate. We recognize that the violent person is sick – alienated from the love of God – and that we are called to reach out to them with mercy.

To be loving, however, does not require us to be na├»ve. We understand that the police – and, more importantly, the powers that give them orders – are not seeking our best interests. We understand that the powers are trembling, and that they are willing to do us harm in order to maintain their privilege. We have no illusions about the ultimate allegiance of the police.

But we must love them. It has been pointed out that police are also part of the 99%. Far more important than this, police officers are also children of God. Just like us, they are in desperate need of God’s mercy and love. I pray that rather than falling into the trap of fear and hate, we will imitate Jesus who prayed for those who crucified him: “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The Emerging Kingdom

I think about emergence a lot. To emerge means new life and vitality; fragility and tenderness; new perspectives and openness. Emerging means transformation: of body, mind, spirit and community. The call to emerge is at the heart of our life as spiritual creatures.
Emergence recognizes that there is a problem; to emerge, we must emerge from something. As a member of a new Quaker church in the heart of Washington, DC, it is not hard to identify things that we are called to move out of: We witness daily humanity’s greed and lust for power; we feel the pressure to lead accelerated, over-burdened lives; we are lured by materialism and spurred by ingratitude. We are beset on all sides by attitudes, situations and structures that we know to be contrary to God’s intention, yet are unable to remedy through our own efforts.
In our context, to emerge means holding a space for transformation. In the truest sense of the word, our little church is emerging. Through our prayers and faith God is creating an opportunity for something radically different to come to life in our city. We are a becoming a channel through which the Kingdom of God can be born.

The Witness of Beauty at Occupy DC

Occupy DC received a visit last night from Quaker musician and poet Jon Watts. In the shadow of a horse-mounted General McPherson, Jon played a short set, including many of the songs from his latest album, Clothe Yourself in Righteousness. He also shared a brand new song, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Playing an impromptu concert in McPherson Square is challenging. Jon had no amplification, and was forced to compete with the chaos of police sirens, traffic noise, a nearby drum circle and repeated “mic checked” announcements from other occupiers. It took Jon a while to navigate these obstacles, and the beginning of the set was really hard. By the end, though, Jon was able to capture the mood of the crowd and speak to their hearts in a really beautiful way.
Ever since traveling to New York City almost a month ago to participate in Occupy Wall Street, it has seemed to me that what we need more than anything in this movement is beauty. The chanting of slogans has its place, but the shrill voices of street protest can never win our hearts.
Through Jon’s faithful musical witness, there were moments last night when I felt we began to discover the true Source of our unity. Jon’s poetry came alive in a new way in McPherson Square. His art emerged from the theoretical confines of digital recording and was birthed into the living struggle for love and justice.
Jon had never played for an audience like this one. He is used to playing in meetinghouses and at Quaker events, where he can count on his audience being quiet and attentive. At Occupy DC, Jon had to fight hard for people’s ears. The occupiers had to be convinced by the beauty of Jon’s message.
Many were. The music that Jon played and the words that he spoke hit home with power and depth. The challenge was greater than ever before; but so too was the reward.
I am grateful for the ministry that Christ is doing through Jon’s musical and poetic witness. I pray that the Lord will continue to bless this movement with beauty that blesses and calls us deeper into the transformation that God is asking of us.

The Occupy Movement Needs A Prophetic Church

In many ways, Jesus was alone in his mission to a confused and rebellious world. Even his own disciples did not understand his purpose. Jesus provided guidance and direction for his disciples; but he himself had no one to rely upon except his Father(1). Jesus had none of the advantages we enjoy today. As the pioneer of our faith, he blazed all the trails for us, showing us his new Way.

Since Pentecost, when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to unite and guide us, we have been able to draw on the shared wisdom, faithfulness and experience of the Church – the community of faithful believers in the world. While no longer physically with us, Jesus is present in our midst.
Weeks of intense involvement in Occupy DC have reminded me of my own need of his presence. Just as Jesus withdrew on a regular basis for prayer, I have been careful to make space for time alone with God. I seek to continously wait on the Holy Spirit to direct my steps throughout the day. But I know that I am not as strong as Jesus was. I need more than solitary prayer – I need the support of Christian community.

The Occupation is a broad movement that brings together individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, faiths and worldviews. The goals of the movement are couched in largely secular terms, and decisions are typically made based on human wisdom rather than a search for God’s guidance.

It would be easy to lose perspective in such an environment. I could easily start believing that I am in the streets to promote “democracy,” demonize the rich, or oppose capitalism. In order to stay grounded in the Truth, I need help from the community of disciples here in DC. The Church and our witness need to be the primary reference point in my life.

There are many Christians involved in Occupy DC – I discover more all the time. Nevertheless, the overall culture and worldview of the Occupy movement is a lowest-common-denominator, generally left-wing set of assumptions. So far, almost all of the discourse at Occupy DC has been about “restoring democracy,” “building power,” or the plight of “the 99%.” I have not heard anyone – including the folks whom I know are Christians – talking about the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ mission to liberate the poor and oppressed.

I pray that the Body of Christ might rise up – not only through the hidden faithfulness of thousands of individual Christians, but also through the explicit engagement of our local congregations and denominational bodies. I, and the countless other individual Christians who are already engaged in this movement need the support and guidance of the rest of the Body of Christ.

How long will we as the Church take refuge in our respectable Sunday services and lukewarm sermonizing? How long will the Church wait before we have the courage to risk our comfort in this struggle for justice? What will it take to unleash the prophetic voice of the people of God?

1. For a good example of Jesus’ isolation and reliance on his Father, see Matthew 26:36-46

Face to Face

Do we really want to know God? Or would we prefer a diety who stays at a distance? Perhaps a god to establish some ground rules, but otherwise stay out of the picture?
Do we really want to know Jesus – intimately? Do we want to know him as he truly is? What if he does not affirm the way we are living? What if his love is a consuming fire, demanding radical change in the way we think, feel, and lead our lives? What if Jesus is nothing like we expected? What if instead of peace, he brings a sword – dismembering our comfortable, self-centered lives?
Real relationship with God means surrender. Our spiritual ancestors knew this. That is why they always clamored for an intercessor, someone to stand between them and God. The Hebrews in the desert begged Moses to speak for them, rather than come face to face with the painful radiance of God’s glory. Later, they demanded a human king to rule over them.
We can deal with a man – just please, oh, please do not make us face the gaze of the Almighty!
Do we honestly want to know the Lord? Do we want to meet Jesus’ gaze and hear his voice? Are we ready for the loss of control; the life change he will demand of us; the mission he will charge us with? Will we allow Jesus to reveal himself as he truly is, not as we wish he were?

Occupying Wall Street and K Street – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #35

Dear friends in the Truth,

This month has been surprising for so many of us. The emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement in mid-September has set a chain of events in motion that is impacting our public discourse in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. This movement has already deeply affected my own life. I got involved early in the occupation in New York City, and I helped do some of the earliest organizing for Occupy DC. This has been an incredible learning experience for me, and I have been reminded of my desperate need to rely on the strength and guidance that comes from the Holy Spirit.
When I first learned of the demonstrations on Wall Street, I did not take them very seriously. But I began to take notice when I heard they were occupying a park in lower Manhattan and planned to stay indefinitely. The mainstream media – and even the alternative press – was mostly ignoring the story, so I investigated on Twitter and independent blogs. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. This, I thought, could really be a sign that America is waking up.
For people of my generation, public dissent and activism had mostly been discredited. It was something that “hippies” and irrelevant leftists did – not people who wanted to be taken seriously. Occupy Wall Street, and the numerous local movements that are popping up all over the country are changing that. For the first time that I can remember, taking to the streets seems like a viable option. We can sense life there.
As I learned more about what was happening in New York, I felt that I needed to be personally involved. I felt a sense – I believe it was a leading of God – to travel to New York and be a witness to events there. After seeing the situation in Manhattan, I was very impressed by Occupy Wall Street. Although I still had many concerns about the particulars of the movement, I felt that I needed to stay involved.
When I returned to Washington, I linked up online with some other DC-area folks who also felt the need to participate. Over the course of a few days, we gathered in an online chat room and discussed how we wanted to move forward on starting an occupation here in our hometown. We picked a start date – October 1st – and a location – McPherson Square. The night before we began, seven of us met together in person for the first time to iron out the details of the occupation’s first hours.
The occupation on K Street – home to a wide spectrum of monied interests and their lobbyists – has since grown to an occupation of hundreds of people. We now have an established media center, complete with an electrical generator; a welcome station; a food center with a makeshift kitchen; places for folks to sleep; and a regular gathering of the whole group for our business meeting, called the “General Assembly.” We are growing in numbers and in organization. We are learning how to organize ourselves as a movement.
What I find most incredible is that Occupy DC was started by a small group of regular folks. None of us who began Occupy DC had experience as professional activists. Each of us was simply a concerned citizen who wanted to make a difference. Just as remarkably, none of us knew each other beforehand. Though trust and friendship developed rapidly, none of us had any prior personal connections.(1) I am grateful for the way that God brought together such an improbable group of people to lay the groundwork for this movement in DC.
The Occupy movement continues to bring a surprising assortment of people together. We are composed of both mainstream folks and politically radical individuals. We are Christians, Jews and Muslims; we people of many faiths, as well as those who are secular. While we do not yet represent the rich cultural diversity of our city, we are committed to holding space for all people to come and let their voice be heard as we seek truth, mercy and justice together.
My reasons for being at Occupy DC are rooted in my faith in Jesus Christ. It is his proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives and sight to the blind, that calls me into this struggle for greater compassion and justice in this city, nation and planet.(2) It is his voice in my heart that calls me to stand with all of those who are standing up now for a more just and compassionate society. It is my prayer that Occupy DC will continue to develop as a movement that calls our nation to deeper love and responsibility, accepting Jesus’ invitation to lay down privilege for the sake of those who are marginalized and silenced.
As I continue to be involved in this ongoing public conversation, I ask for your prayers. Please pray that God will guide and ground me in Christ’s tenderness and truth. Let me be a witness to his perfect love that casts out all fear. Please pray for all of those who are putting their bodies on the line to help us wake up to the condition of our nation. May we find the way forward together, bonded in the peace that comes from singleness of vision and submission to God’s will.
1. Of the seven, we had two couples. They knew one another beforehand, of course!
2. Luke 4:18-19

Consensus or Truth?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its use of consensus decision-making as the basis for a “leaderless” activist community. In New York and elsewhere, the movement employs a complex process – including hand gestures, procedural rules and a whole constellation of facilitators, each charged with a particular task.
In the first days of Occupy DC, we employed a different model – a slightly modified version of Quaker decision-making. Compared to the complex process employed in New York, the Quaker-derived model was streamlined, involving only a single facilitator and her assistants. The facilitator helped gather the agenda, called on individuals who wanted to speak, and generally kept us on track.
More important than the procedural details, however, are the objectives and results of the process. As I discovered this week, the Quaker process and the New York consensus model are essentially different in the ultimate outcome that they seek. While the New York model seeks baseline consent from all participants, the Quaker model encourages participants to seek truth together, and to unite around it.
On Wednesday, some individuals at Occupy DC succeeded in convincing the community to set aside the Quaker-style process that we had been using and to adopt the New York procedure. Since then, I have been witness to the practical differences between the two models. While the modified Quaker process resulted in decisions that the whole community could unite around, the new model has resulted in polarization and unexpressed discontent. The difference lies in the ultimate objective of each process.
In the New York model, a decision is deemed acceptable when a majority of the participants agree with it, and the minority is willing to either stand aside or remain silent about their reservations. The process relies heavily on the power of peer pressure. Few people want to be seen as obstructionist; most of us will go along with decisions that are not intolerable, but which we do not consider to be the best.
In the New York process, decisions are routinely made with individuals “standing aside” from the decision. It is possible for an individual to block a decision, but blocking is only allowed in cases of a serious moral objection. To block a decision is to say, “if you do this, I must leave the group.” This sets a very high bar on dissent, and all but the most strident of individuals quickly learn to save their objections for the most extreme cases.
As I have seen in the last few days, this results in decisions that leave much of the community feeling disempowered and silenced. With the criterion for blocking a decision set so high, a small group of charismatic individuals can easily sway the group to make decisions that many – even most – do not consider optimal. No one wants to be the dissenter that holds the group back. In this context, “consensus” is a decision that no one in the group is willing to oppose outright by blocking.
The model derived from Quaker process is different. Rather than seeking such an inadequate consensus, the Quaker model asks participants to cooperate in seeking truth. The point of the exercise is not to build support for a particular viewpoint; instead, each person is invited to share their limited perspective. We trust that, as we hear what each individual can authentically say, the truth of the matter will begin to emerge. When we listen deeply to a variety of limited, human perspectives, the universal reveals itself.
In this process – so different from New York-style consensus – success is measured by the depth of unity in the group. We know that we have reached a solid conclusion when there is a deep sense of peace and settledness in the body regarding the decision we arrive at. It is not enough to assent to a decision that represents the lowest common denominator. When we listen together with patience, gentleness and receptivity, we are brought into a unity that goes far beyond consensus. We seek nothing less than the truth for the group at that time.
I understand why the New York consensus model is so tempting. Consensus does not require trust or vulnerability. Consensus allows us to fight for our own perspective, and the New York style of consensus provides a myriad of rules and regulations to ensure the rights of the individual participant. Consensus does not require us to change.
I was sad to see Occupy DC opt for the New York model of decision-making. While I sympathize with the reasons that folks would choose this path, I believe that we will be stronger if we take the risk of seeking truth rather than mere consensus. For those of us who have experienced the power that is present when a community comes fully into unity around the truth, consensus is a pale shadow.