Archive for September 2011

Occupying Wall Street

On our way to Liberty Square, we passed Ground Zero. Hundreds of people were gathered, less than a block from where the Twin Towers fell. They were socializing, reading, delivering impromptu speeches, or huddled together over the makeshift media center composed of perhaps a dozen laptops and other devices and connected to a whirring electrical generator.

The noise was intense, and the whining generator and tumult of voices was the least of it. City traffic on either side of the park blasted sound – the rumble of buses loaded with tourists; the honk of car horns and the squealing of brakes. Above all there was the roar of construction. Where the Twin Towers once stood, workers made haste, filling the gap in the New York skyline. The echoing clatter of metal on metal. It was often a challenge to understand the words of those next to you.

This cacophony lent an air of chaos to the already loosely-organized occupation in Liberty Square. First thing, we checked in with folks at an information desk on the west side of the park. “We’re here to sign up!” one of my companions announced. The young men at the info desk suggested that we could get involved with a committee, but encouraged us to look around and get a feel for things first. So, we moseyed.

It took us hours before we figured out how to participate actively in the occupation. At first, we simply mingled, ate, and watched the spectacle. For some reason, our first hours at the occupation were particularly “spectacular.” While most of the occupiers seemed like pretty ordinary citizens, there were a few hyped-up individuals who were running around giving impassioned, incoherent speeches. There were also a few nay-sayers who came to debate the occupiers.

There were lots of cameras. Mostly independent media, but I saw some local television stations, Russia Today, and even a brief visit from FOX News. Add to that the tourists who stopped to take pictures of the occupation, and there sometimes seemed to be more photographers than subjects. Eventually, a march was announced. We eagerly joined in, happy to finally be able to actively participate in some way. We wound through the streets of lower Manhattan, eventually walking down Wall Street itself.

The aspect of the march that most stood out to me was the luxury that we passed on our way. We passed a tobacconist, where wealthy men puffed on cigars and laughed at us from behind thick glass. We walked by up-scale shops where neckties were on sale next to horse saddles, and wristwatches worth more than my family’s annual income were available to those who could afford them.

It was eye-opening to be in the presence of the ruling class of this country. I get a lot of exposure to middle class – even wealthy middle class – individuals, but what I saw on Wall Street was of a different order. Some of them mocked us. There were cries of “take a shower!” or “get a job!” They took pictures of us and laughed as we passed.

Not everyone on Wall Street was a member of the elite, of course. It was fascinating to watch the difference in reaction between the ruling class and the working class people who were there to serve them. We got a standing ovation from the workers at Starbucks, and many working class people showed their support. Middle class folks seemed to be split. Some cheered us, others ignored us, and a few insulted us.

Wall Street is an ideal place to call for deep changes in how this country operates. Wall Street is not just a symbol – it is a functioning example of how the abusive power of the corporations and big banks dominate our society and mock our democratic process. More than ever, I am convinced that we – the ninety-nine percent – must hold accountable the elite one percent.

Occupy Wall Street is a movement to restore our democracy, rejecting corporate domination of our political system. This is a movement for economic justice, insisting that one percent of the population should not control eighty percent of our wealth. This is a movement for peace, issuing a call to end the wars that our country is waging around the globe. This movement is only secondarily about policy goals. Above all, it represents an attempt to create a community and culture that questions greed and concentration of power in the hands of the few.

The occupation is spreading. Though it began on Wall Street, there are women and men across North America who are offering our nation an invitation to embrace peace, justice and compassion. The occupation in Washington, DC begins tomorrow – Saturday, October 1st – at McPherson Square. I hope that those in the area will join us.

For those who do not live in DC, I encourage you to consider participating in an occupation in your home town. There are folks mobilizing in cities across the country, and we would all benefit from your participation. This is only the beginning, and we need your voice.

While I resonate with much of what Occupy Wall Street represents, it is important for me to be honest with myself that this movement is not grounded in a commitment to Jesus Christ. The occupation is – at least at this stage – a largely secular movement. Without the deep unity that the Spirit provides, the most we can ever be is a coalition, not a body.

But I believe that there is important work for Christians to do as part of this coalition. The Holy Spirit calls us to point towards the truth, mercy and justice that Jesus offers us, and it is my prayer that this growing movement will provide an opportunity for us to begin a conversation with the wider culture. May we as the Church let our light shine, providing an example of self-emptying love that draws the world into relationship with Jesus Christ.

Being the Church on Wall Street

Early in the morning, I will be departing for New York City. I have not been there since the summer of 2001. It was a different world back then. That was before 9/11 and Afghanistan. Before the PATRIOT ACT and the invasion of Iraq. So much has changed in the ten years since I have set foot in New York City.
My country seems primed to change yet again. New York has become the epicenter for a new, grassroots movement to call America back to our ideals of peace, democracy and freedom in community.
Many of you may not have heard much about the ongoing occupation that is taking place in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street. It is a shameful fact that the corporate media have almost completely ignored a movement that has the potential to be the beginning of an American version of the “Arab Spring” that has rocked North Africa and the Middle East.
Though we as Americans are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as “exceptional,” we have a lot in common with countries around the world that are experiencing unrest as the financial system buckles under the pressure of corporate greed and lawlessness.

I do not completely identify myself with the demonstrators who have gathered on the streets of New York. I think that their analysis, process and organization is incomplete, at best. Nevertheless, I am grateful to these men and women who have taken the bold step of occupying Wall Street and demanding an end to the immoral financial and military systems that the wealthy have used to impoverish and disempower the citizens of the world.

I see lots of problems with the way the demonstrations have gone so far. There are many things that I imagine, if I were in the demonstrators’ shoes, I would want to do differently. Yet, it feels wrong to stand on the sidelines and throw stones at those people who have the courage to express their God-given sense of moral outrage. I feel compelled to join my voice with theirs, calling for a more just, compassionate and democratic society in the United States.

It feels important that we not wait for this movement to be perfect before we join in. The occupation is young and fragile, and it needs our cooperation if it is to grow into a mature and broad-based call for righteousness.

Yes, I said righteousness. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in these demonstrations, calling us to greater faithfulness and christlikeness as a country. I believe that the Church has a responsibility to stand up and offer prophetic witness as the Body of Christ.

Jesus stands against injustice and oppression. He has come to liberate those held in bondage by human greed, and to proclaim good news to the poor.(1) I pray that we as his Church will have the courage to be an embodiment of his love and justice.

As I travel to New York, my prayer is that I might be a vessel of God’s love and peace in a highly charged environment. I pray that the Holy Spirit might use me to help ground the demonstrations in the love and truth of Jesus Christ. I pray to be an embodiment of Christ’s love, and a witness to his power to transform us as a people.
Please keep me – and all of those on the streets of lower Manhattan – in your prayers. There has been a fair amount of police brutality, and while I am by no means looking for trouble, sometimes trouble finds us.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Peace be to you all.

This video gives a good introduction to the nature of the occupation on Wall Street:

1. Luke 4:16-21

Clothe Yourself in Righteousness (A Review)

Jon Watts is a Quaker musician and spoken word poet, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia as part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. In the coming days, he is releasing his fourth album, Clothe Yourself in Righteousness. I was blessed to have Jon ask me to review his album.

But first, a little bit of background…

As a youth, Jon says he was a cultural Quaker. He participated in Quaker camps and activities, but he was not convicted in his heart of the Truth that Friends proclaim. After high school, Jon studied at Guilford College as a part of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. It was there that he began to personally wrestle with the Friends tradition.

Jon’s time at Guilford was also the beginning of his musical career. He released two albums: Self in his sophmore year, and A Few Songs Occasioned in his senior year. Self, as the name might imply, was focused primarily on personal exploration. It was Jon’s first foray into recording, and it bore the marks of a young man in the process of finding himself in the world.
Jon’s second album was different. Composed as his senior project at Guilford, A Few Songs Occasioned rooted Jon’s exploration deeply in the world of the first generation of Friends. Jon would later say that the process of composing and producing this album was what began to convict him of the message and witness of the early Quakers. Jon became a convinced Friend.

Following college, Jon spent a year at Pendle Hill – a Quaker study center near Philadelphia – during which time he released a third album, The Art of Fully Being. This album was a more mature version of Self. It was a self-exploration for sure, but one rooted in Jon’s deepening walk with God. In The Art of Fully Being, Jon’s spiritually grounded concern for the human and natural world comes across clearly. We see the way that God has been tendering Jon’s heart, healing him of past wounds, and calling him into greater faithfulness.

Clothe Yourself in Righteousness
Jon’s fourth full album (he came out with an EP in 2009) returns again to an explicit focus on the witness of the early Quaker movement. Two of the ten songs are retellings of early Quaker ministry, and all of the tracks are infused with a raw Quaker spirituality that draws directly on the explosive witness of the earliest generation of Friends.

In Clothe Yourself in Righteousness, Jon finds a dynamic balance between past and present, self and community, spirit and flesh. This is the work of a mature artist who has received the courage to look deep inside himself and bear the Truth. Guided by the witness of Christ in his heart, Jon’s music reveals the intimacy and tenderness of God’s love.

It also reveals the radical challenge of faithfulness. While Clothe Yourself in Righteousness basks in the tender love of God, it is also unflinching in its call to risky relationship with both God and our fellow humans. This album is sometimes comforting, but it does not leave us feeling comfortable. On the contrary, Jon calls on us to sacrifice selfish comfort as we pursue the Truth. Clothe Yourself in Righteousness invites us to “get naked” – making ourselves vulnerable for the sake of love, letting the power and protection of God become our only defense.
Clothe Yourself in Righteousness is a testament of courage. God has done enormous work in Jon’s heart over the past several years, and it shows in this album. CYiR offers us an opportunity to join Jon on this journey, discovering the revealing, healing power of Christ’s light.
This is a content-rich piece of art. There are lots of words in this album, and CYiR bears listening to again and again, just to catch the nuances of his poetry. Yet, this album would not be whole without the instrumental accompaniment of guitar, violin and cello. The violin and cello in particular give CYiR an epic, soaring feel that emotionally moves and lifts the spirit.
This is not pop music; it is not meant to be background. When you buy this album, I encourage you to resist the urge to multitask. Instead, before you hit play, sit down without any distractions, and open yourself to the roughly forty minutes of ministry that this album has in store for you. I trust that the Spirit will be present.

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

“And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the Kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, ‘The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, “Lo, here!” or “Lo, there!” For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.'” – Luke 17:20-21
“Keep within. And when they say, Look here or look there is Christ, go not fourth, for Christ is within you. And those who try to draw your minds away from the teaching inside you are opposed to Christ. For the measure’s within, and the light of God is within, and the pearl is within you, though hidden.” – George Fox (1652), Adapted by Paulette Meier
The Kingdom of Heaven is not something for us to build. It is not an ideal future that we are constructing. Rather, it is a present reality that we are invited to participate in, at this very moment.
Our citizenship in this divine Kingdom is revealed by the way we relate to others. Do we brush them aside, in search of the ideal? Or do we recognize Christ’s presence in the people, places and situations that frustrate us?

Think Outside the (Quaker) Box

“Is Capitol Hill Friends a ‘programmed‘ Meeting?”
A visitor to the William Penn House asked this yesterday. We explained that Capitol Hill Friends has an hour of unprogrammed worship, but that we also eat dinner together, read the Bible and sing.
It makes sense that some Friends around here might imagine that we are a pastoral group. It is easy to divide the Quaker world into two camps – “programmed” and “unprogrammed.”(1) Often this is code for “Evangelical” and “Liberal.” Because Capitol Hill Friends is the only Quaker group in the DC area that is corporately Christian, some must think that we are a programmed, Evangelical Meeting. And from the perspective of Liberal Quakers in the DC area, I can imagine we might look pretty evangelical and “programmed”!
But at Capitol Hill Friends we see things differently. We find our primary identity neither in the Liberal nor Evangelical Quaker streams. We cannot shoe-horn our faith into either Evangelicalism or Liberalism. Instead, we seek to put our trust in the love and presence of Jesus. He is here, now, teaching us how to be his friends.
Something new is emerging at Capitol Hill Friends. It does not fit neatly into the old binaries of 20th century Quakerism. Rather than getting bogged down in fights between Liberals and Evangelicals, we are simply trying to follow Jesus. This feels risky, because he leads us to unfamiliar places. But there is freedom here, too.
Jesus releases us from the culture wars that are tearing at the fabric of the United States, including the Quaker community. Jesus sets us free from dogmatic worldviews that make us feel both secure and terribly afraid. As we lean on Jesus, we are liberated from the need to fit our lives into tidy little boxes – or to confine others to them. He uproots the seeds of war, whose roots have sunk so deep into our hearts that we hardly notice them anymore.
Rather than basing our identity on worship style, I would prefer to focus on faithfulness. Do we live in the life and power of Jesus Christ? Is our whole personality being remade in his image? Do we embody his love and justice in our communities? Does Jesus gather us together as a community, teaching us to be his friends?
1. See this brief (and oversimplified) explanation of the difference between “programmed” Friends and “unprogrammed” Friends.

Emptiness (Epistle X)

When there is emptiness inside, we do our best to fill it.
With small talk and shopping, with lofty goals and philosophies. Fill it with anything – just stop the hunger pangs of the heart!
But these things do not satisfy. Our thoughts and ambitions will not heal us. Dirty rags make poor bandages.
Try standing still. Waiting, we see ourselves: our grasping and our fear. Keep waiting. Love, rest and mercy come then – and fill us. Hope finds us.
There is power to change us. Within us – but not us – it gives peace and fulfillment. If we wait in patience.

A Thousand Miles Away – Remembering 9/11

It was just weeks into my freshman year of college in North Newton, Kansas. Eighteen years old. On the cusp of adulthood, I was brash, proud, and naïve.

I had no idea – none of us did – what that day would become. It seemed like any other. Bright. Fresh. Full of the hope and trembling of early fall in freshman year.

I remember the empty sky over Kansas. Pale blue, lightly brushed by cirrus clouds. How could it be so normal here? A thousand miles away.

For my part, I felt safe. No one would fly airplanes into my dorm. Might as well be in another country.

Many were scared, though. The towers were still burning when people began rushing to their cars. Rumors that there might be a shortage of gasoline. Though we would ask the question again and again in the following months, deep down we already knew why they hated us.

I remember my own fear, not of the terrorists, but of the president. Oh, God – will he start a nuclear war? Even more unpredictable and dangerous than a wounded animal: A wounded empire.

It all felt so surreal. It’s like a movie.

I remember the burning. Instant replays of an airliner knifing into the second tower. The smoke rising slowly above the famed New York City horizon. Woe, the great city.

I remember office documents taking flight, like butterflies dancing around the rigid towers. Life escaping the filing cabinet.

And then, seeing human beings jumping. Knowing real people were inside those burning, metallic shells. This touched the heart of even an oblivious, arrogant teenager like me. A thousand miles away.