This American Spring

Here in Washington, the winter is over. Cherry blossoms are in bloom, birds are singing, and folks in my neighborhood are already mowing their lawns. Spring is always a joyous time, a relief after several months of darkness and cold. It is as if the world had fallen asleep, and is just now waking up.

This spring is particularly special. We just marked six months since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. The Occupy movement was an autumn counterpart to the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East last year. We sought to participate in a living, grassroots democracy where each person has a voice, regardless of the size of our wallets. Yet even as we occupied public spaces across North America and the world, we knew that the fall was just the beginning. Even greater things were in store for the American Spring.

Now, spring has arrived. What does this American Spring look like? In a word: different. The initial groundswell of spontaneous demonstrations, encampments and direct action is giving way to new strategies and tactics. Encampment, street protest and rallies – these all have a place in our toolkit. But in Occupy 2.0, we are working to develop organization that can sustain a long-term movement for justice. The American Autumn was an expression of our passionate refusal to cooperate with unjust structures, and the American Spring is about developing positive alternatives to those structures. We are not merely protesting – we are organizing.
One of the most common critiques of the Occupy movement this fall was that we refused to have “demands.” Rather than attempt to promulgate a list of policy positions for the movement, we focused on a very simple message: “A small group of wealthy individuals and giant corporations are dominating civic life and political expression, and we will accept nothing less than the restoration of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” This was exactly the right tone to set in the fall. It was a stroke of collective genius that we did not attempt to nail down specific policy objectives to deliver to lawmakers. That would have played right into the hands of a corrupt system that has long experience in dealing with idealistic troublemakers.
As we emerge into the American Spring, our simple message of economic democracy has resonated throughout the culture. Talk of “the ninety-nine percent” and “economic inequality” has become a staple of our public discourse, and the Occupy movement is part of the national narrative. The work of the American Autumn is complete. Occupy 1.0 was successful in delivering our very simple message of grassroots democracy and economic justice. Now comes the hard part. It is no longer enough to sound the alarm about the threats facing our democracy and the lives of ordinary working people. Those with ears to hear have gotten that message. The time has come to mobilize for specific objectives and concrete victories.

The Occupy Church is embracing the American Spring by focusing on a few areas where we believe we can make a real difference. One example is our partnership in foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes DC. Working alongside homeowners and tenants in Prince George’s County, we have already helped to ensure that Bertina Jones – an accountant, grandmother, and pillar in her family and community – will be able to stay in her home, despite the unjust dealings of Bank of America and Freddie Mac. And we are just getting warmed up. Our ultimate goal is to build a base of ordinary citizens who are equipped to stand up to predatory banks.

Another way we are moving forward is by developing materials to help congregations, organizations and denominations invest their funds in institutions that do not exploit the poor. We are in the early planning stages of a program to equip the Christian community to engage in stockholder activism, and to move its money out of the most exploitative banks and into local banks and credit unions.

One unique way that Occupy Church is participating in the American Spring is through the development of a theological basis for this movement. As Christians, we feel called to participate in the Occupy movement because of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who began his earthly ministry by declaring that he had come to bring good news to the poor. We understand the Jubileetradition of debt forgiveness as being central to Jesus’ message. As we develop a scriptural understanding of how God is at work in the lives of the poor, we are discovering how the Holy Spirit calls us to the work of reconciliation and economic justice. In addition to individual writing and study, we are exploring whether Occupy Church might release a declaration outlining our sense of how the Spirit is speaking to the churches in our present context.

If the American Autumn was about raising awareness, the American Spring will be a time of building on that basic awareness and moving into a positive program for change. While Occupy 1.0 was primarily centered in public encampments, the next phase of this movement is playing out in offices and living rooms, coffee shops and schools. This spring, we are rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty in the messy business of grassroots organizing.

We are just getting started. The events of the last six months have raised up countless new leaders with a huge range of experience, skills and spiritual gifts. This spring, we will begin the process of nurturing these emerging leaders, equipping ourselves for the work that God is calling us into. We know from first-hand experience that the Lord calls the most unlikely of people to do God’s work in the world. As unworthy as we are, we in the Occupy Church pray that Christ will walk beside us and teach us how live into this calling. We trust in his promise that he will never leave us, even as he invites us into work that we are incapable of doing on our own.

What is your sense of our next steps as a movement for economic justice and freedom? What are some concrete actions you feel called to this spring? How can we move into this American Spring, embracing a long-term struggle to make visible the Reign of God?