It’s difficult to know where to begin reporting on the #Occupy Empire mini conference that took place at Eastern Mennonite Seminary back in April. Though the conference was short, there was nothing “mini” about the content lined up by the conference planners, Brian Gumm and Aaron Kauffman. Thus what I offer here is a reflection on the themes that stood out to me. Others might have noticed different threads woven throughout the weekend, or simply have been alert and listening carefully during those moments when I distracted by refilling my coffee mug. I won’t pretend to hit on every single presenter and every important theme that was brought up. This is simply what challenged me, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the conference.
The weekend began with a worship service on Friday evening. Isaac Villegas preached a sermon on Isaiah 64 and John 5 which went right to what I would consider to be the heart of any discussion of empire: power. We were reminded us that Jesus doesn’t take hold of power. That, in fact, when the people come to make him king, he withdraws to the mountain. Jesus won’t be a rival king, rather, he came to cut off the king’s head, to inaugurate power without a king. Villegas noted that this is a passage that early anabaptists used to explain nonviolence in the Schleitheim Confession. The point being, it seems, that nonviolence isn’t only about killing, but about power. When he is offered power, Jesus flees.
The Occupy movement, then, provides a helpful lens for anabaptists thinking about empire, and our relationship to power. It has been called a leaderless movement. It’s about questioning hierarchy and institutional structure. Specifically, it’s about questioning the institutions invested in maintaining uneven distributions of power. Throughout the conference, I was reminded again and again that this isn’t just about the government and how we relate to it — it’s about the church, about our own internal struggles with how power is — or isn’t — distributed.
As Villegas noted in his sermon, in our story the king dies on a cross. And so the question for us is, how will we be a people without a king?
Chris Haw’s talk, which followed immediately after the worship service, provided an interesting contrast to Villegas’ sermon, as he detailed his own changing opinions, from anarchist, anabaptist leanings to Catholic conversion. Haw spoke movingly about the need to break out of the “rebel mindset” of protest and rebellion, and instead asked whether Christians might seek stability by engaging and working for public, civic good. No one, Haw rightly noted, is exempt from corruption. Still, I would question whether this frees us from the hard work of discerning whether we can or should commit to certain institutions. And while the church in all its many traditions has a troubled history of corruption and dissent, I found myself concerned that the implication was that therefore one ought to embrace Catholicism without regard for significant theological and ecclesial concerns, as if we can somehow imagine and return to a pristine unified church, allowing those differences to melt away. The differences matter. Put another way, do we embrace hierarchy — and our place on the ladder — instead of fleeing the offer of power?
In his response to Haw’s talk, Peter Dula noted that it was helpful to have someone speaking at the conference who wasn’t going to pander and praise us as anabaptists, the way others sometimes do. The push back was useful, clarifying, I would say. Yet one of the most thought provoking things Dula said in his response was framed as an aside. He observed that a trend seems to have developed, of men becoming interested in converting to Catholicism as they age. While Dula didn’t make this the center of his response, I found it raised important questions, and clarified my concerns about Haw’s talk from a sociological standpoint. For one thing, I couldn’t help but ask why we don’t see such a trend among women. Who is or isn’t welcomed by and comfortable with such an institution? In any case, the main point I drew from Dula’s response was this: “We are the 99%” is an invitation to imagine yourself downward. This might be an interesting conversation to have with some nuns.
Day two of the conference began with Nekeisha Alexis-Baker’s talk on race and and the nation state. She discussed the role of race in naturalizing the idea of the nation, and in maintaining borders. She drew attention to the point that, when we have debates about “immigration” in this country, it’s not really about immigration. Europeans can immigrate here without problems. The debate, she said, is about whether certain brown people are going to “pollute” our society. So, rather than a question of immigration it is a matter of what people think must be done to maintain order in society, and who poses a threat to our perceived stability. Alexis-Baker noted, also, that there is a lack of understanding about how race functions beyond the interpersonal, beyond how I relate to my friends and neighbors to structural racism. We want the government to maintain order with policies, to regulate things, without working through the reality that the nation state perpetuates racial injustice. Part of the issue seems to be that we have trouble facing that the racist nation state is so totalizing. As Carl Stauffer noted in his response to Alexis-Baker, the posture of the church is one of resisting centralization. Not, I would note, maintaining the stability of the existing nation state.
The point that was emphasized during the discussion of Alexis-Baker’s talk and Stauffer’s response was that it’s not about pitting activism against suspicion of the nation state, but keeping our “anti-racism antennas” up. Certainly social organization is necessary. The Occupy movement is a great example of this; it is nonhierarchical, but it is also highly organized. It has to be to function, I imagine. So, perhaps we ought ask ourselves, do we have examples like this in the way we do church? It was asserted at one point during our discussion at the conference that a certain concentration of power in inevitable, but inevitability seems to be a poor way of doing church. Might anabaptist witness in — but not off — the empire be about resisting the inevitable?
What we see in Occupy is an intentional effort to imagine power differently, which brings me to the question that troubled my mind all weekend: Why is it so hard to imagine non-hierarchical forms of organization? To think about forms of social and political organization where the power structure is flat? We’re anabaptists, for goodness sake. The consensus model of decision making that Occupy practices sounds pretty familiar to me. And yes, it’s slow, it’s messy, and it’s certainly not the inevitable path decision making usually takes. Bethany Tobin’s presentation highlighted this well, as her discussion of art and inefficiency challenged us to think of the inefficiency of worship.
Put another way, what Occupy can teach us about ourselves? In the conference session with Occupy Harrisonburg, Paulette Moore described the movement as an articulation, an invitation, a permission, a process for becoming awake, and finally, a sacred physical space where we figure things out together. Occupy, she said, is “Not a leaderless movement, but a movement of leaders.” As I listened to Moore, and the other Occupy Harrisonburg folks who joined her, I wondered, what we do when our vision of the church — our understanding of hierarchy and power, decision making and organization — looks a lot like the very empire we’re supposedly occupying.
In processing the distinctions between these different speakers, I also wondered if part of the key is to make sense of the difference between occupying and merely rebelling. How do we occupy the world, as anabaptists? I think Haw made an excellent point about rebellion, at least insofar as it’s not about rebellion for rebellion’s sake. But to occupy the empire, and live differently within it — that is something else, something deeper than mere rebellion.
Moore discussed the Occupy movement’s practice of speaking others’ words instead of using amplification, and the way that this forces us to listen to one another. Thinking back to Villegas’s sermon at the beginning of the conference, the question remains: how will we be a people without a king? Whose voices will we follow?