First Anabaptist conference on Occupy movement plus American Spring

This spring will see the first Mennonite conference on the Occupy movement (at least that I’m aware of). The Anabaptist Missional Project will be hosting #Occupy Empire: Anabaptism in God’s Mission at Eastern Mennonite Unversity on April 13-14,. They have an impressive line-up of Anabaptist-minded peace and justice activists and thinkers: Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, Janna Hunter-Bowman, Isaac Villegas and Chris Haw.

The last speaker to be announced was Paulette Moore, one of the leaders of Occupy Harrisonburg. Moore is a documentary film maker, a professor at EMU and one of the writers at the Occupy Harrisonburg blog. She’s been involved with the group since the beginning.

“We definitely started out with the use of the word [Occupy] as an appropriation and a creative theological reinterpretation,” said Brian Gumm, one of the two organizers of the conference. “Before Paulette was on the schedule, we didn’t have explicit references to the movement itself. So by adding Paulette’s voice and the experience of the local movement here, we can make that connection explicity and have a more robust, multi-voiced conversation about Occupy.”

Gumm described some of the ways in which he and co-organizer, Aaron Kauffman, played with appropriating and re-interpreting the word: “How do we Occupy the world faithfully as Christians?” and “There’s a way in which the Kingdom of God is increasingly Occupying us.”

It’s clear that presenters will be working with the concept of Occupy in a variety of ways. Isaac S. Villegas is interested in the political and economic dimensions of the movement. “The Occupy movement has become viral, jumping from city to city, country to country. This conference in Harrisonburg shows how Occupy can’t be restricted to a place, a territory.” said Villegas, who is pastor at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, “People on the streets have set in motion a movement that is now occupying our Christian discourse, occupying our minds, and hopefully shifting our attention to the injustice of economic systems that redistribute the wealth in our communities for the benefit of a few.”

Villegas quotes from Augustine of Hippo, as quoted by 16th century Anabaptist: “A Christian is a distributor… not a lord; and by divine right all things should be in common.”

“The Occupy movement is all about what counts as common, as belonging to the all of us, which resonates with some parts of our story as Anabaptists,” said Villegas. Villegas teaches classes in prisons with Project TURN, a New Monasticism-related initiative.

The conference will also reflect on the distinctive Anabaptist responses to violence and empire.

“I’m looking forward to a sharing with other Christians with an Anabaptist imagination committed to a lived faith,” said Janna Bowmans, PHD student at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “In particular I’m interested in exploring how armed groups and the international community might be ‘converted’ by the outward shape of faith community witness in situations of armed conflict.”

Bowman spent eight years working in Colombia with JUSTAPAZ, a ministry of the Mennonite Church of Colombia.

Nekeisha Alexis-Baker is is the co-founder of Jesus Radicals and is an anti-racist organizer within the Mennonite church. In a recent article on the site, Alexis-Baker wrote, “I believe in being discerning and critical, dissecting and challenging. I believe in holding our sacred cows, including all our movements, ideas, practices and even Web sites, up to a critical and illuminating light that pushes us and others to go deeper into the work of resisting interpersonal, social, ecological, economic, systemic and other evil.”

Chris Haw is one of the founders of Camden House, one of the seminal communities of the New Monasticism movement (see this 2005 Christianity Today article for more) and co-author of Jesus for President

Gumm explaiend that they have structured the conference around emerging leaders in the Mennonite church and the broader Anabaptist movement. He described it as”a big tent Anabaptist conversation” include Haw, a Catholic who has been inspired by John Howard Yoder. The formal respondents to the plenary session are Mennonite elders and mentors. For the three keynotes the formal respondents are EMU professors: Peter Dula, chair of Bible and religion department; Mark Thiessen Nation, professor of theology at EMS; and Carl Stauffer, assistant professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU. Two local pastors will form a listening committee for the conference and will reflect back a synthesis of what they heard in the final worship.

For those who can’t attend, Gumm said there would be blogs and possibly podcasts sharing content from the conference.

Occupy Movement’s American Spring

The weekend leading up to the first day of spring saw the beginning of the Occupy movement’s “American Spring.” On March 17, the six month anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street, hundreds gathered in Zucotti park for a celebration in the afternoon and evening and then were met by an aggressive police response. Occupy activist Max Berger describes the scene for the Huffington Post. A video from the Associated Press is a brief window in the police attacks on protesters and their response:

I can’t help seeing a shift in tone in the woman yelling at the end of the video (while being held back by other protesters). She expresses an anger and frustration that has grown over the past six months as the Occupy movement has watched police move in with clubs and pepper spray time after time, in city after city.

I remember the friendliness towards police in Occupy Chicago in the first few weeks in October. They saw the police as part of the 99 percent. But the tune has gradually shifted as they’ve seen their friends and fellow activists abused by police. This weekend’s attacks by police in New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles will likely set the tone for a series of Occupy rallies over the coming weeks, including the Chicago Spring on April 7.

Comments (4)

  1. Tim B

    I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Eugene Oregon. It’s gotta be one of the most liberal/progressive places in the country. It’s like a Grateful Dead Concert happened here in 1974 and none of the fans ever left. A couple months ago I decided to catch up with some of the Occupy Eugene Protesters/Campers and see why they were Occupying Eugene.

    I went to the camp. I had no questions pre-planned or anything. The Occupy Movement doesn’t have “leaders” nor a Plan of Action or anything so it made planning difficult.

    I caught up with Gary, a young twenty-something with dirty blond dreadlocks and a blue handkerchief around his neck walking with his girlfriend and some other guy at Occupy camp in Washington-Jefferson Park.

    Me: So, Gary, why are you here?
    Gary: At Occupy Eugene?
    Me: Yes, here at Occupy camp.
    Gary: We’re here, all of us here [he motions to the fifty or so tents set up in the park] to show those corporate clowns that we’re not going to take it anymore. [his friend quietly clapped and smiled. His girlfriend laughed. Gary pulled a pack of Camels and quickly lit one up.]
    Me: So, you have an issue with Corporate greed?
    Gary: Exactly. The big corporations have, like, all the money and stuff. [He took a big puff off his smoke] You know, and we get saddled with all this student debt.
    Me: Right. Understood. So you are tired or feeling powerless against the big corporations?
    Gary: Yeah, they destroy the planet and stuff. [Garys friend quietly excused himself to urinate behind some playground equipment]
    Me: So you’re concerned about the environment?
    Gary: Exactly, all these big companies just [expletive] ruin, like, everything.
    Me: Right. Gotcha. So, have you helped Occupy Eugene do anything? How have you fought against greed and injustice?
    Gary: Well, we’re here. And we clean up the park. Like, pick up the litter and stuff to show we can be good to the park. [Gary’s girlfriend pulled out a bag of Doritos]
    Me: Well, that’s good. Where’s all the grass??
    Gary: Grass? Dude, smoked it all this morning. [he laughed]
    Me: No, no. Not that grass. In the park. The grass in the park, where is it?
    Gary: I guess, you know, it’s crowded. It’s all just mud now.
    Me: So, will Occupy still let citizens use the park?
    Gary: Sure. I guess. Haven’t seen many people lately coming to visit the park.
    Me: Do you think that’s due to the guy that was killed here in December?
    Gary: No. That was a one time thing. Most people are cool.
    Me: How about the bare-chested women on the news who had “Cunt” spelled out on their chests? What’s that’s all about?
    Gary: That happened?!?! I totally missed bare-chested chicks! [his girlfriend smacks him]
    Me: Hmmm…Back to the park. Do you think you’ve made the park…better?
    Gary: Well, I mean, that’s not the point, really.
    Me: Well, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. What is the point?
    /end alternate reality

    All of this sort of occurred. Passing by Occupy Eugene in December I noticed all the signs against the 1%ers. Then I noticed an endless amount of Coleman tents, occupiers smoking, Doritos and Coke bottles and the ruined park. And it occurred to me that it was all really hogwash, wasn’t it? It’s a movement with no goals or ideals, no plan of action, no wants or needs. It is, perhaps, aimless class warfare. People may have a right to be angry, if only they could tell me what they are actually angry about.

    Reply
  2. Tim B

    You know, what hope does the Occupy Movement have to offer if they can’t even take care of one park? Here they are, with no demands, no policies, nothing. Just class warfare and anger, and all over the country they couldn’t keep their own areas clean and safe. Make fun of the Tea Party all you want, no one has ever died at one; they’ve never completely trashed any site they’ve held a rally at. Whereas all over the country local municipalities are still cleaning up the disaster Occupy left for them. And that’s after those municipalities provided lighting, security, port-a-johns, waste removal, and other services to those encampments. Who got left with the bill?

    Reply
  3. shak el

    Tim B. you really need to stop watching Faux news. Your overgeneralizing which is a logically fallacy. And i am sure if you looked at the accounts that some elderly person dropped dead of a heart attact at some TP rally. People die all of the time if you get a big enough group. Occupy has made demands and suggestions for policy which would have been apparent if you took the time and visited their websites.

    Reply
  4. Tim B

    I don’t watch Fox News. Occupy has no leadership. They have no policies or demands that the group as a whole has bought in to.

    Reply

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