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.