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Occupy Together: Living Humanly

By: Cara Curtis
Published: October 25, 2011

Interfaith Tent sponsored by Quakers at Occupy Philly

Note: Here is a guest blog post by Cara Curtis, on the living experiment that is the Occupy Together movement.  - Lucy

My hope for the Occupy movement is that we continue to live humanly.  It has taken me a little while, though, to arrive at this articulation.

The first time that I visited Occupy Philadelphia, I found myself drawn to the physical space—called to stay and chat, to hold signs, to be with the other people around me—despite the litany of other activities I had planned for the day.  It was not so much the messages carried by the other occupiers and myself, though I felt them deeply, but rather, the texture and the tenor of living that was taking place.  The respect, care, and excitement shown in every detail of the be-ing: the family area bustling with colorful children and their toys, the concern at General Assembly for all to feel welcome participating, the food table with plentiful snacks. It was as if my spirit wanted simply to stay in this place, was drawn magnetically to this awkward little village.

From somewhere on high, wherever in the Universe his spirit now dwells, I imagine that the great Christian ethicist William Stringfellow is looking down and saying, “Well, of course it was!”  It has been in the weeks since this first encounter with Occupy that I have also become acquainted with Stringfellow, who bravely and unapologetically preaches the inherently fallen state of America and other “powers and principalities” in his 1973 book, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.  The timing of these introductions was truly, for me, an act of grace.

In the days and weeks (and months and years, deep down) prior to Occupy, I had begun to feel acute difficulty in imagining myself as anything other than a slave and an enslaver.  In the food I ate, the clothes I bought and wore, the technology I used to communicate, and the transportation I took, there was nothing but inevitable enslavement of multiple sets of human beings—and the earth.  This fact was inescapable; I felt enslaved by it and all of the other injustices in which I am continually implicated by participating in this nation.  Stringfellow has a word for this ugliness that hangs over us in our interactions with the institutions of this world: death.  In his language, I joined the Occupy movement because I could no longer stand to participate only in demonic (literally “death-full”) institutions.  I needed to also be part of something that said “yes” to human life.

For Stringfellow, the Bible is none other than an explicitly political document; America and all nations are best viewed biblically if we wish to understand their function in the world.    In fact, Stringfellow looks at all institutions—indeed, all Creation—as fallen, which is to say, imperfect and marked by alienation from God. Institutions are “creatures” just like animals and plants; all will ultimately die, but in the meantime their ultimate allegiance is to their own survival.  As such, all institutions are marked by death in its various forms, and powerful nations in particular are susceptible to fulfilling the apocalyptic biblical archetype of Babylon.  (For a fuller, much more nuanced, and certainly less clunky version of this set of ethics, please do read An Ethic for Christians.)

Now, if you think this seems a bit depressing: it is.  Stringfellow goes so far as to say that there is “no hope” for America, or indeed, any other nation.  Not only will demons always be with us; we will in fact never succeed in making America the holy and just nation we all wish it could be.  We’re never really going to win.  As a woman and someone who believes deeply in the power of creativity and generation, I have a bit of a hard time accepting this as gospel.  I just don’t feel like I’d be faithful to people like Audre Lorde and Iyanla Vanzant if I didn’t say that—and yet the man is onto something.  So moving forward, I’d invite us to invite Stringfellow into our “basket of truths,” those we find to strike a chord with human experience, discordant and yet all providing pieces of the puzzle.

And anyway, Stringfellow says the insurmountable fallenness of the world’s institutions is not really the point.  So let’s just go with him on that for a minute.  The “biblical response” to the question of what then to do, how to live, how to hope, is that “hope is known only in the midst of coping with death.”  To resist death incarnate in small and seemingly insignificant actions is the only way to live humanly in this world.  Jerusalem does exist on earth, albeit scattered throughout in tiny pieces, and it is the duty of humans to seek it, discern it, and lift it up.  To live humanly in the midst of the Fall.

The Occupy movement is doing this. Now granted, just like any other institution or movement that has come into being, it is fallen and imperfect.  There is much work to be done to ensure that people of color feel like the occupations are “theirs” as much as (perhaps more than)  anyone else’s.  There’s sometimes an awkward dynamic between the young, often privileged white occupiers (of whom I am one) and the working-class police forces that are obligated to deal with us.  And we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the winter, or once the warmth of the new movement has given way to inevitable human squabbles.

None of this precludes the fact that the Occupy movement is—right now—a movement to live humanly.  By its very practices, its “means,” we can see that it is a movement in which affirming fellow humanity is the number one priority.  When we listen and give hand signal feedback during General Assembly, when we drop off or eat of the many donations at the food tent, when we greet a stranger who sits next to us at the poster-making station, when we play with and speak to the children who run about, we add small stones to the foundation of an affirming movement.  We are saying “yes” to one another even as we are compelled to also say “yes” to the many fallen institutions in which we are entangled.  This, I believe, is where lies the true hope of the Occupy movement.

The drumbeat of criticism towards Occupy has been that it does not have concrete demands, clarity of message, or “actionable goals” in the beloved speak of non-profits everywhere.  Stringfellow as I understand him would not harbor this concern; indeed, quite the opposite.  We can see this in his ambivalence to the classical idea of “revolution,” which as he saw it, tended towards inefficacy because of a “reliance upon the very same moral authority as the regime or system which it threatens to overthrow and succeed—death.”  Nation begets nation; trauma begets trauma; our task as Christians and as humans is not to perpetuate this cycle, however just we believe our aims to be.  Rather, our task is to live as “aliens” in this world, to as often as we can say “yes” to humanity and “no” to the idolatry of institutions, and to trust that our light calls to and inspires the light in others.  (Piece of cake, am I right?)

So as we in the Occupy movement gather our momentum towards goals and directions and cohesion and institutionalization—an inevitable and not unworthy step—let us not forget this task. Let us accept that all movements, like all institutions, have flaws, but let us continue to act first with discernment towards sensing the humanity, the Light, the Jerusalem that is to be found all around us in sparks and glimmers.  Let us continue to live humanly.  It is what our spirits desire; it is how we will retain sanity in the chaos; and if we invite Stringfellow into the basket of truths we hold, it is our best and only defense.

About the Author

Cara Curtis

Cara Curtis is a lifelong Quaker who currently lives and worships in West Philadelphia.   She is a listener, sometimes writer, researcher, woman-encourager, triathlon finisher, mashed potato maker, Frisbee player, and believer in stories.  She is currently participating in the Word and World mentoring program and was one of the editors of Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices, published by Friends General Conference.  Cara is unsure of where life will take her in the next several years and is trying to remember that that’s okay.