Letter to a Seminarian from a Christian Occupier


Originally published

in Justice Unbound.

“The task of prophetic min­istry is to nur­ture, nour­ish, and evoke a con­scious­ness and per­cep­tion alter­na­tive to the con­scious­ness and per­cep­tion of the dom­i­nant cul­ture around us.” — Wal­ter Bruegge­mann, The Prophetic Imagination

I do not know how to be a pas­tor. I’m an orga­nizer. I orga­nize the church for grass­roots democ­racy, and some­times I do pastor-like things, but I am a layperson.

You will be start­ing your pas­toral careers in the midst of a reces­sion. But this is more than a sim­ple reces­sion. It is an eco­nomic apoc­a­lypse: apoc­a­lypse in the sense of an “unveil­ing.” A full nine-tenths of the econ­omy is affected by deriv­a­tives: money not linked to real goods and services.

What was just revealed, in the eco­nomic col­lapse of 2008, is that this money is not actu­ally real. It can pop like a bub­ble, full of air.

There are many things that are like­wise not real into which we’ve stored away value. Twit­ter and Face­book rela­tion­ships are not real because they do not result in com­mu­ni­ties of mutual aid and deep com­mit­ments. Oil prof­its are not real because they are unsus­tain­able. Amer­i­can democ­racy is not real because politi­cians first take care of those who fund their cam­paigns.

All of these repos­i­to­ries of value are set to explode as we real­ize their bank­ruptcy. We walk a mine­field of false val­ues. And it is not nec­es­sary for you per­son­ally to tread on a mine. Your neigh­bor may do so, and your child will lose a leg.

But the God who is love is real, and our neigh­bors are real. By start­ing from our faith, we can walk the minefield.

By con­trast, our world believes first and fore­most that money is real. All value is grounded in this: the cor­po­ra­tion must profit, the econ­omy must grow. The sec­u­lar society’s total­iz­ing value frame­work is money, while at the same time it claims that no total­iz­ing nar­ra­tive exists, that all val­ues are relative.

Jesus began life in a holis­tic agrar­ian com­mu­nity but wit­nessed early glob­al­iza­tion and the oppres­sion of the Jew­ish peo­ple by the Roman Empire, and so he under­stood the forces behind eco­nomic growth, and what those forces do to love and rela­tion­ships. He talked about Mam­mon, which can be trans­lated as wealth or riches and can mean profit or plenty. He teaches, “No one can serve two mas­ters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You can­not serve God and Mam­mon” (Matt. 6:24). The Pauline epis­tle warns us, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (Tim. 6:10).

The occupy move­ment, too, under­stands this. It is a process of col­lec­tive remem­ber­ing, where we bring all the pieces together and iden­tify what has been stolen from us through the mon­e­ti­za­tion of all things. It is a deep cry from the depths of our col­lec­tive uncon­scious that speaks to the now with­out wor­ry­ing about ortho­doxy or spir­i­tu­al­ity or growth.

Through the occupy move­ment, as we lived out­side together and gov­erned our­selves, we saw the depth of human and soci­etal bro­ken­ness, but we also learned the power and beauty of real, demo­c­ra­tic com­mu­nity. Many of us are hun­gry for more.

The church is like­wise hun­gry to pro­vide. Ekkle­sia, the New Tes­ta­ment word we trans­late into our limp mod­ern speech as “church”, is actu­ally a ref­er­ence to the Athen­ian pop­u­lar demo­c­ra­tic assem­bly, and comes from the roots “to call” and “assem­bly”. It is a pop­u­lar assem­bly called out of the whole, like the occu­pa­tions through­out the coun­try. It is a term embed­ded in the his­tor­i­cal ten­sion between aspi­ra­tion and real­ity: the Greek democ­racy excluded women and any­one not qual­i­fy­ing as a cit­i­zen. While Paul’s vision of unity in Christ may have abol­ished such dis­tinc­tions (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” — Gal. 3:28), in our cur­rent age, as in oth­ers, parts of the church have for­saken God for money and power, and the occupy move­ment itself has not learned the true depth of com­mit­ment it takes to become one in a sin­gle com­mu­nity. And yet I believe that the faith of Jesus Christ lived out in his­tory requires us to strive for this ekkle­sia, which, by its very exis­tence, is a rebel­lion against the hier­ar­chies that define the world of power, class, and money.

But folks under thirty often do not see ekkle­sia in church any­more. They are del­uged with too much infor­ma­tion. Your ser­mon doesn’t mat­ter to them because it is sim­ply more infor­ma­tion. In fact, it is a con­ver­sa­tion in which they gen­er­ally can­not par­tic­i­pate, unlike their con­ver­sa­tions online, and so it looks like a sim­ple author­i­tar­ian mono­logue to them. They don’t want words. They want to see com­mu­nity in action. They want to par­tic­i­pate in the process and have a voice at the table.

In a world full of words, we learn spir­i­tu­al­ity by doing the thing we want to learn. Sun­day is not enough. If we want to inspire peo­ple to give to com­mu­nity, we must pro­vide space for it. You, as a pas­tor, must pro­vide a space for peo­ple to come together and col­lec­tively dis­cern a church vision and mis­sion. It’s not in telling, but in doing that spir­i­tual for­ma­tion hap­pens. Your job is to become irrel­e­vant. You have to step out of the way and teach the com­mu­nity to guide itself.

We have to be the world we wish to see. We have to show it is pos­si­ble to live sus­tain­ably by mak­ing small sac­ri­fices in pur­suit of good stewardship.

The dan­ger here is focus­ing on the end result. When we wor­ship money, we wor­ship the com­mod­i­fi­able out­put of com­mu­nity processes. On the one hand, the church must speak the lin­gua franca of out­comes and prove its use by engag­ing in mis­sional col­lec­tive activ­i­ties like fix­ing cars and bikes for the com­mu­nity, job and skills shar­ing, engag­ing in civic action for jus­tice, or sim­ply tak­ing care of one another in sub­stan­tive ways. But, on the other hand, we must show how we build rela­tion­ships rooted in love and trust through the process itself. The process must be trans­for­ma­tive. We know that it’s not the mate­r­ial out­put, but the com­mu­nity formed through the process itself, that is important.

When we look for this, we find the church weak, either nur­tur­ing per­sonal spir­i­tu­al­ity with­out a prophetic cri­tique (con­ser­v­a­tive), or focused on prophetic action with­out nur­tur­ing our spir­its (lib­eral). The church is Solomon’s baby, split in two.

Our Scrip­ture tells us that faith with­out works is dead. We have to show the world that the Gospel is per­son­ally and eco­nom­i­cally trans­for­ma­tive, that we know how to break the bonds of money and build pow­er­ful com­mu­ni­ties of love that inspire peo­ple to invest their whole selves in col­lec­tive projects that nur­ture the body, spirit, heart, and mind.

When we do not allow the baby to be split in two, we avoid the false dichotomy that kills the church.

And if we find our soci­etal insti­tu­tions cor­rupt, then the answer is sim­ple. Do it ourselves.


Like What You're Reading? Subscribe:

About the Author

Hi. My name is Jeremiah John. I'm a sf/f writer and activist.

I just completed a dystopian science fiction novel. I run a website which I created that connects farms with churches, mosques, and synagogues to buy fresh vegetables directly and distribute them on a sliding scale to those in need.

In 2003, I spent six months in prison for civil disobedience while working to close the School of the Americas, converting to Christianity, as one does, while I was in the clink.