Editorial: Occupying Everything

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What I love about having conversations with vibrant, intelligent, people is that you often find yourself verbalizing your beliefs in a distilled and succinct manner that may never have occurred in solitude. In this case, I was having lunch with a retired Lutheran minister, a member of my wife’s family, and our conversation turned to social justice and the Occupy movement. Specifically, we were talking about “Occupy faith” initiatives that have been springing up to support the movement, and  what the role of faith communities should be regarding outcry over economic injustice. I posited that this moment in history provided a rare opportunity for the dwindling mainline Protestant congregations, and for progressive Catholics, to provide the infrastructure, support, and moral guidance they did during the height of the civil rights era, before a confluence of political and social shifts resulted in a profound shift in our collective priorities and goals. After all, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final campaign before being assassinated was the Poor People’s Campaign (and enshrining economic justice in our constitution has been around at least since Roosevelt).

Lately I’ve been covering Pagan reactions to the Occupy movement, watching as our faith communities negotiate what our place is in this growing phenomenon. I’ve talked to Pagans directly involved in Occupy, people like T. Thorn Coyle and Glenn Turner, and I’ve listened to Starhawk speak in amazement about how the organizing ethos she’s long preached suddenly sprung forward organically to effect massive changes in a matter of months. For myself, I’ve hesitated speaking directly on Occupy, partially because I generally try to avoid being partisan at The Wild Hunt, and partially because I didn’t think I had anything to add to the existing discourse. However, I now think that I do have something to say, and if my words carry any weight with our faith communities, as some attest, then I can stay mute no longer. I think that the Occupy movement has come at a vitally important time, and if there was a time for every available voice to speak up for social justice, surely it is now. In short, we need to Occupy everything, we need to embrace a new ethos of structurally engaging with issues of economic injustice, and stop simply hoping that the problems will go away if we cut taxes, or eliminate government agencies, or raise taxes, or shop more, or vainly hope that wealth will “trickle down” and we can simply wait these hard times out. I believe in a Second Bill of Rights, in making explicit that there can be no “pursuit of happiness” in a society that does not enshrine basic fundamentals of care and humanity.

Grinding poverty isn’t an abstract in my life. My wife is an independent solo physician who’s dedicated her life to providing quality care to those who can’t normally afford it. While a percentage of her patient panel are lucky enough to have decent health insurance, many more live on the margins, are uninsured, and often haven’t had decent medical care in years. Every time I see someone demonize the flimsy reforms of “Obamacare,” a watered-down half-measure that doesn’t do nearly enough, I think of the millions who are slowly dying because they simply can’t afford good health care. Just look at the vast number of 99% narratives that talk about health care, the lack of it, or the debt incurred obtaining it. The health care industry is the wild, wild West that some libertarians dream of, where “patients rights” are purely secondary to the profit margins, and “death panels” have long existed thanks to the insurance industry. I’m not surprised that people are voicing their anger and frustration, I’m only surprised that its taken this long, and that it has managed to stay as peaceful as it has.

Several polytheistic cultures have some version of the “hospitality test.” Where a wandering god or goddess is disguised as a beggar, or a weary traveler, and seeks aid at someone’s home. The moral of these tales is to welcome all who come to your door, to practice the virtues of hospitality and charity, for the beggar you reject might be really be a god. If the divine resides within us all, if every man and woman is a star, if what’s above is truly what’s below, then we should live in a culture where no one fears losing their home, or their medical care, or should wonder where their next meal will come from. Some have said that such an ethos should be an individual mandate, and not enshrined in our government, but isn’t our government an extension of our collective will? If we are to have governments, then they must mirror what we say our ideals are, and not cater to simply “keeping the lights on.” That the Occupy movement is now occupying homes says much about how broken the collective expression of our values truly is.

There have been those who’ve spent a lot of time pointing out that the Occupy movement has feet of clay, or has lost the moral high ground due to one incident or another, but I think such arguments miss the point. This isn’t about the good behavior of every Occupier, its about what needs to happen now. We need a shift in our priorities, we need the dramatic excesses of our current capitalistic system to be reigned in, and we need justice. I think modern Pagans have much to offer the Occupy movement, and that this movement has much to teach us in return. We are, after all, part of the 99% too. I know that there will be Pagans who disagree, who’ve written off the Occupy movement in one fashion or another, but  I can no longer sit on the sidelines and pretend to have no opinion. For me, the Occupy movement is the movement I was waiting for during the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s, a true continuation of the work sparked by social justice pioneers like Dorothy Day, Gandhi, King, and  Jane Addams. Now is the time for Pagans of a like mind to envision what our social justice looks like, to craft a theological and historical framework for a future where we have a voice, because that future is happening now.

I guess what I’m saying is that we need to Occupy Paganism, and in turn, Occupy everything.