Nine years ago, I was a very different person. I remember one weekend marching in a protest in Manhattan. I think there was some kind of world economic forum up there and the Afghanistan war had been going on for a while so I guess it was a combination anti-war, anti-globalization protest that I’m sure the media ridiculed for having “unclear messaging.” It was really colorful and exciting. I was banging on my African drum which echoed like thunder across the tall buildings surrounding us. People wore all sorts of costumes. There were giant balloon puppets and “billionaires on stilts.” There were beautiful hipster girls who seemed like they probably wrote amazing poetry. I remember going to an all-night rave on a ship in the harbor. It was an amazing experience. I think my only fear at that time was that one day I would be a sell-out yuppie living in some suburgatory like Fairfax County, coaching a soccer team, and drowning in middle-class oblivion. I actually wrote poetry about Fairfax County long before I ever lived here speculating with horror about what it must be like, based upon the stereotypes I had developed from the frat boys I had known at the University of Virginia who came from Fairfax County.
So I guess it’s official now: I’m a Fairfax County yuppie sell-out! I’m even kind of conservative, I guess. It isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I’m a very different person now in some ways, though in other ways I suppose I’m still the same. I think the biggest difference is that my mission now is not so much to rage against “the man” but to understand people from different backgrounds and help them understand each other in order to transcend the awful tribal polarization in which so much of our country is stuck. I don’t want to dig on the Wall Street protests per se. I’m not going to be like that remarkable imbecil Herman Cain, who said, “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”
At the same time, I don’t think I could take part in anything that would make people I care about in the predominantly conservative church where I serve think that I was condemning or mocking them. Their personal discipleship is far more important to me than supporting any cause, because life doesn’t happen in causes; life is about real people and real relationships. I think it’s more effective for me to help a few dozen fellow Fairfax County suburgatorians live more imaginatively for Jesus Christ than to buy some face paint and head up to Manhattan.
Part of how I got to where I am now was a decision I made after my second year in seminary to become a chaplain at the VA hospital in Durham, NC. Since I had been an anti-war protestor and had all kinds of stereotypes in my head about the military, I figured my greatest challenge would be to work as a military chaplain. It turned out it wasn’t a challenge in any kind of negative sense; I was surrounded by very gentle, compassionate people who completely transformed my perspective.
I got very close to an Army sergeant who told me stories about his unit that helped me understand why military people tend to get the mutual interdependence of the body of Christ better than civilians do. I met so many amazing courageous people in the chemotherapy and dialysis wards. Some of them needed a surrogate “son” to teach lessons from their lives, so I let them adopt me and give me advice. I think without the experience I gained that summer, I might have said some pretty ignorant, embarrassing things in the mostly military congregation that I serve now.
Right as I was watching the Occupy Wall Street movement get started this past month, I remember visiting an older member of my congregation who’s quite conservative. We had a conversation in which I actually found a lot of common ground with what he was saying. I share his passionate opposition to political correctness. I share his view that secularism is its own religion and an unacknowledged offspring of Judeo-Christian culture via the Enlightenment, rather than being a “neutral” perspective from the world can be analyzed “objectively.” He also believes that the more altruistic people are, the more meaningful their lives are, with which I certainly agree. He just doesn’t believe that our altruism should be outsourced to the government, which I can appreciate.
There are opinions that my friend has which I would say are the product of wanting life to be more simple and straightforward than it really is, but I didn’t feel any need to argue with him over those. I’d rather be enough on his side that I can encourage him to be a generous, compassionate person regardless of what his political beliefs are. There are a lot of people in my congregation like my new conservative friend. I care a lot about them and I want to win their trust not for the sake of manipulating them but simply to grow in our knowledge of Christ together.
So far as Wall Street is concerned, I absolutely agree that it’s immoral what some of those guys got away with and it makes me mad that through a slick sleight of hand, the spin doctors pinned Wall Street’s role in crashing our economy onto Washington. The ferocious dishonesty of the spin has been astounding. I also think that many of the presumptions about life that have been produced by our free market economy have created a neurotic and dysfunctional world. I’m glad that someone is standing up and saying that’s not okay. But I also really think people need a better reason to live differently and more imaginatively than just being mad at the way the world is. And I don’t think you have to quit your job and move to a park in Manhattan to create a different world.
I believe it’s what is supposed to happen every week in church when we receive the body and blood of Christ in order to become the body of Christ redeemed by His blood. I wish we really lived out what we supposedly commit ourselves to every weekend at the communion table. It’s embarrassing how much our churches congratulate themselves over the smallest tokenistic gestures of generosity. How many of us have let people who lost their homes move into rooms in our houses? How many of us actually spend time hanging out with homeless people outside of a context in which they need something from us and we get to feel magnanimous? We could be so much more than the stadiums of suburban self-congratulation that we’ve become. If we truly occupied the kingdom of God, there would be no need to occupy Wall Street.