Tag Archives: Acts

Occupy This Blog?!

Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Together! Occupy The Pasture! Occupy Religion! Occupy This Blog?!

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The slogan has become pervasive over the last two months, but what does it mean to “occupy” Wall Street? Or your town? Or something else, like food, the church or this blog? The relevant definition of the word means to “take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest or settlement” and to “enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest”. In the past decade the word “occupy” has most often been used to described the activities of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As frequently happens with movements of resistance words are re-appropriated or co-opted to shed light on other meanings and strip them of their destructive power.

So, in the case of this movement the critics make it clear that occupying other countries is acceptable, but occupying your own country is unacceptable and unpatriotic. In another example, the U.S. government (sometimes reluctantly) supported the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but has been uncomfortable with precisely these principles of participatory democracy and protest coming to its own cities. The converse is that the violence acted upon protesters in Arab countries was categorically denounced by the U.S., while similar violence in our own country (even against an Iraq War veteran) is excused, justified and ignored.

Yet, there is another layer to this talk of occupation. In reaction to this movement Native Americans reminded us that while we argue about the 99% and the 1%, they are the “un%”, unaccounted for and ignored. The movement in Albequerque declared theirs an (Un)Occupy movement, recognizing that the land from Wall Street to Oakland is already occupied by the descendants of colonizers and immigrants. While the movement has co-opted the idea of occupation to give power to the frustrations of the majority of Americans, it has not come to terms with the fundamental violence of the idea of occupation itself. I have previously written that in order to move forward we will eventually have to deal with the original sin of church and state.

I agree that this is an important critique of the Occupy movement and not to be dismissed. However, I also see a lot of hope in what this particular occupation has done. Instead of occupying a space with predetermined goals, demands and agenda, this movement has instead simply occupied a space in order to claim it somehow apart, holy even (which means set apart), from the dominant order of things. In the best article I’ve read yet on this movement Douglas Rushkoff said that the protestors are occupying spaces in order to “beta test for a new way of living”. He describes one of these experiments:

In just one example, Occupy’s General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features…Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments…They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.”

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So, the intention of this occupation is not simply to take power or make demands the way that many revolutions and movements of the past have done. The intention is to carve out a space where we can experiment with new ways of living together based on certain principles and values, like participation, inclusion and consensus. This is akin to the Anabaptist vision for the vocation of the church (which admittedly takes many diverse and divergent forms from Old Colony Mennonites to the advocacy of Mennonite Central Committee) as a place where we attempt to embody and faithfully live out the reign of God as revealed in Jesus. This is what the church attempted in Acts 2 and often throughout its history by beta testing this other way of life that had radically transformed them personally and communally.

Like the above protest sign, the space occupied by this protest movement and perhaps by the church should be intentionally left blank. As the Body of Christ, this allows room for the Spirit to fill in those blanks. Certainly our theology should not be empty, available to be filled by any and every whim or idea, but in a concrete way Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates space for a new way of living. As we attempt to hold this space and allow our principles and values to fill it in, we should be mindful of the caution our indigenous brothers and sisters shared to be radically inclusive. This means indigenous, Tea Party members, capitalists, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, unions, activists, environmentalists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats participating and practicing consensus-building to fill in this sacred space with a new, better way to live together.

Sharing Possessions

51f605hBcUL.jpgI was excited to read Sharing Possessions for two reasons 1) previous conversations about our relationship to property and possessions in the Bible and 2) practical help with how to live this out in community. While this was interesting book for the first reason, it was not very helpful with the second. That’s not a fault of the book. It just was not the author’s purpose.

Luke Timothy Johnson has been a favorite scholar of mine since I used his article, “The Use of Leviticus 19 in the Letter of James”, for a paper in seminary. I’ve since heard an interview and now read one of his books. I respect his work a lot. Even though this book was not what I expected or hoped, it was a solid piece of scholarship and very helpful in thinking through our relationship to possessions as people of faith.

Johnson starts off considering the philosophical idea of “owning”, “having”, or “possessing”. He points out the ambiguous nature of our language in describing our own selves and our bodies. We say that this is “my” body or that I “have” a hand. What is the nature of our identity as it relates to our bodies. Are we something besides our bodies that simply possesses our physical self? Or can we say in some sense that we are our bodies? Or is it some combination of the two, some third option?

At first I was put off by this starting point. But if it is this difficult to understand the relationship between body, mind and identity, then how much harder must it be when material possessions enter the picture. Johnson rightly reminds us that we do well to understand our own identity and relationship to our own physical existence before attempting to unpack how that self relates to the world of material possessions. I think Johnson’s definition of possession or ownership is a good one. “Generally, I can safely claim to own something when I can effectively assert my power over it.” (2) I think the inclusion of the power dynamic in ownership is important.

ways_t11.jpgJohnson has an entire chapter that covers references to possessions throughout the Bible. Having these references collected and analyzed in one place is in itself worth the price of the book… at least to me. Johnson then uses Luke-Acts as a test case, because it includes references to possessions found in Mark and Matthew and includes additional references not in the others. There are also references to possessions in the material in Acts, most notably in Acts 2 and 4. Let us consider some of Johnson’s findings and conclusions fro this survey.

If the more I have the more I am (the stance of idolatry), then my worth is measured by what I possess. But in a world of limited resources, I can have (and therefore be) more, only when you have less… there is really no way for me to measure my existence except by comparison with the achievement of others… To lose one of my possessions is to lose part of my self. Allowing others to share freely in what is mine means that I have no way of distinguishing myself from them; I lose my identity. (85)

The idea that wrong relationship to our possessions is idolatry is a powerful and important one. It is also important to recognize that our relationship to possessions is directly related to other human beings. I remain unconvinced that it is possible to continue increasing the wealth of individuals indefinitely without adversely affecting others. The belief that we are somehow separate and disconnected from our brothers and sisters next door and around the globe only leads us to idolatry, which leads us to Johnson’s next point.

In the preaching of the prophets, therefore, as in the laws of the Pentateuch, we see that the human use of possessions directly symbolizes and makes real the fundamental human response to God, and it does this precisely in the way possessions are taken from or given to other human beings. We respond to our neighbor as we respond to God. How we use possessions reveals both.” (97)

Our relationship to possessions reveals the reality of our relationship with God and our neighbor. We cannot simply accumulate wealth without exploiting our neighbors (and the earth) and engaging in idolatry. Johnson does not believe that ownership or possessions are inherently evil or sinful.

The tradition of which we are a part, and which we affirm, recognizes that as bodily creatures human beings inevitably must “have” as well as “be”… Human “owning” is not itself a result of sin but the consequence of being a body. Humans, therefore, cannot become completely “dispossessed” without losing their identity. (114)

I agree that owning is part of the nature of our existence, but I’m not sure that ownership as we understand it is part of God’s vision or intention for the way life should be. The vision of Isaiah that the people would “build houses and live in them” seems intended more to describe the justice of that future state of affairs than to establish property rights as part of the Messianic age. It is helpful to recognize that “having” is simply part of the nature of our existence. We should also recognize that the nature of our existence, according to our tradition, is broken and sinful, and enshrining ownership as a part of the intended nature of creation might inadvertently be elevating our own brokenness.

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So, if the Bible clearly has a lot to say about our relationship to possessions, even warning that it reveals our relationship with God and our neighbors, but does not speak univocally about how to mitigate the problems of this necessary relationship, then how are we to navigate our relationship to possessions as the faithful people of God in 2011? Johnson has no clear answer or advice, but gives more advice on what Scripture does not say.

In “1 Cor. 7:30-31 Paul says that one of the consequences of living in a period of eschatological tension is that ‘those who buy [should act] as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away’… Paul does not encourage his churches to withdraw from society and form closed, intentional communities. The Christian church is not an alternative social structure, but a way of living in freedom within the world. (110)

If Paul does not encourage “closed intentional communities”, I wonder if he does encourage open intentional communities. The problem seems to be with the terms “withdraw” and “closed”, not intentional. There are intentional Christian communities (of which I am a part of one) that do not intend to be closed or withdrawn from society. I think Johnson unfortunately (and perhaps unintentionally) lumps together all attempts to live out the Gospel in communities that include some practice of sharing possessions in common as misguided and even naive. While the warning that Scripture does not give clear guidelines for how we should relate to property is important, it could lead us to believe that it does not matter how we relate to the things we own which Johnson clearly argues against. According to Johnson’s own words quoted above, the way we relate to possessions is of utmost importance lest we fall into idolatry.

hbpic7small.gifAgain, in what is a pretty concise summation of the findings of Johnson’s investigation into what Scripture says about possessions, he says this,

The Scriptures do not present for our consideration or implementation any grand scheme for the proper disposition of possessions. There is no Christian economic structure to be found in the Bible, any more than there is a Christian political structure or educational system. The Bible does not tell us how to organize our lives together, and still less which things we should call private and which public. Nor does it propose a clear program of social change. It does not even present one way of sharing possessions as uniquely appropriate. (115)

I agree with the sentiment that there is no simple fix for us in the Bible, no system or set of rules or guidelines that will once and for all answer the questions we’re asking. However, I think the Scripture speaks a little more strongly concerning our relationship to possessions than Johnson’s conclusion would suggest (and as before he himself points out in his survey of the Bible). While keeping the caution against looking for a system or quick fix in mind, I think it would be helpful to put down some anchors on this issue and make some claims about principles for living in community and relating to possessions and wealth. We need good theology, but we also need practical advice on how to live. Since Scripture is silent on exactly how to live this out, it seems appropriate to listen to the wisdom of people throughout Christian history, but in particular more recent communities, that have tried to live out another way of relating to possessions and wealth in the midst of the world.