Here is the sermon I gave in chapel for the Krost Symposium on Environmental Justice.
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.”
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.
Texas at the Table was a gathering of local, state and national leaders to coordinate efforts to end hunger in Texas by 2015. Lots of people in suits (me NOT included) gathered at Baylor University to launch a Food Policy Roundtable that will tackle this issue. This gathering was organized by the Texas Hunger Initiative and included Todd Staples Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, Max Finberg Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships USDA and Julie Paradis Administrator for Food and Nutrition Services (to name the big wigs). There were also plenty of little wigs there today. Many folks I know from Waco and other non-profits working on sustainable food and hunger issues.
Here are some statistics I found most enlightening:
- Texas is now the 2nd hungriest state in United States (according to most recent USDA report 2009)
- 50% of people in the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) work full time
- Only 50% of eligible people participate in the SNAP program in Texas
- $4 billion in benefits goes untouched in Texas alone
- 70% of USDA budget is allocated to Assistance programs
I’ll start with the positives and then get cranky.
It was awesome to see so many people from so many diverse organizations, agencies, churches and faiths (one Muslim representative from Houston) gathered together for a common goal. All of the politicians said the right things and we all applauded at the appropriate moments. Clapping for cliches does not make change, but it does rally the troops and inspire people. Jeremy Everett of the Texas Hunger Initiative did a great job of putting a human face on hunger and clearly pointing out that the resources are already available and allocated to do the job. Camille Miller from Texas Health Institute did a good job asking us to put a face on hunger and pointing out where some of the gaps are in our knowledge and network.
Waco’s Mayor Dupuy recently visited Saudi Arabia and found that they had a food reclamation program that curbed food waste in their country. Why can’t we do that in the United States? We have a great mayor in Waco!
Baylor, as always, does it up fancy. They pulled out the good china for this event and touted a menu all from local Texas farmers. Unfortunately these local farmers remained anonymous and I cannot corroborate what local meant in this particular meal. Texas is a big state and if everything in Texas counts as local we might as well stick with California produce. I requested the vegetarian entree and almost shrieked when I saw the ASPARAGUS on my plate… in November… in Texas! This was wrong on so many levels, particularly considering the event’s claim to support local farmers. It was also disconcerting to see the coffee labeled “free trade” when they clearly meant “fair trade.” I applaud Baylor’s steps to start efforts to compost and reclaim food waste on campus, but there is clearly a long way to go for them to grasp the full concept and implications of sustainability.
This highlights the need to be on our toes to spot the difference between appearance and reality. Even well-meaning people using terms like “local” and “sustainable” need to be held accountable and educated about the reality.
As I said, Todd Staples said all the right things. There was one question I wanted to ask him. He touted the agricultural products of Texas. We’re #1 in cattle, of course, and cotton and mohair. The problem is we can’t eat cotton and mohair. We also know what kind of beef our corn-fed cattle are producing and it’s part of the problem. What is the Texas Department of Agriculture doing to encourage more fruit and vegetable production from small diversified farms in the state? If you’re reading this Commissioner Staples, just reply in the comments.
The breakout session on local food access was very good. I asked a question about better connections between Texas Agrilife and folks who are trying to do urban/community gardening, but don’t have any gardening or agriculture skills. This is a barrier for a lot of people and the A&M extension system could be a great resource for those people to get the help, knowledge and training they need. Unfortunately the system is not set up or able to do that the way it is currently. The emphasis is different in each county. Agents, particularly in urban counties are more likely trained in turf grass and landscaping. They need to also help the urban and community gardening people.
Finally, John Garland had the best quote about food deserts.
In the Rio Grande Valley people have to drive 20 miles to get to a grocery store. They drive through miles of land producing food to get to that grocery store.
I’m excited about the possibilities, but there is a lot of work and a long road ahead of us just to accomplish something that should already be happening. Let’s get busy.
photo from Boggy Creek Farm Austin, TX.
For my stalkers here’s where I will be so you can secretly snap pictures of me with your spy pen.
- November 15-17 Stream (Part of BGCT Conference) Workshop with Texas Hunger Initiative
- November 19 Texas at the Table Hunger Summit at Baylor (Keynote: Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture)
- December 9-11 ECHO Agriculture Conference Fort Myers, FL
Will definitely blog the Vilsack keynote. I will try to take good notes at ECHO as well. It will be my first time to the great state of oranges and Disney.
This Monday and Tuesday is the Farm and Food Leadership Conference put on by the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance in San Antonio, TX. The keynote speaker for the event is Sally Fallon, raw milk advocate and author of Nourishing Traditions. From what I hear this is likely to be a group of libertarian leaning farmers and ranchers who just want the government to get the heck out of their business. It’s always interesting to spend time with people who share a lot of your views and passions, but for very different reasons.
I’ll try to give you a good summary of the highlights at least and my overall impressions/thoughts. If you see anything of interest on their website let me know and I will try to check it out. Apparently it is being held at the old Pearl Brewery downtown, which sounds awesome.