Amy Levin: Marching down Lafayette yesterday, surrounded by hundreds of #occupywallstreet protesters, I experienced what many in my shoes might call a “secular spirituality,” as we ritually chanted in exhilarated unison. “We are the 99%”–or as my cohorts and I chanted it, “you are the 99%”–occupied the street-as-stage, sending our message with powerful frequency to hundreds of passerbys. The 99% is powerful; sheer numbers matter – but chant only works insofar as the 99% become self-aware of their own 99% identity. The power then becomes contingent on a type of identification, a recognition of the self within a greater shared collectivity. Isn’t this how some define religion?
Stephen Duncombe’s recent contribution to freq.uenci.es, a “collaborate genealogy of spirituality,” entitled “Political Faith,” is useful to think about what faith does for activism. In the spirit of taking seriously the role of religion in public life, and as well as shining media light on current spiritual discourse (in its multivalent meanings), I want to bring some awareness to freq.uenci.es’ 25th contribution (out of an ongoing tally of 100). Here’s what frqncs, the freq.uenci.es’s twitter account, posted yesterday to promote the piece:
Based on his title, “political faith,” and a corresponding painting of a modern-looking Jesus surrounding by multi-racial children, we might call Duncombe a kind of liberation theologist. . .minus the theology. Duncombe isn’t so much a believer in Christ-as-savior as he is a believer of him as “a radical Mediterranean Jewish peasant building a revolutionary movement two millennia ago.” Calling himself an “opportunistic Christian,” Duncombe says he is a Christian only because it makes him a “more politically effective activist.” He says he neither believes in the divinity of Christ nor God. But he does believe in savvy methods for overturning the status quo: performance, spectacle, rhetorical narrative, egalitarian action, and visionary acts of civil disobedience. Duncombe gives examples of the way that Jesus provocatively and effectively criticized inequality, and was so successful, he says, that “Jesus went viral.”
So why not take the historical lessons of Jesus-as-activist and move on? Why be a Christian? Duncombe answers.
I explained that a large majority of Americans—anywhere from 76 to 83 percent, in fact—identify themselves as Christian and that many of the guiding myths, symbols and ideals of the United States have their roots in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. I argued that religion, as a compendium of stories, a system of ethics, and a model of behavior could be drawn upon as a popular alternative to norms and ideals of competitive consumer capitalism. I admitted that there’s much to condemn in religion, its bigotry and intolerance for starters, but also pointed out that most religions also extol such virtues as love, community and responsibility for others. Good material for an astute organizer to work with.
Duncombe isn’t speaking in the context of #occupywallstreet for himself, but he is for us. His views certainly stand against the 50 clergy members, absent from Occupy DC, that activist pastor Rev. Brian Merritt speaks about in Sarah Posner’s recent article.
Merritt’s theory is that clergy members are dissatisfied with the (apparent) style of the protests, and lack of pre-organized, “‘event-oriented things’ like stage-arrests.” Merritt claims this isn’t exactly his version of civil disobedience, and Duncombe would surely agree.
While more clergy members are showing their signs at protests, are we missing something when we note religion is largely absent from this fervent display of social and emotional, ritualized, performative, civil disobedience? What about the 73-86 percent of Americans who identify as Christians, who are also the 99%? Is it time to start looking for “alternatives to norms and ideals of competitive consumer capitalism” in the particular egalitarian religious narratives of our so-called secular public life? I’m not talking about praising gods, but surely praising capital isn’t getting us anywhere.