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A Place at the Table: What the Emerging Church Can Learn From Occupy

Last weekend some of you attended the Emergence Christianity conference in Memphis. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what happened. What I do know is that there has been some criticism of what transpired there. Julie Clawson and Marci Glass highlighted some troubling statements regarding gender roles and people with disabilities made by one of the main speakers, and Holly Roach asked whether a pre-event, invitation-only gathering to discuss the future of Emergent Christianity was undermining the expressed goals and values of Emergent Village and the movement as a whole. As a result, there’s been a lot of discussion on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs about privilege and oppression (Bo Sanders has a good roundup). These criticisms are nothing new. They’ve been made before, about other events and gatherings, and will continue to be made as long as there are structures in place that privilege certain people and oppress others. I’m glad we’re talking about these things. I know it’s been painful for some, and tempers and emotions have flared here and there, but I honestly believe this is the necessary pain of refinement, of burning away some of the ideas and modes of action that are not serving us as individuals and a community well, and making room for something new.

A lot has been written about the concept of privilege in the past few days, and I don’t want to rehash all of that, other than to say this: privilege is real, almost all of us find ourselves benefitting from some type of privilege at some point in our lives, we are frequently unaware of the privilege we possess, and we need to be willing to take some criticism if we ever hope to be free from it. I’ve written before about why I don’t think these conversations about privilege can be easily dismissed as “identity politics.” At the same time, I believe that the language we use to talk about privilege and oppression can sometimes be a hinderance- it can be used to maintain divisions as well as tear them down. When I become so focused on defending my tribe that I lose sight of the fact that we’re all part of a bigger tribe, we all lose. 

The truth is, I think each of us, no matter our gender, sexuality, race, class, physical or mental ability, really want the same thing. We want to be seen. We want to be heard. We want to be understood and valued for the unique reflection of the divine that we embody. And while we each need to individually examine ourselves for the unseen prejudices, judgements, and attitudes that prevent us from fully valuing one another, we also need to collectively turn our attention to the structures that subtly reinforce these attitudes. 

Emergents have always been criticized for our lack of results. Evangelicals have criticized us for not producing any solid doctrinal statements or “saving souls.” Mainliners have criticized us for failing to stem the tide of exodus and attrition from our churches. “It’s not a denomination, it’s a conversation,” many defenders of Emergence have said. For many of us who are still here, or even just arriving, the value we find in the emergent conversation is not measured by our traditional metrics of success. It’s found in the relationships we’ve developed, in meeting people with whom we share common values and ideals, in being exposed to challenging ideas, or in being allowed to issue challenge to those who had previously silenced us. Through this conversation I’ve made dear friends who have loved, prodded, and encouraged me into finding my voice and my gifts (I won’t say this is limited to the emergent church, but it’s been a significant contributor).  Despite our aversion to and frequent criticism of the marketplace measures of success that we find in many of our churches and denominations, our conferences and gatherings still seemed to be modeled on the events put on by any other industry or interest group. We seem to be stuck in a paradigm of what a conference should look like and what it should accomplish. It’s a paradigm that is beginning to show its limitations.

In October of 2011, Occupy Wall Street was everywhere in the news. Like many of us, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. There was something exhilarating about the idea that a bunch of average people could band together to bear witness to the injustice of our economic and political systems and speak truth to power in a way that couldn’t be ignored. And yet, there was something incredibly maddening and frustrating about it. Where’s the list of demands, everybody wanted to know, why isn’t anything happening, why isn’t the system changing? A lot of people wrote the movement off as the pipe dream of a bunch of moonbat lefties.

That October I had the chance to sit in on a general assembly at Occupy Long Beach. It started with a communal meal. Various people cooked and brought food to share. Those of us who didn’t chipped in some money to eat. Those of us who had neither food or money ate anyway. There was plenty of food for everybody. After we ate, everybody chipped in to clean up. Then the assembly began. There were a few rules to keep order, but to someone used to parliamentary procedure  it would have seemed like chaos. For the most part, anyone one who was allowed to speak was allowed to speak. There had been some arrests the night before, and that was one of the major topics of discussion- whether they should avoid arrest or seek it, whether they should use common funds to bail the arrested out of jail. Some spoke from years of experience as activists about practical strategies. Others fixated endlessly and to the exasperation of the rest of us on whatever pet peeve was pissing them off that night. There were one or two people that were incoherent and possibly mentally ill. Each of them was given a chance to speak, and an honest effort to be understood, even the ranters and ramblers. It was clear as the night went on that many were frustrated that no clear progress was being made, not enough tasks were being checked off. One of the members of Occupy LA who had come to coordinate efforts spoke up: “I know this is frustrating, but you have to understand that we do things this way because we believe the process itself is valuable. If you’re not committed to consensus decision making for its own value, and only see it as a means to an end, it’s going to drive you crazy.” I don’t remember what consensus, if any, was reached that night. What I remember is the fellowship of sharing a common meal. I remember the respect that was given to each person, including the homeless people who always occupied the park, as a valuable member of the community. I remember most of all an elderly gentleman who spoke in broken English about spending the last few nights in jail: “I’m an old man, and I can do this. If I can, so can any of you. This is worth it to me, because I finally have a voice.”

Most of the protesters have left the parks, the politicians, corporations and bankers remain in charge, and it seems that nothing much has changed. And yet this fall the occupiers were able to use their experience and connections to mount Occupy Sandy, a successful, large-scale, grassroots hurricane relief effort that was able to mobilize more rapidly and effectively than the Red Cross. They’ve formed Strike Debt, which is working to challenge the system of debt and predatory lending, and has already initiated buy-offs to free people from medical debt. The fruit of whatever it was that happened in those parks is being borne, even if we can’t always see it.

The Emergent conferences I’ve attended have largely been some variation on the standard “expert speaker” model. You get someone who’s an expert on X topic, usually someone who’s written a book, and they give a speech, some people take notes and some people surf the internet or doodle. Maybe you have smaller breakout sessions that are more conversational in nature. This is not necessarily a bad model. I’ve heard a lot of really great talks and learned new things through these speakers. But conferences like this are always going to privilege the articulate, educated, and connected over others. In the past, this has been white men. That’s changing, especially with regard to gender, but there’s still a huge chunk of people who are always going to be on the outside looking in at these things, not because anyone’s trying to keep them outside, but because the structures we’ve erected prevent them from getting in.

I think we need to take a hard look at changing the type of gatherings we have, and getting away from the traditional conference model. I’m not saying that those types of gatherings are bad, or that they haven’t been tremendously valuable, but maybe we need to push ourselves to try something new. Something that allows everybody to have a valuable role and a place at the table. Something that’s focused less on doing and more on being, less on accomplishing goals, and more on bearing fruit. Something that looks less like a TED conference and more like an Occupy general assembly. Something that embodies this idea of Yoder’s (to steal a quote that my friend Kimberly Roth used in her own reflection on the EC13 event):

The transformation that Paul’s vision calls for would not be to let a few especially gifted women share with a few men in the rare roles of domination; it would be to reorient the notion of ministry so that there would be no one ungifted, no one not called, no one not empowered, and no one dominated.

I’m not sure what exactly this would be, but I have a few possible ideas:

1. We need less speaking and more hanging out- One of the best conferences I went to was Outlaw Preachers 2010. It wasn’t because of the speakers, most of whom were not particularly accomplished or well known (not that this kept them from performing admirably), but rather it was the times we had in the pub down the street or hanging out in the common areas. It was in getting to know some folks who I had been a bit suspicious of, and learning that we had more in common than I thought. It was in the joking and sharing drinks and singing “Push It” around a gas heater on a cold patio. Since then I’ve often found myself playing hooky when I’m at conferences- skipping sessions to just relax and enjoy the company of friends.

2. When we do have speakers, they need to be someone besides the usual suspects- We need to be deliberately seeking out those who don’t get attention, maybe even those who don’t realize they have something to say. We need to find people who are outside of our usual contexts of churches and religious organizations but who may have something to offer us anyway. And our sessions need to be less presentation and more conversation. Bo Sanders makes these points in his post about the recent controversy, and I think Steve Knight has done a good job trying to implement some of these things at the Transform conferences.

3. We need to find way to engage the talents of everyone at our gatherings- Are there people whole love to cook? Get them together to make a big feast for everyone. Are there musicians? Let’s have more open mic nights and sing alongs (beyond the usual “worship sessions,” which for some people carry a lot of baggage). Let’s have artists lead us in massive communal art projects. Are there people who are really good at quantum mechanics? I’m not sure what to do with them, but there’s got to be something they’re good for. I know the Wild Goose Festival has been successful in engaging the arts. 

4. We need to throw out our agendas- "Behold, I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" So often we don’t perceive the rivers in the desert springing forth because we’re off somewhere banging a rock, trying to draw water from stone. Maybe this is the latent charismatic in me, but sometimes we just need to hang out and listen and let the Spirit show up. I like what UNCO does in letting the agenda be determined by the participants.

5. We need to get out of the lecture halls, sanctuaries, and conference rooms and into the public square- Let’s stop shutting ourselves up in our safe spaces. Let’s assemble in parks and party in the streets and make people ask what the hell we’re doing. It’s cheaper, too.

6. We need to become more localized- As much as I love to travel and make new friends all across the country, it makes attending these gatherings prohibitively expensive for many and ensures that those who do attend are largely the people who can have their costs reimbursed or written off as professional expenses- i.e., pastors, theologians, authors, and academics, or the usual suspects. Maybe as we make our gatherings more accessible to those who have different talents and skill sets, we will find we can draw more people to sustain more gatherings.

7. We need to be transparent, open, and intentionally inclusive- We need to be clear about who’s on our planning committees, issue open invitations to anyone who wants to join, and deliberately seek to include those on the margins. We need regular turnover in leadership roles to make room for new participants. And no one individual should ever have ownership of vision- that’s one of surest ways to kill community.

8. We need to go balls to the wall, because we’re never gonna survive unless we get  little crazy- I keep thinking about the parable of the sower. He just goes around flinging seeds all over the place, with no regard for whether or not the ground looks even remotely hospitable to life. He doesn’t check the ground for rocks or thorns or fertile soil, he just throws it all out there to see what takes root. We need to do more weird things, things that scare us a little, things that have a high risk of failing, to see if something might just work. I participated in an Ash Wednesday flash mob in a subway station one year in Atlanta. It was a little anticlimactic. A lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing. Someone stole our ashes the night before. I have no idea if it was a success or not. But I had fun, and I’d do it again.

None of these suggestions is original. I’ve tried to highlight some groups that have done or are doing some of these things. But we need to do more of it. We need people more creative, inspired, and crazy than I am. We need people who get bored by all the debates and words but love to create and interact and who know how to throw a good party. If you are reading this, and any part of what I’m talking about resonates with you, then we need you. So let me ask you- what kind of gatherings would you like to see? How do we build tables with a place for everyone? What gifts can you bring to the table? What will you do to make it happen?

  • 23 January 2013
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