Monday, 31 October 2011

Occupy, St Paul’s and the theo-politics of space

I honestly don’t know whether to be delighted or despairing. I suspect I’m a fair bit of both at the moment.

On the one hand, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bishop of London, and – implicated through inextricable association – the whole institution of the Church of England (of which I am a part) have embarrassed themselves in the most public way, and seem intent, in a bizarre frenzy of self-destructiveness, to continue to do so. On the other hand, in the last week or so I’ve seen, read and heard more thoughtful, appreciative engagement with the Christian faith, and faith-full, politically-engaged theological reflection in public, than I can remember for a very long time (I’ve pasted links to some of my favourites below).

It’s gone some way beyond asking ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, and references to the over-turning of the money-changers’ tables in the Temple – although it has been encouraging in itself to hear those flying around as common currency, from the Today programme to Question Time. With the promise of a ‘protective ring’, bodied by Christians, to surround the Occupy camp should the Cathedral- and City-sponsored heavies arrive to evict them, the revelation that there is a diversity of opinions and commitments within ‘the Christian community’ has also been something to cheer. And more than these, the members of OccupyLSX have surely achieved one of their first goals – to shift the sovereignty (divinity, even) of ‘the Market’ into the open, into a space where it can be questioned, challenged – even, quite properly, ridiculed.

And it’s ‘space’ – as Madeleine Bunting highlights in a brilliant Guardian article – that is one of the crucial issues in it all. Where Market ideology has been firmly in the grip of ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) for a generation, she argues, the Occupy movement “want to create the space to think of alternatives”. “Their first agreed principle is that the current system is unsustainable, undemocratic and unjust,” and that means “taking key symbolic public space … to use it for conviviality, living, learning and participation. That’s no easy task in a city designed to facilitate only three activities – working, transport and shopping – with as little human interaction as possible. Metal fencing is springing up around even small public spaces in the City of London to preclude new camps. The protesters’ aim is to open up space, physically and socially, for people to connect and thereby open up space in people’s imaginations.”

But, dear Lord, isn’t that close to the heart of what the Church should be about? From the inept and, frankly, arrogantly self-absorbed actions and pronouncements from the Bishop of London and ‘within’ St Paul’s – at least, to be charitable, as they have been reported to us mere mortals – it would seem not. Or at least, they seem interested in the idea, but imagine they have the monopoly on it. Witness these great words from Bishop Richard Chartres: “The original purpose of the protests, to shine a light on issues such as corporate greed and executive pay … these are issues that the St Paul’s Institute has taken to heart and has been engaged in examining… If the protesters will disband peacefully, I will join the dean and chapter in organising a debate on the real issues here under the dome. We will convene a panel … and will invite the protesters to be represented… Our message [is] simple: pack up your tents voluntarily and let us make you heard.” (There was also, later in the week, a subtly sinister ‘or else’, as the Cathedral launched legal action to evict the camp.)

I’ve mentioned Michel de Certeau before on this blog, but now has his moment truly come. De Certeau, a postmodern theorist of the city, makes a vital, and incredibly helpful, distinction between ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’:

A strategy ‘postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats … can be managed’. … A tactic, by contrast, has no place of its own. It always lives in another’s space, and must abide within another’s rules. It has no general strategy, but makes ad hoc engagements as occasions arise. (de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, pp.35-7)

Get it? The powerful work with ‘strategies’, the powerless with ‘tactics’. McDonald’s use ‘strategies’ for world domination, Al-Quaeda have to rely on ‘tactics’ (thanks to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for that one). ‘Tactics’ is what Occupy are about (and UK Uncut, for another example, in a myriad of imaginative ways), ‘strategies’ are the preserve of governments, and, it seems, London’s Diocesan and Cathedral hierarchies. And Jesus? Yes, silly question…

“Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:12-14)

The Church, unfortunately, has always felt the lure of strategies, even while it has believed itself to have been intently following the master of divine tactics. It’s the temptation of power – something, the gospels tell us, even Jesus knew about all too well. It bedded down so much that it became synonymous with the faith itself: ‘Christendom’, we called it. And my beloved Church of England, caught up, as it always has been, in its entanglements with the State and its heady (pointy-hatted) trappings of hierarchy, is more prone than most Christian communities to such temptations.

But is it irredeemable? I wake up some mornings, at the moment, and my embarrassment at the institution within which I am a minor cog is so intense that my imagination wanders towards self-righteous denunciations and even more heroic acts of departure – but I am, to be utterly pragmatic, aware that a parish priest in Hodge Hill is rather less in the public eye than a Canon of St Paul’s, and that the symbolic value would be quite minimal. De Certeau suggests that the ‘strategic’ places of the City are transformed through the humble ‘tactical’ act of walking. And none other than one of the present Pope’s favourite theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar, argues that “[t]here exists no other form of ‘abiding’ … than that of walking: ‘Anyone who says that he abides in him, must himself walk in the way that he walked’ (1 John 2:6).” But simply walking ‘out’, walking ‘away’, surely has pretty short-term effects within the bigger story.

Maybe, just maybe, in the tented village of Occupy LSX we might catch a glimpse of what the Christian community does well, when it is at its best. Occupy is resisting, not by walking, but by staying – ‘abiding’, we might say. And that’s what the Bishop of London really didn’t get when he dismissed them with something along the lines of “OK, you’ve made your point, and it’s quite a good one, but now go home, thank you”. We Christians – we Anglicans – know about ‘staying’, ‘abiding’. It’s in our DNA. As local Christian communities, we commit ourselves to this patch of earth, here (we sometimes call it ‘parish’), and to seeking and serving God in it for as many centuries as God gives us. As Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, reflecting on de Certeau, we need to be very careful, in our desire to ‘flee’, that ‘adaptability’ doesn’t become ‘accommodation’, “a kind of otherworldiness which hands this world over to the governing powers of the prevailing regime”:

In the culture of modernity, which seeks to ‘disembed’ us from all traditions, which turns us into portable units of consumption, it may be that sinking roots deep into the earth, cultivating a sense of place, refusing nomadic existence … these are the most profound forms of resistance. (‘Walking in the Pilgrim City’, New Blackfriars, Nov 1996)

But we Christians – we Anglicans in particular – also need to recover a gospel sense of homelessness, of profound discomfort with the established order of things, and with ‘strategies’ of all kinds, whether within or without the Church. We need to recover a proper humility, that acknowledges the sheer and inevitable ineffectiveness of most of what we do (and quite rightly so, for we are not primarily about effectiveness, but faithfulness), our own susceptibility to mixed motives and abject failure, and the inescapable truth that there are many beyond the Church – or even camped on its steps – who are ‘getting it right’ even as we are bungling and bickering. And we need to make a move back to the edges, to the neighbourhood of Jesus, which is the neighbourhood of the marginalized in dispossessed, the neighbourhood in which the Word of God has taken flesh and pitched his tent (John 1:14). These are the kinds of places where we most desperately need to stay – for the sake of the Kingdom, and for the sake of our own souls. “Homelessness,” Bauerschmidt suggests, can be a curse for the Church, but also a blessing, “because it relieves the Church of any absolute need to defend a particular territory or structure, giving a freedom to live the Gospel of peace…”

Now, where’s my tent…?



Some of the best reflections, from the past week…

Paul Hackwood, Chair of Church Urban Fund:

Jim Wallis, of Sojourners:

Two brief and brilliant pieces from my friend Rachel Mann:

And from a Macclesfield vicar:

Bishop Alan Wilson:

Stephen Tomkins, on whether the C of E is inside or outside the Establishment:

This from the Independent:

And these various pieces from the Guardian…

Madeleine Bunting:

Andrew Rawnsley:

Marina Hyde:

Maurice Glasman, on Occupy’s emerging focus:

Andrew Brown:

Marina Warner (on Mary as the patron saint of ‘Occupy’):

And this interview with Giles Fraser: