Occupy Wall Street: Between “Church” and “Sect”

By Ben Brazil

A month ago, when the Occupy movement was beginning to gain traction, Matt Stoller penned an influential response to criticism about the movement’s lack of a clear, concise message.  The critics, he wrote, had failed to notice the religious nature of what was going on in Zuccotti Park.  He explained: “What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, ‘we matter’.”

The idea of a “church of dissent” did not only interest me – it positively attracted me.   So I was there on October 7, when Atlanta’s own occupation began in downtown’s Woodruff Park, which the group renamed Troy Davis park in honor of a quite-possibly-innocent man Georgia had executed weeks before.  Since then, I have not camped – family commitments prevented it – but I have helped in the small ways I could, donating camping equipment, spending an afternoon with the media committee, and using my Twitter stream (@bbrazil) to defend the group.  I have also attended multiple marches, visited in the evenings, and observed when police broke up the camp in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Just as importantly, I have also experienced what Nathan Schneider recently called a “secret extremity and transcendence” –  a sense that justice was, finally, on the march again and that I was part of it.  So if the Occupy movement is a church of dissent, I have worshiped at its altar.  I believe that growing economic injustice is the greatest issue of our time, and I believe that the Occupy movement is the first mass movement to confront the issue head on.  It gives me hope, and I continue support it.

At the same time, I worry that Stoller’s “Church of Dissent” risks becoming the Sect of the Politically Radical. I am referring to a sociological distinction between church and sect that found its most influential articulation in Ernst Troeltsch’s The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, first published in 1912.  Drawing on his colleague Max Weber, Troeltsch argued that churches’ engagements with the world depended on how they were organized:  as churches, as sects, or as loose collections of religious individualists, or “mystics.” At it relates to Occupy Wall Street, Troeltsch’s “church” has several salient features.  Most importantly, though,  it is broadly inclusive – a true big tent.  By church, in fact, Troeltsch primarily meant European state churches, which included everyone living in their territories. The Occupy movement makes a similar claim via income percentiles. To be part of the bottom 99 percent, the rhetoric suggets, is to hold a claim to membership in the Occupy movement. Troeltsch, however, also saw that a functioning church entailed something that some Occupiers resist: compromise.  For the medieval church and the state churches that grew from it, the compromise entailed an alliance with power in the name of an objective religious truth.  Occupiers, for their part, reject traditional notions of power in their consensus decision making process.  At some point, however, demands for reform are demands for the deployment of state power.  Likewise, if demands for economic justice don’t entail claims to absolute truth, they do entail – and should entail – a normative ethical vision.

On at least two levels, then, the “church of dissent” faces the need for compromise: with the workings of power, and with the need to maintain the “big tent” required to legitimately claim it. But, as Troeltsch knew, compromise sits uneasily with true believers and – I would add – with idealists.  Historically, it tends to generate the sects, smaller groups that recoil against the defilement of compromise and form narrower communities of the committed, pure, and pious.  They do not make claims on state power, seeking only tolerance for their own islands of purity. They favor principle over pragmatism, and purity over change. It’s not a perfect analogy, but my experiences at Occupy Atlanta suggest a group caught between an impulse to be a sect of the politically pure and the need to become a bigger church of dissent.  And I believe the issue, at this point, has less to do with substance than with tone, style, and aesthetics.  A couple of examples will show what I mean.

On the first night of the occupation, a crowd of 400-500 people from all walks of life came downtown to get a look at a movement many were thinking of joining.  Toward the end of the evening, I talked with a middle-aged white woman from a nearby suburb.  She was furious with exactly the same corporate power and economic inequality that motivated the protest.  Still, she was also flummoxed by the slow, consensus process of the governing General Assembly and it’s “human microphone” — the practice in which a crowd amplifies a speaker by repeating her clipped, half-phrases. Although I explained the process and its rationale, this woman told me in a later e-mail that she still found the process alienating. “Unfortunately I did feel like an outsider,” she wrote,  “I don’t feel confident they’re going to draw people that fall into my demographic but time will tell. Hopefully I’m wrong. I wish everyone the best!” This woman was an ally who, based on the visual and aural aesthetics of the process, decided she wasn’t welcome.

Of course, you can’t make everyone happy, and middle-class decorum will never sit easily with protest, much less with civil disobedience.  Still, some of the exclusion is as needless as it is unintentional.  On the night the police broke up the Atlanta camp, a friend tried to stop “F*@K the police” catcalls by chanting “Cops are the 99 percent.” A handful of other protesters overwhelmed his voice with a counter-chant of “Cops are class traitors.” Such language is not just inflammatory; it is the language of the sect.  And it has almost no constituency among the 99 percent they – we – claim to represent. More famously, the decision that effectively prevented civil rights hero and congressional representative John Lewis from speaking also involved a question of purity – this time, of violating the consensus process to allow Lewis to, effectively, jump to the front of the line.  To have allowed Lewis to speak immediately would have violated the pure, egalitarian, participatory democracy of the process, but effectively preventing him from speaking (he had to leave) alienated some supporters and opened the group to spurious, false, and opportunistic claims of racism.

In part, the radical flavor of the Atlanta camp simply reflects the realities of who can camp — students and single activists.  I stress that I am grateful to these idealists – they have faced arrest, worsening weather, and a lack of sleep in resistance to injustices that affect all of us.   At the same time, it is not surprising that the core Occupiers are somewhat more radical than the thousands of us that support from afar. I share other Occupier’s anger  – about pervasive economic injustice, about corporate domination of our wobbling democracy, about the unjust execution of Troy Davis, and more.  But I also wish that my allies would remember that their words, their style, and their tone can very effectively exclude people.  Although occupiers cannot cater to middle class tastes, they should also remember that the non-radical middle classes are part of the 99 percent.   Let me put this more bluntly:  Fighting for justice doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole every chance you get. I think they’re beginning to get this in Atlanta.  A push to include more African Americans has born fruit, and the Occupiers are working at outreach. It’s the right move. Martin Luther King, for example, engaged not only in physical nonviolence (as do the Occupiers) but in a verbal and emotional non-violence.  Rather than hate his oppressors, he viewed them as brothers and sisters in a Beloved Community he was trying to build.  Without compromising on justice, he understood that confronting injustice is more effective when your own dignity appears unimpeachable. At the same time, King famously excoriated moderates who refused to get involved in the fight for justice.

So let me close by turning the lens around on the academics and other sympathizers who read this site.  If you don’t like what the “Church of Dissent” looks like now, there is only one way to help:  join it.   The presence of our bodies and our voices broadens and grows a movement that is, in my view, overwhelmingly positive.  It is easy to critique a culture and protest subculture from afar.  It is harder – and better – to try to build a new movement, and a new culture, that remembers its ideals even as it eventually faces the necessity of compromise.  The ‘Church of Dissent: is what the 99 percent make it.



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One Response to Occupy Wall Street: Between “Church” and “Sect”

  1. Somewhere along the way I was convinced that this argument is something more than an interesting metaphor or a guy with a hammer seeing a nail. Of course folks from other scholarly backgrounds have their own labels – proto-communes, temporary autonomous zones, etc. I think it’s useful to ask a couple of questions (even just rhetorically), tho. Firstly, how would those involved would respond to the notion of the occupy movement as a church/sect? Secondly, is there a conscious or unconscious need to identify this movement within ecclesiastic language in order to legitimize it?

    It’s also worth considered this argument in light of the dysfunctional relationship between the OccupyLSX camp outside of St Paul’s in London and the Church of England, an invited and unprepared discussant who had the protest left on their doorstep after the LSX took out an injunction preventing the protest taking place on its land. The twists and turns, support and condemnation, the Church has offered is a good example of the “compromise” Ben talks about here. An inefficiently bureaucratic semi-independent apparatus of the state on record as criticizing the finance sector (on vague moral grounds), yet desperate for the £20,000 a day the tourists to that church bring in and the largess of the City that is its key financial contributor….

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