Occupy Galatia!

It occurs to me that the current Occupy Everywhere movement bears certain similarities to (at least a certain interpretation of) the Pauline communities. The emphasis on consensus-based decision-making certainly coheres with Paul’s insistence on group unity, and the open-ended, process-oriented nature of the movement has certain parallels with the emphasis on creating a way of life that wouldn’t be mediated by an extrinsic law. And of course both movements are prompted by an injustice — whether it be the contemporary abuses of Wall Street or the Roman oppression symbolized by the crucified messiah.

It’s at this point, however, that the parallels seem to me to break down, because there is no single Transcendent Victim that the Occupy protesters are rallying behind. For all the terrible things the TBTF banks have done, none has the perfect clarity of “putting the messiah — the literal embodiment of God’s justice — to death as a rejected criminal.” This special transcendent role of Christ then issues in a special transcendent quality of Paul, whose status as an apostle inevitably makes him “elite” in relation to his communities, even if (as he claims) he willfully submits himself to them. And of course, this “cult of personality” leads almost inevitably to the authoritarianism of the proto-catholic episcopacy, which found that enforced obedience to a hierarchical leader was the only way to make up for the lack of a clear, enforceable law (which “love one another” certainly is not).

It’s been widely reported that there are self-effacing leaders in the Occupy movement, though I’ve heard nothing to indicate that any believe they are on a direct mission from God. Nevertheless, even leaving aside the question of current charismatic leadership, I wonder if the Occupy movement will prove just as vulnerable to authoritarianism as the Pauline communities were — precisely because of their procedural emphasis on radical equality and consensus-building.

Even if there is no single “cross” of the Occupy movement, they do nonetheless embrace an ethic of mutual service and submission, as represented above all in the “human microphone” that requires everyone to literally repeat whatever the speaker is saying whether they agree or not (“to the anarchist I became an anarchist, to the Ron Paul fan I became a Ron Paul fan…”). As the experience of Christian history tells us, this kind of ethics seems great when everyone’s doing it — but it’s absolutely toxic when it gets hijacked by people who never had any intention of following it.

Similarly, the non-violence of the Christian movement proved to be an amazingly effective propaganda tool — and yet after a struggle of nearly three centuries, the best outcome they could produce was for the emperor to co-opt them. If Taubes was right that Paul’s epistle to the Romans was a declaration of war against Rome, this is surely a disappointingly “reformist” outcome. The subsequent history of non-violent movements seems to indicate a strong connection with reformism as well. The early Christians at least had the idea that God would come down and take power, though — as for Occupy Wall Street, there seems to be no conception of what it would mean to take power or seriously displace Wall Street (as in the insistence of some that they shouldn’t be seen as “anti-capitalist”).

Nevertheless, one can perhaps be guardedly optimistic about the new forms of communal self-organization that could arise if the occupation spaces remain relatively undisturbed — after all, the first-century “Occupy the Temple at Jerusalem” movement recounted in Acts wound up developing a pretty radical form of communism.

Anyway, these are just some initial thoughts on possible parallels — I’m sure you all will have some interesting suggestions, rebuttals, etc.

13 thoughts on “Occupy Galatia!

  1. Wow, that’s a weird coincidence. I was thinking of Corinth, but thought that they might be problematic as a representative sample due to the class issues apparently at work in that city — hence we were thinking the same thing in even more detail. Craziness.

  2. Tangent: the class issues in 1 Cor have been pretty misrepresented in the dominant literature. There certainly were conflicts based upon status and wealth — but the contemporary example of the relative difference that existed between those members of the assemblies in Corinth would be more comparable to conflicts that occur between people who are on welfare and live in social housing and people who are homeless. The conflict takes places between two classes of poor people (some are just relatively less poor than others), not between some middle or upper class folks and poor folks (as folks like Theissen or Meeks argued). I believe this is a new consensus emerging about this and hope to contribute to it in my own writing.

  3. I was wondering, given the above on your thoughts on the (arch?)Bishop of St Paul’s asking Occupy (London) to leave. Rather ironic perhaps.

    As far as consensus building is concerned as a teleology or morphogenesis (can’t be ‘and’ though but don’t want to assume the desire of Occupy) I am interested in this as although I am not a theologian; I come from a study of mental health survivor movements and am currently looking at translations of Habermas’ ‘Vestehen’ that emphasise it’s translation as ‘consensus’ over ‘mutual understanding’, (whither respect for difference, or Others; respecting another’s belief as Not-I – the joke that the liberal does not get that when he thinks he is being multi cultural he need check he is not assuming that it is due to his superior liberalism that these other cultures may be free to exist – with regard to the mistaken belief that it is necessarily counter to the guy who says ‘You can only say that because this is a free country’ implying that he wishes that you hadn’t said it and the country not be so free but unable to consciously reconcile the two – (simply – “Did you hear about the guy who thought ideology was always somebody ELSE’S belief system).
    I personally am looking at consensus as a correlative of ‘reassurance’ with regard to a need when seeking recognition. This is a valid need but only one of many. And I see the insistence of ‘consensus’ as linked to an alienated need for reassurance that has Judaeo-christian roots. But as yet this is only an inkling. (Without the obvious fact that we are communicating in a language that has over a thousand years of Christian hegemonical development). When i question the emphasis on consensus I mean it’s importance over other forms of understanding as opposed to action; and i am aware that ‘reassurance’ is a global need as is the requirement for some consensus in decision making just as global (I hesitate to say universal) and I accept it is a need not merely a choice. So this post piqued my interest.

    As to its co-option explorations of techniques of ‘team building’ in management may be a useful exploration.

    I say this knowing the importance of the praxis that Occupy represents. I do not know the label of my politics but I am closest to a direct democrat, albeit a highly critical one. Unfortunately i can only observe from afar. I am one of those for whom these times have become especially hard – as hard as they are for so many. So this is not meant as an attack (he says suspiciously defensive) but an ongoing exploration.

  4. At Occupy Oakland on Saturday, I overheard a street preacher — who was standing outside Oscar Grant Plaza, so I don’t mean to imply he was taking part (though, who knows, he may) — offering to anybody within earshot the following good news (of a certain sort), “All these churches talking about the God of love. But don’t believe it! They’re not telling about the God who will destroy this world and –” whereupon I was then across the street and accosted more by the sounds of bus brakes and requests for spare dollars & cents. As I considered his message, I decided his might be more a message of hope than his spittle-tossed delivery might’ve suggested..

  5. Consensus decision making does have theological roots in the Quaker communities, though modified through the struggles of the 1960s – it also exists in various Native American communities. Several people have said this is precisely the problem with it – when decisions are made by Quakers they are made with a wider background of basic agreement about certain ethical precepts (among them the idea of active listening), common stories and so on. It can’t quite cope with things that are either incredibly contentious or where this is not the case.

  6. PS

    Great post Dan – someone should tell Giles Fraser that.

    At Occupy London Stock Exchange I heard a church service go on while a man did a pro-Satan rant and the Muslim setup a stall. Quite diverse!

  7. I’ve been wondering whether there will be any talk of “occupying ancient Mediterranean religion” or “occupying biblical studies” at SBL this year.

  8. Considering that the AAR is in San Francisco, just across the bay from Oakland, I wonder if there is any thing the group can do to help OccupyOakland. I’m sure we could do a pointless and ineffectual petition at the very least, but I wonder if a plenary held at the (hopefully to be retaken) Occupy site would be better?

  9. Has anyone raised the possibility of generally occupying AAR/SBL–at the very least in solidarity with OccupyOakland? Of course, we also have reasons to want to stage intellectual and economic occupations of the academic study of religion.

  10. Anthony, I think that’s a great idea. I also wonder if it would it be possible to invite Occupy Oakland protesters to a teach-in at AAR.

  11. Anthony, I support that. While I’ve been going to Occupy Philly regularly either on my own or with Machete (http://machetegroup.wordpress.com/), I was surprised by the amount of philosophers that attended OP during SPEP last week. Dozens came to City Hall and several actively participated in teach-ins and the like. For instance, Nancy Fraser spoke to the crowd for thirty minutes leading up to the GA.

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