This is the third post in a three-post series on Christianity and Occupy Wall Street. In the first post, the author introduced and attempted to frame the movement. In the second, he begins his critique by appealing to Christian notions of justice as shalom and the radical effects of the Fall. Here, he concludes his critique by warning about the dangers of idealism and cynicism when it comes to political action and calls Christians to reflect upon their potential role in the ongoing debate.
Culture Making: Beyond Idealism and Cynicism
The Biblical account of human behavior, upon which Augustine bases his thought, can escape both the illusions of a too consistent idealism and the cynicism of a too consistent realism because it recognizes that the corruption of human freedom may make a behavior pattern universal without making it normative.1
The final major suggestion I have is closely linked to the cluster of ideas about the nature of sin brought up in the previous discussion. While there, we discussed the widening of scope that Christian views of injustice necessarily entail, here, we must discuss its limitation. If Christian doctrine about sin is true, then any individuals striving to effect social change must be careful to realize that they themselves are part of the great problem that keeps humans from living just lives. Any protest movement must move carefully and humbly lest one unjust system merely be replaced with another unjust system. But while Reinhold Niebuhr warns against the dangers of idealistic optimism among activists, he also warns against the “cynicism of a too consistent realism” that may possess those who silently sit on the wayside watching the spectacle of political mobilization.2 These are the moderates whom the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decried for being more “devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”.3 Christians, who have been taught to pray “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done”, have no business being pessimists about the possibility of radical, systemic change.
At the same time, however, it is crucial that every possibility be carefully scrutinized before resorting to protest. Martin Luther King Jr. lays out a program of nonviolent resistance: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”4 Only after careful research, attempts to reconcile injustice through traditional means, and careful self-examination to ensure that one has put aside his or her own contributions to that injustice and is committed to nonviolence does direct action arise. The act of protesting itself must only be one part of a larger attempt at enacting institutional and cultural change. While Occupy Wall Street seems to be doing a pretty good job so far, I fear that Occupy Princeton may become a bit too caught up with direct action.
My critique is not so much that not all avenues were attempted before direct action was taken – it can be powerfully argued that it was important that Princeton demonstrate solidarity with other Occupy College groups and, even in doing so, was the last of the Ivies to do so5 because of a campus culture hostile to political activism. Instead, it is an encouragement for the group, now that it is beginning to spark conversations among Princeton students, to move beyond just negative protest to the positive work of culture-making. As Christians know all too well, it is not enough to merely protest and condemn the practices of a culture. American churches have been doing so for the past few decades with little real effect save for the creation of a Christian counter-culture which, for the most part, consists of uncreative mimicry of general trends.6 Christian writer Andy Crouch, in an excellent analysis of different dominant attitudes Christians have taken in their attempts to engage culture – condemning culture, critiquing culture, copying culture, and consuming culture – ends with the conclusion that, while such attitudes are certainly appropriate, cultural change is ultimately dependent on one’s commitment to creating new cultural artifacts and cultivating those that one sees as worthy of continuation.7
This work of culture making may inevitably require the work of condemning protest, but must not be limited to it. In order to truly affect change on campus, Occupy Princeton must be able to identify ways in which it can create and cultivate culture in order to make the university better adapted to its motto. This will involve corroboration and confrontation with the administration as well as with other organizations on or around campus. In order to follow up on the action at financial industry job recruiting sessions, Occupy Princeton ought to work with Career Services on bringing more alternative job options on campus. To make Occupy Princeton truly a Princeton organization seeking for the good of Princeton culture as opposed to mimicking the actions of its Ivy League compatriots, it must identify problems unique to Princeton and research, develop, and attempt to enact effective solutions.
The arguments I have made appeal primarily to Christian sources of authority. That this is true, however, does not necessarily preclude that those who do not share my Christian presuppositions cannot benefit from them. One does not necessarily need to appeal to Biblical notions of shalom in order to push for holistic reform that does not treat economic injustice like a zero-sum game. Neither does everyone have to appeal to the universal scope of the Fall and human sinfulness in order to promote caution and humility in one’s attempt to bring justice. It may be, of course, that some worldviews will simply disagree at a fundamental level with some of the claims made. Even if no consensus is ultimately able to be found, one of the most precious virtues of democracy is that of a charity which tries to bring together very different individuals with very different worldviews in order to achieve the same political goal.
In a way, I sense that Occupy Wall Street’s highest benchmark of success or failure will not be whether it is able to create lasting change in the finance industry and the U.S. government. Its ultimate goal is the revitalization of American democracy so that it does not take a protest like Occupy for the rich to listen to the poor. Its call is for an end to the complacent slumber that assumes that democracy can work without a virtuous democratic citizenry. For the Christian, this should not sound new. The command to seek justice and love one’s neighbor is one that does not find its fulfillment without conscious and committed efforts to the pursuit of righteousness. In a democratic republic such as the United States of America, this often means that Christians must participate to some extent in charitable political engagement. Whatever one’s stance on the Occupy movement, I encourage that one make a conscious decision whether to engage with it or not. This might mean ignoring it altogether (it’s probably too late for that if you’re reading this), keeping up to date with news and voting intelligently in the 2012 elections, or even by checking out a local GA. Above all, however, I call Christians to sincerely reflect upon their individual callings and the ways that the concerns of Occupy Wall Street may overlap with what it means for one to be faithful to God. I will end as I began, with a quotation from Scripture:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
- Niebuhr, Reinhold, “Augustine and Christian Realism” in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, edited by Larry Rasmussen (San Francisco: Harper & Row, ), . [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Accessed Dec. 12, 2011. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Zumbach, Lauren, “Princeton campus last of Ivy League schools to form ‘Occupy’ protest group”. nj.com. Accessed Dec. 23, 2011. http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2011/12/princeton_campus_last_of_ivy_l.html. [↩]
- I am not saying that there has been absolutely no creativity, as it does take a certain amount of creativity to replace, say, every reference to drugs, sex, and money in a dance song with a pious Jesus-seeking equivalent, but to take the example of dance music, for instance, groups such as technopraise do little to transform the attitudes and dispositions which lead to the creation of institutions such as the dance club by offering alternative dance mixes which “praise God” instead of praising mammon. See, for example, their song “Hands to the Sky” on YouTube. [↩]
- Crouch, Andy, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008), Kindle edition. [↩]