Occupy Christmas: Reflections on the Occupy Movement Part 1

Mark Yaconelli presented with a protest sign from an "occupier" on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral in London last October

[Reprinted from Immerse Blog]

I’m cooking potatoes over a black iron pan on a Saturday morning in August 2010. In the background are the sounds of National Public Radio—sounds that include voices, ocean water, and feet trudging through wet and sticky earth. It has been four months since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The voices are from people working the coast of Louisiana, trying to clean up the sludge. They describe dead fish, dead birds, shellfish, and plants suffocated in black muck. There is despair in many of the voices. One woman begins to cry as she talks about the decades it will take for the coastal ecosystem to recover. “It seems hopeless,” she says.

The Saturday paper is spread on the kitchen counter and my two teenage sons sit waiting for their breakfast. Noah, my eldest, begins to read out loud, “Six children, aged 6 to 12, were killed in an airstrike by an Apache helicopter.” There is a pause, and then Noah reads another line. “They were collecting wood for their families.” [This past week an independent human rights group produced a report that an average of two Afghan children were killed by U.S. forces each day of 2010.]

Noah pushes the paper away. I put eggs and potatoes on plates and take down glasses for orange juice. “Can you turn the radio off?” My son Joseph interjects in a voice that feels tired and fragile. I unplug the radio. Joseph shakes his head. “I can’t listen to all that right now. It’s too depressing.”

Noah stands up and begins to pace.  “What happened to all that stuff Obama said about change? Why aren’t things changing? We’re still killing all these people in the war. We’re still destroying the earth. Why isn’t anyone doing anything? What about all those people who voted for things to change?” Noah looks at me with a mixture of hurt and anger.

Noah keeps up on politics. He talks about the financial crisis. He tells me there have been no arrests for all the illegal financial transactions and broken regulations that helped lead to the financial crisis. The boys are appalled.

I try to respond to their despair, but the boys feel hopeless. “Nothing is ever going to change,” they summarize. Their one request? No more news in the house. Better not to pay attention.

***

It’s the second Saturday in October 2011. I’m walking through our downtown plaza when I spot Josh, a 16-year-old who attends our church youth group. I ask him what he’s up to. Josh says he and his grandfather have been spending the night in the town plaza. They have joined up with the Occupy movement. When I ask why, he tells me, “Somebody has to stand up for the little guy.” When I go to leave he says to me, “Hey Mark, you should be out here. This is something Jesus would do.”

During my travels over the following month, I visit Occupy London, Occupy Atlanta, and Occupy Vancouver. What’s most moving to me as I talk with young adults at each of these events is their sense of hope. Yes, there is anger and fear and resentment at times, but mostly I find these people full of laughter and imagination and the good humor that accompanies people on a risky journey, people feeling the pleasure of acting on their ideals, the pleasure of struggling to do something good and worthwhile. I notice that, as I leave each of these encampments, I carry a sense of hope.

The second thing I notice is the many references to God, to Jesus, to Christian teaching. Each of these encampments had signs that referenced the Bible: In London, handwritten on brown cardboard: Thou shall not kill! followed by, End the occupation of Afghanistan. In Atlanta, written in chalk on a sidewalk: “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.” Jesus is among the 99%.” In my own hometown of Ashland, Oregon, a woman carries a sign on white poster board: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. People before wealth.

Over the past month I’ve watched and listened to my sons respond to this movement. They and their friends have been sharing videos and news stories of various protests. Over dinner they talk animatedly about the creativity and courage they sense in the protests. “This is our generation, Dad,” my eldest reminds me. “I’m going to be doing stuff like this when I go to college.” They show me the video of the UC Davis students pepper sprayed by the police and then the video of the following day when these same students sat in a gauntlet of silence as the chancellor of the school walked from her office to her car. “Isn’t that amazing!” my son exclaims. “Martin Luther King would’ve done something like that.”

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