Seminary of the Street

Amazing Grace: Occupy Oakland, November 13-14
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Reflections by Seminary of the Street Director Nichola Torbett

I am simply overwhelmed by the support of so many people. What a wrenching, beautiful day it has been.

It was heart-wrenching to arrive at Oscar Grant Plaza Sunday night to find that so much of what we had built had been voluntarily (and wisely) dismantled in advance of the police raid. We walked around and around the plaza throughout the night, talking to people, helping to hang banners, lighting candles, mixing Maalox and water to prepare for possible tear gas attacks, and just being there together.

As more and more people came downtown in the wee hours of the morning, the energy was intense and vibrant. While protesters drummed and chanted at the intersection, we held a prayer circle at the interfaith tent and lit candles in a semicircle around the entrance. When the police finally arrived around 4am, it was a tremendous honor to sit down and link arms in front of the interfaith tent with 13 leaders of the interfaith community as we were singing "Amazing Grace," "We Shall Overcome," and our modified song that went "Occupy Oakland! We shall not be moved. Like a tent erected on the plaza we shall not be moved."

We were arrested without incident at 6am, held in jail for most of the day and released around 4pm. Our court date is December 14. I am grateful for the support of the National Lawyers' Guild hotline, which we called from our holding cell. (We actually called once just to find out what time it was because we were going crazy in the information vacuum. And they were so nice about it.)

Here is the text of an interview I did with the CHRISTIAN POST:

1. What role do you believe faith leaders should have in the Occupy Movement?

I believe the role of faith leaders in this movement is the same as the role of all people of faith at all times, which is to put our God-given gifts, which vary, into the service of all life. This means actively resisting what we at Seminary of the Street call the "death systems," social systems and ways of being that shame, hurt, exploit, impoverish, enslave, and kill people, animals, and the planet. In our day and time, this means resisting the privatization, for profit, of everything from water, food, and housing to wisdom in the form of education. Did you know that they are currently working on a plan to privatize air? Even our spiritual and emotional health has been privatized; we are taught that our depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental health issues are a result of personal failings or family dysfunction, and we are urged to forget that we and our families are embedded in a network of social systems that distort love, shame us, and make us crazy.

I believe that we Christians are called not just to worship but to FOLLOW Jesus. What I see Jesus doing is, first of all, willingly relinquishing the privileges of being "above it all" and actively entering into the suffering of human beings. Specifically, Jesus was born among a colonized people who were being economically and socially exploited by a powerful empire in collusion with the people's own religious leaders. In that environment, Jesus moved among both outcasts and leaders, touching and healing the outcasts, reminding them that they are beloved children of God and that their faith makes them whole despite what their society tells them, and then challenging and chastising the religious leaders whose self-righteousness hides from them the ways in which they are quite literally selling out their own people by participating in their economic exploitation while they teach the people that their suffering is a result of the people's personal sinfulness. This is what I see happening in the Occupy movement, where homeless, mentally ill, and impoverished people are restored to community with the rest of the 99%, and people in power are called to account. This didn't make Jesus popular among the powerful, any more than it makes us popular among big businesses and city officials. Even when when the powerful came for Jesus, he refused to use violence, instead letting the powerful condemn themselves by what they did to him. That is what we tried to do yesterday when we were arrested without fighting back.

2. What is your opinion of the arrest of the faith leaders and others in Oakland?

I believe that, to the best of our ability, we tried to follow Jesus and do what Jesus would do, which is to highlight the injustice of a human criminal justice system that arrests relatively powerless people peacefully sitting on public property (not to mention the millions arrested for the crime of simply being black or brown in this country) while letting the powerful--bankers, outrageously high-paid CEOS, billionaires, and government officials--continue to make decisions that maim, rob, and kill people. Even now, one of our fellow protesters here in Oakland--a beautiful, peaceful man committed to gardening and working with children--is being held by the Oakland Police Department for deportation because he is undocumented. In addition, we who were arrested need to continue to articulate our reasons for being arrested and tell the truth about the violent systems in which we live, in which we ourselves also participate, and from which we to some degree benefit. I don't want us to be positioned in any way as heroes or as special, but just as representatives of what happens to human beings who get in the way of profit and upward mobility. Here in Oakland, we live in an impoverished city that is trying to court big business, and having a bunch of ragtag religious, activist, and unhoused people camping out downtown doesn't look good to corporate execs. We had to be removed. I wanted, in part, to expose that reality for what it is. We also wanted to defend the Occupied land as a place where people have been coming together to build real community and dream up the new social systems and structures that we want for ourselves.

3. The mayor of Oakland said that the removal of demonstrators was done in part because of the growing violence in the Occupy camps, including the shooting of oen of the participants. Do you agree?
No, I do not. More than a hundred people have been murdered in Oakland this year, not to mention the hundreds who die each year of hunger, lack of access to healthcare, exposure to the elements as a result of homelessness, and despair. Unless the city is willing to devote the millions of dollars to eliminating those conditions that they have already invested in police actions against this people's movement, this rationale is ludicrous. The tragic death of Kayode Ola Foster is being used as political fodder to discredit a movement that is highly inconvenient, embarrassing, and distasteful to people who have power and fortunes and want to keep them. Please understand: I do not believe Jean Quan, the mayor of Oakland, is a "bad person." I believe she is caught up in a system that serves the 1%, not the 99%. We are calling on her to resist that system and stand with us and for the people of Oakland.

4. What is your opinion of Christians who oppose the Occupy Movement or are critical of its aims?
Many of the Christians who oppose the Occupy Movement have fallen prey to a distorted version of our faith, a version that, without its adherents knowing it, has become captive to serving the 1% rather than the 99%. In recent decades, Christianity has been increasingly privatized. Many believers think that Christianity is solely about having a personal relationship with Jesus, and living a personally pious life in order to get individually saved after they die. Piety, in this country, has then been layered over by middle-class respectability and conformity. Religious leaders in this distorted tradition blame the victim for their suffering, claiming it must be a result of the victim's sinfulness. I see these folks as having fallen into the same trap as the Pharisees and scripture experts of Jesus' day.

While I believe that a personal relationship with God (in Jesus or in other forms) is essential to sustaining real aliveness and vitality, I do not believe in salvation as an individual enterprise. I believe that we are saved in community as more and more of us live into the Kingdom of God, which Jesus preached was already here and available to us in some way. That means loving each other, committing fiercely to each other's wholeness, sharing what we have, and fulfilling the mission to heal the sick; cast out demons that hold people captive to upward mobility, endless status-seeking, and fearful conformity; and raising to new life those who have been deadened by buying into the lifeless way of living that has been sold to them. That is what I believe Christians in the Occupy Movement are trying to learn to do, very imperfectly.