The Council of McPherson

One of the really fascinating bits of Occupy DC is that it’s such a crazy mash-up of people. Yes, it’s mainly left-leaning folks without a whole lot of money, but there’s much more than that.

A couple of weeks ago a group of Methodists showed up to offer communion and hot drinks (the latter were more popular). Their numbers included a pastor from near Baltimore, who seemed to be having her world rocked. We had a great conversation about how this gathering had a certain similarity to the gatherings of believers who were casting their lot with a transformative  economic revolution in which they shared all things in common, facing a really uncertain future with little more than faith.

Yesterday, I ran into another religious group, which is part of the Twelve Tribes. They had brought food and musical instruments, and the younger of their number were dancing in a circle, generally wearing clothing that wouldn’t have been out of place 150 years ago. I initially mistook them for Mennonites. The Twelve Tribes live in a way modeled by the first followers of the Way of Jesus, holding all things in common. They had come to visit because the recognized the resonance with their own way of life.

They were handing out great booklets that started with the following call to revolution:

We live in an age of oppression — physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. We are oppressed from without and within. Screaming out for justice in an age of supreme injustice on all sides spawns the revolutionaries who strain every fiber to make a blow to the system. Everything is dark and twisted: poverty, genocide, generations under  medicated tyranny, political corruption, endless war, pollution, and ecological nightmares.

Although one could choose from a million different causes, the loyal heart that is yearning for truth and justice will stop at nothing short of the true solution to this age of sadness and chaos, heartache and brokenness. The ultimate act of revolution is to respond to the call that strikes right to the core, to the very essence of the world system itself. This call was presented and articulated in detail and clarity by Yahshua, the Son of God.

Right up to that last bit it would have had a decent chance of passing the Occupy DC general assembly.

The Occupy movement is not a religious phenomenon in the traditional sense. Maybe it would be more successful if it were a religious movement, but it is nonetheless transformative and we should note its resemblance to the uprisings found in the Hebrew scriptures

The Occupy phenomenon also resembles the Way of Jesus, although in a different way. Please consider the Council of Jerusalem, which is the only really detailed description of that earlier movement’s decision making process. (Alas, they were expecting Christ to return shortly and did not keep very good minutes)

Occupy DC makes major decisions by consensus of whomever shows up for the nightly general assembly. I’m involved in the Facilitation Committee, which is looking for ways to improve on that method, which – truth be told – is not working terribly well. But for now, it’s a big and somewhat confusing system of often poorly-defined committees, augmented by a spokescouncil that does not make decisions but helps the committees communicate. Even for someone with a couple decades of experience in collective decision-making, it’s somewhat difficult to figure out what’s going on.

The account of the Council of Jerusalem indicates there was some system of delegates. And while the decision it ultimately yielded was unanimous (different than consensus, which is merely an agreement that everyone can live with), I can’t help but be reminded of the “sausage making” that has frustrated so many people at Occupy DC.

To distill down the Biblical account, there was a pretty serious disagreement about whether Gentiles needed to follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Not surprisingly, the question of circumcision was at the top of the list of concerns.

The issue had been brewing for a while. So delegates were sent (Acts 15:3) to discuss it at a large gathering, at which “some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and insisted, ‘The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses.'” (v 5) Then “the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue. At the meeting, after a long discussion, Peter stood and addressed them.” (vv 6-7) After more speeches (and presumably discussion) “the apostles and elders together with the whole church in Jerusalem chose delegates, and they sent them to Antioch of Syria with Paul and Barnabas to report on this decision.” (v 22)

So after all that, what did they come up with? A compromise couched in very humble language. It certainly wasn’t the proposal brought by the pro-circumcision crowd, saying only that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”

There’s no record of how many hours went into this process, but clearly it took a lot of work by a lot of people. And after all that, did it solve all the problems of division within the community? Hardly. Instead, Paul and Barnabas followed their collaboration on this process by having a falling out over whether to work with another believer of questionable dedication to the cause. They soon went their separate ways. (vv 36-41)

Back at McPherson Square, there are all sorts of fault lines: cultural, political, economic, level of commitment. It’s not hard to see this thing blowing apart at any moment, and honestly I’m surprised it’s lasted this long. But for the moment it’s providing a really beautiful public space in which people can come together and engage across the barriers that usually keep us apart.

One of my favorite examples of this is the Ron Paul tent. It’s been there for a few weeks now, often staffed by a clean-cut fella (whose name I’ll leave out since he was originally a little skittish about his friends and family finding out) who hangs out in a collapsible chair and a campaign lawn sign. Lots of other occupiers give him shit, but he is also a magnet for many of the curious visitors (tourists, joggers and workers from nearby offices) who stop by and check out the scene, generally being careful not to touch anything. He is safe and normal-looking, usually wearing khakis and a button-down shirt.

Right after I met the Twelve Tribes folks, I noticed that he was holding court with three folks in suits (on a Saturday!). It turned out they were in town for a conference of the conservative/libertarian Federalist Society. I guess they felt like seeing history in the making, or wanted to gawk at the freaks, or maybe they were just passing through.

There’s more and more writing about the potential for Occupy/Tea Party agreement, but I bet these three had no idea they’d wind up in a park full of tents, hearing about how this patient and persistent Ron Paul supporter has been spending a good chunk of his life living in the park, within sight of a compound of tents that he described as having “some sort of free-love governance” and representing the opposite end of the spectrum of people who are just fed up and ready to come occupy public spaces in hope that it will somehow make things change.

I still don’t see how that change is going to follow from this tactic, but I’m utterly fascinated by it all. And as it was in the messy utopian impulse that eventually solidified into Christianity, the Occupy movement is terra incognita. We don’t know where it’s going, or how long it will last. But I’m pretty sure nobody will ever again look at McPherson Square the same way they did in September. We’ve passed a point of no return.

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2 Responses to The Council of McPherson

  1. Jeremy Hofer says:

    Was going to ask about the Ron Paul folks. There was an account that there have been large libertarian gatherings in DC. Sounds to me like its just one guy at a booth? I do think there is potential for alliance between the two camps (progressives and libertarians) except for the cultural differences which are HUGE. They both need to give on social issues to have a meeting of the minds on the economic stuff (especially the stuff about money out of politics and wars).

    • coopgeek says:

      Did I say one guy at a booth? Well, I mean giant HORDES of Ron Paul supporters. I bet there were millions of them.

      No, no. Actually it’s sort of a small group. Mostly this one guy I mentioned, but he’s had a series of other folks with him. I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to the other.

      It’s entirely possible that there were/are more of them at Freedom Plaza, which is the other Occupy DC.

      Regardless, I’m a huge believer in the crossover idea. Basically, the question is whether we let the Republicrats squabble over the details of how to have the State dominate us, or we figure out how to do it on the community level.

      But I digress…

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