Where are the Clergy? A Report from Occupy DC

If you had walked through McPherson Square—a patch of urban green surrounded on four sides by office buildings, hotels, restaurants, and a Metro station—on the cold rainy Day 3 of Occupy DC, you might not have noticed anything different from any other day: people with handwritten signs, looking like they’d slept outside. Others emerging from the Starbucks across the street, talking on cell phones or carrying laptops. Conversations on the park’s benches. For a city accustomed to itinerant protesters, a population glued to mobile devices, as well as the homeless sleeping in the shadows of the halls of power, it quite possibly looked like any other day in the heart of the nation’s capital.

That passersby appeared to ignore the protesters was appropriate: Occupy DC, after all, has settled in the heart of K Street, the eponym for the corruption of our politics with big corporate money.

But for Micah Bales, an Occupy DC participant known for his Quaker activism, the group is not so much occupying McPherson Square as “holding space for the 99% to come and gather.”

There was, notably, no drum circle, which has become a symbol of both liberal and conservative scorn of the New York movement (conservatives scoff while some liberals cringe).

Why Aren’t There 50 Clergy?

But there was a tiny glimmer of progressive religious activism. I was there to meet a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Brian Merritt, the gregarious, affable pastor of the ecumenical, progressive Palisades Christian Church in the District. “I’ll be the guy in the Ben’s Chili Bowl hat,” Merritt told me on the phone.

Merritt, 42, was inspired by the movement’s goals of confronting structural economic problems, a tack that he says has largely been ignored by progressive religious activism.

As to why there isn’t more of a religious presence at the Occupy protests, “I think about that a lot,” said Merritt. “I think: exactly what happened? What happened? Why aren’t there 50 clergy?”

That could be, of course, a product of lack of information, an aversion to the style of the Occupy protests, an absence of resources, or many other factors. Merritt acknowledged that clergy have far more administrative demands on them than they did 40 or 50 years ago, constraining their ability to get involved in political activism or organizing. But he offered other diagnoses as well.

Many liberal religious activists, Merritt said, remain stuck in the 1960s in how they frame and address economic issues, yet have abandoned protest strategies in favor of the model of maintaining a Washington office whose purpose is to lobby members of Congress. Other religious activists are too focused on “events-oriented things” like staged arrests, “where they’ve pre-negotiated the thing, which is not to me civil disobedience.”

At the same time, national religious political organizations “paternalistically” decide what the “important” issues are. Nonprofits providing social services—feeding or housing the homeless, helping unemployed with job hunting—are overwhelmed, with staffers working 50- to 60-hour weeks.

His own participation “is not about me, I’m not like a lot of social justice people who come into a movement and are invested in taking it over so that donations can be brought to X,” said Merritt. “I was just more willing to come to offer whatever help. I will probably be bringing gloves and hats for people who are going to be camping out.”

When I met Merritt late in the day, a few hours before the group’s scheduled General Assembly meeting at six, many of the participants had decamped to Starbucks to design flyers to spread the word. They left the poster board that listed goals, handwritten contributions of anyone who wanted to chime in, under a tree in the square (see image above). Some goals were appropriately wonky for DC (“reinstate Glass-Steagall”); others were overbroad and silly (“abolish capitalism + the state”); others were born of frustration (“get jobs for educated unemployed”), followed by the odd suggestion to “legalize prostitution nationwide.”

Merritt himself would like to see a repeal of Taft-Hartley, the 1947 law restricting union organizing, which “truncated us from having any union power.” He pointed at the proposal to reinstate Glass-Steagall as a concrete suggestion that could go a long way toward repairing the economic system. (Glass-Steagall was the 1933 law, repealed in 1999, which mandated the separation of commercial and investment banking activities; its repeal led to the financial services products that were central to the catastrophic economic collapse of 2008.)

Actions with Consequences

In the main, the sign listing the Occupy DC goals was heavier on wonkery than anarchism; albeit laden with some highly generalized goals (“foist off the corporate hijacking of society and politics!”). Merritt questioned why religious groups motivated by “social justice,” the term used by progressive church types and maligned by Glenn Beck, don’t embrace activism around these structural economic issues. “Who in the church is talking about these issues?” he asked. “Who is talking about student loan debts? Who’s talking about mortgage? We bailed out all these corporations, but I don’t see any of the social justice groups I’m working with talking about the millions of people who are out of their homes and were basically defrauded by mortgage companies?”

Merritt doesn’t even like the term “social justice.” He’s inspired by liberation theology, and says that focusing on “social justice” separates one from “living justice,” says Merritt. “For me, it’s something that’s all encompassing, and it’s not separated from love.”

When “social justice” is touted as a separate category, he went on, “it makes it something out there. We’re protesting for justice, for someone out there, instead of [saying] we are a part of something and we’re trying to make it just.”

His religious activism colleagues, he contended, do not understand massive socioeconomic changes over the past several decades. “You’re talking about people who are coming out of college with $80K of debt and are getting $20k a year jobs,” he said. “The underclass is under 40.”

As to whether the Occupy protests will succeed, Merritt seemed to think it would depend on the right mix of aspiration, inspiration, and results. “I’m a hardcore realist. And I end up in these places with a lot of hardcore idealists,” he chuckled. “I like seeing an actionable item that has a consequence.”