Monday, October 24, 2011

Jonathan B. Hall Reflects on Occupy Wall Street

Beatus vir. The happiness of the just and the evil state of the wicked.

Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.

But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night.

And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season. And his leaf shall not fall off: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper.

Not so the wicked, not so: but like the dust, which the wind driveth from the face of the earth.

Therefore the wicked shall not rise again in judgment: nor sinners in the council of the just.

For the Lord knoweth the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.

(Psalm 1, Douay-Rheims translation, 1609)

Recently, I had a quick lunch next to Ground Zero.

Directly across the street—one of those tiny, narrow streets for which Lower Manhattan is so famous—was the perimeter of the construction site. I was with friends in a pizzeria, deeply shadowed by sidewalk scaffolding and the monumental project next door.

To get to the pizzeria, we walked south from St. Paul’s on Trinity Place, along the eastern boundary of the World Trade Center site, and had to cross right by Zuccotti Park. This is the park that has been dubbed “Liberty Park” by the Occupy Wall Street protestors.

As we walked by the park, of course we could see them. The park looked fairly full, packed end to end with blue tarps and mostly-young people. Around them were police, mainly occupied in directing traffic. Nothing appeared to be happening.

Inside the pizzeria—where, I’m happy to report, I was able to get a low-sodium grilled-chicken salad—there developed a queue of workmen. It was lunch hour for one of the work shifts, apparently. We had gotten our orders in just in time.

What an incredible human contrast.

In the park, a collection of (for the most part) shaggy-haired, grinning, college-age kids, intermingled with older folk indulging in a kind of second political childhood. No one was doing much of anything. Their movement—over a month old—had still failed to produce any organizing document, make any concrete demands, or do anything except lay about and complain about America in general.

I was glad that nobody was banging on garbage cans—sorry, “drumming”—at that moment!

Michael Moore had dropped by, and Alec Baldwin had dropped by.

The number of “supporting” organizations had grown to fifty, including the American Communist and the American Nazi parties alike. When these two groups both admire something, you have to ask what their common hatred—the missing middle term—could be. Of course, that term is America.

But in the pizzeria: a steady stream of men. Hard-working, strong, short-haired, quiet, orderly men, ordering lunch. Some in uniforms, some in overalls, some with hard hats, many sporting T-shirts with slogans like “Rebuilding America Together.”

Black men, and white men. Men with the jet-black hair that could only come from Sicily, and men with unmistakably Irish and Slavic features.

And many expressions of patriotism: printed on their shirts, pinned to their suspenders, pasted on their hard hats. America, here, was a word of blessing and not of cursing. It is their common denominator, and it is a shared love.

These men were not of my social class—let me acknowledge that openly. No relative of mine has worn a hard hat or overalls since the end of the Civil War. When I passed by the protestors, I recognized a number of people with whom I had something in common, as far as life experience is concerned. When I was in the pizzeria, I felt I was among the Other. I did not feel natural simp├ítico for the men at the counter.

I also had memories of when this class of man took itself too seriously. Memories of a trucker using the F-word in my mother’s hearing on East 22nd Street in Manhattan: my mother transfixing him with a gaze, and he blushing and apologizing.

Memories of the arrogance of the labor unions, of shoddy American goods, of the overbearing and violent comportment of the working-class “ethnics” on my Catholic school playground.

Then I realized: that’s the big mistake. My big mistake.

And I shifted focus by a conscious act of will. I put aside the issue of where I’d come from, and asked myself where I was going. Put another way, I listened to Psalm 1.

And as if a dam were suddenly breached, a wave of empathy came over me. I saw these hardhats as my fellow Americans, my people, my brothers.

I saw that what they were doing was, on the face of it, meritorious. Their behavior was in every way appropriate and benign, insofar as I could witness. Their choice was a good one.

My higher-educated brethren in Zuccotti Park—what of them? I couldn’t very well deny them the same recognition. Empathy is empathy is empathy. But I saw more clearly than ever that they are caught in a pincers. They cry out against capitalism, and resent not having what they deem their “fair share” of its fruits.

While the workingmen were rebuilding the most emotionally-charged acreage in the country, these protestors were protesting, in essence, for the sake of protesting. There is little question in my mind that, of the two different groups I saw that day, one was engaged in building up, and the other in tearing down.

Even a single coherent statement from the latter would have prevented that stark judgement. But I must stand by it.

Now: here is where this sermon is not going.

I am not going to equate the protestors with the “wicked man” of the first Psalm. Nor am I going to equate the workingmen with the “just man.” The Psalm does not lend itself to such a shallow social application. Nor, for that matter, does anything in the Scripture. This is why the Scripture disappoints so many people, people who will go thus far but no farther.

There are very possibly people in both scriptural categories in both groups.

However: I now see that Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London—the “mother church,” if there is such a thing, of Anglican Christianity—has been shut down by Occupy protestors.

This settles it for me.

The individuals involved (whether in building up or tearing down, and there is a “time” for both) may or may not be pleasing to God. The movement per se is displeasing to God. A Christian, at this moment, in the chilly light of this October morning, has no choice but to oppose the movement, until and unless it justifies its existence, and stops bullying the Church.

It is time for Occupy Wall Street to apologize, strike its tents, and go home.

No Christian can presently support this movement. By its actions in London, it has closed itself to the positive possibilities of Psalm 1.

Here, the first Psalm is eerily applicable. There is a stark contrast between fruitful trees near running water, and dust driven by the wind.

I cannot but contrast, in my mind, the memorial at Ground Zero—Reflecting Absence, two sources of flowing water near a small urban grove of trees—and the dust of September 11, 2001, now driven from the face of the earth by a decade of wind.

Which do you want to be? Do you want to live, or not?

Can the first Psalm be applied in a corporate sense? If so, let OWS tremble. And whether you agree with this or not: the next time you see a man in lower Manhattan wearing a hard hat, think of him in the language of Isaiah 58: as a “repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

Jonathan B. Hall's writings mostly concern the pipe organ and sacred music. Before studying organ, he studied English literature. To read another meditation by Jonathan B. Hall, go here.

Related reading: Drum Circles and Wall Street

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