Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pitch Your Tent!

As George Orwell said, one of the first victims of tyranny is language. But, conversely, one of the first flowers of freedom is the refreshing of language. And that means not just language but our sign system generally.

With the shutting down of the Occupy Wall Street camps in Oakland and at Zucotti Park, New York, there is perhaps a sense among the well-thinking that authorities have drawn a containing line around a posturing parade which has no attainable goal. Sure the protesters expressed a valid point and they had the right to do so--it does seem outrageous that a small segment of people both helped create the financial crisis and were able then to profit from it. But camping out on the doorsteps of the centers of power, making temples of capital look like refugee camps, well that quickly became offensive to good taste and a threat to established order. The application of crushing force (police in riot gear, use of "bean bag" projectiles, choke holds, pepper spray, multiple arrests, exclusion of journalists and cameras, the trashing of a voluntary library and other property) all this was the minimum necessary to return people to their senses. The protesters--who according to right-wing talk radio are just commies and hippies living in their mothers basements--will be sufficiently discouraged and return dejected to their dwellings.

Apart from the fact that the Occupy movement seems to have no intention of going quietly, but is constantly finding new places to gather and protest, this reading of the events fails completely to grasp the truth of what is going on. "Occupy" was never about a program on a mainline political stage or even a standard mobilization of public opinion on the streets. It was about something much more primordial, changing the very ground on which we stand. It was and is about changing meaning itself. And the rise of such a movement in our time has literally a "significance" which cannot be overstated. Nobody alive today in the U.S, will forget that in 2011 there came to public attention the leaf-shoots of an epochal growth in our collective human possibility.

Occupy Wall Street is a renewal of cultural language. It has given a vivid new currency to a number of words, like "occupy", "people's microphone", "ninety nine per cent". But even more than spoken language it is its concrete language of tents and tarpaulins, drums and bodies, associated directly, but in non-business terms, with centers of high finance that has interjected new meaning. Here are human beings intruding themselves as real actors in an arena where they are not supposed to be, and just by doing this they have changed the meaning of those places. They have taken the cheesy T.V. immediacy of the reality show and applied it creatively and subversively to Wall St. And this is what really causes the outrage. How dare they! They have no right to be here, here is where we are, invisible to everyone! Not them and their drums. But, no, they intend to remain, intruding real bodies which are undergoing real and painful real world-effects, into a sacred space supposed to be isolated from those effects. No wonder that the movement has been compared to Jesus' action in the temple!

And that brings us directly to the heart of it all. The argument in my book Virtually Christian is exactly the way the figure and story of Jesus have infiltrated the sign system of the world so that, whether it knows it or not, it begins to repeat gospel motifs of compassion and nonviolence. This effect is not one of legal personal salvation but of long-term human infiltration and transformation. The Occupy movement is one more aftershock of the gospel, exposing and challenging the principalities of this world in the way of Jesus.

What I'm saying represents no intention religiously to canonize the movement or anyone in it. In human affairs there is endless opportunity for things to go wrong, and they very probably will. But this does nothing to take away the the catalyzing role of Jesus in the semiotic veins of Occupy. The effect of Jesus at this level has no formal relation to doctrinal belief, or church membership, but it is working consistently to change the root construction of human meaning.

For many people such a concept may remain unrecognizable, or for some even heretical. I am not concerned here to try and answer such responses with amplification or rebuttal, but purely to reflect a sense that what is happening has everything to do with what it means to be Christian today.

There was something very appropriate about the way the U.K. version of OWS found a home on the land outside St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral, London. And what happened there represented the enigma that official Christianity now find itself facing. The proximity of the camp brought the resignation of two high-profile churchmen, attached to the cathedral. First Canon Giles Fraser, because he could not countenance the possible use of force to evict the camp. The second was the Dean of the Cathedral, who had agreed unnecessarily to shutting the doors of St. Paul's for the first time since the 2nd World War, and subsequently found himself in an impossible position. There was clearly an enormous tension set up between the fluid language of the gospel celebrated by the tents at the door and the traditional meanings of an established church formed in massive stone at the heart of London's financial district.

The vibrant tension in meaning caught the eye of others in England and another group set up camp outside Exeter Cathedral two hundred miles away from London. Bishop Michael Langrish complained."This is pure copycat, they have been outside one cathedral, now they are outside another." What the bishop painfully missed was the obvious fact that language is copycat, and that's what was happening! The spontaneous camp outside his ancient cathedral had seen the electric arc of meaning between the cathedral and the tents, and they wanted to relay it further!

Christianity today is called to make a massive conceptual shift to see that its ultimate reference is not the eternal beyond, but the very world around them as infected with the new meaning of Christ. Its own most proper language--Jesus and his nonviolent forgiving death realized in startling new life--has become unbound in the world, beyond anyone's magisterial power to control or monopolize. The result is at once both disorientation and a thrilling reorientation. The Bishop of Exeter was disoriented, those who pitched their camp outside his gothic walls were discovering, like Israel in its tents, a radically new orientation.

In some crazy way the world had become the church, growing the language of nonviolent change, freedom and compassion, while the church has become the world, speaking the old language of hierarchy, heaven and a business of brokering the ticket to get there.

But what does this mean for those who want to practice "church"?

It is possible that some ministers and leaders situate themselves conceptually in the new emerging matrix. They may be motivated personally by the concrete transformation brought by the gospel. But so long as pastors have not significantly transferred the focus of their operations to the symbolic boundaries, to the border areas of this world-become-church, then no one is going to notice anything new. The difference might be clear in the pastors' minds, but if they do not set about changing the signs of their work, in resonance with the way Jesus is changing the root language of the world, then they may as well be preaching the theses of medieval scholasticism.

The church's metaphysical function is so deeply entrenched that its default role is precisely that of the guardian of metaphysics, and it is almost impossible for people to see past that. What I am describing is called organized religion and, one way or another, it invokes the stock religious piety of the grand old God sitting above the clouds dealing with sinful humanity by means of his "exotic financial instrument", the death of his Son. Jesus bailed out our debt--you could say God, like one of the big banks, sold it to him--and so long as we agree to that, by confession or some form of regular practice, our souls are preserved from an immortality of torture and promised instead an immortality of bliss. Our mortgage will be paid for us and we'll get our mansion in the sky...

Only a consciously elaborated new set of signs can change this discredited-but-still-dominant notion. Only a new set of signals can get people to enter a new paradigm. Some possible examples include: non-traditional or discovered meeting spaces, names and images that make what is familiar appear strange, use of the body in worship that places us in an undefended relation to the Spirit, and above all communicative programs that present the human condition of violence and its transformation by Jesus as the meaning of the biblical story.

But don't let the blog tell you what signs to create! The whole point of a new language is that it generates itself exponentially, exactly as the "tongues of fire" descending on the first Christians enabled them to communicate to each person "in his or her own language" without need of prompting. Go pitch your tent on the borders of the church somewhere, in the place where the world-become-church perhaps already has set up camp. For the Word is made flesh and he tents among us!

Tony Bartlett, at AAR 2011 San Francisco