At Red Letter Christians Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes an interesting response to Occupy Wall Street and the worldwide Occupy movements which have grown up in response: Waiting For St. Benedict: Where Does Occupy Wall Street Go From Here? But I cannot agree with Jonathan’s apparent conclusions. I can agree with him that
The world as we know it is coming to an end. We’re all aching for the world-to-come.
But the question is how to get there. …
The Occupy Wall Street protesters may indeed not know how to get to where they want to be – or even exactly where it is they want to be, but on that issue see this great cartoon (thanks to Sam Norton for the link):
Early in the 6th century, when the Roman Empire faced attacks from without and discontent from within, there came a point when most people knew that things had to change but no one was certain what would come next. About that time, a middle-class young Italian named Benedict left his home in Nursia to go to school in Rome only to find that the Empire which had been centered there was almost completely gone. … Benedict went to a cave, built himself a prayer cell, and so enrolled in the university of the world-to-come. …
The power of Benedict’s Rule was this: in a world that was falling apart, it gave structure to small communities of faith that could experiment in a new kind of community. It did not aim to restore Rome to its former glory or even to reform the church. The Rule simply offered people a way to live a vision of life together rooted in service, humility, and love. Throughout the Dark Ages, the Rule guided communities that existed as points of light in a sea of dark despair.
Yes, “Saint” Benedict’s Rule and the monasteries which sprang from it may have saved some of the treasures of ancient civilisation and provided part of the basis for its Renaissance rebuilding. Meanwhile they became the rich oppressors of the late Middle Ages, which had to be overthrown through a protest movement called the Reformation. This slow process of recovery followed many centuries of the chaos of the “Dark Ages”, and, to quote Tolkien, “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost”.
Wouldn’t it have been better if a talented man like Benedict (c.480–547), instead of retreating into monasticism, had stayed in Rome, like his contemporary Boethius (c. 480–524), to work hard at preserving and renewing its failing civilisation? Boethius, who has been called “the last of the Romans”, lost his life because of his political involvement, and within a generation Rome was devastated and largely abandoned. Benedict kept himself safely out of the way and died peacefully in old age. Could he have prevented the fall of Rome? Probably not, single-handed, but he could have tried.
Our western civilisation is not yet as far gone as the western Roman empire in the early 6th century. It is not yet ruled by foreigners who have seized power by force. It is not yet too far gone to be saved and for its wrongs to be righted. But if Christians, who may well have the best perspective on its rights and wrongs and the best ideas on how to save it, don’t play their part, the future is bleak. Our civilisation looks likely to be torn apart, as Rome was, by those with financial and military might but often lacking goodwill and long term vision.
So, I would plead with my fellow Christians, don’t be thinking at the moment how to retreat into personal sanctity in places of safety, behind walls or in mountain hideaways. Yes, there is a place for Christian community, “a way to live a vision of life together rooted in service, humility, and love”, but it is not in isolation from the world like Benedict’s monasteries. Rather, as Christians we need to occupy our neighbourhoods, if not in the literal way of Occupy Wall Street, at least by being lights of Christian witness within them.
For some of us, as it was for Boethius, the way to be a Christian witness will be political activity of one kind or another. We shouldn’t let scares about “dominionism”, as if there is a real danger that anyone will have enough power to impose Christian morality by force, distract us from our urgent calling to rescue our world from the threatening chaos. Do we want our world to remain under the “Domination System” of the evil one, as expounded by Walter Wink and today by Kurt Willems? Do we really think that is better for our world than it being under the dominion of God?
As Kurt writes, our Christian task is not to join the occupiers, nor to demonise them, nor to flee from them:
Only when we see our oppressors as gifts, as objects of love in spite of their un-love, will we be able to become the kind of just peacemakers that the way of Jesus invites us. Our task as followers of Jesus, when we understand the dynamics at work in the Domination System, is to humanize our oppressor and in turn become more fully human ourselves. …
… the people of God have a gift to offer the world – the gift of the “third way” between inaction and violence. The way of Jesus exposes the dehumanizing systems of the world, while seeking to raise the humanity of all parties involved in any conflict – even one dealing with economics.