Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sermoning on the Steps: Standing on Sacred Ground

The 'Sermon on the Steps' did not, actually, take place on the Steps of St Paul's Cathedral. Nor was it just one 'sermon'. The people giving the Sermons - pastors, reverends, bishops, priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis, agnostics, and quite a few Quakers - stood at the bottom of the steps, near a statue of Her Majesty. They faced those gathered - perhaps about 200. It was the people who were on the Steps, facing out. Facing, in fact, the direction of The City where some of the '1%' played their particular part in creating, trading, re-creatin, loosing, gaining and in other ways moving the trillions of digital money around the global financial system that even now teeters on the edge of yet another collapse. Those gathered were part of the dynamic Occupiers, who claimed to speak for the 99% of humanity whose voices and vitalities are being lost, squandered and splintered from one another. And so those gathered gathered in what is left of the public commons, on a piece of property where it is unclear who, exactly, owns it.

It was a cold and blustery day in London; I was sick, irritable and behind on a pressing deadline, but I knew from the moment I found out about it that I had to go. I had, afterall, spent a great deal of time writing and thinking about global finance and climate change. As soon as I got there, I knew I had to speak, though the list was long. I do, afterall, continue to hear a call to be a minister, especially around these issues. Eventually, en-sh'allah, the lady orchestrating us put me on the list.

I would say that afternoon was one of hte most extraordinary ones I've had in months. There was something about having person after person from different faiths say, again and again and again, how much they stood with the occupiers that was far more powerful if it had been just one or two particularly 'powerful' voices. Every Christian who spoke said with conviction that if Jesus were here he'd be right there on the Steps (not inside the Church, but with those sleeping in tents outside). There were at least 5 quakers out of possibly 20 or 25 speakers - fitting, given that it was members of our faith who founded Lloyds, Barclays, and some of the others. And fitting because it is partly due to a strong Quaker influence that this movement has been operating on consensus - which might well be one of its greatest contributions (or so I've been told).

A Unitarian Minister my parent's age said she often lost hope for the future. Then she took out her camera, pointed it at those of us gathered, and said, I shall take this picture and put it in my office at my church. and every time I look at it I will have hope. You are so beautiful.

A rabbi sang the first line of the blessing of shabbat. He said, many of my fellow Rabbis wanted to be here tonight. But it is Shabbat so they are lighting candles with their congregations. I said I would come here for them, and in being with you I know I am fulfilling the covenant we made with Abraham.

A member of the humanitarian society said, look, its about our common human values. we are in this together. It is too one another we must turn.

An agnostic said, I am proud to be a critical and questioning agnostic. And I am proud to be part of a movement of such faith.

An older Anglican priest, now retired, said, I am ashamed of my Church. I want to apologise for the way we have treated you. We should have welcomed you. We should have opened our Church to you. We should have given you pastoral care. We should be giving you blankets, for you are doing the work of God.

A Quaker read from Faith and Practice, Kenneth Boulding - something about getting to the heart of the economic, financial and monetary system that is causing so much of injustice in the world - and the environmental destruction.

A minister read from Martin Luther King.

Someone from India led us in a simple breathing meditation.

A Baptist-Quaker-vegetarian-queer-man read from the Sermon on the Mount. He made a few other brilliant comments, but

An older nun led us in singing Amazing Grace.

A priest sang the english version of He had missed his calling as an opera singer.

A veteran said, with more conviction and power than I have heard from anyone in a long time: I am calling you, fellow Veterans, to fulfill your sworn duty to protect your queen and country by joining the 99%, who are gathered here, at the base of this Church. Do not follow the orders of the 1%, who will not feed you, will not care for your families and will not care for their own people when you return from war. You are needed here, by the 99.

I knew, then, that this movement is not about finance. It's not really about the money. Of course, anyone who knows much about money knows it is really, never, actually, about the money. It's about a much deeper issue. It's about identity. Part of the brilliance is the very simple notion: 99 against 1. That notion breaks through the siloization and isolation of past identity-based-movements. But it is not as overwhelming as 'we are all 1'. It maintains the diversity even as it speaks of unity. It allows people to enter the 'movement' without knowing too much about finance - which, for most of the people I met, is probably necessary. It taps into the deep-seated fears, anger and angst that has grown in populations who are more or less 'comfortable' for decades. It lumps the poor in finance with the poor in spirit and the poor in relationships with, well, pretty much everyone. In doing so, it invites people back into the commons.

And I? What did I say? As always, my memory of my 'sermon' is fuzzy. I'm sure it is somewhere on the internet. I am grateful that my Baptist-Quaker friend, Symon Hill, said it was truly Spirit-Led. I was certainly Quaking enough. I know I started by letting myself ground in silence. I doesn't read as well as it was said. But I think it went something like this:

I came to this country to study about climate change and international development. And then the financial crisis happened. And I discovered that you cannot try to understand and work for climate justice and human rights without understanding not just economics but the financial system and the monetary system upon which it is based. I am so grateful that I am no longer alone in trying to understand what is often passed off as complicated: standing here today, I know that you are with me. But when I first heard that Occupy London had occupied St Paul's, I was, as I often am in this little island, confused. Why not just occupy the stock exchange? This isn't about the Church! But then I thought, once, a long time ago, we all gathered here, in common areas where we could work out how to govern the common good. We gathered in places where we shared a common faith in a power greater than ourselves that could lift us out of the despair we feel when we are isolated from one another. But then some of those who had more started making hefty profits out of those who had too little. And they, protected by their numbers and their computer programmes and their common identity of 'too smart to fail' in a world where we all hate to be idiots and a veneration for supposed rationalisation moved across the street, to rule the 'private space' of the 'free and open market'.

Ever since then I feel we have been searching. We have looked to fill that god-shaped hole in drink and drugs, consumption and special foods from exotic parts of the world, new shoes and far-off-holidays, poor relationships and broken families. We have put our faith in financiers to have omniscent knowledge power and control - though any financier will tell you the market has her own pulse, her own rhythms and her own invisible hands which they keep reaching out for; they know they too are powerless over her. But they still walk with certainty down the halls of power and take actions that ignore the complexity of our interwoven eco-nomics.

Well, you can read from your Bible, and you can read from your King, and you can read from the words written at another time by another man. But this is what I can say: that today, here, we are a people who have been found. Here, at the base of these steps, on this most holy of grounds, we have re-found our faith. I don't mean faith in a building. I mean faith in one another. We have been found in the 99: in finding one another. And wherever we find one another, we are standing on holy ground. All around the world, as we rise up to occupy, what we occupy becomes sacred, because this whole earth is sacred. Every day, every loaf of bread, every human being - every one of us 99 - and even the 1 - we with our bones and our flesh and our imperfect and incomplete knowledge - we are sacred. And these are holy times.

And then I sang that song - This is holy ground.

As it is.

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