Occupations, Movements, and Eschatological Hope

by Bert Newton PS Bert

It’s been two years since we held the last General Assembly for Occupy Pasadena. Only three or four people attended that last assembly. For months our numbers had ranged from two to six participants.

In the early days of the movement, passion and hope ran high. People came to our assemblies saying that it was the first time in a long time – or even the first time ever – that they had hope for substantial change in our society. Some believed that “the revolution” had finally arrived (and it was even being partially televised!).

For my part, I was skeptical that our movement would achieve any substantial change, but I kept that skepticism to myself; I wanted to believe. I listened to these young people who were so confident that they could change the world and hoped beyond hope that they were right and that I was wrong.

I went down to the camp site for Occupy Los Angeles where I heard Cornell West speak. I don’t remember what he said; all I remember is tears streaming down my cheeks as I listened, standing there among a very ethnically diverse crowd of idealistic and passionate young people whose hope and courageous occupation of the grounds around city hall was one of the most beautiful things that I had ever seen; they had created this daring, if temporary, egalitarian and inclusive society whose economy ran on love rather than money. Homeless people, rejected everywhere else, were welcome there. A part of me knew that this thing could not last, that something, either the brutal impatience of the powers-that-be or the fragility of human compassion and cooperation combined with the narcissistic individualism that is our American birthright, would doom this gutsy experiment, but I didn’t want to think about that. And listening to West, I felt eternity break into the present and make a temporal space for itself among the tents and tables of that fragile community.

Back in Pasadena, we never established a camp, but we did carry out more than 25 actions in the first seven months, from educational events to street demonstrations. That was far more activity than any other group that I had ever organized with . . . but then it all faded. All the young people disappeared. A couple of us older folk tried to keep it all going, but hardly anyone showed up.

After struggling for a while with the disappointment and depression that I was left with, I went back to organizing with groups that had more modest but realizable goals or a less radical agenda.

Currently I’m working with two coalitions on labor justice and a living wage for Pasadena. At the same time, I’m involved with three other local groups addressing the ecological crisis. Additionally, I’ve joined with scattered clusters of friends to organize various educational events, street demonstrations and lobbying initiatives for international peace.

The Occupy movement addressed all of these issues by trying to create a more ideal society. That didn’t work, or at least not enough people showed up to make it work (I often say that it is not the Occupy Movement that failed, but rather all the people who didn’t show up to support it that failed). So now we are back to trying to address the issues all separately and settling for very for modest gains or symbolic achievements: a “living wage” that you still can’t live on but is better than what we currently have, or a  well-attended candle-light vigil or teach-in to “raise awareness. “

Jesus initiated a movement for a new inclusive and radically egalitarian society that he called the Kingdom of God, where everyone was to be provided for according to need. It only took a few generations for the movement to lose that original spirit, becoming exclusive and hierarchical, serving Mammon rather than God.

If that is what happens to our movements for justice and equality, then where is our hope?

Back in my more pietistic days, I would have said that our hope lies in Jesus. But what does that really mean? Does that mean that our only hope lies in a very particular – and therefore implicitly exclusive – religious faith in the founder of Christianity; that somehow we can take refuge in him so that all of the people that we care about and the justice that we struggle for now no longer matters?

Or maybe it means that Jesus, who cares about all the people and things that we care about, who came and lived among us and gave his life in the struggle, will one day lead us to victory.

The second option feels much better, but it still requires a kind of faith language that only works when talking with other Christians. When I’m out there in the streets, struggling for justice with my secular and interfaith friends while most of my Christian friends are too busy to show up, that language feels too anemic, escapist and dismissive of what is really going on and who is really with me.

Yet my life remains rooted in the Gospel. The only way that I can even imagine hope is through what scholars call the “realized eschatology” of the Gospel story. “Realized eschatology” is a fancy way of referring to the belief that the future breaks into the present through special moments or activities, such as in those instants when we actualize our love for each other, or through our struggle for justice, or on those occasions when, even temporarily, we establish communities of grace.

All I really hope for anymore is to experience those sorts of moments, to engage in those kinds of activities.

Some people like to quote Martin Luther King: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” I used to believe that, but now I worry that the ecological crisis – or more precisely the sixth extinction that we are living in – has shortened “history” and that the arc of justice is simply too long for it and will overshoot human existence.

So I cling to those moments and those activities. I do what I can do now. I work as a slave for love while it is still day, because when night comes, no one will be able to work (John 9:4).

The Gospel promises us a dawn after the night is through, a resurrection after death. I hope that’s the case; I confess that belief in church; but I have no real way of knowing whether that will really happen. What I do know is that I have a choice now to make the most of the day that is left.

What I have now is the opportunity to engage in those activities and participate in those moments where heaven breaks through and touches us, however briefly, granting us a glimpse of what we hope for, of what may one day be reality.

Bert Newton is the author of Subversive Wisdom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel

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