Barack Obama’s mention of the slaughters of the Christian Crusades was the opening of a can of worms that turned into snakes. The victims of the knights in shining armor were Jews and Muslims, but that was that time. The followers of the three desert deities, Jehovah, the Prophet and Jesus — have battled back and forth through history. But then each religion has devout peace activists, too. Zealots, zealots everywhere.
In Occupy Wall Street and in the Black Lives Matter as well, there was a steady presence of ministers and rabbis — and I remember a Lakota wisdom leader at Zuccotti Park — even though clearly most of the movement-makers are secular. But we welcomed the aura of Dr. King and the Dalai Lama and Chief Joseph and Gandhi and Bishop Tutu and the movements that they represent. They both comforted and emboldened us, as we marched off to lock arms in the doorway of Goldman Sachs or die dramatically across the floor of Grand Central Station.
The dismissal of religion by Marxists is discredited by present day radicals, but so are belief systems with patriarchal gods. And yet, religion never leaves. Leaders of change sometimes seem like saints, if they are more humble in demeanor, like Joan Baez or Aung San Suu Kyi, or Yeb Sano, the Filipino climate diplomat. If they are brassier, like Vandana Shiva, or Jose Bove or Edward Snowden, then they are called messianic.
I’m in the business of manipulating the memes of right wing apocalyptic Christianity, with the Stop Shopping Choir. We study the presence of intolerant religion within Consumerism and Militarism; in banks that finance C02 emitting industries, like Chase and HSBC and UBS, and manufacturers of toxins like Monsanto and Bayer. We believe that the marketing departments of these industries are the new fundamentalist churches, with crusaders in the form of sexualized automobiles and product placement on celebrities’ bodies.
Of course we rarely get anywhere near a financial or fossil fuel policy-maker. They surround us with police, who are kept in a state of angry fear. And time and time again our protests are like a clash of fundamentalist religions, the activism of two churches claiming the same God. In the conflict with banks and police, things are always very muscular, lots of finger-pointing, refusals, threats, stand-offs. We’re dealing with mutual, simultaneous damnation. You are my infidel.
I was recently handcuffed while speaking in New York’s Grand Central Station with the group “We Will Not Be Silent.” Surrounded by placards featuring the names of those killed by deadly police force, and wearing my usual white polyester and priests collar, I was cuffed in mid-sentence. The metal went into the verb. So much for the 1st Amendment. The next day the police told the Murdoch papers that I attacked a cop.
Of course, I felt outmaneuvered by the flamboyant right wingers. But did I misguess the event? Did my analysis of power against power, protesters against institutions — preempt any connection with the possibly sympathetic people within Grand Central Station? Anything internal in those folks, anything deeper than their anger, was unrevealed in the activist event. The cops feel like 9/11 is still happening. And I’m taking their Christian preacher and shouting about their blunders. We all get angry together.
I find myself desperately wanting to talk to the employees of Grand Central Station about what happened. But these big structures, the courts, the press — all of that gets in the way. A quiet human conversation is no longer possible. A good pastor can engage in loving conversation in the middle of horror, like Bishop Tutu looking the apartheid leaders in the eye. Could I have somehow done that? I did return after I got out of jail to try to talk to the cop who manhandled me, but he wouldn’t shake my hand.
Birth, and life, and death — no one knows what life is. Life is unexplained. Science doesn’t know and religion doesn’t either. Fundamentalists rush in with hard answers, to assuage our fear of death. Usually, the doctrine is encased in bigotry. Fundamentalist holy men arrange for us to fear the Other. And yet, again, religion cuts both ways. A “person of the cloth” carries the burden of these deeper questions, and so they can have the effect of slowing down violence. I remember clerics inserting themselves between the front lines in the Balkans.
More of our activism needs a spiritual basis, and that doesn’t only mean the absence of mindless confrontation. Spirit is laughter, shape-shifting and music. We felt the impact of Erica Warner dying-in on the Staten Island sidewalk where her father was murdered, a mysterious and beautiful act. And we remember Wangari Maathi planting trees in the Nairobi park, in the face of the brutal dictator, and Chelsea Manning opening the door of secrets.
I should go back to Grand Central Station and talk to those people. At least I should be able to talk to mothers, because they have the endless questions of children ringing inside them, even if those moms are cops. That is the antidote to fundamentalism. All those questions. If I talked with a hundred mothers, wouldn’t that be a better kind of activism than shouting in the echoey station and getting hauled off? Here’s the question I want to ask: “How do we end this violence?”