If We Don't Hear One Message, We May Get Another

by Rt Revd Peter Selby

Posted: 5 Dec 2011

To visit the Occupy encampment at St Paul's is to meet people of conviction and compassion, wanting to hear new ideas, by no means convinced they know the answers, but pretty sure that the people who administer the 'answers' to the crisis we've faced are getting things profoundly wrong. More than that, they are convinced that the financial sector at the moment is an instrument of injustice that needs to change if it is not to be an instrument of global exploitation.

That people are prepared to take time out of their lives for that act of witness should make us all more hopeful. I did a short talk about what had happened to money, how it had taken on a life of its own, and found an audience receptive and critical. They have earned the right to be engaged with, not just by the Cathedral, which is engaging with them, but by the powerful people in the City, and by politicians. Every day's news gives more evidence that former remedies are not working, and at any moment we could wake up to hear the news that the entire financial system has broken down. And let us be clear: if that happens those with plenty will find ways to protect themselves, while those who are poor and vulnerable will bear the brunt of the disaster. It's happening already as the cuts bite, and it is sure to get worse.

But if the community of compassionate and committed questioning which is the Occupy movement have earned the right to be heard, there is another community out there that we may feel is less worthy of our attention, less articulate, less searching and less compassionate in their actions. I refer to the hundreds who were involved in the rioting and looting that we witnessed in the summer. People who steal others' property, let alone people who burn down the factories which constituted someone's livelihood, don't feel like 'the sort of people we ought to be listening to'. We may be tempted to think that their conduct deprives them of the right to be heard.

But enter from the wings a rather important piece of Christian history. The bible is full of examples of important messages needing to be heard, and coming not from the lips of the intelligent and articulate, engaging in civilised conversation, but enemies, 'sinners' and even (if some of the parables are anything to go by) greedy bankers. It's not that they show us how we ought to behave and where our moral compass should be pointing, but their very existence tells us a truth about where we've got to as a society, and how we need to be thinking in a new and different way about the realities of our life.

If the Occupy movement is more civilised in its approach, more focussed than those who looted, the rioter may, though we don't like this, hold up a very accurate mirror to a society in which those who can get are allowed to do so, and where for some people direct theft is the only way they can see of getting what the TV ads and the posters they pass every day tell them is what ought to be their aim. The truth may well be that what the Occupy movement has been telling us is actually verbalising what otherwise will be acted out by those who think they face the same realities of poverty and inequality.

Put it another way: we don't have a choice about whether climate change and exploitation are major realities in our lives - they are. What we do have a choice about is whether we will be willing to face up to them when we are asked to in civilised and compassionate tones, or whether it will take repeated disorder and even violence to get the message into our ears.

I don't like thinking this, but find I do: if we won't engage with the ideas that have the capacity to change things for the better, will we find ourselves having to engage with patterns of behaviour which inflict hurt on people, but which even so represent pretty accurately the jungle warfare which is the financial system that Occupy is criticising.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby was President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards from 2008 until 2013 and the former Bishop of Worcester. He is currently part of the Interim Directing team for St Paul's Institute.

Michael Black - Posted: 5 Dec 2011

You are pointing to something very big here. What Occupy is demonstrating everywhere it exists is compassion for each other rather than passion for their ideas. The media calls this lack of focus only because it cannot see how remarkable this movement is. Chris Hedges call to the Church to recognise the Beatitudes as the unofficial creed of Occupy is spot on. it is through compassion that the world is changed and Occupy is showing what this means.