As the media have reported the last few weeks, there has been tension between many in Occupy Wall Street, as well a good number of religious leaders in Occupy Faith NYC, on the one hand, and Trinity Wall Street on the other. Trinity is a venerable Episcopal church at the end of Wall Street in lower Manhattan. Occupy has been asking Trinity for use of its lot at 6th and Canal, next to Duarte Park, as a site for the next stage of Occupy Wall Street after our eviction from Zuccotti Park in November. (This would not simply be a repeat of Zuccotti; Occupy has plans for a different kind of ongoing occupation, with advance plans for security and sanitation, among many other aspects.)
On Saturday I was part of a protest that sought to draw further attention to the appeal to Trinity – as part of the larger drawing of attention to injustice in economic policies in the United States and beyond that has been central to Occupy from the beginning. Several dozen among the protesters went over the fence into Trinity’s property, in a nonviolent symbolic occupation, and were promptly arrested. Among those arrested were clergy and at least one religious, including an Episcopal bishop, a Catholic priest, a Catholic sister, and other clergy and religious leaders, as well as other lay protesters with or without any particular connection to religion.
This is a conflict with multiple reasons given on both sides for their stances.
If I might inadequately summarize the primary positions taken by each side:
Occupy is appealing to Trinity, a very wealthy church, to share its resources (prime Manhattan real estate, currently empty but presently leased on a short-term basis to a tenant) with the Occupy movement whose social goals are ostensibly the same as Trinity’s – a more just world for more people – and many of whose participants explicitly dedicate themselves to the cause for reasons of religion or spirituality. Some in Occupy use religious language of “sanctuary” for Occupy in their appeal to Trinity, because we were forcibly evicted from Zuccotti and have been hounded out of other public places since then. A religious organization like Trinity, many argue, ought to appreciate a basic point from the theological tradition: ongoing material space that is artistically curated, ritually inhabited, and safely overseen is essential for an ongoing witness to a more deeply flourishing reality.
Trinity has argued that it is under no obligation to provide land for Occupy. Any such occupation would, they say, be potentially unsafe, inappropriate, and not a clear fulfillment of Trinity’s own mission. It is easy to appreciate that Trinity imagines that the liability concerns (legal and otherwise) would be potentially major. There is no true case to be made for sanctuary, they have argued, and here the suggestion seems to be that a major protest movement is not the same as an individual, a family, or even an entire community that is under such threat that it needs the safety and protection, or "sanctuary," of the church. And anyway, they argue, they have already welcomed many Occupy participants to Trinity's facilities and meeting spaces in the Zuccotti Park neighborhood; their support of the basic principles of Occupy, Trinity's supporters argue, is not in question. Of course, even though it rarely comes up in official rationales for the denial of access to 6th and Canal, no one involved thinks that the real estate values of Trinity’s holdings are not also a significant consideration for Trinity in their decision to not let Occupy use the 6th and Canal space.
It is not necessary to cast either side as angelic or demonic. Serious matters are at stake: on one side, the freedom of a church to dispose of its resources of its own will; on the other side, the biggest social movement in a generation with a substantial religious base making a claim -- through the Trinity conflict -- on the conscience and mission of not only a church but an entire denomination (the Episcopal tradition) and religious tradition (Christianity).
It seems to me that in the midst of all this, a theological matter has arisen that has perhaps not gotten enough attention: a theological interpretation of private property – especially the private property of a Christian church.
Often Trinity’s defenders phrase their defense of their space as a defense of the church’s private property. I think, however, that Occupy is challenging (mostly implicitly) the assumption that one can speak of the “private property” of a church in the same way one uses that phrase more generally in Western society. (It is similar to (though of course not the same as) the theological (and legal) challenge that those who occupy Catholic churches that are slated for closing make about who “owns” church property.)
At the risk of sacrificing nuance, and for the sake of brevity, let me be succinct: I think we have a very important theological matter before us when Occupy, through its religious-leader allies, is saying to Trinity Wall Street: We in Occupy -- as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement -- can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place, with negligible negative financial impact (Trinity is a very wealthy community), and with a rare and time-sensitive influence, by using this particular private property to host the next stage of Occupy Wall Street, and let’s meet to talk about the liability issues and any other concerns you have, let’s have that dialogue starting immediately, but in principle we have a substantial theological point worthy of your consideration.
The presumption in this theological claim, which I think is correct, is that no Christian church is – on the very terms of its theological existence – permitted to fall back on the mere invocation of “private property” without also a theological conversation about the spiritual significance of what that concept means and how it is being used.
Two weeks ago, I took my undergraduate class from Fordham University to Wall Street, then into Trinity Wall Street, then on a tour of Zuccotti Park, and then on to Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village to meet with Rev. Michael Ellick, a leader of Occupy Faith NYC, so that they could better understand why and how the Occupy movement raises theological questions about justice, solidarity, equal access to social resources necessary to flourishing, and how all these concerns are deeply related to theological reflection on God. I wanted them to be able to frame the matters at stake in the conversations about Occupy not only in terms of rights or property or goods or freedom, but in terms of the divine and the claiming power that it exerts on our lives according to the theological tradition. It is this very frame that I do not want to be lost in the conversation about space for the Occupy movement -- not only in New York City but around the United States and indeed around the world.
It may be that, in this interim time, another religious and/or social organization may step forward and donate space, or surrender private property, to Occupy Wall Street, and to other Occupy sites that have been evicted in recent weeks. But that will not necessarily settle the theological question raised on December 17 at the protest at Duarte Square.
I believe the right people will see the depth of the theological question, and we will make it through this impasse into a new future that surprises all of us. I hope so.