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Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

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Waiting For St. Benedict: Where Does Occupy Wall Street Go From Here?

Posted: 10/11/2011 3:12 pm

A couple of weeks ago, the Occupy Wall Street protests looked like a typical gathering of disgruntled young people, not unlike protests outside WTO or World Bank gatherings over the past decade. But as this movement has grown, its public image has quickly become more diverse. I saw a picture last week of a middle-aged woman holding a sign that said, 'You know things are bad when a librarian starts protesting.' An article yesterday quoted a retired woman from New Jersey who said she knew she had to go to Wall Street when a friend sent her a note about it on Facebook. She arrived to find hundreds of people like her.

As it grows more diverse, this public demonstration of discontent with our society's economic system is also spreading beyond Wall Street. It's rippling out to Main Streets in cities and towns across the country where those who claim to be part of the '99 percent' overlooked and forgotten by corporate elites are standing together to be counted. It's hard to say how long these protests will last or what they will lead to, but this much is clear: we've reached a tipping point. The masses who gave an unprecedented amount of their own money to a campaign for 'Change We Can Believe In' are not satisfied with the change they have seen. No one knows for sure what our world will look like ten years from now, but a growing number of people are determined that it cannot look the same as it does now.

Ten years after radical extremists violently attacked New York's financial district, a mass movement of nonviolent citizens are occupying the same territory to express their discontent. When the 'war on terror' began, it was pitched as a defense of the American way of life. But Americans are increasingly aware that unprecedented debt levels, an anemic job market, and cut backs in public services have not improved their way of life. What's more, a passion for peace and justice stirs in many souls as they cry out against the disproportionate suffering of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and the extreme disparity between our country's 'struggling economy' and the grinding poverty of the two-thirds world. A nation that invests billions in war while cutting teacher's aids from public school classrooms cannot last. A world where over half the population lives in the slums of megacities while CEO's fight to keep their vacation homes must change.

The world as we know it is coming to an end. We're all aching for the world-to-come.

But the question is how to get there. Even if everyone recognizes a problem, that doesn't guarantee that anyone knows how to fix it. Clearly, those vying for power to shape the world-to-come are legion. And they will inevitably disagree on ways and means in the human struggle that we are facing. But for many of us who believe that another world is already interrupting the status quo, the most important thing isn't to occupy the centers of power and insist on economic reform. The crucial thing is to carve out spaces where we can begin to create a new society within the shell of the old.

These spaces are being crafted and cultivated by people in co-op movements, in local currency experiments, in cost-sharing health care ministries, and in slow food collectives. In small ways that are admittedly incomplete, some people who are discontent with the world that is are stepping out to begin shaping another world with their daily economic decisions. Not all of them are 'people of faith,' but there is a radical faith behind their actions. They are trusting a system other than what they have known and seen. They are believing and living toward a new reality.

USA Today reported earlier this year that a growing number of young evangelicals are opting to live on less so that they can do work that has meaning--work that often gives back to their communities and serves the poorest among us. These young people are finding that they can live full and meaningful lives at or below the national poverty level when they share housing with friends, live among the poor they work with, and learn to enjoy simpler pleasures. Some of these people call themselves 'new monastics' because they are looking to ancient communal wisdom for guidance in their economic experiments.

Early in the 6th century, when the Roman Empire faced attacks from without and discontent from within, there came a point when most people knew that things had to change but no one was certain what would come next. About that time, a middle-class young Italian named Benedict left his home in Nursia to go to school in Rome only to find that the Empire which had been centered there was almost completely gone. In a moment of clarity, Benedict saw that the system of education which had been designed to prepare him for a world that was passing away could only lead to a dead end. While it could teach what had worked in the past, the system did not have the resources to present a way forward. A different kind of school was needed. Benedict went to a cave, built himself a prayer cell, and so enrolled in the university of the world-to-come.

What came of his studies was a short document called The Rule of Saint Benedict. It was originally written to serve a few communities in Italy and might have easily been lost, as hundreds of documents like it no doubt were. But it wasn't. Instead, it became a spiritual classic and one of the most important texts in Western civilization.

The power of Benedict's Rule was this: in a world that was falling apart, it gave structure to small communities of faith that could experiment in a new kind of community. It did not aim to restore Rome to its former glory or even to reform the church. The Rule simply offered people a way to live a vision of life together rooted in service, humility, and love. Throughout the Dark Ages, the Rule guided communities that existed as points of light in a sea of dark despair. By some estimates, it was the monks who saved civilization. At the very least, they established hospitals and sowed the seeds of democracy in Western culture.

In his now classic analysis of Western civilization, After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair McIntyre wrote that 'we are not waiting for Godot, but for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict.' But maybe it's time to stop waiting. Maybe we should turn our attention to the small communities of people who believe another world is possible and have invested their whole lives in that conviction. Maybe it's time to end the occupation and begin living a new economy in the places where we are.

 
 
 

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