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By Aaron H. Emery
Occupy Vs. The Church
An Open Letter to St. James Cathedral
I write you in earnest tonight as a Torontonian. As an Anglican. As a Christian. I write you with surplus hope, firm conviction, and limited answers. I invite you to share this space with me -- by sharing your space with others. My hope arises in the opportunity for your church -- the Church -- to be aggressively relevant to the everyday life of this city and this country. My conviction is rooted in the overarching narrative of a Judeo-Christian scripture that calls on us, time and again, to love our neighbour. "The rest," as the first-century Jewish scholar Hillel once said, "is commentary." My answers... or lack thereof... are just the uncomfortable result of authentic questioning. We live in serious times with big problems for which I don't have easy answers. But I believe I'm in good company.
The few answers that I do have -- for this conversation at least -- are found in a Christian tradition (a Sacrament) shared between millions the world over. In the Baptismal Covenant. Every time this rite plays out in Anglican (and other) churches we are all asked a series of questions. Among them: "Will you proclaim by word and example the good news...?", "Will you seek to serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" and "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?" To each of these questions we answer: "I will, with God's help."
This is not controversial stuff. This is accepted in conservative and liberal corners around the world. This is our basic commitment as God-seekers gathered together under the banner of "Christianity." Love your neighbour (with God's help).
The congregation of Christians that calls St. James Cathedral in Toronto home (and a larger membership of Anglicans in Toronto that look to the Cathedral as both an icon and a leader) has recently been put in the exciting -- if not awkward -- position of having to remove this command from the realm of scholarly theorizing and see it placed directly in their front yard.
As the "Occupy Toronto" movement set up camp next door in St. James Park, they suddenly found themselves, literally, with a couple hundred new "neighbours."
What to do?
As an active Anglican and curious Torontonian, I recently made the trip down to these parallel gatherings on the St. James block to see how "neighbourly" relations were taking shape. In that Sunday's service we read together those lines of "Blessed are the poor in spirit," "Blessed are those who mourn," and "Blessed are the meek." Again, this is not controversial stuff. There are no church populations splitting over these sections of scripture. And whatever we may think that the "Occupy" movement is about -- surely we can recognize that it is some sort of a response to something that has gone terribly wrong in our system.
While they may not have a cogent manifesto of a fully-formed policy platform, surely we can recognize that they are with those "poor in spirit," those "who mourn," and those that are "meek." All of this within the greater context of them being our own newfound "neighbours."
What to do?
As the eviction order has now been issued (and temporarily stayed) to the community gathered in St. James Park, I believe it is our duty as Christians, as Anglicans, and as stewards of a great big building next door to the current encampment to support these pilgrims in their endeavor. What it looks like -- I cannot say for sure. To start, I think we can provide an alternative space to gather in this first night of eviction. This act alone may save us from a repeat of the rather abrasive situation that played out overnight in New York. From there we can defend the space necessary for this important conversation to play out. Whether inside the walls of St. James Cathedral or elsewhere in this city we love... we can help to defend that space.
And in doing so -- the Anglican Church of Canada, the Diocese of Toronto, and St. James Cathedral might find itself both flooded with young people and aggressively relevant in a way we haven't seen for decades. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in Sunday's New York Times and repeated in his visit to Toronto on Monday, this movement is part of "a third progressive era... likely... in the making." Will the church be a catalyst, or an inhibitor? Will we stand with the poor, the meek, and mourning? Will we love our neighbour?
I pray, "We will, with God's help."
In Grace and Peace,
Aaron H. Emery