Occupy the Seminaries? (Quick Thoughts on Two Recent Articles)

I have a few minutes before I need to get back to PhD applications. I’ve been more active on Twitter lately than here. However, I recently read two articles on OWS and seminaries and want to encourage people to read them together.

The first is a fantastic article by Serene Jones, the president at Union Seminary, who recently added Cornel West to their faculty. In her article, she says,

Only a few days after protesters first took over Zuccotti Park, in fact, students came to me seeking permission to fly the UTS banner down in lower Manhattan, and show support for the then-few who were camped out there. I immediately approved, reminding them Union has a long history of supporting movements which address issues of poverty and justice, ranging from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a UTS student in 1930) who fought the Nazis in his native Germany, to more contemporary issues like Civil Rights, Women’s Right, the Vietnam War and South African Apartheid. Our seminarians have been in the vanguard for each.

The second is a piece from Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership blog, written by Melissa Wiginton from Austin Presbyterian Seminary. She says,

There is so much we cannot do. Church institutions and congregations are not in the business of politics or community organizing for political action. And we don’t have money with which to buy influence. Do we have a public voice that is heard beyond its echo within our own networks? Are we just talking to ourselves?

What shall we do? For me, first, I have to remember that my hope for the mending of the world rests on God’s doing, not on me getting this place straightened out. I’m not sure what’s next. I will learn more, get out of the house and try to pay attention to what God is up to in the world.

The contrast between the two pieces is clear enough and I mostly just wanted to draw attention to both pieces. However, one can quickly note how, for Jones, that the church is neither “separated from” the movement nor its central force. They have been in, that is, part of the vanguard.

For Wiginton, there is the strong sense that all these movements are happening outside the church. Though she finds it lamentable, one catches a sense of sorrow, kind of like the kid watching the other kids play in the park and trying to gain the courage to go join in their games. But the rules are so confusing, and it isn’t clear that they want to play with us anyways…

Secondly, one can capture the social location from which Wiginton writes as she says that church institutions aren’t getting politically involved with their money or their bodies. Obviously, Jones’ article–and Cornel West’s new role there–make it clear that some churches are in the habit of doing just that. And, let’s not forget, every church makes demands on the bodies and money of their congregants and pastors.

Finally, it’s not Jones but Wiginton who claims to know what direction OWS and the world ought to be moving:

We see the horizon beyond Zuccotti Park. It’s Zion, the City of God where everyone has what they need and more to share, just because generosity brings real joy. But how does hope from the City of God occupy our cities here? The question twists us up as leaders of institutions because it is so hard to know what to do and then to actually do anything.

This faint eschatological hope–Zion–is so debilitating because it gives her the sense that she knows what should come but lacks any solid guidance as to how to make it come about.

For Jones, on the other hand, the impetus to action is not from some abstract sense of what the world ought to look like but from the knowledge that God is present and moving with the poor:  “It is with the neediest, Jesus told his disciples, that God is alive and on the move.”

One can raise a lot of questions about the kind of theological formation happening at Austin Pres., Union, and Duke from these articles. I admit that this kind of schematic either-or in which Jones is the clear winner is a bit unfair. But I think the contrasts are important and open up a whole field of questions about seminary education today.

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