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The Protest Chaplains: A new paradigm in chaplaincy during a time of social transformation (Part 1)

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I’ve been absent for a while from the Jizo Chronicles… my focus over the past two months has been on completing the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program (that’s been my journey over the past two years). Two weeks ago, I presented my thesis and then graduated and received lay ordination as a chaplain on March 11th.

I thought you might enjoy learning about what I’ve been spending my time on over the past few months, so over the next several posts I am publishing my thesis–which I believe is very relevant to socially engaged dharma.

At the end of October, I traveled to Boston to interview four of the Protest Chaplains who were present on the first day of OWS in New York City (September 17, 2011). All four were from Harvard Divinity School. I also spent time at the Occupy Boston campsite as a participant-observer (that’s my anthropology background coming out!). All this material informed my thesis.

Part 1, posted here, offers background on the concept of “Protest Chaplain” as well as the Occupy Wall Street Movement. If any of you would like the entire thesis as a Word document, let me know and I’m happy to share it with you. May it be of benefit.

A) Historical precedents of Protest Chaplains

First, it may be useful to explore the definition of “chaplain” and to understand how a chaplain can be in relationship not only to an individual but also to a social movement.

At the most basic level, a chaplain may be defined as a representative of a religious tradition, usually ordained, who serves in a secular institution (such as a hospital, prison, police department, university, military unit, etc.) and provides spiritual and pastoral care in that setting.

On a more profound level, a chaplain is one who accompanies people as they grapple with issues of meaning and value in their lives.

In his teachings at Upaya Zen Center in August, 2010, Sensei Fleet Maull offered a vision for a new kind of chaplaincy that responds to a world in need of “wisdom-based ministry” (2010). Maull observed that we are dealing with an accumulated toxic level of internalized shame and violence that is perpetuated when we violate our own integrity, and any time war and oppression take root in a culture and system. This level of toxicity is so pervasive that we often don’t notice it – for example, the subject/object relationship and duality is built into our language and how we raise our children. Phrases like “you’re so good” or “you are bad” plant the seeds early in young people for seeing the world through this lens of duality, separation, and inequity.

According to Maull, the role of a chaplain is to be aware of this viral toxicity and to bring relief and comfort to those who are suffering from its effects. The chaplain’s role also includes learning and practicing how to interrupt the cycles of beliefs and behaviors that perpetuate this kind of violence.

So in this sense, a chaplain is one who ministers not only to individuals but also to systemic suffering. This type of suffering may take the form of injustice, inequality, and structural violence (Galtung, 1969). The term “structural violence” refers to the systematic ways in which a government or regime prevents individuals from achieving their full potential or having equal access to resources.

One could transfer the definition of chaplain to a collective of people who are struggling with issues of meaning and value as well as confronting systemic suffering.

While the phrase “Protest Chaplain” was used for the first time during the Occupy movement, the idea itself has an impressive lineage. The role of religion in social change has a long history, including the movements to abolish slavery and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (Nhat Hanh & Berrigan, 1993; Smith, 1996; Marsh, 2006).

Religious figures who played a key role in social movements included, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. James Lawson, who came to speak at the Faith and Spirituality tent at Occupy Boston in October 2011, at the invitation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In addition to these exemplars, there are several examples of chaplains who have been deeply involved in struggles for peace and justice. One prototype of a “Protest Chaplain” was the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. Born to a privileged family, in his youth Coffin was passionate about fighting fascism and communism. He served in the Army during World War II and later worked for the CIA. During this time, Coffin grew disillusioned as he witnessed the role that the CIA and the U.S. played in overthrowing governments in Iran and Guatemala.

After leaving the CIA, Coffin went to Yale Divinity School and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1956. He went on to serve as chaplain at Yale University from 1958 to 1975.

Throughout this period of time, Coffin’s life and his ministry became more radicalized as he got involved with the Civil Rights and nuclear disarmament movements, as well as efforts to end the Vietnam War. He became renowned for organizing busloads of “Freedom Riders” to challenge segregation laws in the South and encouraging young people to resist the military draft. Coffin was one of the founders of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, a coalition of religious leaders who questioned and actively resisted President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war.

In an interview two years before his death in 2006, Rev. Coffin shared this reflection:

What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice. Justice is at the heart of religious faith. When we see Christ empowering the poor, scorning the powerful, healing the world’s hurts, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. (Abernathy, 2004)

In essence, Rev. Coffin’s words and lifetime of radical action created the foundation from which the Protest Chaplains emerged in 2011.

Another religious figure who used his pastoral authority to advocate for others was Father Jerzy Popieluszko who served as a chaplain to the striking workers of Warsaw in the 1980s (Zunes, 1999). Father Popieluszko held a monthly “Mass for the Fatherland” during which he spoke openly about human rights and nonviolent resistance. After he was killed by Polish state security officers in 1984, thousands of Poles mourned his death. In 2010 Popieluszko was beatified by the Catholic Church.


B) Background on Occupy Wall Street

In one sense, the genesis of the September 17th action called “Occupy Wall Street,” which evolved into a larger global movement, was an announcement from the Canadian magazine Adbusters that appeared on July 13, 2011.  The announcement was simple and yet graphically powerful – it portrayed the iconic bronze bull of Wall Street with a ballerina gracefully dancing on top of it:

The AdBusters website elaborated on this call to action:

On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.

According to the magazine Bloomberg Businessweek (Bennett, 2011), from that point, a group called “New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts” did much of the on-the-ground work to organize the event. In June and July, the group had camped out across the street from New York City Hall to protest city budget cuts and layoffs, and they invested their energy in planning for the September call to action.

At an August planning meeting, anthropologist and activist David Graeber entered the process. Graeber, who had done his field research and PhD dissertation on a rural community in Madagascar that was organized around anarchistic and egalitarian principles, immediately noticed that the group was approaching this event with a top-down style of organizing. They were planning for a traditional rally, followed by a short meeting and a march to Wall Street, and then delivering a pre-determined set of demands. That night, Graeber met with a few friends as well as others who were dissatisfied with the NYABC organizing style, and they began to create a different approach to the September 17th event.

This was a pivotal moment, notes Drake Bennett (2011) in the Bloomberg Businessweek article:

While there were weeks of planning yet to go, the important battle had been won. The show would be run by horizontals, and the choices that would follow—the decision not to have leaders or even designated police liaisons, the daily GAs and myriad working-group meetings that still form the heart of the protests in Zuccotti Park—all flowed from that.
(pg. 67)

From that point on, the September 17th event and the movement that followed from it took on the imprint of anarchistic values and methodologies. As we shall see in the remainder of this paper, this was also true for the Protest Chaplains.

While Adbusters could lay claim to being the spark that lit the Occupy fire, the impetus for this movement had actually been growing for a long time. Over the past 30 years in the United States, the gap between rich and poor has widened exponentially, while many corporations and those with wealth have benefited from tax laws written in their favor.

According to a report released by the Congressional Budget Office in October 2011, between 1979 and 2007 the incomes of the top 1% of Americans grew by an average of 275% between 1979 and 2007. From 1992 to 2007, the top 400 income earners in the U.S. saw their income increase 392% and their average tax rate reduced by 37% (Whorisky, 2011).

A second factor that contributed to the Occupy movement was public anger at banks. In the wake of the economic crisis of September 2008, the U.S. Congress and the White House hastily put together a plan that authorized the U.S. Treasury Department to use up to $700 billion to stabilize financial markets. In essence, “billions of dollars in taxpayer money allowed institutions that were on the brink of collapse not only to survive but even to flourish” (Barofsky, 2011). While this plan did achieve some amount of stability for banks and other industries, many U.S. citizens experienced the fallout in the form of home foreclosures and rising unemployment rates. In fact, one of the chants at Occupy gatherings was “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”

In a September 25 editorial in The Guardian (2011), David Graeber wrote:

“We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt, is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?”

In addition to these economic factors, Occupy Wall Street also built on the energy and momentum of the “Arab Spring” that had emerged in Egypt and other countries in that region of the world earlier in 2011.

All these conditions gave rise to the actual event itself. On September 17, nearly 1,000 people showed up at Wall Street (including the first group of Protest Chaplains, three of whom were interviewed for this thesis). They were diverted by NYC police and ended up, by fortunate chance, gathering at Zuccotti Park a few blocks away. Because the park was private rather than public property, police could not legally force protestors to leave unless asked to do so by the owners.

Somewhere between 100 and 200 people camped there that first night. From that point onwards, there was some kind of constant 24-hour physical presence at Zuccotti Park until the night of November 15 when the campers were finally (and forcibly) removed by police. But by then, the Occupation and its message was firmly rooted in hundreds of other cities, and more importantly in the minds and consciousness of millions of people around the world.


Coming next: ‘The Creation Story’ of the Protest Chaplains and What Does a Protest Chaplain Do?

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

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