Religion occupied

Updated Tuesday 8th November 2011

Maria Nita reports from an 'Occupy Bath' tent on how religion and protest have interacted over the centuries.

St Paul's occupation Creative commons image Icon By christopher a tittle via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license 2011 'occupation' of St Paul's Cathedral ' I am kneeling inside the ‘Occupy Bath’ information tent in Queens Square, Bath and stacking up books on a small TV stand. Two days earlier on 5th November, protestors in London had attempted to march onto the Houses of Parliament wearing Guy Fawkes masks, now a universal symbol for political subversion.

"There’s no TV!" an activist tells me with a wink. "But we’ll soon have a stream from St. Pauls’. I'd arrived early and asked if there was anything that needed doing. I know enough about the life of a protest camp to anticipate that people may be busy cleaning, fixing, recycling, putting up tents and taking them down, and I don’t want to waste my hosts’ time.

To my right there’s a political map of the world that urges in black marker: ‘Occupy the world!’ Little green pins, signifying ‘more than 2,000 occupied locations’ form a swarm across Europe and the US, but a few pins have been stuck in some rather surprising places: on small islands or the edges of the African continent, the internet undoubtedly making this remote solidarity possible.

The protesters want to exchange ideas, to have a forum, to re-think what democracy is, to get people talking about their rights, about global poverty and consumerism, about corporate greed, education and funding, public spending cuts, and whatever else there may be on their mind. This is a protest movement with an open agenda and some political commentators find in the open end of their demands a lack of political focus.

In Bath the protestors are camped in a public square, but in London the support and cooperation with St Paul’s cathedral have come as a surprise to many people. However, religion and protest are not such unlikely companions as it may seem. Christianity has its own subversive roots and Jesus’s ‘cleansing of the temple’ is a story that can easily be summoned when talking about the moral guidance and responsibility religion may have to offer and uphold, particularly in relation to  financial justice.

Yet sandwiched between protestors and the ‘general public’, between Guy Fawkes’ night and Remembrance Sunday, St. Paul’s cathedral appears somewhat torn between its historical role to provide sanctuary, to protect the poor and the disadvantaged, and its more formal duties, towards the nation state, as a maintainer of tradition and continuity. Remembrance Sunday unites the country in silence, and so it threatens to dissolve its pockets of subversion and its international allegiances, by invoking instead mainstream and national loyalties. 

The separation between church and state, which took place under various guises in Western democracies after the 19th century, meant that religion had to officially step down from its former leading political role. The 20th century saw religion dwindle and decline even further, with some scholars predicting its imminent demise in the face of scientific progress. Yet throughout history, distant as well as recent, religion has been actively involved in political reform.

Conversely politics and socio-economic factors often played a crucial role in religious reform. For example the Protestant Reformation, the 16th century schism in Western Christianity, had strong economical or material precedents, such as the success of the printing press or the slowly reverberating ill-effects of the Black Death.

As an example of the extraordinary social capital religion may have, even in situations of extreme power inequality, in my native Romania the fall of the Communist regime in the winter of 1989 was precipitated by one Hungarian priest who refused to move out of his parish church.

In Britain, religion, having survived the apparent misdiagnosis of secularisation, is starting to become aware of its own social capital and thus beginning to articulate a political voice. It is an emerging political voice that is no longer solely and inaudibly preaching from a pulpit, but streaming and twittering. St Paul’s cathedral has become in the space of a week an equally sought-after supporter for both protesters and the government, being expected to both raise its voice and keep silent.   


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