When I was arrested at Occupy Wall Street, during the clearing of Zuccotti Park, there was a man who I met in custody with a t-shirt that read ‘Occupy Heaven.’ He was a funny character, who kept letting his pants fall down, much to the consternation of the police, who were forced to pull them back up. I have no idea what his shirt meant, but I think about it every once and a while.
I was reminded of that shirt recently when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was banned from communion by the Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, due to her stance on abortion rights. I’m no fan of Pelosi and believe she and the other do-nothing centrists who run the Democratic Party should step down to make room for bolder, more progressive leaders.
Of course, there’s an ongoing debate amongst bishops about denying President Joe Biden communion over his position on abortion. Again, I’m no fan of Biden and hope he’s replaced on the 2024 Democratic ticket by someone substantially to his left, under the retirement age. But these debates reflect a profoundly conservative interpretation of Catholicism.
If pro-choice politicians are to be denied communion, why aren’t pro-war or pro-death penalty politicians denied the same? Why aren’t politicians who support legislation which inevitably leads to poverty and inequality excluded from such rituals? The answer, obviously, is that the right controls our religious institutions.
Perhaps this is inevitable to some degree. Karl Marx famously said, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Religion certainly could be described this way. On the other hand, liberation struggles generally have had some spiritual component. Most famously, in the United States, the civil rights movement was led by black church leaders, but that’s just one example of many.
Some might say trying to influence religious institutions or messaging is a fool’s errand. I’m sympathetic in that I believe it will be difficult. However, I think if you’re waiting for the public to become less religious in order to enact change, you could be waiting a long time. While regular church attendance may be declining, spiritual beliefs of some kind remain ubiquitous.
I’m also unsure if we will ever truly leave religion behind. As I’ve gotten older, I wonder if the spiritual impulse is universal. Maybe some people are better at denying it or translating it into a secular context. I’ve begun to feel it myself for a variety of reasons, including an increasingly chaotic world and a more accurate sense of my loved ones’ mortality.
I think there are benefits to incorporating spirituality into our activism. As I wrote in an earlier column for Slaughter Free America, “religion is the ethical language of most people and in learning to speak it we can communicate our message more effectively.” In a similar way, spirituality can help sustain us in difficult periods, warding off or delaying burnout, while making the manner we relate to fellow activists less toxic.
I don’t know if existing members of the religious left will roll their eyes at the obviousness of these points or wince at their cynicism. Perhaps some atheists and agnostics agree with the strategic sense of what I’ve said, but don’t think they could earnestly make their way to spirituality. I just want to say I’m fairly sure there’s a conception of God out there that will make you comfortable.
For instance, I’ve never read any books by Paul Tillich, the Christian socialist. They look pretty dense and it’s more than I can handle right now. But I’ve enjoyed reading other writers describe his view of God. For Tillich, God wasn’t a being, but the ground of all being. To a layman like me, he sounds like a pantheist, as Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan were.
“Tillich appreciated symbols as the only way to envision something as meaningful and abstract as God,” the website of the Religious Naturalist Association states. “He saw God as a symbol, and appreciated the image of a personal God as a way for people to relate or respond to the ground of being. Likewise, he felt that, by re-envisioning stories that had been previously been accepted literally, major themes in Christian imagery could remain meaningful.”
For Tillich, atheism was nothing more than a rejection of the traditional image of God. “He thought that an alternative symbolic image could potentially be seen as acceptable,” the same website continues. “Ground of being has been considered in a variety of ways, including the creative order, forces, and potential in nature.”
Obviously this is one interpretation of Tillich’s work and I can’t speak to its accuracy. All I mean to demonstrate is that there are conceptions of God which aren’t very different from atheism or agnosticism. Freethinkers could find a home on the religious left and potentially reap some of the benefits if they wanted.
In order to make change, we need to take over institutions large and small, including faith-based ones. At the very least, we need to influence them. To quote the t-shirt of the man I shared a police transport with at Occupy Wall Street, we need to occupy Heaven.