The Occupy Wall Street/Vancouver (and other cities) has garnered much media attention the last few weeks. The main concerns of the ‘Occupy’ movement have a great deal of legitimacy to them, and emerge from obvious injustices and imbalances of wealth and power. Are such issues new, though, and do they have a perennial ring about them? How have those in the past thought about such issues (that is those who saw them as issues rather than denying or justifying the problem)? Is in the street protest and advocacy politics the only and most responsible way to confront such inequities?
Thomas More was Lord Chancellor of England in the early 16th century, and he was acutely aware of the disparities of wealth and power in his country. More had a tender and exacting conscience, and he did not flinch from asking and acting on the hard questions. More’s missive, Utopia (1516), pulls no punches nor does it flinch from probing to the core the larger justice and peace issues. More would, in many ways, have a great deal of affinity with the Occupy movement. Book I of Utopia is a must read--there is a poignant and not to be forgotten conversation between More and Raphael that is a keeper. The late 15th and early 16th centuries in Europe was a period of time in which many States in Europe were turning to the Americas to establish colonies. The empires were very much at work to extend their global reach.
Raphael had been on an expedition to the Americas, and when there lived with a community that was idyllic and utopian. The sky was an azure blue most days, there was no crime, all lived simply and in a communal manner, divorce was nil, violence did not exist, there was no want or need, a 2-3 hour work day was the limit of labour, war did not exist, religious strife was absent and a sort of justice, peace and ecological vision won the day. Raphael could not help but be taken and convinced by such an Eden like reality. Raphael, after spending many a year in such a setting, returned to England’s fair and pleasant land. Needless to say, he found the Island neither fair nor pleasant when compared with the community in the Americas he had lived with. Raphael knew More, so he set up a meeting with him. Raphael spoke honestly and clearly about the obvious and stark contrast between England and the utopian community he had lived in, and More nodded in agreement with Raphael’s description of the two realities and his idealistic analysis of the problems. The concerns of the Occupy movement would be something Raphael and More would have agreed with. The idealized vision of Raphael was something More constantly grappled with given the stark realities of English injustices at the time.
More, as I mentioned above, was Lord Chancellor of England. This means he was at the centre of political power at the time. He, like Raphael, was a visionary and idealist. More asked Raphael if he would be willing to get on the ship of state and assist More in sailing such a ship from the shoreline of inequities, in justices and a sort of war of all against all existence to the other shoreline of the vision articulated by Raphael. More told Raphael that substantive change comes by getting on the ship of state and sailing across the water. It is one thing to have a political vision of what might and could be---it is quite another thing to bring such a vision into reality. More walked the extra mile to encourage Raphael to join him on the ship rather than merely standing on the shoreline and carping at the crew on the ship for not sailing well. Raphael trotted out a long list of reasons for not getting on the ship----compromises would need to be made, he would have to work with those he had little affinity with, policy work took too much time, politicians cannot be trusted, betrayal is the order of the political day and the laundry list went on and on. More, of course, knew all the excuses well. He lived on the ship in a way Raphael never did. More realized that Raphael was a worrisome combination of idealism and cynicism. Raphael expected and demanded from the ship of state that the sailors and captains sail the ship to the other shoreline, but he would not participate in the process. Yes, he would articulate a vision from the shoreline and even do a sort of modern version of protest and advocacy politics, but to get on the ship of state---not a chance.
There is worrisome sense that many within the Occupy movement are merely modern Raphaels. There is a long list of legitimate concerns, but when the hard task of actually doing politics and sailing the ship from one shore to the other is required, idealism and cynicism join hands----such a position leads to paralysis and a failure of the will when doing politics. More had a much more responsible understanding of politics-----vision, Yes-- protest and advocacy Yes---but a getting on the ship is the real test of both words and action, action and words.
More and Erasmus were the leading political philosophers and activists in early 16th century Europe. Erasmus was a more prolific writer than More, but both were front and centre in the larger European justice and peace issues of their age. Books and booklets by Erasmus such as Enchiridion, Praise of Folly, Peace Protests!,Adages, Colloquies and The Education of a Christian Prince (to name but a few) have much agreement with the concerns of Raphael and the Occupy movement. But, More and Erasmus were also fully committed to getting on the ship of state and guiding such a ship to fairer and pleasanter waters. This is where More and Erasmus part paths with those like Raphael and his modern children.
It is important to link, of course, the work of Raphael with the first Anabaptist confession, The Schleitheim Confession (1527). There is the same retreating from the tough demands of political responsibility into an isolated and insulated idealistic caccoon. The recent publication of The Naked Anabaptist is of the same ideological genre. So, there is Raphael, Schleitheim, Naked Anabaptist and the Occupy movement. There is also Erasmus and More. The former group tends to reduce politics to idealism, protest and advocacy, but are much slower to get on the ship of state-----such peace advocates tend to reduce politics to shoreline activities. Erasmus and More do not oppose such approaches, but they also realize the journey from the shoreline of injustice to the other shoreline of an imperfect yet better state means a getting on the ship and being part of the change from a debilitating realism to an emergent idealism. Is it possible for Raphael and More to join hands, for participants in the Occupy movement and politicians to be on the journey together rather than seeing the other as the enemy of the common good?