A Face That Looks Like You: Matthew Septimus and the Protestors of Occupy Wall Street
As the Occupy movement wanes, its protestors brought issues of economic inequality to the forefront of our national political discourse. On Being looks back at the protestors driven out of Zuccotti Park in November and the faces that look like you.
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
As the Occupy Wall Street movement took root, Brooklyn-based photographer Matthew Septimus found himself visiting Zuccotti Park as much as possible. Now in his 50s, Septimus says he’s no stranger to protest movements, but describes his experience of Occupy Wall Street as “something different.” The people he encountered were open, trusting, and eager to have a conversation.
Walking into the park for the first time, Septimus remembers being overwhelmed by a wave of emotion and kept going back for more:
“The thing that resonated was the civility and genuine interest. All are willing to look me in the eye and acknowledge my existence. Not all is peace and love. But on the whole, the community is positive and committed. Finally people are speaking up. And I am engaged, too. It feels good to see people having a conversation.”
Over the course of several months, Septimus generated over 1,200 images documenting the scores of people who were drawn to Lower Manhattan to experience the energy and potential of the OWS phenomenon.
Using a vintage Rolleiflex camera, Septimus crafted intimate portraits revealing people’s humanity, diversity, and complexity. “The protester,” as seen through Septimus’ lens, flies in the face of stereotypes. His photographs challenge us to see them more completely.
Where Are the Poor in This Debt Ceiling Debate?
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
It has become increasingly clear that the debt ceiling and deficit reduction dramas are manufactured emergencies driven by electoral politics, though the consequences of inaction are very real. The desire to stay in office, to hold on to this or that position of leadership, to stick it to one’s despised political foe with a kind of suit-and-tie snarly glee. These pathological needs now trump everything else. And it’s dispiriting to watch.
Words have lost their meaning — their basic correspondence to things and ideas by which we judge the validity and persuasiveness of human speech. Half-truths and blatant falsehoods are spun into implausible narratives uttered in grave tones and with straight faces. And almost always by middle-aged and older white men. Where are the women in this debate? (Women could knock this thing out.)
Partisan politics in the digital age depends on a distracted, uninformed electorate. It’s not helpful to the cause of conservative intransigence for voters to know that, without fuss or fanfare, Republicans voted numerous times during the Bush presidency to raise the debt limit.
And neither side in this made-up crisis has given appropriate attention to the poor. For years now, both Democrats and Republicans have made the middle class their primary legislative concern, their targeted demographic for election and re-election propaganda. The poor, let’s face it, are a drag on our collective hope in the American dream. In fact, we’re not even sure that the poor are really all that poor. I mean, 97 percent of them have refrigerators! How bad could their lives really be?
Having written a reflection on the appointed gospel reading for this coming Sunday, I’m thinking about these matters in light of Jesus’ encounters with the poor in the towns and villages, hillsides and seashores, of the Galilee. In the deserted places of Empire, Jesus met the hungry masses in all of their tiresome, needy, inconvenient humanity. It would have been easier to stay in seclusion, to pass the problem off to the disciples, which he actually did at first: “you give them something to eat,” he says to them.
But he takes a meager sack lunch of bread and fish, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to the disciples to give to the crowds. It’s a familiar story and one that strains logic, leaving us skeptical and incredulous, especially the part about collecting 12 baskets of leftovers when everyone had eaten their fill.
At least, though, we can acknowledge that the early Christians preserved and passed on a story like this because their imaginations had been shaped by a story of abundance, not of scarcity. The fear-mongering ways of Empire were rejected and a new way of being — life and health and wholeness for all, even women and children in the gospel of Matthew’s telling of the story — was the good news.
Fear and scarcity are the watchwords of Empire politics today. They divide and diminish us — reducing our elected officials to buffoons one day, calculating schemers the next — and making us, regardless of party affiliation, co-conspirators in the misery they plot.
But we can resist. Without resorting to the hard-edged parochialism of the religious right, we can embrace the politics of Jesus. We can refuse the politics of fear and scarcity and choose instead another way of being: life and health and wholeness for all — even for women and children and the poor in our midst.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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It would be harder for a Lao person to be without a family or community than to be without a job…
— Sarah Zwier, on living and working with Hmong communities in Laos. Read her essay she submitted as part of our series on the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn.
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
The collapse of our market only illustrates this more conclusively — this is the death blow. I’m excited!
— Careen Stoll, a potter from Portland, Oregon on a new role for small artisans, feeling needed, and firing a kiln fueled with vegetable oil.
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Repossessing Virtue: Khalid Kamau on Gaining Time and Community in the Black Church
» download (mp3, 18:11)
Nancy Rosenbaum, Production Assistant
When I started working with Speaking of Faith in January, Trent, our online editor, asked me to read through a thick stack of listener e-mails that had flowed into our inbox after we broadcast “Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning”.
SOF producers had already started reaching out to past guests of the show to engage them in conversation about the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of the economic downturn. We wanted to get listeners into the mix of the conversation.
I spent a few quiet winter days in my cubicle with a highlighter pen, reading the 100+ responses we had received. People wrote in with all kinds of insights and reflections — from the deeply personal and specific to more theoretical interpretations of the economic collapse, its causes, and its implications.
When I read this essay by Khalid Kamau in New York City, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to him. I wrote on the page “I like this one a lot” and gave it a little star.
You see the theme of community keeps coming up in the conversations we’ve been having with past guests of the show and others through our continuing Repossessing Virtue series. And while living more deeply and deliberately in community sounds good at first pass, it can be complicated and fraught. My own recent-ish experiences living with roommates is a reminder of this.
Khalid nails this complexity in a very personal story he wrote about baking a cake for his parents as a kid. I’m not going to give away the guts of the story; you should hear him tell it. But suffice to say that Khalid’s received some confusing messages growing up about what it means to ask a neighbor for help. To this day, he says he won’t knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow eggs or milk.
I’m excited to share Khalid’s story with you as well as the conversation we had about how he’s experiencing the economic downturn. Unlike others we’ve spoken to, Khalid was laid off from his job a few months ago. When he was working, Khalid says he was always busy, a frenetic New Yorker (I used to be one of those too). Now he’s using this new-found expanse of time to volunteer, pray, reflect, and simply do nothing.
This is the one of the first in a series of listener conversations we’ll be featuring online and in an upcoming radio program slated for broadcast in May. We’re approaching this as a creative experiment so please let us know what you think.
Repossessing Virtue: Marie Howe on Greater Simplicity and Laura Ingalls Wilder
» download (mp3, 15:53)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I met the poet Marie Howe once. Sitting in LaGuardia Airport with Kate, she and her beautiful daughter streamed right on by when Kate grabbed her to say hello. You know how it is when the person you’re traveling with meets an old acquaintance and starts catching up. You say hello and then politely stand off to the side or sit in the margins as they catch up and talk about old times.
But, this experience was delightfully different. She was instantly familiar, intimate without being awkward. She engaged me. She was funny, her frankness refreshing in its honesty without being harsh or offensive. She was real.
So, hearing her talk about taking walks with her daughter in her NYC neighborhood to experience reality rather than watching television as an act of simplicity mirrored the woman I spoke with in the airport. But, when Kate asks her about who’s she reading or looking to for wisdom, I expected to hear the names of esoteric poets or sophisticated literary writers — not Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter. I took comfort in just hearing her talk about that.
An anecdote: I made an editorial decision to include Marie Howe’s closing statements about the value of public radio. I had a similar deliberation about Jessica Sundheim’s good words for our Repossessing Virtue series. Here’s why. We ask people who they are turning to for wisdom and comfort during these economic times; one of those sources is public radio and, hopefully, Speaking of Faith. If they were grauitous, I would have omitted them; if I would have deleted their statements, I would have cheated them of telling their story for the sake of being humble. I’ll let you decide, and please let me know if you think I made the right or wrong decision.
(photo: ©Brad Fowler)
Eleanor Roosevelt on Noblesse Oblige
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
This 1959 interview with the former first lady surprised me. Introduced as the “archetype of the twentieth-century woman,” Ms. Roosevelt’s plain-spoken manner and repetitive use of the word “obligation” caught me off-guard. In our recent RV conversation with Elliot Dorff, the rabbi was adamant that we shouldn’t view helping others in need as a duty.
My first reaction was to equate “duty” and “obligation.” That was the wrong approach. Listening more deeply, I hear Ms. Roosevelt use “obligation” in the same sense that Rabbi Dorff uses “responsibility.” She speaks with a sense of doing what’s right, of being moral as a shared sense of justice.
I had thought of noblesse oblige as a literary concept, a convention intended to give flesh to fictional characters of another time, of another place, of Faulkner and Flaubert. And, even now, 50 years later, I contemplate if this idea still exists within the wealthier classes who have privilege and position — at least the idea in its humbler sense, without self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement.
Perhaps with the loss of so much wealth in the U.S. and internationally, we collectively might rediscover the best of this manner of conduct. What’s being done in the spirit of noblesse oblige nowadays that just isn’t being covered because of its quiet, serving nature? I wonder.
Repossessing Virtue: Anita Barrows on Finding the Sacred in the Ordinary
» download (mp3, 15:17)
Larissa Anderson, Poetry Producer
There are many Speaking of Faith programs where I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the show, when I heard something resonate like a ringing tuning fork right up on my bones. “The Soul in Depression” is one of those shows, and we recently rebroadcast it. I particularly love the poetry in the program — like the Rilke poem that starts, “I love the dark hours of my being. / My mind deepens into them.”
Anita Barrows translated that poem. She’s a poet herself, and she’s got a new book of poetry out titled, Kindred Flame. I talked with her recently for our Repossessing Virtue series. During our conversation, she said we’re called now to examine how we take care of each other. And, she mentioned a Rilke poem she’s translating with her friend and colleague Joanna Macy that gives her perspective and strength.
I was also interested to hear her say Pablo Neruda is a good poet to turn to in these economic times. She brought up poems like “Ode to My Socks” and “Ode to Tomatoes.” “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” is another one. Barrows said Neruda helps her remember it’s in the ordinary things that we find the sacred.
Repossessing Virtue: Elliot Dorff on Seeing Duty as a Responsibility
» download (mp3, 15:19)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Elliot Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, first appeared on SOF as part of “Marriage, Family, and Divorce.” Now a somewhat old program. It was before my time, an era when Krista and Mitch and Kate would pop in at conferences and interview interesting voices in a hotel room with mattresses and drapes serving as sound baffles. (Well, I guess we still do that once in a while, even today!)
Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, looks to the Torah and ancient rabbinic wisdom as a model for acting in the world during these difficult financial times. He has a special way of explaining things plainly. At the beginning of the interview, he opens with an idea that, although not particularly novel, but becomes more poignant in light of current events and crises: our collective focus on money and material wealth is a form of idolatry. When the Torah forbids people from worshipping “false idols,” the sacred text doesn’t just intend for it to apply to statuettes or icons or paintings. For Dorff, that means any being or object or idea that takes one’s focus away from God.
He sees the current economic and cultural crisis as more than just a spiritual dilemma — it’s a point of pragmatism that pulls together community for those in need. The Torah requires him to help the poor and the needy. And serving those in need means more than charity. Helping others means preserving their human dignity and we, he reminds us, should not look on this service to others as a duty but as a responsibility.
One of the best ways to help is to give that person a job or invest with that person. It’s a matter of dignity by empowering people in need to foster long-term sufficiency. He tells a story where he and other faculty members put this idea into practice by taking a salary cut so that fellow colleagues’ positions would be preserved.
Dorff’s perspective and grounded wisdom reminds me that the psyche of my fellow man is as important as is his basic need for food and shelter. Being able to hold one’s head up brings alleviates the burden of survival. We don’t want to simply exist, we crave respect and creation and ambition, in the best sense of the word.