Note to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Trinity Church: when you find yourself on the other side of an issue from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu it’s time to consider the possibility you’re in the wrong.
Tutu, a hero of the battle against apartheid in South Africa, sided with the Occupy Wall Street movement on Thursday, Dec. 15, in its dispute with Trinity Church. The 80-year-old Anglican cleric urged the uber-wealthy Episcopal institution to allow pro-democracy demonstrators to make a temporary home on an idle tract of land it owns in Lower Manhattan called “Duarte Square” in an open letter of solidarity on the Occupy Wall Street website.
“Trinity Church is an esteemed and valued old friend of mine, from the earliest days when I was a young Deacon,” Tutu said. “Theirs was the consistent and supportive voice I heard when no one else supported me or our beloved brother Nelson Mandela. That is why it is especially painful for me to hear of the impasse you are experiencing with the parish.
“I appeal to them to find a way to help you. I appeal to them to embrace the higher calling of Our Lord Jesus Christ – which they live so well in all other ways – but now to do so in this instance.”
The letter comes as OWS is preparing to occupy the vacant tract near Canal and Varick streets. The Episcopal church itself is located a block away from The New York Stock Exchange, closely associated with the financial community, and one of the largest landowners in New York City.
Church opposition to the move will give Bloomberg, the wealthiest person ever elected to public office in the United States, an excuse to break heads and make arrests. The Bloomberg Administration has made more than 1,700 arrests during OWS activities since the movement began with a few hundred people camping in Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 17.
New York City Police forced the nonviolent protesters from the park Nov. 15, ostensibly to allow the area to be cleaned up. The raid has hindered a movement that shined a harsh spotlight on societal imbalances that have helped big banks acquire more than $7 trillion in bailouts after they precipitated The Great Recession, helped Bloomberg build a personal fortune of more than $19.5 billion, and helped Trinity amass more than $10 billion in New York City property holdings even as a record number of their fellow Americans were falling into poverty.
The Rev. James H. Cooper, Rector of Trinity Church, has refused repeated requests from OWS to use the vacant land in Duarte Square as a new temporary home.
“We disagree with those who argue that Trinity should – indeed, must as a matter of conscience – allow Occupy Wall Street to liberate its Duarte Square lot at Avenue of the Americas and Canal Street for an open encampment and large scale assemblies,” Cooper said in a letter on the church website. “In all good conscience and faith, we strongly believe to do so would be wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious.”
The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican faith. Anglicanism is a Christian movement associated with The Church of England, which broke away from the Catholic hierarchy in Rome after Pope Clement VII refused to annul one of the six marriages of England’s King Henry VIII.
The OWS-Trinity disgreement exposes the close relationship between organized religion and the political machines in the communities where they operate. In the United States, politicians shamelessly court wealthy campaign donors and religious groups that vote in a block, and religious organizations and the wealthy routinely escape paying their fair share of taxes.
Religious organizations like Trinity enjoy a property tax exemption that some have used to foster ties with powerful landlords and developers, and to warehouse land, thereby driving up rents and property values. Churches, synagogues and mosques utilize their nonprofit status to escape other taxes.
The OWS-Trinity disagreement also exposes the hypocritical standards that American clergy and news media routinely attach to events occurring overseas in comparison with those that happen closer to home and impact their cozy relationships with ruling political machines. Actions deemed “horrible” overseas and aggressively criticized and covered are routinely tolerated and ignored here at home.
The practice is a form of limousine liberalism at its worst.
In the case of Trinity Church, the institution was a vocal supporter of Tutu and a vocal critic of South African apartheid. Here at home, it’s unwilling to allow OWS protesters to sleep on vacant land it has keept idle at almost no cost through its religious property tax exemption.
What would Jesus do?
Well, he opposed the commercialization of religion and championed the poor. It’s safe bet he wouldn’t own $10 billion worth of property, ally himself with money-changers, or oppose the use of vacant land by his own countrymen and women.
Jesus didn’t sit on his hands either, or shut his mouth, while his own countrymen and women were being exploited.
Seminarian John Bethell and 14 of his classmates (right) from the General Theological Seminary in Lower Manhattan crystallized their view of the matter Nov. 17, when they joined OWS protesters in Foley Square. They said they were convinced Jesus would have aligned himself with the 99%.
“If there is one thing that we have learned from Christ, it’s social justice,” said Bethell, a future Episcopal priest. “I do believe that if Jesus were alive he would be here now.”
The Duarte Square occupation begins today, Dec. 17, at noon EST.