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The Unwanted Mess of Moral Integrity

Years ago (and I mean years ago!), when living in Berkeley, California, I withdraw all my money from the Bank of America. It was during the time the public woke up to the injustices of the apartheid system in South Africa. I remember there was a huge demonstration on Sproul Plaza, University of California at Berkeley. 500 ministers and ministerial students from Holy Hill (the location next the Berkeley campus of The Graduate Theological Union seminaries) gathered at the GTU office and then marched over to Sproul Plaza. Those of us who were young and participating in their first protest march were quite excited. Those of us who were older and had done the same during the Vietnam war protests were sober. It had been arranged that the Holy Hill people would arrive at Sproul Plaza at a certain time, march to the head of the demonstration and Robert McAfee Brown would speak. As we approached the Plaza, the thousands of people gathered there parted, creating a pathway for us. There were loud applauds as we marched to the head of the demonstration. (I realise British readers might find this surprising, that a secular protest would make room for and applaud the arrival of religious demonstrators. The church in the USA was not irrelevant.)

Part of the anti-apartheid movement targeted business that had dealings with South Africa and thus supported the apartheid economic and political system. The Bank of America was heavily invested in South Africa and so I wrote a letter to the president of the bank telling him why I was withdrawing all my money from his bank. At that time, “all my money” amounted to $500. I never got a reply from the president of the Bank of America. Nonetheless, I would make this point: the ethical and moral integrity of my act was not determined by the efficacy of my act. The ethical and moral character of the act was not undermined by the fact that it had absolutely no practical implications for the bank. If on the other hand I had gathered 500 other people with small holdings in the bank, it would have had greater impact. 5000 other investors and I might have received a letter from the bank president (I guess in our Facebook and Twitter age it may have been easy to gather 5000 people with their money in the Bank of America to my cause.)

I should say that my dramatic and symbolic action did have some practical consequences. I put my £500 in a small local Berkeley bank that invested in small local businesses and paid all their employees a reasonable wage (which meant that those at the windows did not work for a pittance and the chief executive was not paid an outrageous salary with perks). I stayed with that bank until I moved away from Berkeley.

Occupy London has been moved off the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral was quick to clean up the mess left behind tent city. As Giles Fraser wrote in The Guardian, “Occupy was just too messy, too in your face.” Though it is trite to say so out loud, some of that mess will take a long time to be clean up. The City of London was protected by police and the courts so the tented community ended up on St. Paul’s doorstep, which was never the movements intention. I can only think the City folk laughed in their Champaign since all the media attention was directed at the horrible way in which the cathedral handled the situation. The cathedral did not open its doors to the occupiers. It did not pitch its tent among them. It did not march into the heart of a largely secular protest. It instead went to court and testified in a way (neutrally) that benefited of the City of London case against Occupy. I have heard in the media that the movement had little to no effect. I’m not sure that is correct. The “mess” they left behind has entered the public mind-set and the movements language has entered our lexicon. But whether effective or not, it had and still has moral and ethical integrity.

The incredibly solid and powerful apartheid system, heavily supported by western governments, came to an end partly through the unreported and largely ineffectual actions of unknown people. It took the churches a while to get on board the moral and ethical integrity train back then. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long this time around.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger

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