Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

Religious Ironies in East Timor

Jesus, Political Philosopher

What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

The NCC's Near-Death Experience

On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya

Letters to the Editor


Faithless in Seattle?: The WTO Protests

by Patricia O’Connell KillenPieta_art.gif (158825 bytes)

Media reaction to the mass protests at the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle last fall was alternately perturbed, perplexed, bemused, and even appreciative. Editorial and news writers characterized protesters as driven by "the protectionist agendas of their own special interests" (Indianapolis Star, December 3); "intellectually incoherent" and out to "dignify some very bad ideas" (Detroit News, December 3); giving "this soggy city a taste of Mardi Gras—even if it does so with more of an edge" (Christian Science Monitor, December 1, and, "modern Maccabees" standing up for the rights of people to shape their lives (Los Angeles Times, December 3).

"[T]wo things are clear," concluded the London Independent. "One is that something changed in Seattle last week, sending shivers down the spines of the world’s most powerful leaders. The other is that a politics is emerging which insists that, if the anti-democratic tendencies of international capital are to be opposed, the movement against them has to be global" (December 5).

Without question, journalists faced a challenge figuring out just how, in a city where one out of three jobs flows from international trade, a WTO meeting intended to celebrate the spread of global commerce was effectively shut down by the largest rally of its kind in modern history.

Several themes emerged as they tried to explain what was going on in the land of Bill Gates and Boeing.

One was the unprecedented coalition of groups-from environmentalists to mothers with children to anarchists to food safety advocates to indigenous peoples to rank-and-file labor unionists. A second was the simultaneously warlike "battle for Seattle" and giddy "carnival against capitalism." Battle imagery won out with pictures of anarchists and roving bands of adolescents destroying property, but the carnival kept erupting in descriptions of protesters dressed as trees and turtles. A third theme was how, ironically, the protests had been made possible by the latest in electronic communications technology.

What all but the local press missed entirely was the protests’ religious dimension.

In the weeks leading up to the protests, Sally MacDonald and Robert Nelson of the Seattle Times and Steve Maynard of the Tacoma News Tribune did see this side of the story. Reporting on a three-day conference on global economic justice held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral at the end of September, MacDonald wrote, "Many of those at last night’s meeting said they planned to be among the 10,000 to 50,000 protesters expected at the [WTO] talks." Nelson covered two Seattle churches—Crown Hill United Methodist and Seattle Advent Christian Church—that were motivated by their "concern for the homeless in Seattle" and had agreed to "house 50 homeless men in tents erected in their parking lots" during the week of protests (Seattle Times, November 23). Maynard perceptively described the religious rationale for participation in the protests given by congregants from Tacoma churches and Christian social justice groups, many of whom said they intended to be part of a human chain around the Seattle Exhibition Center (News Tribune, November 11).

On November 29, the first day of the protests, both Maynard and the Times’s Lance Dickie covered a "Jubilee 2000" gathering of 3,100 people who packed the sanctuary and overflow rooms at First United Methodist Church. "All the strength of Jubilee 2000 was found in the eloquence of readings from the Koran, the joyful noises of a cappella hymns, a rabbi blowing on a ram’s horn and Hindu prayers punctuated by a conch shell," wrote Dickie. The Times and the News Tribune also covered the small counter-demonstration of Christians supporting free trade keynoted by Randy Tate, former Ninth District congressman from Washington now serving as senior vice-president of the Christian Coalition.

By December 1, however, institutional religion had faded out of even the local coverage. To be sure, occasional mention was made of protesting religious groups and individuals, and of the religious presence in a vigil for the release of arrestees outside the King County Jail. But there were no stories about how churches provided sleeping space for protesters coming into town and extended themselves to find even more space when other venues canceled. There was no coverage of the Peoples’ General Assembly, a weeklong counter-WTO meeting at First Methodist that provided a platform for workers, women, and indigenous peoples from around the world. Nor was notice taken of the ongoing cooperation between labor organizations and churches.

Understanding the role of religion in the WTO protests requires an appreciation of the distinctive social ecology of the Pacific Northwest. Three factors are critical:

  • Mobility. People come to the Pacific Northwest from elsewhere, and when they get there they continue to move around more than in the Midwest, South, or East. Moving disconnects people from social pressures to conform.
  • Lack of attachment to the past. People did not and do not come to the Pacific Northwest if things are good at home. Lured by economic opportunity or driven by economic necessity, few have a stake in remembering or replicating what they left behind.
  • Low cultural density. With the exception of a few little rural communities, any particular social, ethnic, or religious group is too small and dispersed for members to presume that they will encounter people who think or see the world as they do on a daily basis.

These three factors combine to make all social institutions in the Pacific Northwest weak. Compared to the rest of the country, collective identity matters less, whether it be family, ethnicity, social class—or religion.

Since the region was settled by whites in the 19th century, it has been notoriously unchurched. Relatively few people participate in religious institutions, and the 30 percent who do are spread among a wide range of denominations. For example, the largest single group, Roman Catholics, make up only about 11 percent of the population. In addition, an unusually large segment of the population is religiously uninterested, although there are also many persons who claim a commitment to "spirituality" rather than organized religion. Just as the region has no easily recognizable cultural style, it has no single religious style.

Religious institutions in the Pacific Northwest are weak and for the most part invisible. Conscious of this fragility, religious leaders historically have understood the need to work together if they want to influence the social order. In 1924, for example, an ecumenical alliance of Protestant businessmen joined with Catholics to defeat a Ku Klux Klan-sponsored ballot initiative to abolish private parochial schools because this was seen as bad for the community.

The WTO protest was classic ecumenism, Northwest style. The human ring around the Seattle Exhibition Center was organized by the Washington Association of Churches, an alliance of 16 Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church that works to bring ecumenical Christian principles to bear on social questions and political decisions. As the Seattle Times’s coverage of the Jubilee 2000 gathering made clear, the interdenominational character of the service extended beyond Christianity to interfaith ecumenism among world religious traditions.

Nor is the cooperative enterprise limited to the religious community. In 1946, Teamsters Union leader Dave Beck and wealthy Lutheran businessman Emil Sick, with the support of such other community leaders as Rabbi Samuel Koch, spearheaded a fundraising drive to retire the debt on the foreclosed St. Mark’s, to get the city back its Episcopal cathedral. Early in his career, Beck also frequented the rectory of Immaculate Conception Church, where he and Msg. Theodore Ryan, the first Washington-born Seattle diocesan priest, discussed papal encyclicals on labor. Prominent Protestants like Methodist pastor Oscar H. McGill and prominent Presbyterian layman James ("Jimmy") Duncan also played a role in the region’s unionism.

The importance of the labor movement in Seattle did not escape the Los Angeles Times, which suggested that the anti-WTO union protest would earn a footnote in labor histories next to Seattle’s "bloody general strike of 1919" (December 12). Tom Wolfe of Bellevue’s Eastside Journal pointed to Seattle’s "particular sensitivity to labor and environmental issues" (November 11). But no mention was made of the long history of anarchism in the region—which would have injected some needed journalistic skepticism into the reporting of officials’ oft-repeated charge that the anarchist protesters were "outsiders."

If all the disparate elements are to be drawn into a coherent image of the WTO protests, it is worth pondering the apparent contradiction of anarchists organizing for collective action. In the cultural quasi-anarchy of the Pacific Northwest, what made the protests possible was the fluidity of social boundaries-between rich and poor, young and old, union and non-union, religious and nonreligious.

In a place of fluid boundaries, unusual alliances can be formed and reformed. New strategies of communication and organization can be tested because commitment to old strategies based on traditional loyalties is weak. Outside the grip of social forms, people look for meaning in many places—trees and turtles and food safety. And under the right circumstances, the varied identities and means flow together into a common experience of communion—as St. Paul put it, where there is neither "Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female" (Galatians 3:28). Indeed, the best way to understand the WTO protests as a whole is as a religious event.

Their religious character comes across most clearly in the observations of participants. "My whole life I’ve been about money and myself and my $800 stereo," a 20-year-old mechanic who joined the 24-hour vigil outside the King County Jail told the News Tribune. "I came down because I saw people getting beaten up and tear-gassed on TV." He was "converted," said the paper, "once he heard firsthand protesters’ concerns about impacts of free trade on the environment, human and labor rights" (December 12).

Angela Storey, a student of mine who participated in the protests, recorded a detailed account of her experience for this article. For her, the attraction was "the opportunity for so many different groups of people and issues to work in synchrony." At the Seattle Center gathering before the union march, when silent people carrying black cardboard coffins inscribed in white with the words "forests," "butterflies," "justice," and the like entered, "there was a definite reverence given to these unassuming people. Without a word aloud they made us more serious, more determined that this was the day for change to begin."

Police use of tear gas to disperse the protesters enhanced the sense of commonality: "Many people were walking back into the gas, towards the police line to help the people who had fallen. One man, wearing a gas mask and riding a bicycle with a rider’s seat in the back, was taking trips to get those unable to walk out quickly.

"Food Not Bombs was serving the marchers tofu stew, fruit, bread, and water. This kind of voluntary help, unsolicited and free to anyone, was easily representative of the majority of the people in attendance as well as the protests themselves. People were constantly attentive to anyone’s needs, volunteering information, food, water, directions, and any help available. I saw individuals give their clothing and food to complete strangers, people picked up and carried when they could no longer walk, coffee served at midnight by union organizers to Earth Firsters locked to a hotel door, the man with the bike-cart still taking trips into gassed areas when he could no longer wear his gas mask in the no-protest zone. Protesters brought their children, knowing that at any sign of danger, all eyes and hands would be protecting those kids before shielding themselves….

"Seattle became a community, not just a city, for a while."

The protesters experienced themselves committed to and acting for a purpose that went beyond their own individual lives—the welfare of working people, the environment, future generations. They experienced themselves creating something new. They felt a sense of self-transcendence, of transcendence.

The Seattle protests were an expression of the unique culture of the Pacific Northwest—a culture that in its dispersed and anarchic character itself mirrors a world far more heterogeneous than the agents of the global economy would have it be. In assembling their various forces against the alleged imperatives of that economy, they sounded a spiritual trumpet that will echo well into the new millennium.