Portland shows that “soft answers” work

With many other Portland-area people, I spent most of the early morning hours of Sunday, November 13, watching local TV channels give non-stop, commercial-free coverage to street drama of the highest order: the closing of a tent city on city property.

For five weeks Occupy Portland had used two city parks as the site of an increasingly dense tent community. On the previous Friday (Veterans Day, it happened to be), Portland’s mayor announced that at 12:01 A.M., the rules and regulations regarding park usage would be enforced. This meant, of course, that Occupy Portland was being given the official notice that the occupation of those parks would have to be discontinued.

The chief of Portland’s Police Bureau then spoke. It was clear that a full plan of action had been developed aimed at an orderly, peaceful enforcement of all rules and regulations regarding these parks. In answer to questions, both city leaders spoke respectfully of Occupy Portland. They repeatedly stated that they would not discuss tactics.

Because I am in downtown Portland three or four times a week, many of these times on my bicycle, I have either cycled or driven through the Occupy Portland encampment. My interest in the enforcement action was increased significantly because my wife and I are members of First Christian Church, six or seven city blocks distant from the tent city.

An even greater sense of connection is the fact that the police chief and his family are members of our church. He and his wife are elders, regularly offering prayers at the communion table.

The question that has haunted me is this: How would his Christian faith affect his actions as the leader of the city’s instrument of power and control? Although I have not discussed these matters with the chief, here is what I observed.

The newscasters frequently used the word restraint to describe the police presence. And the word is appropriate, because throughout the nightlong engagement five factors had to be apparent to any observer:

  1. Police officers maintained a steady, disciplined presence that shaped every aspect of the engagement of Occupy Portland and public authority.
  2. They had the full capability, if they had chosen to use it, of  rapid and violent, coercive action that could easily have resulted in a pitched battle with injury, loss of life, and significant property damage.
  3. They manifested their power more by persuasion than by duress.
  4. Throughout the tensest period of the action, only two people were injured.
  5. A serious level of respectful relationship was maintained with leaders of Occupy Portland, a relationship that had gradually developed during the five weeks that the tent city had been allowed to exist.

When I drove to church about 8:30 Sunday morning, the primary drama had played itself out. A biblical text popped into my mind: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1) The next verse continues the idea: “The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Other verses in this chapter also recount themes that resonate as I think about Portland’s most recent street drama:

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit…Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention” (Proverbs 15:4, 18).

Especially interesting, in light of Occupy Portland’s primary purpose, which is to call attention to the increasingly unjust distribution of power, privilege, and wealth in American society is this verse:

“In the house of the righteous there is much treasure, but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” Proverbs 15:6.

At the beginning of the 9:00 o’clock service at First Christian Church, the pastor offered a prayer that acknowledged the events that had galvanized the city’s attention. Only then were we ready to move into the rest of the morning’s Eucharistic liturgy.

For me, however, the most significant liturgical language of the morning was included in a prayer when the congregation’s offering was received. Another of the congregation’s elders, a science teacher in a Portland area school, gave thanks for the “love and leadership” that had been manifested in the actions of the night. Although he probably was thinking primarily of the attitudes and actions of the mayor and chief of police, this combination could appropriately be used in reference to some of the people who gave voice to Occupy Portland.

Do religious convictions and practices that focus on love, respect, persuasion, and risking self for the sake of the public happiness work in real life?

In Portland, on a dreary weekend in November, they did. And for this confirmation of religious principle I give thanks.

Note: The photo by Beth Nakamura is published in The Oregonian and can be accessed here: The Oregonian

2 Responses to Portland shows that “soft answers” work

  1. Paul Freeman says:

    I am glad to receive clarity to he happenings in Portland over the weekend. There has been much disparity in other parts of the web including on facebook regarding the Occupy and how there has been generalities made regarding both sides. Thank you for sharing your insight.

  2. Keith, thanks for bringing clarity and meaning to the city’s handling of Occupy Portland. Your knowledge of Scripture has enabled you to lift up such verses as “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1) and “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit…Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention” (Proverbs 15:4, 18). Rusty and I were deeply moved by Barbara’s opening prayer on Sunday. Thanks again for bringing fresh understand to the events of the last several weeks.

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