The Cardus Daily

The Olympics: A Religious Conundrum

Richelle Wiseman  |  July 9, 2012  |  Economy, Games, Justice, Politics

The London 2012 Olympics may prove to be the venue not just for competition between the world’s greatest athletes, but also for an even more interesting contest: an epic church/state battle.

London is gearing up for the Olympics, for thousands of tourists, for unprecedented security measures, and for a bonanza of revenues to boost the sagging economy. But amidst the global spectacle of world class athletics and revelry, there will be a dissonant and likely disruptive note.

The Occupy movement has gone fairly silent since it seemingly petered out in March, but it has by no means gone away. Instead, it is making preparations for major protest activities in London. Occupy Olympics will draw attention to the extraordinary expense of the games to Londoners, to Great Britain, and to the many British people who have suffered dramatically from the austerity measures. They will also complain about the extravagant amounts of money that have been poured into the Olympics by controversial corporate donors such as Dow Chemicals, and about Olympic merchandise made by child labour.

The media will have much more than the Olympics to cover when the games begin on July 27. According to a Time Magazine article, the cost of the games could exceed £11 billion. The security measures being assembled, at a cost of £1 billion, include 24,000 private security guards, 12,500 police officers, and 13,500 military personnel, all of whom will likely be more focused on maintaining control of the protest movement than on addressing any terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, the Olympics afford a major conundrum for religious people. On October 15, 2011, Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters made their camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Initially, they garnered the support of then Dean of the Cathedral, Canon Fraser, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who both agreed they were raising important social justice issues. Their cause was in keeping with the Church’s message to uphold social justice, to protect the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, and to speak out about the corporate greed which had contributed to the economic hardship that Great Britain was facing.

But 133 days later, on February 25, 2012, the internal disposition of the Cathedral had changed. A new dean, and other church officials invited or cooperated with the police who descended onto the stairs of St. Paul’s to disperse and arrest praying protestors. After the break-up of the Occupy camp, many questions remain unanswered as to the actions of the Cathedral to prompt or to stand idle while the police actions occurred.

Now, with the Olympics just 18 days away, the question remains . . . what will the Cathedral and other Christian institutions and groups do with the Occupy Olympics movement? Will they stand in the shadows? Will they take up the cause? Will they speak out against the effects of corporate greed on the poor? Or will they remain curiously quiet?

Many religious groups in England are preparing to welcome the world to London, to pray for a peaceful, harmonious event; to pray for the athletes; to set up prayer spaces and services for tourists and athletes; in short, to exercise the ministry of presence and witness at this world event.

British Catholic Church leaders announced they were observing “100 Days of Peace”, in keeping with the practice of the Greeks to allow foreign athletes to travel through hostile nations to arrive safely at the games.

Other religious groups have joined the Occupy Olympics protest movement to uphold the flag of social justice. They will be there to voice the concerns of people whose jobs, land, and dignity have been stripped away by the recession and by austerity measures, and whose concerns will not be forgotten amidst the lavish and expensive games.

The Occupy Movement will wedge religious people to either side, supporting social justice concerns or denouncing their disruption of the Games. The Dalai Lama, who was just awarded the Templeton Prize for spiritual progress in London in May, spoke at St. Paul’s Cathedral about the Occupy movement. The Guardian reports he said, “If their reasons and motivations are sincere, then I will join with them.”

The head of the Church of England is the Queen, now celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of her reign. How will the C of E handle the many church groups preparing to protest the London 2012 Olympics? Will civil disobedience, legal public protests, and social justice activism be tolerated at this global event?

Stay tuned for an epic battle between church and state. Or are they one and the same?



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