Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard was arrested at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in New York City as he participated in the May 1 Occupy demonstrations. He and 15 other military veterans were taken into custody after they linked arms to hold the plaza against a police attempt to clear it.
Bishop Packard was also shackled last December while occupying Duarte Square owned by Trinity Church. After several attempted negotiations with representatives of the institution, he wrote on his blog: "I am still baffled that the Episcopal Church of which I have been a member all my life could not--through Trinity--find some way to embrace these thousands of young people in our very diminishing ranks."
Beyond the bishop's high-profile detainments, however, his career spans a lifetime of service, including receipt of the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars while with the First Infantry Division in Vietnam. Upon graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1974, he transferred his commission from the infantry to the Reserves as a chaplain. In addition to completing several notable commissions abroad, he worked on policy development in race relations, multicultural diversity, and grief-loss programs, before his retirement as lieutenant colonel in 1996.
For Lybba and all advocates of #occupyhealthcare, many of Bishop Packard's sentiments in our interview with him, on the politics and challenges of walled gardens, resonate deeply.
Was your decision to become a chaplain tied directly to your experience of war?
GP: I can’t say that it was. I believed in ministry to those who were defending our country. Over time I became alarmed at the level of lethality of our weapons systems and the stress and trauma to our troops given these wars in SW Asia.
Could you describe your involvement with Veterans for Peace and the members who joined you at the Memorial?
GP: Actually my politics are somewhat different than the “Veterans for Peace.” I even started a Facebook Page to gather vets in conversation who supported a sane use of our military and supported Occupy Wall Street. There was already such a conservative group on Facebook but they were bad-mouthing OWS or didn’t understand it. On May 1st, and prior to my second arrest, it was important to stand with veterans of any stripe. Occupy brings many people together regardless of the nuance of difference they have because there’s a much larger injustice at stake.
Tell me about what you've referred to as a "lost justice" and does it relate to what you perceive to be an increasing "separation of church and street"?
GP: Martin Luther King, Jr. said we need less Good Samaritan deeds and more action to correct injustice on the Jericho Road. As the late theologian Walter Wink wrote, the world or “system” is fallen because it makes a fetish of its own existence. The Church has become part of that system and has abandoned what it means to be disposable as it brings the Kingdom of God to earth. Justice will be lost to the Church as long as it fritters away time enjoying its own fireside.
How does this philosophy you've advocated throughout your life align with the Occupy movement?
GP: The abiding truth for me is connection and the insistence on participatory democracy in Occupy brings that concept to life. All the institutions in our lives could do with a healthy dose of horizontality and a diet of less hierarchy and ranking. All we have now is a system intent on draining away personal agency and control of our lives.
Do you remember when it was that you felt keenly that the church needed to stand with Occupy?
GP: It was after about the fourth or fifth attempt to arrange a meeting between the corporate offices of Trinity Church and an earnest band of Occupiers. It was going to be merely a conversation but the Church had become this icon of order and prerogative and wouldn’t do it. Finally it occurred to me that was the consistent posture of all organized religion burdened as it was with hierarchy and ranking. Its end game was order not responsiveness.
Do you recall the moment before/when you climbed the fence and stood with the veterans?
GP: Both times I was afraid but I had a deep, resonating sense this was what I had to do. It helps to be with friends; you don’t go into combat or get arrested alone.
Will you continue to bridge/intersect relations between the church and Occupy?
GP: I wish the physics of your question were true: that there is something “to bridge/intersect” but I see no awareness in the institutional church that there’s a problem. None. Moreover, the Church has become a caricature of the gospel where small talk and charitable nicety replaces justice. These current versions are dying off, literally, as their aging populations finish life spans. Emergent, house, even street churches are where the Holy Spirit beckons us now. I’ll be there.