Magnificent Works of Peace — Reverend Billy’s Revelations

Issue 224

In this month's column, the good reverend answers readers questions about ecclesiastical activism and black bloc.

Reverend Billy Talen Apr 30, 2017

Dear Rev,

I’m a member of the social justice working group at my local Presbyterian church and a couple of months ago we pooled our money together and purchased a rainbow-colored bench for the church’s garden. It was intended to celebrate the spirit of inclusivity we want our church to represent. We presented it as a surprise gift to the congregation because we knew the church’s central committee would otherwise not approve of it. It’s not that they are bigots, per se, it’s just that they want to stay out of politics. Making it a gift forced them to accept it. But it left members of the central committee bitter.

Now, there’s talk of disbanding our social justice group. I love working for change with my fellow parishioners. We have been a big part of the drive for the national Presbyterian Church to divest from fossil fuels and we succeeded in getting the church to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against illegal Israeli settlements. But squabbles like this over a bench make me want to throw in the towel. 

What do you think Billy, should I stick to it or take my activism elsewhere?

— Thomas from Upstate

Dear Thomas,

Let us use George Segal’s bench in Christopher Square as our touch point. The life-size lovers he sculpted there in the park are a marker of the sexual freedom that flourished in the West Village and to the revolution that was released at Stonewall Inn a few hundred feet up Christopher Street.

Your bench is resting in a setting of Calvinistic sexual fear — the tradition of your church. Don’t just paint it with a rainbow. Perform the rituals of love there. Produce morality plays with gay and lesbian actors, costumes and music. Show your church elders some Radical Faerie Christianity and get down with some really fabulous worship.

Let the central committee have their “bitter feelings.” I can hear them now: Look at that bench! Oh no! Here comes the sacred feminine! What next? Will Jesus of Nazareth introduce us to Mary of Magdala, his friend-with-benefits? Will Jesus wink suggestively at John, the Apostle “whom he loved,” as the gospels say.

The life and times of free love in a church park — that’s something we all need to see. Take your gestures and giggles and music out into the open air. Be gay and proud in your worship — make that bench your new altar!


Dear Reverend Billy,

I’ve always considered myself a pacifist on both moral and tactical grounds. But I love watching those black bloc protesters confront Donald Trump’s fanatics. Maybe it’s a good thing that they are giving those dipshits no quarter. What do you think?

— Meredith in Kensington, Brooklyn

Meredith, why don’t you lie down until the feeling passes.

The great project is peace. Find a way to enjoy peace more than war and you have begun to put 45 back in his cage at the top of Trump Tower.

There is a certain kind of pleasure in directly confronting the enemy. We are in such an indirect age, so much information flying about at high speeds. Environmentalists, anti-gentrification activists, people fighting against racism and xenophobia — it seems every kind of activist in 2017 is facing the riddle of the vanishing villain. It was such a relief when, this month, Citibank executives holding their shareholders’ convention found the stage taken over by Lakota Sioux activists. The victims of the Dakota Access pipeline were there in person, swooping over the bankers with feathered capes, demanding their right to clean water, their right to exist.

Direct action is a hard thing to pull off in the information age. It is easy to live in the virtual world.

And then suddenly it happens — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock. In an instant, the information age is working for activists. Those movements were like stages with the world in the audience. Why are these movements the showdowns that we needed?  That is basically a mystery. But, Meredith, it wasn’t violence that made it happen. All three were magnificent works of peace.

Rev Billy 1BW.jpg

Photo: John Quilty.

Reverend Billy is an activist and political shouter, a post-religious preacher of the streets and bank lobbies. He’s been in New York forever with the activist performance group the Church of Stop Shopping. Got a question for Reverend Billy? Just email and unburden your soul.


Photo (top): NYC Parks Department.

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