Vinoth Ramachandra

Student Leadership

Posted on: September 30, 2011

Until two weeks ago, I had never heard of Camila Vallejo. Now I am fascinated by this charismatic student leader in Chile who has been shaking the political establishment in her country. She is spearheading a populist movement that has the right to “quality education” at its core. Boldly outspoken, Vallejo is only the second female leader in the 105- year old history of the student union in the University of Chile. Hundreds of thousands of university and high school students have been boycotting classes since early June, clamouring for better and more affordable education and an end to the two-tier system that creates a few affluent, elite institutions amid many underfunded public ones.

Last month, transport workers and other public sector employees joined the student movement in public strikes that led to a two-day nationwide shutdown. The government has promised to spend a further US $4 billion on education and to cut the interest rates on student loans by more than half. Chile’s Supreme Court has ordered police protection for Vallejo as she has been receiving death threats. A government official lost his job after suggesting that the protests would end if she were assassinated. Chile’s President is the billionaire business tycoon, Sebastian Pińera, whom opinion polls reveal only enjoys 26% of electoral support. Meanwhile, Vallejo has become a cult figure with songs about her appearing all over Youtube. She is tipped to be a future President.

She tells reporters: “Why do we need education? To make profits? To run a business? Or to develop the country and have social integration and development? Those are the issues in dispute.”

Here is a 23 year-old woman taking on the whole educational and political system!

The typical response of Christian students, especially in the privileged universities of the world, whenever I talk to them about engaging in acts of social transformation is either “That sounds idealistic…” or “But, we are only students…” And in the case of many graduates (even those in the mass media and politics), they shrug their shoulders and say, “We are so powerless…”

What needs to change in Christian university groups and churches for them to be attracting students like Camila Vallejo, let alone producing people like her?

At the same time as these momentous events are unfolding in Chile, students in New York and other cities in the USA have also been out on the streets every day since 17 September in peaceful protests against the takeover of American politics by corporate power. They call themselves “Occupying Wall Street” and describe themselves as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.”

Last Saturday, more than 80 of them were arrested by police in NYC.  But this has not deterred them. They write on their website: “As members of the 99 percent, we occupy Wall Street as a symbolic gesture of our discontent with the current economic and political climate and as an example of a better world to come.”

All these are signs of hope. It is poles apart from the irrational violence that gripped parts of London in August. It expresses the “Direct Democracy” I called for in my Blog post of 2 July. To Christian students and churches, all I can say is, “Get involved!” (You can listen, too, to my plenary Bible exposition on Loving God & Neighbour at the IFES World Assembly in Krakow, 31 July, available at  http://www.ifesworld.org/media/audio/wa2011-aen-mark-vinoth).

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6 Responses to "Student Leadership"

Check this out! What needs to change in Christian university groups and churches for them to be attracting students like Camila Vallejo, let alone producing people like her?”

It looks like this form of direct democracy is spreading fast. A facebook “occupy together” page now lists occupy movements in dozens of US cities, London Stock Exchange, Birmingham, Belfast, Canada, Denmark. There were hundreds arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday, more in Boston, a few in DC. The demands aren’t clear, but the message certainly is: the system isn’t working and the rules need to be changed.

As you say, the message is clear- the political system has been hijacked by the superrich. The alternatives can be articulated later. Curiously, I was reading Mordecai’s warning to Esther today (often mis-quoted by preachers): ” If you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and liberation will come… from another quarter. But you and your father’s family will be judged.” (Esther 4: 14).

Couple questions Vinoth…
1. Do you think that participation in these protests is basically the only “Christian position” on the matters involved? In other words, can a faithful Christian hold a different position on these debates about what is the best (however you define that) economic and/or political system?
2. Since the alternatives have not been spelled out (the protesters would no doubt be diverse in their prescriptions for better systems), is there any danger that the alternatives might be worse than the current system?

1. I believe that to be silent in the face of evil is to support evil. If you are following another “Christian position”, neither silent complicity nor public protest, I would very much like to know what that is. But I suggest that you also study what the “Occupying Wall Street” movement is saying. This is not a theoretical debate about which economic or political system is “best”. It is about publicly standing up and saying “No” to the 1% per cent of Americans who seem to have taken over their economy. This is about reclaiming democracy. If you disagree, okay. But, if you agree, join them.

2. Did the 1% who have seized economic power over the years publicly discuss “alternatives” with the 99% of their fellow citizens? Many well-to-do Christians only talk about “alternatives” when the poor majority start to protest. It is a red herring.

All social change in American history came about by people first saying “No, this is wrong.” That’s how it was with the Boston Tea Party and freedom from British rule (the 13 diverse colonies didn’t first agree on a Constitution before saying “No” to British taxation). That’s how it was with abolitionism (there were plenty of white Christians who stood on the sidelines and talked about how alternatives to slavery were worse). And that’s how it was with the fight against racial segregation in the south, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s equality movement and civil rights for Blacks. There are times when the Church simply stands up and says “No, this is wrong” along with others- from different backgrounds and with different alternative visions. It is only as the Church works alongside others for social and political transformation, that its voice carries credibility and it gains the opportunity to articulate a Christian vision of a just and humane society. Every act of faith involves risk-taking.

The “Occupying Wall Street” movement can draw its inspiration from Thomas Jefferson who wrote that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” He even went on to speak of the “blood of tyrants and patriots” being the “natural manure” of liberty.

Until now, the only blood spilled has been that of non-violent demonstrators. Wouldn’t you agree that it is a tragedy for the Church’s witness that those American pastors who teach that the founding fathers of the Republic were motivated by a “Christian vision” of liberty are so slow to imitate them?

I’ve been waiting to see if any US Christian leaders even note that Occupy is happening, and was pleased to see that Jim Wallis just posted support of the occupiers: http://blog.sojo.net/2011/10/06/praying-for-peace-and-looking-for-jesus-at-occupywallstreet/#disqus_thread

There’s so much misunderstanding and conjecture about who they are and what they’re up to, but there are some great websites offering an inside look.

http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/ gives photos and stories of those involved or offering support.

http://coupmedia.org/occupywallstreet/occupy-wall-street-official-demands-2009 offers a full draft of current demands. Anyone interested is welcome to vote on demands, offer additions or ideas for other demands, until the October 20 deadline. And yes, there are lots of demands. The agenda that’s been pushed by global corporations and the wealthy has impacted elections and voters’ rights, unions and working conditions, environmental regulation, health care, care for the poor, the defense industry, taxation, financial regulation, and more, so there’s no way one or two simple demands can even begin to turn back the tide toward a more equitable system.

And how far has this spread? Check http://www.occupytogether.org/ As of now there are 746 cities listed, in countries around the globe.

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