Interview with Rev. Dr. Jarrod Cochran

Canton, Georgia (TFC) – Reverend Doctor Jarrod Cochran is a writer, a speaker, and an activist for peace, justice, and social change.

Jarrod is an ordained priest within the Progressive Episcopal Church and serving as Priest at Church in the Wild in Canton, Georgia. Jarrod has served as pastor for several churches and as a chaplain for both a local Atlanta fire department and an organization that assists the homeless and poverty-stricken. Jarrod has also worked alongside champions of social justice, such as Rev. C.T. Vivian, John K. Stoner, and Rabbi Michael Lerner, serving as a member, writer, and a listed speaker for several organizations which include Every Church a Peace Church, CrossLeft, Social Redemption, and the National Religious Leaders Conference.

Jarrod currently holds the positions of Spiritual Advisor of the Leadership Council of the Progressive Christian Alliance, Contributor for Jesus Radicals, Media Contact for PFLAG, a member of the Clergy Cabinet and featured writer for the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, a Fellow with the Political Studies Association focusing on the intersection between Anarchism and Christianity, and serves as a priest within The Progressive Episcopal Church’s Diocese of the South.

1. What got you involved in social justice activism?

12833240_10153497650323106_1878361937_nWithout going deep into my life’s story, I am the oldest of three sons to my father, who was an evangelical pastor at a small church in Austell, GA. As a kid, I pushed the rules and bucked up against the boundaries of religion and Christianity. God always seemed so foreign to me – like this bi-polar character that loved you completely and uncompromisingly, yet if you crossed him or disobeyed him, you’d burn in a fiery pit forever. When I became a teenager, I pretty much decided that if this was what God was about then I didn’t want to be a part of it – damn the consequences. I supported my dad by going to church, being another warm body in a cold pew.

It wasn’t until my father was on his deathbed that I sought some solace in the things that my dad treasured. I looked through his Bible and, as I read, I found a connection to not just my dad. Not just my dad, but this perusal of the gospel of Mark gave me comfort. This connection deepened and I found that the God in the Bible was perhaps not the hard-assed nut-job that my church had portrayed him/her/it to be. I began to work towards being a minister soon after, preaching at my father’s church on Sundays.

I think my first jolt into realizing that Ihadto be involved in social justice activism was when I was working on a sermon one night during those early days as a minister. We were right at the ramp-up for the second Gulf War. Islamaphobia was in full-swing and my father’s church was eating up everything that conservative pundits were saying like their words were Krispy Kreme donuts after the “Hot and Fresh” light cuts on in the window. I stumbled upon, now, my favorite passage: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. The opening volley intrigued me: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is God’s kingdom.” I kept reading, “Blessed are the meek”; “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst”; “Blessed are the peacemakers”… When was this stuff ever taught in my church as a kid? Jesus’ opening blessings, dubbedThe Beatitudes, elevates all the attitudes that go against what our nation claimed were positive. Blessed are the poor? Our country hates the poor and loves the rich. Even our church tries to errantly spin scripture into saying that riches are God’s outward display of blessing someone’s faith. Blessed are the meek? It’s the bullies and the screw-everybody-else-I’m-getting-mine attitudes that are applauded in America. Blessed are those who hungry and thirst? The impoverished are despised by our country and are used routinely as the scapegoats by politician and preacher alike for the “ills” of our society. Blessed are the peacemakers? Woah. We’re about to go to war in Iraq for a second time and my patriotic church is all but demanding we singThe Battle Hymn of the Republicevery freaking Sunday.

I read Jesus’ whole sermon that night, all three chapters and then flipped some pages. Magically – or through serendipity – I landed upon Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-46:

“…‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of time; for I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked in rags and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then they will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, thirsty and gave you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger, naked, or in prison? When did we welcome you, clothe you, or visit you?’ And he replied, ‘I tell you, whenever you did these things for the poor and least among you, you did them to me.’”

This flew in the face of what I was taught in church and in seminary. There was no “right dogma” or “right doctrine” that needed to be followed in order to please God. There was no “right religious belief”. What Jesus said through this parable is that what matters to God is what we do for others in this world.

This new understanding impacted me in such a way that it connected with what I felt were the inconsistencies with God as a kid. I preached a different kind of sermon that next Sunday, one that was anti-war, anti-imperialist, and how we needed to be inclusive and advocate for the poor and vulnerable. Needless to say, I was eventually kicked out of that church. But it led me to putting my faith into something tangible.

I “earned my bones” as a minister and activist in the inner-city of Atlanta, GA, working with and advocating for the homeless and the incarcerated. It was there that fully solidified my distrust of authority and the “benevolence” of the government and its ability to solve our problems.

2. With which organizations are you currently working?

I’m currently an ordained priest within The Progressive Episcopal Church. The wonderful thing about this denomination is that they allow me to be myself. I went to the then-bishop and shared with him my world-view, my conviction of Christian anarchism, and asked if there was place for this misfit toy within their denomination. I was welcomed with open arms and have been encouraged with my autonomy to serve in the radical ways that I do. I’m also on the Spiritual Advisory Board with Tikkun Magazine/Network of Spiritual Progressives, media contact for my local PFLAG Chapter, regular contributor for the Christian anarchist e-zine Jesus Radicals, and a Fellow with the International Political Studies Association – my area of expertise is focusing on the intersection between Anarchism and Religion.

3. What specific projects are you involved in that you would like to promote?

I’m currently working with several co-conspirators on a project I’m callingChurch in the Wild. The world as we know it is walking away from the Institutional Church. Why? It’s model and it’s dogma is honestly out-dated. The rigid, God-fearing, “sinners in the hands of any angry God” nonsense church service and belief may have worked 100years ago, but people are waking up. So, what’s a minister, or a follower of Jesus for that matter, to do? What if instead ofgoingto Church, wewerethe Church? It’s not about forcing beliefs down anyone’s throat or forcing people to conform. It’s realizing that Church is not a four-walled institution, but that it should be all around us. Church in the Wild is a movement about leaving the institutional church to really be what Jesus was about.

Church in the Wild sees that we’re being “the Church” whenever we work to advocate real change in this world through protest, direct action, and in service to the least, the forgotten, and the left out of society. We’re being “the Church” when we break bread and share a pint with someone without agenda or pretense. Our credo is this:

“We find the Eucharist (communion) in a shared meal with friends and those who have been rejected by the traditional church. We deliver our sermon in the words of comfort to those who are hurting and our actions that work to serve the underserved and topple the unjust systems of oppression. We hold our church whenever and wherever we find ourselves. God has called us into the wild.”

4. Who are some of your favorite writers and thinkers?

It is so difficult to name just a few. Off the top of my head, I would say that Emma Goldman and Henry David Thoreau both influenced me equally with their respective writings. Murray Bookchin, Noam Chomsky, Saul Alinsky, and Howard Zinn influenced my transition from an American liberal to a more radical, socialist/anarchist understanding of my world. Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” was highly influential into my understanding of how anarchism and Jesus’ message are compatible. Some of my favorite thinkers and doers have to be Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker Movement. Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, saw that the hierarchies would not/could not help those drowning from the excesses of the 1% and created an open hospitality house to care for the poor and advocate for social justice.

There’s a story about Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker, who was charged by a cop with disturbing the peace for protesting unjust laws. He went to court and the judge asked Hennacy how would plead: guilty or not guilty.

Hennacy responded, “I plead ‘Anarchy’.”

“What does ‘anarchy’ mean,” the judge asked.

“‘Anarchy’ means,” Ammon replied, “that I don’t need a cop to tell me how to behave.”

The judge, slightly amused but wanting to make his point clear, told Hennacy, “But Ammon, you broke the law. You have to pay for that.”

“Oh judge, you and your damn laws,” exclaimed Hennacy, “the good people don’t need them and the bad people don’t follow them. What good are they?”

Of course it goes without saying that, as a priest, I see inspiration in much of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels. I also hold authors and biblical scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in high esteem as they seek to write about the historical Jesus. I would also be amiss if I didn’t mention a Christian writer and thinker, Wes Howard-Brook, who has revealed the radical and anarchist implications through scripture.

Finally, I have to point to my mentor, Rev. C.T. Vivian, one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Lieutenants during the Civil Rights Movement. Having him as a mentor and him teaching me about Liberation Theology helped inform my view of Jesus’ message as one of serving and working to fight for social justice.

Now, if we’re including musicians into this question, I’m afraid there are just too many to list. I will say that, if you have not, I encourage you to check out folk singer Utah Phillips, the Christian anarchist band The Psalters, and the folk punk band Ramshackle Glory. Also, have you heard The Coup’s latest album? Man, it’s worth a purchase.

5. What do you see as the most effective way to prevent near term human extinctions given; all the alternatives promoted by capitalism require unsustainable measures on the front end, we haven’t begun to make any real effort toward environmental restitution and haven’t even begun to stem the ecocide destroying natural resources, without which none of our movements can see fruition?

I’m honestly not sure. I wish I had a better answer than that. While I’m hopeful, I think we are honestly past the point of no return when it comes to mass extinctions due to climate change and the environmental degradation done through capitalistic systems. While I would be thrilled to watch the whole corrupt system to crash to the ground, I have to take a cue from Christian anarchist, Dorothy Day. Day realized that while the current system is wicked and perpetuates innumerable atrocities, it is necessary to build the new world within the shell of the old. I’m not suggesting gradual change towards progress, but that when we reveal that another world is possible, we also have to make sure we are there to care for those who are helplessly tied up in the current system: the elderly and ill, who are dependent on medications, among many other groups.

I feel in some small ways that we are beginning to wake up, however slowly. With the younger generations looking to elect leaders that are more left-of-center. Look at how Senator Bernie Sanders in our country, a professed democratic socialist, has energized the younger generation to start concerning themselves with climate change, racial justice, and wage inequality. While Sanders is still far from the ideal, (anyone that wants to hold a position of power over another should remain suspect), I feel these could be the catalysts that cause the masses to realize that the current system of rampant capitalism and oligarchy cannot sustain itself or the environment. This, in turn, could could move younger generations to plot points even farther left in the political sphere, working towards actual socialist societies and communities.

But again, this all appears moot to many who have already conceded that we are on the path towards irreversible extinction. I, however, offer another position:

What if this is our last “hurrah”? If this is in fact when and how our species goes out, what if we went out finally “getting it”? What if we not just admitted to our past mistakes of excess and destruction but worked towards making this world better before we leave it? I think whether you believe in a divine being or not, this is a worthy cause.

6. Where do you see labor struggles in the future going when we seem to be on a cycle of wage hike/price hike? Are big box unions preventing any alternatives to this microeconomy they stabilize? Would a ratio tying the highest paid employee to the lowest so profits raise everyone’s wages be fairer? In summary, what would a just workplace look like in your mind?

As long as we live in a society where greed and social darwinism are confused with the definition of “success”, we will always have labor struggles. I see the only way to break this cycle of wage hike/price hike is to kick the legs out from market speculations, (can we destroy the stock market, too, while we’re at it?), put a cap on limitless earnings of CEOs, and do away with inflation. I understand that economists will counter this idea, stating that if we removed inflation and market speculation, the national debt and international debt could skyrocket. But I have to ask: who are we in debt to? Money is only worth something because we have placed value in it. If money is only worth what we say, then the same goes for the ideas of inflation and markets. If the majority of us came to these conclusions, this would destroy the whole economic system that perpetuates injustice around the globe.

I’m a fan of unions. I was a member of the International Firefighters Association when I was a firefighter and I’m a current supporter of the IWW. With that said, I have also seen big box unions hurt the worker as much as they claim to help. I’ve seen these bigger unions negotiate for pay raises for the workers, succeed, and then jack up the union dues where the average union worker never sees the raise. How is this just or fair? This is a far cry from the unions that Woodie Guthrie praised.

I think the idea of tying the wages of the highest paid worker to the lowest paid worker is a great start towards economic justice. However, I do not feel that it goes far enough. I personally feel that CEOs and other directors are unnecessary positions that take away from the wage of the worker. To tie this in with your last question, (about what I see as what I would view a just workplace), Peter Gelderloos, in his book Anarchy Works documented several factories and manufacturing plants that have become autonomous, completely worker-run. One of these businesses was set up to where each employee had to take turns, in a monthly rotation, of being the supervisor and handling the monetary side of the business. All the employees had a say in how the company was run because every employee was their own boss. That’s how I picture a truly just work-place.

In the Bible, there’s a Jewish festival known as Jubilee. This practice saw that every seven years, the workplaces and crop fields would be given a rest for a year to recover. All debts were forgiven and property transactions were erased. I’m convinced that Jesus saw “God’s kingdom” as being an eternal year of Jubilee.

7. How do you fight sectarianism in social justice movements?

It’s human nature to group together in cliques of like-minds. And I also know that anyone who has had experience in leading any social justice movement realizes that it is a lot like herding cats. I think the best way to avoid sectarianism in social justice movements is to make your movement anarchist. Sure, there might be a spokesperson or “leaders” in a movement, but if you give everyone a voice and give them the same amount of power to steer a movement as any other member, it goes a long way. I look at the Black Lives Matter Movement as a great example. Have there been a few spokeswo/men who have emerged from time to time? Sure. But, by and large, it is a completely organic movement that is led and organized by all the members involved. People join social justice movements to help give voices to the voiceless and to themselves. A movement that doesn’t allow their co-conspirators that opportunity is a movement that is destined for failure.

8. What limits are there to the capability of white-led organizations to empower the most marginalized communities in tackling issues concerning oppression?

I think first and foremost the issue is that we are coming from a place of privilege. Have I faced oppression? Yes. But have I ever had to fear being pulled over by a cop for the color of my skin? No. Have I ever had to worry about being raped or assaulted because of my gender or religion? Absolutely not. Have I once had to concern myself with losing all of my friends and family support because of my sexuality? Never. I am privileged because of my race, because of my sexuality, and because of my gender. While there is a place for white-led organizations to partner with marginalized communities, I think it would behoove us to seek to join organizations and movements led by minorities that are attempting to tackle their oppression and overthrow their oppressors. Look at the founding of the White Panthers. This was a sub-organization created through the blessing of the Black Panther movement that sought to empower white people to engage alongside the Black Panthers in their struggle for equality.

9. With most leftists in the South being secular and sometimes triggered by religious iconography, can an organization centered on social justice gain traction if they must hold to certain religious standards, however subtle?

Yes and no. Have religious organizations that hold onto certain religious standards gain traction? Yes, they have many times in the past. Look at the Civil Rights Movement, for a quick example. For me, as a priest, I’m a follower of Jesus and it’s that belief that helps inform my convictions to work towards social justice. With that, I also seek to put others at ease. I’m not interested in throwing my religion onto others nor do I feel like it is anyone’s “calling” to convert/conquer. I feel that the message with any religious-affiliated social justice organization/movement should be that we are not joining in to convert or preach to you; we’re joining you in solidarity with the common cause of overcoming oppression. Let us look past our differences and embrace the things that led us to come together in this movement.

I find that it is typically a little easier for me and my friends because we’re fairly irreverent as far as ministers and religion goes. I cuss, I drink, and I’m not ashamed of that – I’m human. I’m not afraid of tipping over sacred cows of doctrine and tradition if it means that I can work with and serve others, either.

10. Can an organization ran hierarchically in a capitalistic structure truly promote radical ideas?

No. I worked for a non-profit for a long time, serving as the manager of volunteers at the food pantry for homeless and poverty-stricken individuals. We became quite good at pulling bodies out of the river, but our organization refused to go upstream and stop those who were throwing these poor bodies in the river in the first place. They refused to do so because they were our rich donors and benefactors that contributed so much to the organization. It is truly hard to show teeth to the congressman that helped gut Welfare for millions of Americans when he just gave your organization a sizeable donation.

11. Any other shout outs or ideas you’d like to promote? Words of advice for activists?

I think that the most important thing is to never give up. Do not give up on trying to change this world for the better, but don’t get discouraged when it doesn’t work out like you planned. To me, if you were able to make your city, town, state, whatever, a little better and little more just than when you first got there, you’ve been successful. Keep fighting!