Symposium Introduction

Helene Slessarev-Jamir

Response

A God of Justice or a God of the Status Quo?

Spurred on by the Occupy Wall Street movement, Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan have engaged in a serious reflection on the “social and economic teachings of the church, and its images of God” in an effort to set forth a public theology that meets the challenges of our time. Given the increasing public presence of conservative Christianity in American politics, Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan aim to elaborate a theology that does not seek to dominate, but contributes as one element within the larger, diverse struggles for global liberation. Although writing primarily for American audiences, both authors also speak to the new realities present in many countries that have also experienced greater economic inequality. This includes the former communist countries of China and Russia, which are quickly transforming themselves into postmodern oligarchies. In times such as these, there are no positions of neutrality.

The book’s primary focus is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which burst forth from Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan at the height of the global recession in September 2011. The protest encampment in the middle of Wall Street focused a global discussion on the negative consequences of the enormous wealth disparities present within the United States as well as globally between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. While the physical occupation proved to be fleeting, the Occupy movement has indeed opened up new spaces for on-going conversations, as the authors suggest, especially engaging young adults who, in many cases, had no previous experience as political activists. The practices of direct democracy at the heart of the Occupy movement, sought to model new forms of political life that are in sharp contrast to the backroom dealings that characterize much of conventional American politics, where corporate lobbyists routinely exchange cash and favors for legislative votes.

Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan applaud the new forms of horizontal leadership practiced at the Occupy movement’s assemblies as facilitating the emergence of new leaders and enabling “the potential of people to claim their agency and create something entirely new.” While this was undoubtedly true, one must also raise a certain cautionary note when analyzing OWS and other recent mass movements for democracy. Here I echo the concerns raised by Tariq Ramadan, the professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, in his analysis of the series of recent popular uprisings in the Middle East that are collectively known as the Arab Spring. In that case, cyber-bloggers were also key in effectively spreading a call for non-violent resistance to dictatorship to a younger, internet savvy generation hungry for real democracy and greater economic opportunities. Beginning in Tunisia in December 2010, the uprising quickly spread to Egypt, where it sparked massive non-violent protests in the center of Cairo beginning in late January 2011. Despite the euphoria surrounding these events, Ramadan is incisive in recognizing that the lack of on-going democratic discourse over possible alternative economic and political structures prior to the uprisings meant that while the protestors had a clear idea of what they did not want, “they struggled to give expression to their social and political aspirations beyond the slogans that called for an end to corruption, cronyism, and the establishment of the rule of law and democracy.”1

This phenomenon was to some extent also true of the Occupy Wall Street movement. While broad, public calls for greater democracy and a more equitable distribution of wealth serve as valuable starting points for on-going processes of social change, such calls must have the capacity to move beyond slogans and broad calls for change to the hard work of developing concrete strategies for winning long term political and economic reforms. It was on this critical dimension of actualizing the multitude’s grievances into concrete strategies for political and economic change that these twin protest movements fell short; a reality downplayed by our two authors.

Nonetheless, both Occupy Wall Street and the encampment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square did serve as sites of experimentation for new forms of direct democracy. They enabled masses of people to fearlessly give voice to their grievances in very public forums, during which both women and youth gained unprecedented visibility as emerging leaders.

While Occupy Wall Street effectively transformed the silent suffering of millions of Americans who were losing their jobs and their homes during the Great Recession into a national crisis, it ultimately also fell short in its ability to chart an alternate way forward. Thus the overwhelming power of globalized capital continues to challenge both secular and religious justice activists to search for new, still more powerful forms of organizing with the potential to successfully dismantle the egregious wealth disparities and their concomitant political power differentials. However, given the enormous power that Wall Street exerts over the whole of New York City and its institutions, more just political and economic paradigms are perhaps less likely to spring forth from the concrete pavements of that city than from locations of greater liminality. Perhaps we need to look into the fissures and cracks of American empire to identify new, emerging activist paradigms.

I suggest that one of the places where we might search for fresh liberative paradigms of justice activism are those spaces located at the margins of American empire. One of these locations are the border regions where the old Spanish empire intersects with the postmodern American empire, namely, in the southwestern edges of the United States. Here I am in part drawing on the work of Walter Mignolo, whose book entitled, Local Histories/Global Designs, argues that it is at such intersections that “the epistemological potential of border thinking, of ‘an other thinking’ has the possibility of overcoming the limitation of territorial thinking.”2 “An other thinking” is a form of borderlands thinking that contests all hegemonic paradigms, be they national, racial, ethnic, or sexual. The presence of the border transforms the land on both sides of the boundary into liminal spaces of in-between. The same is true of the people who inhabit that land.

The southwestern regions of the United States have indeed been the sites of militant contestation over labor and immigrant rights for decades, stretching back into the early 1950s. In the 1960s, the United Farmworkers captured the American public’s imagination with its highly effective national grape boycott along with its public pilgrimages, always led by a statute of the Virgin of Guadalupe who is the embodiment of a hybrid people born out of the Spanish conquest of Mexico over five hundred years ago. By the 1980s, the Justice for Janitors campaign launched massive protest marches through the streets of downtown Los Angeles in opposition to building owners’ attempts to break the janitors’ union.

Drawing on the lessons and seasoned leadership of these mass-organizing campaigns, Latino immigrant workers were transformed into active political subjects, who in the course of asserting their humanity, successfully reshaped the politics of southern California. At present, much the union and elected leadership of the city of Los Angeles, including former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the current mayor, Eric Garcetti, have their roots in the region’s protracted struggles for economic justice.

While Latino workers continue to be at the center of this region’s justice work, other immigrant groups, including Koreans and Filipinos, have built their own organizing capacities to take on employers in their particular ethnic communities. In turn, the workplace organizing intersects with immigrant rights organizing since many of the lowest paid workers in the southwest and elsewhere in the United States are immigrants, often those without legal documents. The key to much of this work has been its focus on organizing people who are without formal citizenship rights, yet are fighting for their rights to more life from below.

The large numbers of diverse immigrants in the southwest has transformed the region into an incubator for ongoing collaborative work between multiple different organizations committed to securing justice for the most marginalized, such as day laborers who stood on the city’s street corners looking for work every day. This activist work, done over several decades through a multiplicity of interconnected organizations, has objectively improved the economic status of millions of low wage immigrant workers, despite the increasingly punitive anti-immigrant policies that have emerged from Washington DC since 1996.

I am suggesting that broad based coalitional organizing in the border spaces of American empire currently constitutes a primary challenge to the powers of empire. It is here that the multitude is most visible in asserting its claims to more life. Organizing in these spaces can also lead to tangible improvements in the well-being and self-efficacy of people situated on the very margins of American empire.

Although the Occupy Movement was largely secular in nature, Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan note the significance of the active participation of people of faith from many different religious traditions within the movement. However, here again I would caution against attributing too much of this new found visibility to the Occupy Movement itself. Progressive forms of interreligious activism have been on the rise for several decades, mostly embodied in local interfaith collaborations around peace-making, worker justice, community organizing, and immigrant rights work. Organizations such as Interfaith Worker Justice based in Chicago and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in LA have existed since the mid-1990s and are currently expanding their interfaith reach beyond the Abrahamic faiths. Over time the interfaith dimensions have also grown well beyond initial practices in which activists quote a few relatively similar passages from each other’s textual traditions to a much deeper recognition of the presence of a multiplicity of truths within our world’s collective spiritual traditions. Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan correctly recognize that Christian liberation theologians may well have more in common with liberation theologians from other religious traditions than with Christian conservative theologians who uphold the dominant images of a God of top down power.

As I have participated in varying forms of activism within the southwestern border region in which I now live, I have come to understand that much of this work is undergirded by the simultaneous presence of a multiplicity of spiritualities that course through the veins of this land and its people. Some of them are local and indigenous, while others are global in their origins. They not only create meaning in the midst of hardships and struggles, they also give identity to people whom the dominant society and the powers of empire view as insignificant, and therefore expendable, in their totalizing worldviews.

These experiences align well with Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan’s assertion that “the heart of the theology of the multitude is not religion in general but an experience of otherness and transcendence, which can be mediated through religion as well as through other experiences” (73). In contrast to a number of postmodern theorists, Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan value the many unique contributions that religion can make to the struggles of the multitude. It is certainly true that Jesus not only lived in deep solidarity with the multitude; he was incarnated as a member of the multitude, “particularly those who struggled with life,” which continues to be the daily reality of the multitude. This is truly the God of those whose lives are falling apart!

The marginality of God incarnate in the bodily form of Jesus of Nazareth is truly astounding. According to Reza Aslan’s book The Zealot, the hamlet of Nazareth where Jesus is said to grown up was so obscure that its name does not appear on any ancient Jewish maps before the third century C.E.3 It was an utterly inconsequential place, probably much smaller than many of the Central American villages from which so many immigrants living in Los Angeles come from.

I resonate deeply with both authors’ recognition that humanity is not simply a collection of individuals, but that instead we are bound together in community. Having initially become a Christian in the context of a lower income African-American church, my early church experiences were strongly shaped by the communal nature of the body of Christ where members cared for one another, relying on each other in moments of crises. That strong sense of community radiated out beyond the tiny building in which we worshipped into the surrounding neighborhoods that were being devastated by the shuttering of the steel mills on the Southside of Chicago.

In my own work on prophetic activism I have also recognized the centrality of rethinking theology in ways that open up “an other thinking.” Processes of social change cannot be erected on the basis of a God of the status quo. Those of us who self-identify as progressive religious activists now stand on a rich intellectual legacy that stretches back to earlier dissenters such as Henry David Thoreau who was imprisoned because of his refusal to pay taxes in protest against the US government’s unwillingness to end slavery and its pursuit of war against Mexico. We are also the inheritors of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of active nonviolence, which he drew out of his scared Hindu texts. As the early twentieth-century leaders of a nascent American civil rights movement searched for a way forward, they came to embrace Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, recognizing that active nonviolent resistance was the only means by which African-Americans could bring down segregation.

Yet, despite the history and ongoing vibrancy of progressive religious activism, it appears to have relatively little impact on the institutional church itself, which too often remains stuck in older paradigms of a patriarchal God of the status quo. I find that congregations often remain reluctant to engage with the tough issues of economic inequality and justice for those who are marginalized, even when they are represented amongst those seated in the pews on Sunday mornings. It is reflective of the individualism of large parts of American Christianity as well as a reluctance on many people’s part to admit that their own backs are up against the wall. Too often church bible studies become exercises in repetition of well-worn biblical formulas rather than a deeper interrogation of the texts. These habits greatly weaken the ability of the church itself to speak more forcefully into the midst of the deep global divide between the 99 percent and the 1 percent.

I strongly affirm the authors’ call for a democratization of sacred space that would involve doing church instead of going to church. There is clearly a need for much experimentation in being church in new and more meaning ways that both confront the powers that be while also offering spaces of comfort and solace to those who are being bodily and spiritually wounded as a consequence of the enormous gaps in wealth and well-being.


  1. Tariq Ramadan, Islam and the Arab Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012,) Kindle edition, Location 1212.

  2. Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) Kindle edition, Location 1922.

  3. Reza Aslan, The Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013),Kindle Location 604.

  • Kwok Pui-lan

    Kwok Pui-lan

    Reply

    A Response to Helene Slessarev-Jamir

    Helene Slessarev-Jamir’s essay points to some of the shortcomings of the Occupy movement and shares the experience of political organizing in border spaces in the southwestern region of the United States. Tariq Ramadan notes that there has not been a democratic discourse of alternative economic and political orders before the Arab Spring, and protesters struggled “to give expression of their social and political aspirations beyond the slogans.” The situation of the United States where the Occupy movement started was quite different from that of the Middle East. Grassroots movements, commentators in the media, bloggers in progressive sites, and even some politicians were highly critical of the bailing out of big banks and businesses. There were other reasons that the Occupy movement did not issue a clear political platform with concrete strategies for long-term social change. First, the protesters decided not to work within the existing political party system, because they saw that the system was broken and corrupted by money and corporate lobby. Second, their commitment to direct democracy meant that there was no headquarter or central governing body that would articulate a set of demands and concrete strategies to achieve them. The movement was quite decentralized and organized by local people with rotating leadership. Third, there was great diversity among the protesters. While the demands for greater economic equity and political participation are common goals, people have also included a wide range of concerns: environmental crisis; the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people; women’s concerns; student loans; and unemployment, to name a few. Fourth, the police raided most of the encampments within three months after the Occupy movement started in September 2011. Although some protesters continued to meet in churches and public spaces, the movement lost momentum and did not have sustained energy to work out long-term strategies.

    When the protesters were occupying the camps, some commentators criticized that the movement could not achieve its goals without concrete planning and action, similar to that which Slessarev-Jamir says in her essay. As authors, Joerg Rieger and I are aware of these criticisms. Yet we wanted to emphasize the revolutionary potential of a movement that had gathered and galvanized a multitude of people and opened spaces for direct democracy and radical politics. The movement pointed out we could not do business as usual, and created an animated political culture with posters, slogans, songs, livestream videos, websites, rituals, and social media. This creativity and the participation of so many different kinds of people had not been seen in years.

    We need different kinds of social movements and political organizing because the concentration of power and wealth of the 1 percent is so insidious and multifaceted. I agree with Slessarev-Jamir that the kind of long-term organizing for immigrants and undocumented people that she describes is very necessary for social and political transformation. She has also documented other forms of faith-based progressive activism in America in the past several decades in her important volume, Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. She presents insightful case studies about congregations and organizations working for worker justice, immigrant rights, peacemaking and reconciliation, and global anti-poverty and debt relief.

    But there is also a place for creative and massive movements like the Occupy movement. The movement has changed the political discourse and conscientized many people on the globe about the power of people as historical subjects. In the United States, it sharpened the debates on economic injustice during the 2012 Presidential election. President Barack Obama said that the growing income gap is a “defining challenge of our time.” In his State of the Union address delivered in January 2014, he talked about reversing income inequality and raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. This is a good start, even though there is still a long way to go. Around the globe, the idea that people have a right to occupy public spaces and to demand their voices be heard has caught on. In March 2014, hundreds of students and protesters in Taiwan occupied the Legislative to protest against the ruling party’s push for a trade pact with China. In September 2014, tens of thousands participated in the Occupy Central movement in the financial district and other parts of Hong Kong to demand universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017, according to international standards.

    Slessarev-Jamir laments that many churches are oblivious to economic inequity, and progressive religious activism. The institution church, she says, remains “stuck in older paradigms of a patriarchal God of the status quo.” I would say that this is one of the reasons that membership of mainline denominations has been in decline, because the churches have become increasingly irrelevant. To be faithful and relevant, it is important for the churches to revitalize the prophetic imagination that the Hebrew prophets and Jesus had taught, and to be actively engaged in movements to change the world for the sake of the Kingdom.

    • Helene Slessarev-Jamir

      Helene Slessarev-Jamir

      Reply

      A Reply to Kwok Pui-lan

      I certainly do agree that emerging movements such as Occupy and the recent protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong are significant expressions or the global urge for democracy that is not controlled from above, but instead truly gives voice to the multitude. Both Taiwan and Hong Kong are highly developed post-industrial societies with large, well educated, young adult populations whose primary demands are not economic, but rather, are calls for political change. They are demanding democratic rights in the form of direct electoral democracy. They are seeking to have a voice in the future directions of their nations. However, we must also recognize that some degree of democracy is a prerequisite for the protests occurring in Taiwan and even more so, in Hong Kong.

       

Romand Coles

Response

Ecotones and the Arts of Radical Ecclesia and Radical Democracy

Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude is a timely and important book full of insight and urgency. Inspired by the Occupy movement at a moment that might be a “turning point,” Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan seek to “challenge traditional ways of thinking about religion and the space that religion is supposed to inhabit.”1 Moving back and forth among reflections on critical political economy, inclusive egalitarian democracy, theology, and church practice, they seek to articulate a capacious and radical Christian—and more broadly “religious”—response to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s question: “How can we transform indignation and rebellion into a lasting constituent process? Inventing an alternative society that is really democratic.” Along the way they offer a compelling vision of a God who does not rule by controlling from on high, but rather by participating in creating a “Kingdom as anti-Kingdom” (74).

Rescuing church from its all-too-frequent alliance with the powerful presiding over hierarchical oppressive orders, they seek to articulate an ecclesia animated by what Jesus is doing in the Gospels. Jesus is on the road, in the gardens, out in the fields, in the streets of the cities; heading to the capital on a donkey, drawing people into critical reflection, organizing in deep solidarity with “the least of these”—the poor, the outcast, the hungry, the gravely ill, the foreigners. The transcendence of God is to be witnessed and practiced in this “indecenting” and will be found nowhere else. For precisely this reason, those who worshipped this God of the anti-Kingdom were thought to be atheists by the Roman hierarchy. However much the hierarchy could tolerate many different God’s—as long as they all conformed to imperial images of omnipotence from on high—the hierarchy simply could not fathom a vision of divinity exemplified by the strange power of a vulnerable being who catalyzed grassroots ecclesia among the lowly, was sometimes convinced to change his mind, avoided and mocked elites, refused to exercise violence, and ultimately allowed himself to be crucified while the Father did not intervene. This made no more sense to those aligned with the “principalities and powers” in ancient Rome, than it does today to many Christians who align with neoliberal power to form what William Connolly has coined the “Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine.”2

Throughout Occupy Religion, Rieger and Pui-lan assume a humble posture, asking how the Occupy movement might help rethink church practice and the divine. They embrace “polydoxy,” even as they provocatively affirm the “queerness of God” and congregations that work in and through chaos rather than in control (102). Theirs is a “church without walls”; a “doing church” that is about forming new relationships in the midst of struggles for hospitality, equality, and the urgency of kairos. In place of a hierarchically ordered ecclesia, they explore radically decentered and horizontal practices of church, much like the “neural decentered networks of starfish” that lack a command center (121). Analogous to the Occupy encampments, the church should provide a “moment to experience and live into” the possibility of another world. “It must provide the environment for people to have a foretaste” of the “inbreaking of God’s reign” (123). This requires “rituals that subvert power and disrupt our common sense”: a “habitus of resistance” (127).

*   *   *

I am largely sympathetic with many of the themes Rieger and Pui-lan advance in this text. In this short space I want to reflect more upon “doing church”—or doing radical democracy—by forming relationships and power that resist, prefigure, and “live into” the possibility of other worlds beyond the horizon of neoliberalism. I wish to think in proximity to their ambition to transform rebellion into a lasting constituent process. Neoliberalism is perhaps the most insidious form of power the earth has seen, so this is no easy task.

While I admire Rieger and Pui-lan’s serious efforts to think and learn in relation to social movements, I nevertheless find it striking that they do not engage the work of interfaith organizations that have been “doing church” in radically democratic and durable ways for several decades, have involved hundreds of thousands of people and countless institutions in dynamic leader-full action, and appear to have significant affinities with many of the authors’ aspirations. Under the umbrella of national and international faith-based organizations such as Gamaliel Foundation, Industrial Areas Foundation, Direct Action and Research Training (DART) Center, and PICO National Network, hundreds of affiliated initiatives in communities across the U.S. as well as in England, Germany, South Africa, and Korea have been bringing together churches, synagogues, mosques, unions, schools, and community centers to cultivate the arts of grassroots democracy, generate interfaith collaboration, build community power, select issues, goals, and strategies, fashion emergent homegrown liberation theologies, and hold political and economic powers accountable.3 In these “school houses of democracy” people learn modes of forming public relationships across differences, cultivating leadership, holding house meetings, conducting large assemblies, carrying out public actions,4 and pursuing myriad projects to co-create commonwealth in neighborhoods that, as Ani DiFranco puts it, “always get dumped on and never get plowed.”

Because these networks have had significant success at generating widespread, lasting, quotidian democratic practices of horizontal leader-full power, they are among the most promising sites for exploring what it might mean to build a habitus of resistance, fashion prefigurative alternatives, and a practice a theology of the multitude. Yet my concern here is not mainly to point out a gap in the text. Nor is it to suggest that these networks are near-perfect models that the authors and those in Occupy-type movements should simply emulate.

Rather, my purpose is twofold: First, I want to suggest that these movement networks manifest a number of important strengths that powerfully speak to important weaknesses in the Occupy movement, and manifest a number of weaknesses that certain tendencies within Occupy might help address. These different strengths and weaknesses are worthy of serious reflection and transformative work. Indeed, I would suggest that work at these intersections is imperative, if we are to have any chance of dislodging the neoliberal order that is rapidly destroying the planet and all forms of commonwealth. Second, and relatedly, I think that we can grasp the potential fruitfulness of creatively intertwining these different modalities today by paying close attention to how neoliberalism has been so effective at dismantling resistance and alternatives in recent decades—precisely so we can defeat it. At stake is nothing short of how we might form a habitus or resistance that powerfully nurtures radical democracy.

*   *   *

Rieger and Pui-lan’s text is primarily an effort to provoke reflection toward a theology of the multitude in light of the Occupy movement. Yet, of course, critical considerations of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of this movement are integral to our ability to learn from it, and this becomes easier as the passage of time affords perspectives less captivated by Occupy’s most inspiring moments. Indeed, it is useful to view Occupy as a unique episode in a temporally extended series of rebellious gatherings, from the Battle of Seattle in 1999, to the string of World Social Forums around the world during the first decade of the twenty-first century, to anti-globalization protests, to Arab Spring and the anti-austerity protests in 2011 and beyond. As Rebecca Solnit compellingly shows, rather than seeing these individual uprisings as isolated and short-lived, we should understand them as an emergent-if-discontinuous movement linked through myriad subterranean connections. Such filiations manifest strange capacities for renewal that can bolster our sense of hope.5

Yet they also illuminate characteristics that are hauntingly repetitious in highly problematic ways. Todd Gitlin discusses many of these in his inspired sympathetic-yet-critical analysis of Occupy written early in 2012.6 Consider a few items on the shortlist of some of the common problems he identifies (while acknowledging the diversity of Occupy enactments): OWS developed a tendency to fetishize the prefigurative aspect of inclusive egalitarian gathering in ways that often veered toward an inward focus that sometimes manifested an oblivion to passersby, waning capacities to reach out to and organize with the uninitiated, and difficulty generating potent and durable coalitions. OWS too often focused on purity of process in ways that frequently led to long meetings on every detail of everything and drove growing numbers away in frustration. Absorbed in purity and prefiguration, OWS avoided forming specific initiatives as if they were the plague, thus decreasing their power. Their admirable efforts to create inclusive and equalitarian power all too often generated cultures that were hyper-suspicious and resentful of even the slightest manifestation of authority.

These problems are not unique to Occupy, but rather plague many movements of left-wing rebellion, including those mentioned in the previous paragraph (consider Arundhati Roy’s growing frustration with World Social Forum’s inability to articulate common goals, for example). Occupy was a magnificent uprising, its prefigurative politics had important and laudable dimensions, and it brought criticisms of inequality and corporate capitalism into the public sphere in ways that had been suppressed for decades. Yet—beyond all the challenges movements face in the midst of contemporary power and lifeworlds—it got entangled in a predictable set of weaknesses that greatly impeded its power and durability.

The quotidian radical democratic organizing networks mentioned above have managed to address these challenges in ways that (at their best) lodge themselves within and creatively negotiate several sets of tensions, rather than identifying with one side only. For example, they cultivate inquiry, passion, and attachment in relation to visions of “the world as it ought to be,” yet argue that politics is about making connections and transformations in “the world as it is” that require an allegiance to the tension, rather than to purity.7 While they tenaciously avoid becoming identified as single-issue or even multi-issue organizations (insisting instead that building grassroots democratic leadership, relationships, culture, and power are their primary objectives), they nevertheless practice a radical politics of ongoing dialogue and listening that again and again surfaces specific issues, goals, and strategies upon which they work and act. Because they maintain that “action is the oxygen of organizing,” substantive specificity is a crucial aspect of their work, even as they refuse to get lost in it. Even as they are critical of hierarchy understood as “power over,” they understand democracy as a “craft”: The difficult art of cultivating “power with,” like all arts, can benefit greatly from pedagogical relationships in which those who are more skilled help educate those who are much less so. Fraught though it is, beyond the dogma of pure horizontalism of all at every moment, the question of democratic authority in organizations is an important one to keep revisiting. They seek relentlessly to cultivate new leadership, bring in new institutions, and reach out in dialogue and potential collaboration to those who, across much of the political spectrum, are not yet part of the choir. They do this in a profoundly relational mode through countless one-to-one and small group conversations. Finally, though they understand that “all organizing is reorganizing” and are wary of fetishizing the sustainability of organizations as such, they nevertheless ceaselessly tend to the dynamic complexities involved in generating durable radical democracy and radical ecclesia. All of these tendencies offer much insight from which Occupy and rebellious movements more generally could learn a lot.

At the same time, these broad-based organizing initiatives too often risk shrinking the transformative character of their horizons of aspiration as they sometimes focus on specific issues in ways that suppress efforts to address larger problems; they can lapse into their own forms of dogmatism, and—wary of the dangers of ignoring the extent to which practices of democracy and ecclesia are crafts—sometimes become overly top-down in ways that suppress new visions, expressions, and modes of action. Equally important, their focus on the quotidian, relational, “meet people where they’re at,” stitch-by-stitch modes of organizing often diminishes their sense of the importance of dramatic uprisings and more protestant politics in a way that makes them blind and deaf to movements like Occupy.8 Just as many activists and scholars focused on Occupy tend to be oblivious to quotidian organizing, so too, many who focus on quotidian organizing are oblivious to Occupy. To my mind, a second volume of Occupy Religion would need to engage these tensions and complexities in significant detail in order to advance the authors’ aspirations.9

If I were, say, an anti-democratic trickster God, I would infuse the initiatives of those seeking to radically transform contemporary powers with these twin oblivions. The disconnection they create effectively unplugs what most needs to be brought into creative relationship today. Perhaps we can learn something about this from the ways in which neoliberal powers intertwine dramatic “shock doctrine” politics and quotidian micro-powers to repeatedly obliterate resistance and advance capitalist dystopia. As Naomi Klein has poignantly shown, neoliberalism creates, seizes, and employs political, economic, ecological, financial, and military crises in a politics of “shock” that obliterates communities and institutional arrangements that pose resistance to corporatized rule over everything.10 On the heels of such destruction, it then moves in with a whole series of micro-circulations (of capital, finance, governance, policing, “development,” commodities, privatized education, televisual dominance, and so forth) that reorder the world.11

In the twenty-first century, global capitalism is perpetually enhancing its power by oscillating between these dramatic and quotidian modes of governance. By means of this systolic-diastolic operation, neoliberalism is intensifying its means of “creative destruction” by many orders of heartless magnitude. To resist this, those who seek to enact other possibilities through radical democracy and radical ecclesia must learn analogous arts of “living in the tensions”: inventing our own creative oscillations between dramatically disruptive “shock democracy” and “shock ecclesia,” on the one hand, and the patient labors of quotidian practice in which we generate alternative flows of receptive bodies, patterns of production, pedagogies, public spaces, and grassroots governance, on the other; interweaving pedagogical practices that proliferate the craft of democracy and ecclesia, and repeatedly opening these to contestation and newness; prefiguring alternatives yet cultivating self-conscious affirmations of the contestability, heterogeneity, messiness, and impurity of all such prefigurations. In these yet-to-be-formed arts lie the alternating currents that just might, against all odds, revivify the body electric of other worlds of possibility.

The monstrous power we face today is no longer the dumb brute, Goliath, whom many social movements, figuring themselves as “David’s,” imagined as their enemy. Rather, we face an unfathomably dynamic and adaptive system. Moreover, because we are significantly engendered by this system, our efforts to form radical ecclesia and radical democracy usually face internally disintegrative and soporific tendencies that are extremely challenging.

More than ever we need to awaken radical democracy and radical ecclesia in ways that make us strange, queer our practices, and enable us do new, powerful, and good works. Occupy, and Rieger and Pui-lan’s meditations in relation to it, make numerous important contributions to this project. I have tried to identify several tensional edges just beyond the horizons of their inquiry that I think we must inhabit if we are to cultivate better forms of relationship and power that the world so desperately needs. Natural ecologists call tensional edges between different ecosystems “ecotones,” a word derived from the Greek oikos (dwelling) and tonos (tension). By carefully tending to the ecotones sketched above, we might teach and learn together how to assemble, occupy, and create dynamic and durable movements from the scattered dry bones rattling in spaces courageously inhabited by those thirsting for something other than the desert that is rapidly advancing across our polities and our planet.


  1. Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). Hereafter cited by page number in text.

  2. William Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

  3. Amidst the vast literature on this type of organizing, see Jeffrey Stout, Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Mark Warren, Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Richard Wood, Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Romand Coles and Stanley Hauerwas, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Christian and a Radical Democrat (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007).

  4. Ani DiFranco, “Not so Soft,” Righteous Babe Music, 1995.

  5. For Solnit’s developed account prior to Occupy, see Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (New York: Nation Books, 2005).

  6. Todd Gitlin, Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and The Promise of Occupy Wallstreet (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).

  7. Edward Chambers, Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003).

  8. Among the interfaith networks, PICO was by far the most creatively engaged with Occupy Wallstreet. See Laura Grattan, “Populism and the Rebellious Cultures of Democracy,” in Romand Coles, Mark Reinhart, and George Shulman, Radical Future Pasts: Untimely Political Theory (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2014).

  9. I also think a second volume would want to engage the question of violence in protest movements.

  10. Naomi Klein, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador Press, 2007).

  11. I discuss this dynamic extensively in Visionary Pragmatism: Radical and Ecological Democracy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming 2015).

  • Joerg Rieger

    Joerg Rieger

    Reply

    A Response to Romand Coles

    One of the core concerns of Romand Coles is “doing church.” Kwok Pui-lan and I are deeply sympathetic to this expression and we share his emphasis on transforming rebellion into a “lasting constituent process.” Coles is correct when he notes that there are faith-based organizations that have linked social movements and religion for several decades and that there is a lot that we can learn from them. However, since our book focuses on the Occupy movement we did not dwell extensively on these other efforts. It is more than likely that the religious embodiments of the Occupy Wall Street protests benefited in some way from long-standing efforts at faith-based community organizing in local settings, yet we also need to register some differences.

    The observations that follow derive from my own participation on the ground. In these reflections I share Coles’ sense that the neoliberal situation in which we find ourselves embodies some of the most insidious forms of power that the world has seen to date. I have frequently argued that the problem with these powers is that they shape us all the way down, including not only our politics and economics but also our thoughts, our emotions, as well as our most deeply cherished beliefs.

    If this is true, even faith-based organizing becomes problematic without the hard theological work of distinguishing liberative faith from status quo faith. Our book, Occupy Religion, serves as an invitation to do this kind of theological work, trying to model some of it while leaving plenty of work to be done for others. For instance, asking what Jesus is doing—one of our theological questions that Coles highlights—is not merely a matter of looking at what Jesus is doing in the gospels (as Coles seems to think) but also of trying to sort out what Jesus is (and is not) doing in communities of faith today. Here, the real challenges begin, because so many communities of faith in the United States practice status quo forms of faith, even when they try to help the poor and the needy and even when they offer some mild critiques of the system. This happens, for instance, when these communities act in terms of patronizing images of God (whether they call it charity or advocacy) and thus fail to respect the agency of the people—the multitude. As a result, a good deal of faith-based organizing leads us right back into the hands of the system.

    Even when their practice is more solid, one of my experiences of working with faith-based community organizers and their communities and churches is that many are hesitant to ask the deeper theological questions implied by their practice. They have internalized a situation in which people who support the poor are called saints and people who ask why they are poor are called Communists, Marxists, or simply leftists (paraphrasing the famous words of Brazilian Bishop Dom Helder Camara). The Occupy movement is significant because it has finally dared to raise such questions (“Why are so many people poor?” “Why are the 99 percent not getting ahead?”) again for our time, tied to the realities of class and class struggle that have been hidden for so long. These questions allow for deeper theological questions to be raised: Where is God in this situation? What is Jesus doing? And what does it really mean to be the church?

    The latter question, in particular, demands raising questions of the church from the inside that I have not heard spelled out so clearly in a long time, even though I have spent the past three decades involved in seminary education. As Frederick Herzog, one of the forgotten indigenous liberation theologians in the United States who taught for most of his career at Duke University, used to say, we need to stop idealizing about the church and start analyzing it instead.1 The purpose of such analysis is to help the church more truly become the church, something that is bound to fail when the church moves into community organizing too quickly without understanding its own beholdenness to the status quo and its implicit theology. In Occupy Religion, we try to work out some of these challenges.

    Regarding the weaknesses of the Occupy movement that Coles addresses, perhaps most prominently an equalitarian idealism that took up much energy without moving the struggle forward, it is clear that there is much that all of us still need to learn. We need to keep working on the question how alternative power can be organized in sustainable fashion, and here theological reflection has some contributions to make. But perhaps the Occupy movement was closer to organizing such alternative power than most people realized, judging by the drawn-out efforts to destroy it. I am not aware of any similar efforts to destroy faith-based community organizing, at least not yet, with the possible exception of some things going on at the intersection of religion and labor. Here, Coles’ helpful notion of “living in the tensions” has become most real for me and here more work needs to be done indeed, especially in communities of faith who may be getting closer to the bottom but have not yet spoken a clear word to the top. To restate my main concern: this is not only a communal, social, and political challenge, but a theological one as well.


    1. Frederick Herzog, Justice Church: The New Function of the Church in North American Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1980).

Amey Victoria Adkins

Response

Poetry and Pre-Occupied Religion

Thinking the Theology of the Multitude

The closing sentence of Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude is an open call: “We invite you to participate in developing theology of multitude through concrete reflection and action.”1

It is apt to begin with the end in mind.

A Prologue

In the insistent whiplash between scenes of comedy and social commentary on the United States prison industrial complex, the second season of Orange Is The New Black introduces Jimmy, an elderly woman (reminiscent of many a grandmother) incarcerated at the Litchfield prison facility. Though surrounded by a sassy prison family—silvered roots the mark of the “Golden Girls”—their love cannot delay the imminent onset of a withering charge. The incarceration of Jimmy’s body mocks the progressive decline of her mind. She is a woman languishing in the quicksand that is dementia.

Having evaded the distracted eye of her guard-turned-chaperone, our penultimate view of her is in the prison chapel. Thinking her beloved is beckoning her to join him in a pool whose waters only exist in a forgone memory, Jimmy tuck-jumps from the prison’s chapel altar, her absence and injury unnoticed at the foot of the cross. We watch as Jimmy is shuttled away from the prison, broken arm in sling, freed from her prison bars to fend for herself, instead of being given the care she needs, in what is supposedly compassionate release.2 Looking on, there is nothing for the also incarcerated Sister Ingalls to do except offer a prayer.

The storyline unfolds alongside the debut of Litchfield’s youngest arrival—Brook Soso—an eager caricature of a feisty Occupy-movement millennial (down to the spirit-finger-inspired hand signals). Soso is a passionate, albeit talkative idealist, imprisoned for her recent “political activism, obviously.” While she comes off as a highly dismissible new kid on the block, she is both steadfast and sincere in her efforts. Refusing to succumb to the debasing circumstances, she initiates a prison-wide hunger strike in protest of the treatment of the residents. And the person to whom she makes her most ardent appeal for support is Sister Ingalls.

Though still revered in the prison walls by her ordained title, the former nun is serving her sentence on charges of civil disobedience. The series depicts her as a voice of wisdom, a trove of experience, and the face of the theological to whom many, including Soso, turn for guidance. But Soso has no idea that the Sister has already decried her as “a dirty hippie who has no idea what peaceful protest really means.”

Still, after failing to rouse her comrades with stories of Gandhi and statistics on the efficacy of hunger strikes, Soso makes a final plea to the authority at the table:

“Sister—I thought you of all people would support me.”

But the seasoned veteran’s capacity for resistance is limited to an annoyed eye-roll.

“Oh, honey . . . ” she sighs with piteous condescension. “It’s not Guantanamo.” Like the rest, the Sister trails off before returning to her waffle.

*   *   *

Despite many attempts—violent and otherwise—to quell her roars, the Occupy movement staked a permanent claim in the American conscious at large. Time Magazine named “The Protester” the 2011 Person of the Yeariconic photos and Guy Fawkes masks are forever branded into word associations of Wall Street; and Saturday Night Live skits qualified the movement via spoof infamy. If Occupy were a reality television star, such ubiquity would be the sign that she had finally made it.

But was Occupy more than a lone starlet looking for fifteen minutes of fame?

The pages of Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude definitively argue otherwise. In good keeping with the horizontal participatory network of the movement itself, Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan have assembled the careful papier-mâché of social media reports, (re)tweets, articles, advertisements, analyses, and firsthand accounts of increasing economic devastation at the hands of American financial institutions. In a world where the hashtag is the glyph of both gossip and revolution, their offering is a synoptic view of this-thing-called-Occupy, with a deep sense of faith and theological exigency in mind.

For Rieger and Kwok, Occupy is an opportunity for intervention:

[The Occupy movement] opens the door for what we are calling deep solidarity. Whereas solidarity in the past for the middle class has often meant deciding to side with those less fortunate than us, we are beginning to understand that solidarity cuts deeper than this. Rather than trying to understand the condition of those less fortunate in terms of our own, we are beginning to see ourselves in terms of those we have considered less fortunate. Without glossing over the differences, we begin to see their fate as our fate. We are also the 99 percent. (18)

Deep solidarity is the leitmotif at the heart of a Rieger and Kwok’s working theology of the multitude, its “depth” differentiated from a traditional idea of solidarity that imagines Jesus as a modern day CEO, and the Church, and more specifically Christian-identified members of the American middle class (the directly addressed “we” audience of the book), as a hierarchical corporate being of power and privilege (18). Occupy Religion sees deep solidarity as a means to reiterate the interdependence of created beings, and the truth that the flourishing of humanity suffers from the greed and pride that have instantiated the 99/1 binary: “There is a deep concern in our religious traditions for just relationships and the flourishing of all, in particular the ‘least of these’ (Matt 25:45). The religious logic that we will develop in this book tells us that only if they can live well can we all live well, and if they perish, we all perish” (18).

Historically, religious mission and/or evangelism has founded the ideological justification for egregious global offense, eschewing justice and solidarity for personal and political gain. It isn’t so hard, in a world where the power of Jesus Christ can be “crouched in terms of the power of a CEO,” to align tactics of corporate Darwinism, competitive takeover, and wealth accumulation with the will of God (26). But I hesitate at the linguistic impetus for deep solidarity—the idea of being less fortunate—as tied to the latent theological assumption of privilege that fails to connect empathy with empowerment when serving “the least of these.” Although clearly biblical, the colloquial and constant invocation writ large often subtends a pathological gaze toward those understood to be in such a position of need and of lack, skewing one’s subject position further along a spectrum of top-down power.

This is, of course, the very notion that Rieger and Kwok are resisting. And yet I still wonder if the reliance on the familiar reflects yet another way our theological imaginations have been captured by the subtle and easy divisions between us and them, we and they?:

. . . we members of the American middle class have often felt that we were benefitting from the wealth and the power of the 1 percent. Even if we have not consciously reflected on it, we have considered ourselves to be in closer proximity to the ruling class than to the working class. (18)

It seems that a social, theological diagnostic must acknowledge that there is a certain power that comes from the ability to move along a spectrum, from the ability to approximate the 1 percent, even as one now concedes to the falsity of the idea. As Andrea Smith describes, “the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.”3 The pages of Occupy Religion have only confirmed my suspicion that the local communities that comprised the network of the Occupy movement—from Oakland to Austin—were indeed unprecedented signs of such creation (though raising new questions of subjectivity and political praxis). Particularly as this movement, unlike so many protest movements of the past, was untethered from any reified social prejudice, biological or otherwise.

Even without public consensus on the efficacy or sentiment of Occupy as a form of engagement itself, there is no denying the economic wealth gap of the United States, where political and corporate interest are continually favored at the expense of the welfare of her constituency. As described by economist Joseph Stiglitz,

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.4

Although a helpful analytic and a number rooted in reality, the conception of the 99 and the 1 are not without problem. The idea that the one percent have all the “best” reiterates a capitalist logic of scarcity, when the dynamics of access and opportunity are much more complex (and less presumptuous) than wanting what someone else has.5 The very financial imaginary that describes wealth is that which allows for an inconsistent slippage between resisting institutional hegemony or making demands of specific individuals who constitute the one percent. But as I have found in a number of commentaries and reviews on the subject, I am not always sure to which, and in which moments, Occupy Religion refers:

Solidarity now begins with an understanding that we are all in the same boat: we are the 99 percent, and we challenge the 1 percent to stop building their power and wealth at our expense and invite them to join us. (79)

One nation, under subjection to financial tyranny, shaped a new identity that shifted a conversation from the ‘least of these’ to the ‘most of us’ beneath the banner of the 99. But it seems that the concretization of identity, predicated upon the construction of an Other, may be useful for protest but problematic for theology. Is deep solidarity something that can be socially sustained once the numbers change? Is deep solidarity enough to balance the extremes of demonizing those seen as the 1 (or those seen as support the 1, and thus against the 99), or that of flattening the goods of the horizontal network of the 99 into an arid landscape? These are theological questions of futurity, ones that lead me to consider the insight of poetry.

*   *   *

In the opening pages of Poetics in Relation, Éduoard Glissant widens the aperture of the dark hollow in the “belly of the boat,” the destructive crucible of the slave ship: “Imagine two hundred human beings crammed into a space barely capable of containing a third of them. Imagine vomit, naked flesh, swarming lice, the dead slumped, the dying crouched . . .”6 Enslaved Africans were flattened in their identity, suddenly finding themselves in the same boat, suspended in uncharted waters. The slave ship was the floating technology steered by those who would quantify and divide bodies into flesh, “a mother, a terrible womb that reshaped a people definitively.”7

The slave ship is a very specific historical reality, a formative institution wound deeply and theologically in the fabric of the American conscious. It was a vessel that,

“. . . performs translation, displacement, and disordered creation. It embodies a new story of creation, one in which the first family will be reborn as familia oeconomicus. The economic family is not a family structuring its own economic realities, but one being formed by them. The original story is refashioned on the slave ship through the bodies that lay within its holds and the bodies that suffered on deck. The slave ship also captures all other forms of translation: translation of languages, of spaces, of life to death, of innocence to guilt, of joy to unrelenting sorrow.”8

“Being in the same boat” is not a particularly unique metaphor to invoke. But when Rieger and Kwok do, such an analogy recalls the theological ways a very literal boat of our past impresses itself upon a theology of the multitude. Today many Americans find themselves economically leveled, confined and constricted in space, the depths of our debt and the destination for the future unknown. A family not structuring its own economic realities, rather in many ways being formed by them. But whereas the slave ships of the Atlantic “distorted the power of joining together many different peoples on a common journey and mission,”9 the metaphorical boat highlighted by Occupy Religion, the contemporary commons of the 99, retains a certain capacity to give birth to the embodiment of an alternative way of life. Glissant describes that “relation is not made up of things that are foreign but of shared knowledge. This experience of the abyss can now be said to be the best element of exchange.”10 Such relation does not reject the importance of identities, particularly for political praxis, but it also resists the limitations of identities established primarily through an external force of obstacle or oppression.

Which is why I find the challenge of relation—of the “multitude-in-relation,” of “God-in-relation” (both terms Rieger and Kwok invoke as chapter subtitles)—though somewhat underscored, to be the most compelling of lessons from Occupy Religion. Relation is the aura of Occupy: the strange amalgamation plastered by the glue of an Arab Spring, soldered by the fireworks that trailed from Barcelona to Athens, molded in a shape neither solid, stable, or sublime. Witness to such relation, then, presses beyond the momentary feeling of solidarity (however deep), to a more substantive vision of sociality. Sociality, a form of life together, “thereby marking a relation whose implications constitute . . . a fundamental theoretical reason not to believe, as it were, in social death.”11 It is not the apparatus through which to organize, it is the reminder of the possibility of creation—of poetry, of songs, of different modalities of human being. It presses beyond the astonishing self-discovery of being in a boat, to recognize those who have been on a treacherous journey for quite some time. The middle class has certainly not been the first stop, nor will it be the last. Such practices are the open invite that will sustain challenges to oppression and systemic injustice beyond Wall Street. A form of life together, of sociality.

And the invocation to see the poetics of relation is something I think Rieger and Kwok already have in mind: “In the midst of this deepening crisis that is becoming increasingly a matter of life and death, theology is not a luxury” (58). Speaking of the urgency of poetry, Audre Lorde writes:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.12

Though the authors do not cite Lorde, she is instructive in our thinking, and our rethinking, of a theology of multitude. In choosing to be agents and signs of co-creative change in a world of chaos, theology can form the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams. Toward something more than just survival. Toward our flourishing together. Toward change. Which is to say, “We cry our cry for poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone.”13

*   *   *

To quote another participant, “I was told that this should not be a book review,” and these reflections—much like the theology Rieger and Kwok propose, and the movement that they have analyzed—are very much so in medias res. But this is an attempt to think with them, taking seriously the challenge that they present to their reader. What does the Church look like, and what are our conceptions of God? How does Occupy challenge our theologies and our praxis?

If we look back on the opening satirical scene, Sister Ingalls—the face of the Church—looks bothered by the peskiness of the inflated hopes of Soso. But why? Only later do we find that Sister Ingalls’ hesitancy is rooted in her history. She never quite felt she could discern the voice of God. The exhilaration of protest, matched with her growing celebrity, was an addictive coping mechanism: she trespasses for the photo-op, and times her social media attention around her book release. She becomes so unwieldy as to have her vows revoked.

Whether the producers intended it or not, this is a moment for theological reflection. For Sister Ingalls, the solidarity of being imprisoned is not enough to join Brook Soso. She witnesses the same atrocities. She experiences the same suffering. And yet, waffles at breakfast constitute sufficient cause to decline.

These are times of protest, when many are looking to faith, to the Church, for answers and insistence, for understanding and solidarity, for action. When I wrote this during the summer months, I anticipated this would be published near the third anniversary of the encampments in Zucotti Park. Three years later the very language of occupation flies in our faces as we witness senseless death and devastation, from the Gaza Strip to Ferguson, Missouri. We continue to be surrounded by reminders of severe injustice on innumerable levels. And yet we bear witness to the relentless insistence upon resistance, on finding one another, on standing together.

It is the brokenness of Jimmy that reminds Sister Ingalls of who she really is. Despite the risk to her own safety, Sister Ingalls stops consuming food in protest. She fears that she will be alone, as her own pride cut her off from the faith community that once inspired encouragement, support and love. Hospitalized and ready to give up, she is surprised to learn that an entire network of sisters are at the prison gates. They have heard her call. They embody the familiar truth that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”14 They stand in solidarity, committed by the bonds of sociality that formalities neither make nor break.

In a world where we are constantly reminded of the disposability of bodies, of lives, of futures and of dreams, the writers of Occupy Religion claim that “an unfinished theology serves as a constant reminder that things do not have to be as they are . . .” If Occupy has taught me anything, it is to remember that these words are true. And if considering the theology of the multitude has taught me anything, it is that resistance and struggle are breeding grounds of transformation and hope. Which is to say, in Christian theological terms, that one might actually take seriously the promise “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matt 18:20).”

 


  1. Joerg Rieger and Pui-lan Kwok. Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 134.

  2. Though it undoubtedly reduces costs of extensive medical care, the stipulations of compassionate release are rooted in an ethical praxis of providing early release for prison residents who are terminally ill or in extenuating circumstances. But the dramatization in the series—clearly unable to care for herself, Jimmy is released back onto the street to fend for herself—disguises the deeper problem of compassionate release, in that it isn’t granted to many who find they need it. For a helpful analysis of the portrayal in the series, see here: http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/13/how-oitnb-flubbed-compassionate-release.html. For the actual policy: http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.bop.gov/policy/progstat/5050_049.pdf

  3. Though speaking through a lens that focuses on racism and settler colonialism—which brings up its own pertinent critiques of the language of “occupy” (which are beyond the scope of direct engagement in this response—Andrea Smith’s analysis of privilege directly shapes the questions of poverty, class and subjectivity raised by the Occupy movement. Smith, Andrea. “The Problem With Privilege.” http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/

  4. http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.vanityfair.com/society/features/2011/05/top-one-percent-201105#

  5. At least in terms of the misconstrued conflation of consumptive desire and that of equal opportunity. Such complexity, and its interpretive implications, were captured in the sentiments of one highly cited protester in the controversy surrounding Trinity Church: “We need more. You have more.” http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.nytimes.com/2011/12/17/nyregion/church-that-aided-wall-st-protesters-is-now-their-target.html

  6. Éduoard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, translated by Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 5.

  7. Ibid., 6.

  8. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010),186–87.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Glissant, 8.

  11. Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (2013) 737–80.

  12. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984), 36–39.

  13. Glissant, 9.

  14. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963).” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), 290.

  • Kwok Pui-lan

    Kwok Pui-lan

    Reply

    A Response to Amey Victoria Adkins

    Amey Victoria Adkins raises the question of “deep solidarity” and other issues in her essay. In the book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, Joerg Rieger and I point out that the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the transnational capitalist elites and their allies in government creates enormous economic injustice, social instability, violence, and suffering. From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, tens of thousands of people arose to protest against corporate greed, social inequity, political disfranchisement, and corruption in the government. The slogan of “1 percent and 99 percent” captures the widening gap between the rich and poor. After the financial crisis of 2008, the income of the top 1 percent of households rebounded in the first full year of recovery, while the income of the bottom 90 percent of households remained at its lowest level since 1983, according to a study in 2012.

    Deep solidarity can only occur when we recognize that we are all in the same boat and in the same struggle against entrenched global economic and political forces. In the past, we have seen that many working-class people in the United States voted against their own interest, when they sided with the cultural politics of the conservatives. Middle-class people think they are closer to the ruling class than the working class, and they align their interest with those of the former. But the truth is that the American dream is harder for most people to achieve. Many middle-class people are one paycheck away from financial insecurity. The realization that we belong to the 99 percent means that we must build coalition and solidarity across gender, racial, sexual, religious, and other forms of differences. This, however, does not mean that real differences between the working- and middle-class do not exist. As Atkins aptly observes, the ability of moving along a spectrum and approximating the 1 percent is a form of power and privilege. The evasion of such differences will not help us find suitable solutions and strategies to change the situation. In order to work together, we have to avoid the binary construction of us versus them. I welcome Atkins’ suggestion of connecting empathy and empowerment when serving “the least of these.”

    Atkins questions whether the conceptualization of the 1 percent and 99 percent is too simplistic and fails to capture the complexities of access and opportunities. While there are many indicators for power and privilege, income and wealth remain important ones. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the income of the top one percent of households gained 277 percent from 1979 to 2007, whereas the bottom fifth of households gained only 18 percent. We do not want to demonize the 1 percent, and in our book, we have said that some who belong to the 1 percent also support better distribution of income. Even billionaires like Warren Buffett and George Soros went public to support the proposal to increase taxes on the wealthy (16).1

    I welcome Adkins’ evoking the memory and words of Audre Lorde. She was a shining light and a beacon of hope in the radical movement. It was from Lorde that we learned that “your silence will not protect you.” Facing tremendous injustice and inequality in the world, the church must claim the courage to speak prophetically to the world. I agree with her that “resistance and struggle are breeding grounds of transformation and hope.” I am encouraged by Adkins’ example of continuing the conversation of developing a theology of multitude through her reflection and action. I hope others will continue the conversation in their families, faith communities, and workplaces.


    1. There is a Tumblr website where the 1 percent hold up little cards saying “We are the 1 percent and we stand with the 99 percent.” See http://westandwiththe99percent.tumblr.com.

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

Response

Searching for the Multitude in Occupy Religion

“If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.”

—Judith Butler at Occupy Wall Street October 2011

In the fall of 2011, an uprising began to take root on Wall Street. Dissatisfied with the current malaise of American politics, protesters spanning ages, genders, classes, sexualities, and abilities began to occupy Wall Street. Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude is the religious and theological reflection on this movement, which spanned the country and even had a global footprint. In many ways, the year 2011 was a year of incredible revolutionary activity. The largest global occupy movement crystalized in October of 2011; this movement was motivated by activity in the U.S., the riots against austerity measures in Europe and the UK, the occupations in Wisconsin, and the occupations by the Spanish indignados. Each of these occupations was also inspired by the Arab Spring and the uprising that was brewing globally. The political subject in the United States became a visible subject whose consciousness called for a future that sought to not only destabilize and deconstruct, but completely reorder the matrices of oppression, particularly those oppressions that are tied to the all-American U.S. dollar. Yet, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude does not address the displaced consciousness; rather, it narrates the authors’ interpretation of the Occupy movement. In narrating their interpretation of the Occupy movement and also pointing to social media sites that carry the anthem of the 99 percent, this book essentially flattens out the Occupy movement and constructs a theology, albeit diffuse and culturally white, that does not advocate for the multiplicity that commonly emerges in French post-war philosophy, or inherent in the global uprising and occupations. I believe this is a severe oversight for Rieger and Kwok in that this “theology of the multitude” relies on a concept of unity and singularity, over against difference and multiplicity.

I wish to focus on the concept of multiplicity and the political subject that is identified in this book. I will suggest that the political subject that is part of the Occupy movement is a subject focused on the concept of futurity demanding a radical and conscious orientation to a type of atheistic hope. Henceforth, the concept of multiplicity is rooted in an ontology of difference as becoming, not in a difference in unity, which is what Rieger and Kwok theorize (59).

The focus on multiplicity in Occupy Religion uses the modern/liberal concept of traditioning and religion to substantiate their claim.1 It is an attempt to honor the various religious traditions from a Christian theological perspective, and it flattens out differences in exchange for raising up the intersections of plurality and relationality. I think this method is part of the neoliberal way of doing theology; it does not pay attention to the radical differences that are inherent in other religious traditions and world views. In many ways, Occupy Religion proposes a theology of religions, or a comparative religion, instead of a theology of difference whose event is multiple. The point of departure stems, the authors say, from unity in difference. This stable point of departure relies on singularity (the concept of unity) that silences difference. The Occupy movement is a movement of differences, an event that is not rooted in the concept of oneness. Because Rieger and Kwok seek to construct a theology of the multitude, and I think this is entirely important for the Occupy movement, I wish to draw this distinction: Rieger and Kwok rely on pure Oneness; the Occupy movement relies on being as differences, which propels a different theology and theory of multiplicity. The authors’theology of multiplicity harnesses the “multitude”as those who are marginalized by the 1 percent. I agree that the multitude is marginalized by the 1 percent, but I also argue that a theology of multiplicity cannot stem from a sense of unity of the marginalized or the multitude, and this is precisely what Rieger and Kwok construct.

Because of the radical differences that exist within the multitude (the margins of the margins), for example, being as differences, a theology of multiplicity must begin not with those voices or concepts which are easily normalized into the multitude, but rather, as Marcella Althaus-Reid says, the indecent. It is the indecent who radically destabilize the multitude and provide a framework of radical difference to rethink theology, ethics, praxis, and the intersections or entanglement of these three. While I appreciate the stories that are contained in this book (and I believe it is important for those stories to be told), the narratives in this book from Occupiers are not indecent stories; they are decent. The narratives construct a stable multiplicity that does not expand or contract relative to indecency, or the perversion that exists at the margins of the margins. This, I suggest, is the being of differences. A theology of multiplicity should begin with an ontology of becoming different, not stem from the stable constructive tools of feminism, LGBT theologies, and other minoritized theologies.2 A theology of the multitude demands a radical reworking of the event (understood as Occupy), tailored with an ontology of becoming different. Doing this restates the political subject and bears significantly on the shape and form of consciousness that is produced. It is to that I now turn.

The political subject, now visible in the Occupy movement, is rendered angry and fed-up with the American political system. While this might be true for many of the Occupiers, the significance of flattening out the political subject and not recognizing their complexities, significantly affects the outcome of a theology of the multitude. The Occupy movement generated a political subject that resulted in multiple epistemological ruptures across varying differences and demanded a new utopic vision. In many ways, the Gay Liberation Movements generated new political subjects that reached backward and forward toward a new and radically open future. The Occupy movement has done the same, but Occupy Religion does not speak to the complexities of the political subject of the Occupy movement, rendering the political subject analogous to the white liberal progressive. This undermines the indecency of the political subject that was central to the Occupy movement. The theology of the multitude, as explained in Occupy Religion, does not take revolutionary politics or revolution seriously. Occupy Religion relies on a theology of reformation, instead of revolution, constructively understood as the actuality of the Occupy movement.3 Occupy Religion created an opening for other political theologies to emerge and address the political subject post-Occupy movement, which, as I understand the trajectory of the book, creates a wide opening for multiple theories of the social and political to depart from the Occupy Religion standpoint. Recognizing this potential helps further mobilize the utopic horizon of demanding the impossible, a hope that is most commonly found in Christian theology. Yet, the political subject of the Occupy movement demands an atheistic hope, a hope that is not rooted in the civil religion that has motivated American politics, but rather a hope that stems from confessing a loyalty to participatory democracy and a relationality that does not create oppressive hierarchies. The utopia that is visualized by the Occupy movement is a utopia that is the actuality of revolution, concepts that are developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and often cited as deterritorialization (Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of change) and consistency.

The political subject of Occupy Religion focuses primarily on the ways in which reforming political systems has not worked and the networked viability of community that emerged as a result. What is missed, however, is the manner in which the Occupy movement resisted negotiating with political parties, seen primarily as potential co-optations. The reality that the Occupy movement has not handed over a list of demands tells us that they are not interested in political reform. The theology and politics of resistance that is so apparent in the Occupy movement is not picked up and developed as part of the theology of the multitude in Occupy Religion. This makes the political subject diffuse in the book, undermining the great potential that the Occupy political subject enfleshes. The political subject of the Occupy movement necessarily exemplifies that another world is no longer possible—political representation has failed us miserably; instead, another world is becoming actual. This is where French post-war philosophy can add a significant set of theory tools to Occupy Religion and create a much more robust political theology. I suggest Deleuze and Guattari’s political constructivism; it is entirely illuminating.

To pick up the strand of atheistic hope, I recall Judith Butler’s speech at Occupy Wall Street. She said: “If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.”Demanding the impossible as that which is rooted in hope is not the resignation to a form of hopelessness, but rather the vision of a utopia that is rooted in atheistic hope. José Estaban Muñoz captures this when he details Gloria Anzaldúa’s vision of la communidad de joteria. He says: “Anzaldua’s injunction to look for joteria [translated as queers, which she asserts can be found at the base of every liberationist social movement] is a call to deploy a narrative of the past to enable better understanding and critiquing of a faltering present. In this sense her call for mestiza consciousness is a looking back to a fecund no-longer-conscious in the service of a futurity that resists the various violent asymmetries that dominate the present.”4 The hope that is rooted in the demanding of the impossible is a hope that recognizing the failings of the past and yearns for a different future. It is a hope that is rooted in utopia and is atheistic. This utopia is a vision that practices the radical resistance of the status-quo, calling forth the margins of the margins and the multiplicity of that which is repeating differences. It is not a utopia that calls for the neoliberal subject, or even a political party vision. Not even the Green Party can be parallel to this utopic vision. This utopia is beyond what can be imagined by our most progressive political parties, and surely is not seen in the most liberal political theologies. This is why this is an atheistic hope; it demands a radical reworking of revolutionary politics that constructs new paradigms of relationality and the social. We cannot depend on the civil religion that has been the dominant discourse within American politics. It is no longer “In God we trust,”but rather it is the collective that casts the vision, a multiplicity whose differences never repeat. It is in the difference and multiplicity that we find a new vision for the social and a relationality that calls us to be radically visible revolutionary subjects. The atheistic hope is believing in the “not yet”moment, a moment where the revolution demands the radical displacement of the neoliberal subject and the radical inclusion of the indecent. A theology of the multitude is the moment when the indecent become part of the collective that seeks revolution and is the same moment when the ideological center deconstructs and a new vision of the social is imagined.

 


  1. J. Z. Smith argues that religion is a creation of the academy and doesn’t actually exist.

  2. ven some versions of “queer theologies”are rooted in stable identity categories and rely on binary systems to construct their theologies.

  3. See Thomas Nail’s “Deleuze, Occupy, and the Actuality of Revolution,”Theory and Event 16, no. 1 (2013). See also Deleuze and Politics.

  4. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 84.

  • Kwok Pui-lan

    Kwok Pui-lan

    Reply

    A Response to Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

    Robyn Henderson-Espinoza has raised several important criticisms of Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, focusing especially on how the book has conceptualized the multitude as political subject, and difference and multiplicity among them. The book begins with a discussion of class and inequality between the 1 percent and 99 percent. It critiques economic injustice in the neoliberal economy, the bailing out of big banks and big businesses, and the worsening condition of the working class. It chastises middle-class churches and the wider society for failing to take class and class conflict seriously. As Joerg Rieger has said, “while the triad of race, gender, and class is upheld in many discourses in religious studies and theology, and while major contributions have been made in the study of the complexities of race and gender, the discussion of class have been and continues to be neglected.”[ref]Joerg Rieger. “Instigating Class Struggle? The Study of Class in Religion and Theology and Some Implications for Gender, Race, and Ethnicity,” in Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence, edited by Joerg Rieger(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 191.[/ref] The book incorporates and expands the insights of liberation theology from many different parts of the world and cannot be construed as a neoliberal theological project.

    Following Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s discussion of the multitude in Empire and Multitude, Joerg Rieger and I clearly spell out the diversity and plurality of participants of the Occupy Movement: students, working-class people, homeless people, teachers, professionals, and people of various faith traditions. The emphasis shifts from “being the multitude” to “making the multitude” (32). As political subject, the multitude is heterogeneous and is far from unitary, as Henderson-Espinoza has rightly pointed out. But these diverse groups of people have come together to march on the streets, some even camping out in the freezing cold in the winter of 2011, to express their political will and to form a positive political force. In spite of their differences, they have come out to participate in a movement that denounces corporate greed and other oppressions in the global society.

    Ever since the “difference revolution” in the 1980s and 1990s, there has been much critique of essentializing and the celebration of difference. Queer theory and theology have contributed much to the destabilizing of binaries and stable identities. While I welcome such important insights, we should not lose sight of the “divide and conquer” strategy used by those who wield power. Facing the grinding oppression of economic globalization, we do not have the luxury of theorizing difference endlessly in the comfort of the academy, without discussing how the multitude can work together to build coalition across difference. Otherwise, the celebration of difference can be easily used and coopted by the neoliberal market. In reading the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid, let us not forget that she cut her theological teeth on Latin American liberation theology, and she has never forgotten critical economic analysis in her indecent theology. While sexual and indecent stories are important, other stories have also the potential to illumine different aspects of the struggle between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

    This book recognizes that people of many different faiths participated in the Occupy movement, and it lifts up the voices of Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims. Because of the scope of the book and time constraint, we did not have a chance to talk with many people of different faiths to explore the reasons they participated in the movement. The book was written by two theologians who wanted to reflect on what the Occupy movement had to say to the church and to theology. There were many secular people and atheists who joined and supported the Occupy movement. I welcome further discussions of atheistic hope, and new and revolutionary paradigms of relationality and the social to expand our horizons and political insights.

    • Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

      Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

      Reply

      A Reply to Kwok Pui-Lan

      It seems to me that Kwok Pui-Lan and I have different conceptual starting points. First, I do not think queer theory and theology contribute to destabilizing binaries, necessarily. LGBT theories and theories have done such work, but queer theories and theologies do different work, one of epistemology and ontology of difference. Secondly, Kwok Pui-Lan indicates that she and Joerg Rieger used Hardt and Negri to formulate a theology of the multitude. Great! But! my point was to suggest that the authors did not adequately display or theorize the Deleuzian and Guattarian strands that are native in Hardt and Negri! They are Deleuzians, after all. Third, Kwok Pui-Lan writes the following: “…how the multitude can work together to build coalition across difference.” I don’t think Hardt and Negri theorize the multitude as plurality, nor do I think there needs to be a coalition across difference. What there needs to be is a coalition as difference, because difference is not an obstacle or barrier to reach across or formulate a coalition. This is what I read in Occupy Religion, which means that this theology of the multitude is still subject to the politics of representation, which is not how Hardt, Negri, Deleuze, and Guattari understand difference or the multitude.

Kelly Johnson

Response

Theology at the Service of Humanity

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security”

—Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 49

Like the authors of Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, I find in many of my encounters with U.S. Christian communities the assumption that Christianity is clean, comforting, friendly, moderately well-off, and capable of making the world a better place by giving some aid to people in need. Like the authors, I find the vitality of faith in communities where the gospel has led people into a more costly, less certain, more joyous form of life together. I sympathize with the authors’ work to call attention to God’s presence with people in their struggle and to a church that is a diverse community of people engaged in that struggle. Like them, I see in the Occupy movement an invitation and challenge to Christian communities. And like them, I work to understand “the ways religious sentiments and concepts have been used to reinforce . . . domination” (62). My own work on the history of Christian “stewardship” attempts to address this very problem.1

But for all that, I disagree with the authors’ analysis of what has gone wrong and with their agenda for addressing it. Though I share their conviction that theology matters, I hold that its crucial task—for the good of all—is quite other than what the authors propose.

The authors of Occupy Religion argue that “theology is not a luxury, but finds itself at the heart of efforts to present alternative ways and solutions” (58). Theology’s role is two-fold: first, to address “the ways that religious sentiments and concepts have been used to reinforce . . . domination” (62); second, to promote understandings of power as bottom-up and of the Other as honored collaborator, by giving accounts of God that support those values so that social life may be organized around such a vision. They engage certain questions of Christian theology, but their focus is on promoting among all people an understanding of power and difference that will support the struggle of the multitude. “Our project is not reconciling different notions of divinity, whatever they may be, but reimagining divinity in all religions” (90). While they expect their account of God to be new to most people, they also hold that for the Occupy movement’s 99 percent, religion matters as “a multiplicity of popular traditions that preach not only concern for the least of these but also a reversal and broadening of power, which moves from the bottom up, so that all can participate in the production of life” (28).

Theology, then, matters because different accounts of God’s power are at work in the world, some that perpetuate oppression and some that recognize and encourage pluralistic, widely-distributed, creative power for the multitude. Theology that is faithful to the best of what humans have learned about God will speak of a God who is present in the struggle. The authors focus on Christianity, presumably because it is their tradition and the faith most commonly appealed to in the US. It is a major part of the problem; it could be a major part of better solutions. Their concern is not doctrine set in the past, particularly when that past has included many examples of God’s name being used to justify oppression. What matters is a practical, diverse, open-ended, shared struggle for a new society.

Rieger and Kwok identify their theological enemy as “status quo” or “mainline” theologies. “The deepest problem of our most common images of God, supported by conservatives and liberals alike, is that images of the divine as omnipotent, impassible, and immutable tend to mirror the dominant power that be, from ancient emperors to modern CEOs” (88). This belief in and adoration of top-down power is a key to an oppressive symbol system, as they see it. They do not cite any specific present-day authors who are responsible for promoting this view, perhaps because they take it to be “virtually omnipresent” (96). But the generality of the claim leaves me wondering: who is promoting this view and how? Who accepts it and why?

The authors themselves give plenty of evidence that Christian theology is not entirely sold out to this status quo enemy. They acknowledge that Rowan Williams explicitly and the Vatican implicitly approved of the Occupy movement’s claims about economic injustice, as did many other religious leaders. They also find support for their critique in Barth, whom the authors see as allied with liberation theology. These are not “status quo” theology. And the monarch God that mirrors human domination is not the God we would find in, say, Augustine, nor in Moltmann, Tillich, Rahner, or liberation theologies, nor even in present-day Thomists, from Kathryn Tanner to Matt Levering, who hold that God acts within the freedom of each creature in a way that is not competitive with creation. Where then does this top-down monarch God legitimating the status quo come from?

The image of God as monarch is common in Christian tradition—in scripture and iconography and hymnody. And this image certainly may serve, and has served, to bolster despotic rule. But the problem is not in the image itself. The authors hold that Jews or Christians who want to be “truly faithful to the God of their traditions” do not embrace this top-down God (89). That is, the image functions differently when it is encountered in the full context of those traditions. God’s kingship in scripture exists as a contrast to human kingship and a judgment against abusive human rule; in John, Jesus’s kingship is strongly linked to his rejection and crucifixion. A serious engagement with God as king, in Christian theology, does not function simply to encourage admiration and confidence in human rule.

Nevertheless, the popular image of “the man upstairs,” uncomplicated by any sense of paradox or limits of analogy, is widespread, and it may simply be this that the authors have in mind. My point is that this sort of faith is less the result of the texts and practices of hierarchical or “expert” Christian traditions than to a cultural context that frees religious images from the bounds of tradition or the authority of saints and teachers, making faith a matter of personal preference, with little intrinsic relation to social reality.

Studies on the impacts of cultural changes give insight into what is going on with religious thought and practice.2 Self-deception and hypocrisy are nothing new, but present-day forgetfulness of place and history, a habit cultivated by our constant immersion in global consumer networks, permits a free-floating use of images that is relatively new. People—including the self-described devout—piece together bits of religious traditions that justify their privilege or underwrite their loyalties or authorize their political priorities or anaesthetize their discomfort or that simply express their individual and momentary reactions to their circumstances.

The problem is not that believers need to discover a new kind of God. They do not know the God of their own traditions. We have evidence that basic knowledge of religious traditions, including Christians’ knowledge of Christianity, is very poor.3 That ignorance is not simply an intellectual problem to be solved by better religious education classes; the form of our political and economic order shapes our lives such that we are less capable of sustained and self-critical engagement on any topic. Religious practice, in our context, provides personal satisfaction, free of historical or structural associations.

Rieger and Kwok see a shrine holding images of John Lennon, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Buddha, and Gandhi alongside other objects of spiritual significance as not mere toleration but a sign of “respecting the integrity and the otherness of the other” (129). It strikes me, in the absence of serious discussion about the nature, value, and challenges of interreligious dialogue, more as an example of such fragmentation. Well, but what’s wrong with that? Mutual respect is a good thing, right? Maybe, after all, strawberry fields forever are a better way for humanity to go, at this point.

Aside from its spiritual compatibility with global capitalism, which can make a lot of hay out of respectful appreciation of diversity as an occasion for broad and restless consumer appetites, a major problem in this commodification of religious images is that this way of engaging religious faith strikes shallow roots in real life. A few people may come to the shrine of diversity with deep lived knowledge of a faith and discover new ways to deepen and challenge their faith. But they are the exception in our society, and growing more so.4 The problem is that Christians of all sorts (and I suspect, though I do not presume to speak for them, other believers) are not engaging the unfinished and complicated content of their own tradition as rational and embodied in history and material structure. Frankly, it’s not clear how we can become people who can do that. Attempts to protest or create a fresh answer in the face of this fragmentation tend to become, rather than alternatives, just new commodities for the spiritual consumer. So the sort of deep engagement that could learn to invoke the Crucified One as true king becomes less likely. This, I think, is the problem Rieger and Kwok have missed.

I don’t despair, though I am a bit grim on this account. I have seen Christian communities committed to arguing and living together, sharing resources (even to going into debt for each other’s sake), struggling to come to consensus about what their baptismal call means, sticking together through long, hard arguments, praying across great diversities before the God to whom they all belong. They do not escape who we are now. But they dig in to a place, a city, a community, a tradition of revelation in ways that give me more hope than Occupy’s spirituality does. What distinguishes them is that they were held by the authority of Christian tradition to mutual love of each other and of God.

So I want to talk—in perilously brief terms—about authority and revelation, not categories that lend themselves to brief treatment.

As I noted before, the authors of this book and I all hold that theology matters. For them, it is serious because it either supports or blocks the progress of humanity in this moment of crisis. I take it to be serious business because it is an attempt by a community of faith to speak truthfully about God. We do it poorly, even the best of us at the best of times. The apophatic tradition is not wrong. And the attempt to do it only makes sense if we presume that there is such a thing as revelation, a gift of God to enable us to encounter and enter into, in a creaturely way, God’s own life. As Dei Verbum5 presents it, revelation is an invitation into relationship rather than the imparting of information. It is not a possession that grants control and it is not text standing apart from fragile, screwed up, gifted communities who give their lives to it. Revelation is definitively given and continues to be encountered and understood and contended with generation after generation.

Because there is such a thing as revelation, we can talk about theological teaching authority as distinct from arbitrary power. Authority is a category the authors do not engage, though they talk about power with insight and attention. It is a two-way relationship shaped by shared, if in some ways still contested, commitments to a common good. It serves a community full of capabilities not by shutting others’ agency down but by coordinating and maintaining focus toward a shared end. The play of authority is complex; the authority of bishops and that of saints work in tension and sometimes in outright conflict with each other. I will not pretend that it is safe from abuses. But then, avoiding discussion of authority is not safe either, particularly in a consumer culture. Human communities do appeal to more or less clearly defined authorities as part of their shared conversations. Explicit authorities accountable to explicit goods are easier to challenge and correct than are hidden authorities serving unspecified ends. At any rate, it is authority—prophetic or even institutional, as in the case of the Vatican’s leadership on climate change and economic injustice—that demands a community recognize uncomfortable truths spoken by those outside the inner circle. Authority can be held accountable for doing that if, that is, it is an authority that takes the Jesus of the gospels to be the Word of God. In such a case, inconvenient doctrines cannot be dismissed.6

A community in which the practice of authority is accountable for its service to the person of Jesus might be able to go beyond enthusiasm for the other and get to love of neighbor and enemy. That does not mean such a community will be a haven of sweetness and light. Dorothy Day wrote, “I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me. Romano Guardini said the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.”7 But then, as the authors say, God operates in history in surprising ways (107). Strangely enough, the Church that Day refers to sounds something like the multitude Rieger and Kwok identify with and want to serve: a community that is international, multiracial, including people of diverse political commitments and socio-economic status. It is argumentative, emotional, joyous, practical, and hopeful. It is also a mess. The Spirit continues Jesus’ ministry in the church, for the life of the world. God continues to work in it in accord with its humanity, in structures of reasoning, memory, cultures, arts, institutions, and criticisms of institutions. The God who is transcendent enough to enter into human weakness without violence is the God who inhabits this church with remarkable, we might say scandalous, patience. Theology is a rational function of that embodied, political, historical, Spirit-filled community, in conversation with itself and with the voices of strangers in whom God so often speaks, trying to witness to a gift both near to us and very strange to us.

As a Christian theologian, working principally in and for that community, I have had to abandon all hope of purity, all claims that I am going to make it right, and all aspirations to speak to and for everyone. I can sympathize with the desire to find a way into a simpler, brighter version of the church, a fresh new Jesus movement not burdened by conflict and failure.But history teaches me that such attempts are unlikely to work out as their originator’s plan.

At any rate, the theology that I take seriously works at speaking well of God, depending for that effort on revelation in events leading to and following from Jesus’ life as in scripture and in tradition, where discernment about degrees of authority and struggle over contesting accounts of authority are always part of the process. Liberation theologies gave to the discipline a great and costly gift in their insistence that theologians attend to their participation in material conditions of injustice as a force in their own intellectual work and in the life of the church. The reason that principle has become so widely influential is that it demands theologians to speak more truthfully, and theology has to be about speaking and living in truth. It is that responsibility that makes theology complicated, important, serious, dangerous, and, ultimately, life-giving. If it does not do that, then we can give it up and become screenwriters, who, frankly, seem better than theologians at creating images that move people.

For these reasons, the claim that a theology that is serious about its own role should entirely “re-imagine” God and church so that it will better serve the needs of the world strikes me as profoundly confused.

I want to note, in closing, that this is a book written for a general audience, which makes it all the more important. This kind of scholarly effort ought to be a priority for theologians in our time. We have an unprecedented number of highly trained lay people giving their lives to theological scholarship and still we have abysmal rates of religious literacy among non-specialists. A large swath of Christians in the U.S. do, more or less, fit the charges Rieger and Kwok level at them, and theologians bear a significant part of the blame. Good scholarship alone will not fix our problems, but it is our responsibility at least to help Christians (ourselves included) to speak more truthfully about God and humanity. As we take up the challenge to produce theology for a general audience, let us not abandon what seems awkward about our discipline, what will require our readers (and ourselves) to think outside convenient categories. Let us not resort to straw-man arguments that draw non-specialists into the misunderstanding and mistrust so frequently found in the academic guild of theology. We who teach and write theology, whatever else we may be about, ultimately serve humanity by producing the best theology we can manage, for love of God and all of God’s good creation.8


  1. Kelly Johnson, Fear of Beggars: Poverty and Stewardship in Christian Economic Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).

  2. I am particularly indebted to Vincent Miller in Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005); for Michael Budde’s The (Magic) Kingdom of God: Christianity and Global Culture Industries (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998); and Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  3. http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.pewforum.org/2010/09/28/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey-who-knows-what-about-religion/

  4. The fastest-growing religious identification in the U.S. is the “nones.” These are the religiously unaffiliated, who, when faced with a checklist of religious identification on a form check “none.” http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

  5. Vatican II, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html.

  6. I refer those who are interested in this point to Margaret Adams’ study of Moltmann’s influence. Our Only Hope: More than We Can Ask or Imagine (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).

  7. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1952), 149–50.

  8. I adapt this from a quote from one I heard Roberto Goizueta attribute to, I think, Virgilio Elizondo: “The poor deserve the best theology we can give them.”

  • Joerg Rieger

    Joerg Rieger

    Reply

    A Response to Kelly Johnson

    Johnson is in agreement with us that something has gone wrong with the church, as it has become largely self-centered and part of a dominant system of oppression. This agreement is significant, as too often we get the feeling that church leaders and theologians respond in defensive ways when we raise questions about the church, trying to rescue dominant forms of church by tinkering with programs or by developing better marketing plots for bad religion. So, where is our disagreement located?

    Johnson blames “a cultural context that frees religious images from the bounds of tradition” for producing a church that worships the dominant powers. More specifically, she blames “making faith a matter of personal preference.” There is no doubt that individuals misappropriating faith and religion are part of the problem. In a consumer culture, even faith and religion have increasingly become matters to be consumed. Unfortunately, we rarely talk about who bears the responsibility for that apart from the individuals who get caught in the vicious cycle of consumption. As a result, consumers usually get the blame for what is called “consumerism,” while the powerful interests that fuel these developments in strategic fashion in order to gain market shares go unnoticed. Johnson seems to follow that trend.

    Neither Kwok Pui-lan nor I disagree with Johnson’s notion that large numbers of believers do not know the God of their own traditions well. That is, indeed, why we keep doing theology. Our primarily concern is not to discover a “new kind of God” who would exist apart from these traditions, as Johnson insinuates, but to figure out who God is according to our traditions, including those which often go unnoticed. The real question is who gets the blame for shallow faith? Johnson, like the countless critics of consumerism, puts it back on what she calls the “spiritual consumer.”

    If we take another look at theology and the church, not only at present but also through the centuries, a more complex picture emerges. Both Kwok and I have done this in various ways in other books, to which our co-authored volume Occupy Religion is tied. In my book Christ and Empire, for instance, I show how much of the theology of the church itself has been shaped by the power of empire ever since the beginning. Power and authority cannot easily be distinguished, as they are much more closely related than meets the eye (for an extended argument see my book Remember the Poor). In other words, the blame for bad theology and misguided authority cannot be put merely on the mostly uneducated and untrained consumers of Christianity. Something more profoundly disturbing is going on, and we will not understand what it is unless we take a look at the larger systems of power.

    Nevertheless, distortions of power and authority do not have the last word, as this is also where the truth can be found. That is what a few reviewers of Christ and Empire missed, even though how this could have happened it is a mystery to me as it is clearly stated even on the back cover of the book and in the preface. I am afraid that this is being missed by some of the critics of Occupy Religion again. Despite powerful distortions of power and authority, the church has never been completely overcome by empire and that at every stage of the way there has been faithful theology mixed in with co-opted theology. The ancient Christian confession of Christ as Lord is a case in point: is Christ a lord according to the image of the Roman Emperor or is Christ a lord completely unlike the Emperor? Can the church today tell the difference between an image of Christ as CEO and an image of Christ as one who resists the status quo? The good news is that some of the early Christians could tell the difference and that some Christians today are also able to do so. This is not necessarily a matter of theological training or status in the church, as the multitude frequently seems to have had an edge since the days of Jesus, where “the last” became “the first” and vice versa. Without the ability to make such distinctions even an otherwise orthodox confession like “Jesus Christ is Lord” turns into heresy.

    It is no accident, nor is it as strange as Johnson seems to think, that our image of the church as multitude matches images of the church held by Dorothy Day. Like Day, we believe that theology needs to be worked out in the midst of struggle against the dominant status quo, drawing on the wealth of its traditions, particularly those that have been pushed under the rug by the dominant authorities. Authority gets worked out along the way as we struggle with the powers that be, and new relations of power are formed. It is our experience that those who see through false claims to power are more likely to see through spurious claims of authority as well. And, likewise, there is some evidence that those who embody different power relations are more likely to be able to develop a new sense for the claims of authority that come to us from our often-neglected traditions. Could it be that seeing through the false claims of the power of the one percent, exposed by the Occupy movement, not only makes us better communities but also better theologians?

    • Kelly Johnson

      Kelly Johnson

      Reply

      A Reply to Joerg Rieger

      I find it puzzling that describing the impact of consumer culture should be read as blaming consumers. Admittedly, talking in generalizations always costs us recognition of complexity, and I’m as guilty of vagueness in such claims as anyone. In that respect, I want to say that I was particularly grateful to Rom Coles for his contribution, which in drawing from the ongoing practice of communities really demonstrated how such work makes for better scholarship. So the answer to that last question by Rieger is, at the risk of falling yet again into generalization, yes. But I’m left still worrying about what sort of theology makes a contribution to those movements.

      Let me be clearer about my point: for a book that claims repeatedly that theology matters, this book does not to engage theological matters with much discernment. Neither in discussions of images of God’s power nor in approaches to tradition, nor in remarks on interfaith dialogue did the authors show the kind of treatment that seemed likely to feed extended, contested, open-ended thought and commitment. In fact, I was concerned that their approach to making theology serve the multitude ends up with a thin and– ironically– quite settled theology. I don’t think that serves anyone well.

    • Joerg Rieger

      Joerg Rieger

      Reply

      A Reply to Kelly Johnson

      If theology matters, as we all seem to agree, I am not sure why Johnson does not engage the theological arguments I put forth in my response instead of merely repeating her accusation (in more choice words) that we are producing “thin” theology. This is puzzling to me as I wrote my response explicitly following what I took to be her invitation to talk theology, explaining a few topics that might get missed in a cursory reading. I’d be happy to continue talking theology, including issues of revelation, authority and power, and the lordship of Christ, which briefly I touched on in my response. Those who would like to do so as well should check our publications for books that dig deeper than we are able to do in a co-authored book of 134 pages.

       

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