Friday, January 20, 2012

Romney Doesn’t Get It

Mitt Romney used to live in my town—Belmont, Massachusetts—but I am not rooting for the hometown boy.

Romney and his wife Ann raised their five sons in a big mansion on Marsh Street on Belmont Hill, which they sold in April 2009 for $3.5 million. The house has 6,434 square feet of luxury living space with 7 bedrooms and 6.5 bathrooms, situated on 2.44 acres. I live down the Hill in a middle-class neighborhood and take the bus to go to work.

I have passed by Belmont Hill many times and I always marvel at the huge mansions. Needless to say I have never stepped inside the Belmont Hill Club for the super rich.

Before last Monday, almost all forecast said that Romney was poised to win South Carolina and cruise to nomination.

Yet a few hiccups on the way have upset his game. I am betting the Patriots beating the Ravens in the AFC Championship football game this Sunday. Will the hometown Mitt beat the surging Newt Gingrich? It is too close to tell, according to the many polls I have seen.

So what happens to Romney? You have to understand that for people who live in humongous mansions (his New Hampshire mansion worths $10 million and the one at La Jolla, CA worths $12 million) and frequent exclusive country clubs, $374,000 is a very small sum. That’s why he said, “I get speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”

It is outrageous that Romney’s tax rate was about 15 percent because most of his income came from investments, while I paid tax at a higher rate. Romney’s wealth is estimated at about $250 million. He will be the richest presidential candidate if nominated.

Last night, when Romney was asked in the debate when he would release his tax returns, he was very awkward and seemed annoyed. Did he have something to hide? When his father George Romney ran for president in 1968, he released his past 12 years’ tax returns.

His failure to release his tax returns has spawned many rumors: he has parked his money in tax havens such as Cayman Islands and he has put millions in the IRA retirement account, which he is not supposed to. Much more damaging is that he might have invested in companies that outsource their jobs to other countries.

He said people who criticize him are simply envious of his success. He has earned it through hard work. He might be implying that we are just too lazy if we have not achieved his level of success.

He criticized President Obama for inciting “class warfare” and said it is divisive to speak of the one percent versus the 99 percent. Well, Mitt, we did not start the warfare. For three decades, the super rich has waged a war against the poor and the middle class. Between 1979 and 2007, incomes in the U.S. grew by 275 percent for the wealthiest 1 percent of households, 37 percent for the middle 60 percent of households, and 18 percent for the poorest 20 percent of households. Today the top 1 percent of Americans holds 39 percent of the nation’s wealth and takes in 25 percent of its annual income.

Talking about economic justice is different from creating class warfare. Buying and selling companies for personal profits is not the same as creating jobs. We still have to know more about his business practices at Bain Capital.

But one thing is clear. Romney only cares about those who live up the Hill in Belmont. He speaks for them and to them. He has tin ears to those who live down the Hill. For the first time living in Belmont for the last 16 years, I received a paper bag left on my foyer last November soliciting for donations for the Belmont foodbank. Even in middle-class suburban towns like Belmont some people have to choose between paying mortgage and buying food.

Romney just doesn’t get it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How Blogging Has Changed My Thinking and Writing

I wish I could say I start blogging to change the world. No, I started blogging with a very modest aim.

On January 23, 2011, I posted my first blog on this site. My aim was rather simple. I would ask students in the Spirituality of Contemporary World class to create a blog and post their journals there. Since I did not have the habit of blogging, I wanted to see how this worked. I created this blog and posted regularly in January and February. I posted 26 blogs in February alone. Then the number of blogs tapered off.

Many students in the course did not continue blogging after the class was over. But I carried on and had great fun writing it. In the year 2011, I posted 66 blogs. The number of words amounted almost to that of half a book.

Now with a year of blogging under my belt, I wish to look back to see how blogging has changed my thinking and writing.

First, blogging is thinking on the fly. You don’t have to do all the research in order to write a blog. If you do, it will be more like a research paper and not something instant. In the blogosphere, time is of essence. When Rick Perry drops out from the presidential race today, you can’t wait till tomorrow to write if you are a serious blogger. I sometimes wonder how Andrew Sullivan and other bloggers can comment so fast. This means you have to attend to current news and affairs if you want your blog to be fresh and relevant.

Second, blogging means writing fast. Although I consider myself a fast writer, blogging makes me type and write even faster. Sometimes it takes me less than an hour to write a blog. My colleagues and students are surprised that I have found time to do this, and they do not know that I sometimes blog at the end of day before I go to sleep. Since I don’t have much time, I just write what is in my mind to share with my readers. It may be the book I have just finished reading, the concert I attended, or anything I have read on the Internet. A blog is about 700 words. It's no big deal.

Third, I begin to pay attention to the craft of blogging. This is not a genre I was familiar with, since I write primarily for an academic audience. I look at how other popular bloggers start their first sentence, develop their narrative arc, and end on a high note. I learn to write in simple sentences and use simple words. I imagine my readers are from all over the world and may not know the U.S. context as well as I do. Indeed I was surprised to find that I have readers from Inner Mongolia, Iraq, Egypt, and so forth. I know not a single soul from these countries and am delighted to know that they have found me on the vast Internet.

Fourth, I learn that blogging can reach far more people than my books. For example, my most popular blog to date is “How to Read a Theological Book,” which has 4,179 pageviews, and the second most popular “Architecture of the Mind” has 2,330 pageviews. Many people have sent the links to their friends on Facebook, Twitter, and other networking sites. I encourage other academics to start blogging to popularize their ideas and to reach a much broader international audience.

Fifth, I cannot explain why some blogs are more popular than others. “Architecture of the Mind” is not a “popular” title and I was amazed to find that during one particular week 240 Russian readers read this and my other blog posts. I guessed a Russian professor might have found this interesting and assigned it to his or her students.

Sixth, even though I have written and edited numerous books, I am still intrigued by responses of my readers. Blogging allows me to gauge readers’ responses—number of pageviews and readers’ comments. After I post a blog, I check periodically to see how many people have read it and delight in seeing the number of pageviews grow. Blogging creates a virtual community. I envy bloggers who can post everyday and have many longtime readers who constantly give feedback.

Seventh, blogging changes my way of looking at the world. I become more alert to what is happening around me because I now have a medium that can capture snapshots in my life. It takes years to write a book and perhaps months to write an academic article. Blogging distills the moment.

Seven is good number and perhaps I should end here. How long does it take for me to write this? 34 minutes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Prophetic Activism Is Not Dead in the U.S.

In case you are wondering what progressive Christian communities are doing to promote justice in the United States and the world, the book Prophetic Activism is for you.

The author Helene Slessarev-Jamir is the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. She worked as a union and community organizer in Washington, D.C. and Chicago prior to graduate school. She is familiar with congregation-based community organizing and activism in support of worker justice and immigrant rights.

I came across this book when I searched in for a book that gives me a history of American churches’ involvement in social movements. This book does not so much tell me the past, but it provides a snapshot of the present.

The author notes that prophetic activism has arisen as a response to globalization of capital and production and the huge gap between the rich and the poor in wealthy countries and the deepening economic crises in poorer countries. This is in direct opposite to the Christian Right who gained national power by vilifying the welfare queens, urban black and Latino men, gays and lesbians, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims.

Prophetic activism is characterized by: 
  • A commitment to nonviolent social change: influenced by Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha or active nonviolence and Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement.
  •  The incorporation of aspects of liberation theology, especially among the Catholics. 
  • The openness to diverse spiritual practices and to working with people of other faith traditions. 
  • The use of popular education and bottom-up organizing to bridge the gap between the marginalized and the privileged. 
  • A concern for the well-being of the marginalized and for upholding basic human rights for all.
After elaborating on how prophetic activism is grounded in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teachings, Slessarev-Jamir discusses five arenas of prophetic activism in the United States: congregational community organizing influenced by Latin American liberation theology, religious worker-justice work, immigrants rights (activism along the border with Mexico and the new sanctuary movement), religious peacemaking, and finally global justice.

As I am working on a book on the Occupy movement, I find the chapter on global justice particularly illuminating.

Slessarev-Jamir uses the examples of Bread for the Word, Witness for Peace, Jubilee 2000, ONE campaign against global poverty, Save Darfur and Invisible Children in this chapter. She provides the background of these organizations and interviews staff and workers to offer a rich narrative.

Last Monday we had a U2 Eucharist at our school and we were introduced to the ONE campaign. A student from Iowa brought a quilt for the altar made by the young people in her church depicting the vision for the ONE world and the presider wore a similar stole. It reminded us that congregations can be important sites for mobilizing for action and worship can unleash the power of prophetic activism.

The Occupy movement can be seen as a continuation of the global justice movement: the linkage of the local and the global, the use of the Internet and social networking sites, the creation of songs, symbols, and popular culture, the horizontal organization, and networking with religious communities (e.g. the use of church space for meetings after the tent-cities were raided).

The book gives us a lot of hope, knowing that activism is alive and many churches and organizations are heeding the call to prophetic justice. At a time when cynicism runs deep and many people have lost much faith in political and economic institutions, I hope the churches can continue to signal to the world that God’s people are not frozen. They are still at the frontline, fighting for a better world.

The book concludes: “prophetic activism greatly enriches religious life in America by creating meaningful opportunities for religious people to connect their spirituality to a variety of just causes.” Faith without action is dead, the liberation theologians have taught us.