Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Boston and the Minjung

Yesterday I went to visit Occupy Boston in Dewy Square by South Station in downtown Boston. Occupy Boston began on September 30, inspired by the much larger Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.

Occupy Boston is a tent city with 40-50 tents. It has its reception area, kitchen, portable toilets, and an elevated area used as the stage. Dewey Square is filled to capacity. The attempt to expand to a second camp met with strong resistance from the police. Nearly 150 were arrested on October 11.

One of my students has camped out at Dewey Park since the very beginning. He is an anarchist and has longed for participating in a movement to bring down capitalism for more than 10 years. He cannot believe that there are thousands of people like him who want to challenge corporate greed and the neo-liberal economy.

What is most exciting for him is the leaderless, horizontal organization that is developing. During the general assemblies when they gather for discussion and for decision-making, hand gestures are used to indicate “like,” “dislike,” “yes,” “no” and so forth. This is taking a page from the anarchist’s playbook.

The media at first did not pay much attention to the Occupy movement, describing it as a movement of privileged students. But the people at Occupy Boston are much more diverse: homeless people, older people, and members of the unions. Clergy have shown up and church members have visited the site. It is a coalition of many sectors of the community. Time magazine says it represents “the return of the silent majority.”

The movement declares, “We are the 99 percent.” In the U.S., the top 1 percent gets over 20 percent of the total income.

It was amazing to see that people in more than 950 cities worldwide have organized protests on the International Day of Solidarity with the Occupy Movement on October 15, 2011. In Hong Kong, around 500 protesters gathered outside the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Most of the participants were young and they also used the “We are the 99 percent” slogan.

Several years ago, I have read Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Multitude. Instead of class, they used the term multitude to denote the heterogeneous mass of people who will rise up against Empire. The multitude is linked by the Internet, the social media, and mobile devices. Since Empire is transnational, the multitude must also be a global force and represents a new form of politics.

I thought at the time the idea of the multitude is too abstract: who will organize them? And where do they come from? But we have seen the force of the multitude several times in the last decade: during the global demonstrations against the Iraq War and now the Occupy Movement.

Will the multitude have the sustaining power to effect structural changes? It might be too early to tell about the Occupy movement. But one thing I am certain: conversations have begun in the kitchens, classrooms, and living rooms. Our school had a teach-in session facilitated by our President and another professor, who are veterans of social movements.

The Bible has a word for the crowd of people following Jesus. They are called the ochlos (e.g Matt. 4:25; 8:1). In South Korea in the 1970s, minjung theologians used this term to describe the mass of people who are oppressed by society. Minjung comes from two Chinese characters 民众, which mean mass of people. Similar to Hardt and Negri, minjung theologians do not limit minjung to the working or lower class. Women are the minjung when they are oppressed by the patriarchal society. The colonized are minjung when they are dominated by the colonizers.

Minjung theologians say that for too long, the church only pays attention to the laos (laity), and leave out from its purview the ochlos.

Minjung theology was developed during the dictatorial regime of Park Chung-hee. Today South Korea has become much more democratic with significant economic growth. I am not sure that minjung theology is as popular as it once was. Furthermore, the tactics used by minjung theologians, focusing on national political struggle, may not be adequate to fight against Empire.

We will need a more globalized minjung theology, which can speak to the issues of our time. This minjung theology must be transnational, heterogeneous, fluid, and responsive to local needs and issues. This cannot be written by the elites alone, but must be a participatory theological movement from the bottom-up.

I wonder why did Jesus attract great crowds following him? What did they see in the promise of Jesus? Why do the churches not attracting the multitude today?