Monday, December 26, 2011

A New Wave of Scholarship

I came to the United States in 1984 to begin my doctoral studies at Harvard Divinity School. It was an exciting time to do feminist theology and religious studies. Womanist ethics just began to emerge, as Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon had just completed a dissertation on the subject at Union Theological Seminary in 1983. I count it as a blessing that she was teaching at the Episcopal Divinity School, on the other side of the Cambridge Common.

The mid-1980s saw the paradigm shifts in feminist studies in religion, as womanist, mujerista/Latina, Asian and Asian American women began to articulate their own theological understanding. If Womanspirit Rising (1979) was a reference text for our field, which contains essays by white women, we had the first reader by radical women of color, This Bridge Called Our Back (1981).

We began to discuss multiple oppressions and multiple identities, and the need to integrate race, class, and gender into our analyses. We challenged white women who have universalized their middle-class, white experience as if women are all the same.

In the past several years, I participated in a group investigating the intersections among race, sexuality, and postcoloniality, since we were using critical race theory, queer studies, and postcolonial theory in our work. We wanted to see what are the commonalities and differences if we looked at the intersections through different racial lenses, sexual practices, and (post)colonial experiences.

I am glad to see many new works have been published that push us to see the intersections in radically new ways. The subtitle of Strange Affinities is worth paying attention to: “The Gender and Sexual Politics of Comparative Racialization.” The cutting-edge essays explore the production of racialized, genderized, and sexualized difference, and the possibilities for progressive coalitions or the “strange affinities.” Even the headings of the different sections make me think, “alternative identifications,” “undisciplined knowledges,” and “unincorporated territories, interrupted times.”

If you are one of those who think psychoanalysis is nothing more than a mind trick of middle-class Europeans, think again. Unconscious Dominions says, “By the 1920s, psychoanalysis was a technology of both the late-colonial state and anti-imperialism.” In Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism, Ranjana Khanna reveals “the psychical strife of colonial and postcolonial modernity.” The collection of essays in Unconscious Dominions pushes the envelope even further, with the ambitious subtitle “Psychoanalysis, Colonial Trauma, and Global Sovereignties.” The contributions touch on French West Africa, Algeria, Australian aborigine, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Haiti. It is nothing less than “psychoanalysis writing back.”

If you are puzzled by why the police and officials used so much force to harass and arrest the peaceful Occupiers, Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the US State will offer you much food for thought. Chandan Reddy examines “a crucial contradiction at the heart of modernity: the nation-state’s claim to provide freedom from violence depends on its systematic deployment of violence against peoples perceived as nonnormative and irrational.” Remember that Newt Gingrich told the Occupiers to “go get a job right after you take a bath”?

If I belong to the generation that has pushed against the boundary of the white canon and scholarship, I see a new wave of scholarship is on the horizon. This new wave radically interrogates assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, culture, national citizenship, global sovereignty and global futures. Brilliant and groundbreaking, these new works stretch our static concepts and methods, introduce the new vocabularies of globalized unconscious and fragmentation of sovereignties, and investigate the connection between violence and social formations of difference. It theorizes the nation and the global in ways much more sophistically than what our generation has done.

There is a time lag between religious scholarship and scholarship in other disciplines, usually about 10-15 years. Edward W. Said published Orientalism in 1978, and the first essay on postcolonial biblical criticism by R. S. Sugirtharajah was not published until 1994. The first book on postcolonial theology appeared in 2004.

I sincerely hope that the upcoming generation of religious scholars will catch up sooner and engage with this new wave of scholarship in earnest. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jesus Would Have Been Born in the Camp

Occupy Wall Street. Occupy London. Occupy Harvard. Occupy your school. Occupy your office. Occupy everything.

Occupy Christmas? Yes, Jesus would have been born in the camp.

On October 27, the Rev. Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, spoke about his resignation because of his objection to the use of force to evict the protesters of Occupy London Stock Exchange, who have camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

He said, “What the camp does is challenge the church with the problem of the incarnation – that you have God who is grand and almighty, who gets born in a stable. St Paul was a tent maker. If you tried to recreate where Jesus would have been born, for me I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.”

Even if Jesus was not born in the camp, he would certainly join the Occupy movement, for he was part of Occupy the Temple of his day.


Jesus and the Disciples in an Occupy Drum Circle by Sudeep Johnson
When I saw this picture with the article on The Huffington Post, I began to laugh. Yes, Jesus and the moneychangers. How could we have forgotten?

Don’t the conservatives always ask, “What would Jesus do?” Tell them, Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and drove them from sacred ground. As Richard Eskow said, “It’s hard to describe Jesus’ action against the moneychangers in today’s terms without calling it ‘Occupy the Temple.’”

Now the police and officials have raided the tent-cities in the U.S. The once vibrant encampment at Dewey Square in Boston is no more. When you pass through it today, the ground has been resodded and you would have not guessed that some 100 tents were there just over two weeks ago.

So this is it? Not quite.

I went to the general assembly at the Boston Common the night after the campsite was raided at 5 a.m. on December 10 to support the Occupiers. The Dewey Square camp was the longest continuous campsite in the U.S.—for 72 days. It was a peaceful demonstration and yet the authorities would not allow it to continue. 

But the Occupy movement was never about seizing public lands and establishing tent-cities. In this new Occupy 2.0, the movement depends on community and grassroots support. In Boston, St. Paul’s Cathedral was the first to open their sanctuary for the Occupiers to meet on December 13. Dean Jep Streit said that the church is not taking sides, but wants to provide a space for the important conversations for economic justice to continue.

In England, Occupy London Stock Exchange continues to camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. They will remain there until January 11, 2012, when the High Court makes its decision on eviction. The camp now has about 150 tents.

Asked in Radio Times what Jesus would do in response to the Occupy group, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said he would be there “sharing the risks, asking the long and hard questions.”

At the Christ Church Cathedral at St. Louis, Missouri, the Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, USA, also made connection between Jesus and the Occupy movement. She said in her sermon “I am profoundly struck, however, by the parallels between the Occupy movement and Jesus’ band of homeless wanderers. . . The Occupiers have shared food, cared for each other, and challenged the rest of us about justice in the size of paychecks.  Now those who have been evicted are struggling with how to continue their global demonstration.”

Churches in the U.S. have long been involved in social movements: anti-slavery, temperance, women’s liberation, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender liberation. On this Christmas day, I hope churches will provide hospitality for this movement to continue.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Postcolonial Theory and Newt

Who says that postcolonial theory is too difficult and abstract, and can only be discussed among the academics in their ivory tower?

No, it is discussed on the pages of the New York Times, in the heat of presidential politics. By whom? By the witty, irreverent, and red-hair op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd.

The same Maureen Dowd who wrote about the spellbound love story of Patti Smith, the volatility of Steve Jobs, and the sexual abuse at Penn State?

It is sometimes easy to forget that she was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize on commentary, and has been a White House correspondent and covered four presidential campaigns. She is so smart and covers much more than politics.

She knows Newt, in depth. Many of us know that Newt Gingrich, the frontrunner in the GOP presidential contest, is a historian—a pricey one at that. He charges about $1.6 million from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for consultation fee as a “historian.” The American Historical Association should crown him its Patron Saint or give him a Life Achievement Award.

Well, what does the professor write on? Novels and serious non-fictions. But he cut his teeth as a historian writing on Africa. On Congo to be precise. His dissertation at Tulane University submitted in 1971 was entitled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960.”

I am one of those busy academics who have heard about this, but have not actually read it. But Dowd told us what Newt wrote in “Out of Africa into Iowa.” Newt said that colonialism under Belgium was both good and bad. Until the Congolese had been educated enough by the colonizers, they were not ready to rule themselves. He also said that we should not “generalize” white exploitation.

Newt is not the only historian defending colonialism. The British historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson is another one. In Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, he states that colonialism is a benign form of global government. The British Empire collapsed not because of decades of struggles of colonized people, but because of the overreach of the Empire. He bemoans the fact that the U.S. is not prepared to take up the mantle and finish what the British Empire has started.

Now back to Newt. Congo is a country that captivates all postcolonials. Why, because Joseph Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness, based on Congo. Edward W. Said has written about the novella again and again. Did Conrad try to contrast the darkness of the continent with the “light of civilization?” Or did he try to demonstrate the brutality of the Belgian colonial regime and the self-doubt of Marlow? Where can we locate the “darkness”—in the natives or in the hearts of the colonizers?

As a historian, Newt fails repeatedly to read the signs of the time. At the height of the civil rights and Black Power movement and global protest in 1971, he sided with the colonizers. In 2011, forty years later, the former professor has not become wiser. At the height of the Occupy movement, he said that the poor people are poor because they are lazy. He said we should abolish children labor laws so that the poor kids can work as janitors. He sides with the 1 percent.

Newt, the 99 percent are not stupid. They are the ones who will decide whether you can become the president or not.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said George Santayana. If the American people did not know the true color of Newt the first time he was around, they should know it by now. Otherwise, God save America.