Saturday, April 14, 2012

Occupy Religion

One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Altar@ Occupy Wall Street
Joerg Rieger and I are coauthoring a book entitled Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude to be published in the fall.

It began as a conversation we had at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in San Francisco last November. As the protesters established their camps in different American cities last fall, some students in the divinity schools began to plan for “Occupy @ AAR/SBL.”

The students organized two panels and asked scholars and activists who have participated in the Occupy movement to share their experiences and to reflect on the significance of the movement. Rita Nakashima Brock, a leading Asian American theologian and director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, helped to organize a public demonstration in support of the local Occupy movement.

Joerg Rieger was invited to speak at one of the panels and we decided to collaborate on a book on the Occupy movement. We are two theologians from different cultural backgrounds, who have participated in social movements in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. Rieger grew up in the southern part of Germany and I was born and raised in the former British colony of Hong Kong.

The term “occupy” has many meanings in the Occupy movement. Occupy religion does not mean the use of force or other means to take over religious institutions, holy sites, worshipping spaces, or religious goods. It is the envisioning of a democratic and participatory space for religious life and the engagement of concrete actions to make this a reality.

The writings of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri popularize the concept of “multitude,” a political subject who rises up against the decentralized and all-pervasive Empire of our time. The idea also finds resonances in the biblical term ochlos, the Greek term that means the crowd or mass of people. In the Gospels and Acts, this term appears numerous times. The crowd followed Jesus from place to place. They gathered around him, listened to his parables and teaching, and witnessed his miracles and healing.

I had the opportunity to share the methodologies and ideas of the book with the students at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and the Academy of Religion. The students were particularly interested in the crowdsourcing method we use in the book. In addition to literature review, interviews, participant observation, we have turned to the Internet and social networks to solicit ideas, concepts, and useful Web resources for our book. We heard from international friends, former students, and colleagues from different parts of the world.

At Wooster, the international students asked questions about how the idea of “occupy religion” can be applicable to different religious traditions in cross-cultural contexts. A Myanmar student noted that religion has not always been a source of compassion and justice, but has been a major cause of intolerance and conflicts. These questions prompted me to think more deeply about interreligious dialogue and relations from a global perspective.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunities to speak to college students and hear their concerns. As the Net generation, they are the most globally aware generation in history. For as digital natives, they have not known a world without the Internet, instant messaging, MP3, etc. when they grew up. They can access information and knowledge about the world instantaneously using their mobile devices, which many carry all the time.

They will live in an increasingly multipolar world, in which the U.S. has to negotiate power with other nations and peoples, and will not be able to exert unilateral, hegemonic power as before. The Occupy movement has captured the imagination of young people across the globe. The future belongs to them. They give us hope for they have helped to create a space for the multitude to gather and imagine that another world is possible.