Magazine article The Christian Century

Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude

Magazine article The Christian Century

Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude

Article excerpt

Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude By Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan Rowman and Littlefield, 164 pp., $39.00

It is easy to conclude that the Occupy movement was a flash in the pan, enacted by disgruntled people without a plan or staying power, a passing whim to be forgotten. This book insists otherwise. Its authors are peculiarly equipped to make the argument. Joerg Rieger, professor of theology at Southern Methodist University, has produced a series of important studies on the role of empire in the imagination and interpretation of the Western theological tradition. Kwok Pui-lan, professor of theology and spirituality at Episcopal Divinity School, is at the forefront of a postcolonial hermeneutics that both exposes the hegemony of empire and thinks outside that hegemony for alternative possibilities. These authors are of immense importance and are not as well known as they deserve to be.

Two political theorists, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, have produced a series of very serious books on the current political environment on a global scale. In 2000 they published Empire, a study of the hegemony of imperial ideology. As a counterpoint, in 2005 they published Multitude: War and

Democracy in the Age of Empire. These two massive studies together offer a map of social power and social possibility. It is easy to transpose the juxtaposition of the empire and the multitude onto the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Hardt and Negri present people's action as a counterforce to empire for the sake of democracy.

I linger over Hardt and Negri because Rieger and Kwok have taken up their argument, as is indicated in their book's subtitle, Theology of the Multitude. They use the notion of multitude to refer to the Occupy movement as a particular instance of a political force outside of and over against the 1 percent of empire. And they take the Occupy movement and its 99 percent as both an embodiment of and a metaphor for the political possibility of a democratic enterprise.

Rieger and Kwok situate the Occupy movement in a global context and subject the movement and its resisters to acute theological commentary. Their theological appeal is rooted in two terms in the Greek New Testament: ochlos ("mass of people") and laos ("common people"). One can observe empire and multitude in Luke's articulation of a map of contested social power:

Every day [Jesus] was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people (laos) kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people (laos) were spellbound by what they heard. (Luke 19:47-48)

Two accent points in the argument of the book merit sustained attention. First, these authors are clear that the empire-multitude juxtaposition is evidence of a class struggle that reflects an acute social, political and economic dichotomy. They characterize the empire as the "transnational capitalist class" that manages the military, controls natural resources and moves money around with ease and agility. The ideology of U.S. exceptionalism serves these powerful elites who stay focused on the control of oil production and protection. The counterpoint is the working class that supplies the cannon fodder and cheap labor that sustains the wealth and ease of the elites. The 1 percent specializes in uniformity of economic theory, uniformity of patriotic mantras and uniformity of religious orthodoxy.

The point about class is important on two counts. First, in "polite society" (meaning the society of the 1 percent) it is impolite and impolitic to introduce the category of class because the 1 percent insists on an ersatz social solidarity that keeps class hidden. But these authors assert: "Class warfare has been waged for a long time, mostly from the top down, against both workers and the middle class."

Also, class awareness that identifies socioeconomic reality would permit and require a very different reading of scripture, which teems, in both testaments, with class reality and class awareness. …

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