(MintPress)—“I am worried about my future,” said Jessica Lange, a bright-eyed blonde sophomore pursuing a pre-law degree at Hamline University, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Lange, who aspires to go on to law school after graduating, wonders if she’ll be able to do so. Lange admitted she is worried about paying […]
(MintPress)—“I am worried about my future,” said Jessica Lange, a bright-eyed blonde sophomore pursuing a pre-law degree at Hamline University, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Lange, who aspires to go on to law school after graduating, wonders if she’ll be able to do so. Lange admitted she is worried about paying for her education, the job market in the US, what her prospects for employment will be for the future, and whether or not she will go on to graduate school.
“The thought of the debt I’m in stresses me out daily,” she said. At Hamline, the cost of attendance for undergraduates in just over $31,000 per year, while the average student graduate with just over $36,000 in debt in 2010. Nationally for 2010 the average amount of student debt was $25, 250.
On Friday, Lange, who is also taking a religion course this semester, attended a presentation by famed theologian and activist Joerg Rieger, entitled “Occupy Wall Street and Everything Else: Lessons for the Study and Practice of Religion”.
The presentation was sponsored by the university’s Religion department, which is where Lange found out about the event.
The connection between Occupy and Religion
So, what’s religion got to do with Occupy? And, why has a world-famous theologian taken up the topic, touring the nation and speaking out on the connections between the two?
Dr. Joerg Rieger, a professor of constructive theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, who has authored over a dozen books, many which discuss economics and labor-issues in connection with theology, says there are many intersections between the questions asked by theologians and those being asked by the Occupy movement.
Theologian talks Occupy
Rieger, who currently resides in Texas, grew up in Germany, moved to the US over two decades ago, where he received his Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Duke University. Rieger became aware of issues of racial discrimination and economic injustice and of how church and theology were complicit in those issues, and has dedicated his life to thinking through these issues. His website says his theology has been “hammered out on the anvil of resistance to contemporary struggles for power and domination, set before the backdrop of the conservative worlds of the south, both in Germany and the United States, with the intention of providing genuine alternatives.”
“Despite a seemingly never-ending stream of detractors who claim that the message and the goals of the Occupy Wall Street Movement are not clear, there is nothing unclear about the observation of a fundamental tension between the one percent and ninety-nine percent,” Rieger wrote in a recent article published in the January 2012 edition of the Peace Studies Journal.
The article was authored after Rieger attended a meeting of the American Association of Religion, a scholarly guild which boasts over 10,000 members teaching in over 1,000 colleges and universities in the US. The groups mission statement reads “In a world where religion plays so central a role in social, political, and economic events, as well as in the lives of communities and individuals, there is a critical need for ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values. The American Academy of Religion’s mission is to promote such reflection through excellence in scholarship and teaching in the field of religion.” This type of scholarly inquiry into real world events strikes right at the hear of Rieger’s thesis.
Rieger was recruited by a group of graduate students to present at a program during the conference called “Occupy Religion”. Rieger says that there is a strong connection between the values of Occupy and the purpose of higher education. “Don’t think of Occupy simply as a place of activism,” he warns, “it is a place for imagination and a place for serious reflection.” He is now currently working on a book on Occupy and Religion with Dr. Kwok Pui Lan. an internationally known scholar and a pioneer in Asian feminist theology.
Rieger says that class struggle has gone on through all of human history, and one can even find evidence of this in Judeo-Christian texts. For Rieger, a Liberation Theologian, Occupy presents an opportunity to have discourse around important issues like income disparity and the capitalist structure. “There are ways of doing better within capitalism that we’re not exploring,” he says, noting that in some of the research he has done previously he found in surveying Christians that is is easier for many of them to imagine the end of the world, in a firey apocalyptic scene, than the end of capitalism as we know it.
God – the CEO with an iron fist?
As a theologian in the US, Rieger says he finds very troubling certain images of the divine. For many religious Americans Rieger says “God is like a CEO with an iron fist, who rules from the top down, in a very non-democratic way.” What Occupy does, according to Rieger, is to open up discussion around this image, and allow people to ask, “what would be other ways of looking at God?”
The relationship between Occupy and religions is not something invented by Rieger, however, as prayer/meditation groups, Bible studies and even multi-faith worship spaces have been noted at many of the camp sites across the nation for some time. And many Muslims see the message of social justice, a key tenant within the faith of Islam, as resonating in Occupy Wall Street, according to a recent report from the Associated Press. Last October in New York’s Zuccotti Park, Muslims staged a prayer rally on a Friday, a holy day for Muslims.
“Occupy is not something falling from the sky, but it stands on the shoulders of the abolitionist, labor, civil rights and women’s suffrage movements in the US,” Reiger says, mentioning that social changes has only happened in the US through grass-roots efforts, rights have never been won – for slaves, women or laborers, be a benevolent dictator. Change has only ever come through struggle.
Rieger also noted that one of the charges against the Occupy movement has been that it is an elitist movement – one by and for predominantly white, young, middle-class people. This simply isn’t true, as evidenced by those within the movement who have said that is drawing diverse participants around a variety of issues.
“Someone has an interest in racism. …Whites, Hispanics, Latinos – someone doesn’t want them to identify with one another.” Rieger said that in his own work around issues of economic disparity, he has received threats, and once an anonymous letter was sent to the Dean of his program in Texas, calling him “Rieger the white nigger” and demanding that he and others discontinue their work around issues of poverty and injustice.
The dangers of discussing inequality
Speaking out against economic injustice can be dangerous, Rieger points out, referencing that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faced some of the most harsh criticism and even lost his life after organizing not around racial, but economic issues. On April 3, 1968, King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, delivering his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a packed room of supporters. The next day, he was assassinated.
But it is important to look at these types of issues. “Occupy is touching on something we need to address more in society – the basic dichotomy between the one and the 99 percent,” Rieger noted, “we are finding ourselves in a class struggle. The one percent is something we’ve never talked about.”
Many of the issues Occupy has brought to light – class struggle, growing individual debt, rising unemployment, homelessness, greater income disparity, racism, classism, sexism – are not new issues, but have been discussed in the US for some time, but the Occupy movement is bringing discourse around these issues, Rieger says, “the real questions is how all of these issues tie together.”