September 12, 2013 / Theology
Through the lens of James Baldwin’s black intellectual imagination, Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, becomes a terrifying allegory of white progressive identity in America today.
Joerg Rieger is an internationally recognized activist and scholar who has engaged in questions of liberation, theology, and economics for over twenty years. His visionary work uses tools from cultural studies, critical theory, and religious studies to examine the relationship between theology and public life and to probe misuses of political and economic power. In this interview, Rieger discusses his recently published book on religion and the Occupy movement as well as the theological importance of Karl Marx’s criticisms of capitalism, especially as they help Christians avoid naive idealism, attend to the movement of power from the bottom up, and recognize that issues of production and labor are central to their faith.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In your most recent book, Occupy Religion, why did you write on the Occupy movement and its intersection with religion?1
Joerg Rieger (JR): Everything is always related to religion. That’s something that religious people often overlook. They think of religion as one aspect of life, and they think of a movement like Occupy Wall Street as separate, as something with its own independent beginning, middle, and end. But these movements always have to be seen in relation to other movements—everything is connected. What I found in the Occupy movement was that a lot of Christians—progressive Christians, but also evangelical Christians—felt that the Occupy movement was addressing concerns that were at the heart of their faith, matters of life and death, as it were. And also the themes that the Occupy movement addressed, the particular forms of oppressions it highlighted—the distinction of the 1 percent from the 99 percent—resonate with our faith. As Christians we look at Jesus, and Jesus’s ministry happens within a similar tension between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
TOJ: What was productive about rethinking the Occupy movement religiously and rethinking religion based on what was happening in the Occupy movement?
JR: One thing that Occupy brought to our attention was not simply inequality but also different ways of power. Very often, when we say power, we mean top-down power: the power to control, the power to shape things, the power of the few, the power of the elected and the power of the self-appointed, the power of a corporation, and so on. The Occupy movement questioned these powers, but it also showed another way of power, and that’s what I call bottom-up power. There weren’t strong leaders in the movement, and there was an effort to shape power by way of consensus, to take a look at who had been excluded. Now, oftentimes the people who led the consensus gathering were of a certain privilege, but they made efforts to include people of other classes and they also attempted to be conscious of racial divides and gender issues. Occupy movements, although they were not perfect, tried to build on this bottom-up way of power.
For Christians, this is exactly the way I see Jesus Christ’s power at work in the world. Jesus had the opportunity to claim top-down power—the devil offered it to him on the mountain in one of the temptations, saying basically, “If you worship me, I will give you power over the world” (see Matt. 4:8–10). Jesus refused. His whole life and ministry was spent working with the people, building power from the bottom up. Theologically, I think this is the most interesting thing for us as people of faith. Could we imagine God in that way? That’s the question.
TOJ: In the United States the specter of Karl Marx seems to loom over any critique of capitalism, whether yours or that of the Occupy movement itself. Within many Christian circles, it’s automatically assumed that Marx was doubly wrong. He was wrong because communism was an obvious failure and he was wrong, for religious people, because he was an atheist, because of his famous quip that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” So why should Christians read Marx? Should they engage with Marx or Marxist writers today? What would be the point of that kind of work?
JR: First of all, we’re quick to point out that some forms of communism have failed, but I think the more interesting question is this: Is there anything about our forms of capitalism that seem problematic? And yes, they have caused a lot of suffering. They have done damage to many people and to the environment. So for those of us in the United States, I think our first question should not be about Marx and communism but about capitalism.
The problem I see with that discourse, though, is that lots of people who criticize capitalism do so moralistically. They think that capitalism is always wrong or that we should be opposed to it, but they don’t acknowledge that for most of us capitalism is just the world in which we live. It’s our reality. And so it’s not helpful to complain or moralize about it; it’s more helpful to assess what’s going on, to assess why some things are not going well. In that discourse, we need to use all our available tools, and one of them, I think, is Marx’s analysis of capitalism. It’s always been surprising to me that people in the Western world are so quick to dismiss it, because Marxism holds up a mirror; it helps us understand some of the things that are troublesome about our society.
Another problem with these kinds of conversations is that people tend to talk about capitalism in general terms, whereas it would be more helpful to talk about how it directly shapes our world and our current situations. The same thing is true when speaking of atheism and religion: we need to stop talking about it in general terms and to instead ask what kind of religion might be a problem. And here I think Marx has some insights. These are not just insights for nonreligious people from the outside, but some of them are valuable from the inside.
Throughout the centuries theologians have criticized the church: Martin Luther felt the church was apostate, that it had basically forgotten about the true God. John Wesley felt the same way. In one of his journal entries—May 21, 1764—Wesley said, “Religion must not go ‘from the greatest to the least,’ or the power ‘would appear to be of men.’”2 These are insights that resonate with Marxist observations on religion. There is a religion that goes from the greatest to the least, from the top down, and it very often creates images of God after its own image, projecting images that may have very little to do with the real God, the God of life, in whom people of faith believe. The critique of religion at that point is not to do away with religion, but to figure out what distorted forms of religion are pushing us and shaping us without our knowing.
There’s one more point about atheism. In the Roman Empire, Roman philosophers accused the early Christians of being atheists. The God that these early Christians worshipped was not recognizable to the empire; this God was not among the gods of the empire. The Romans were religiously pluralistic—they were happy to recognize other gods, as long as they were gods of top-down power, the gods of the empire’s power and not the gods of the people. And so Christians had a God that was very different, a God who was crucified, a God who cared about the good of the people, who offered them justice and justification. The Romans didn’t think that was a valid religion or theism, so they called them atheists. Thus, there is an atheist accusation of Christianity that really helps us understand who we are as Christians. If Christians oppose certain images of God—the images created by the rulers—they’re able perhaps to move closer to the real God.
TOJ: Fredric Jameson points out that we need to simultaneously consider the ways capitalism productively mobilizes forces as well as, on the other side, the ways it produces absolute devastation and suffering. Could you say more about how you see that kind of dialectical tension operating in this current moment and how people of faith or without it—like with the Occupy movement—can push the system into something different?
JR: In our situation, and for people generally labeled “progressives,” I think the biggest problem is the moralistic critique of capitalism that simply rejects it, that simply wants to put it down. If we were actually paying attention to what Marx said or what he as trying to accomplish, that was not his concern. It was not a matter of putting down capitalism or rejecting it or saying we have to move outside of it. It was a matter of acknowledging what it was able to do, appreciating some of its accomplishments but also saying that there are some critical points where we have to think about the world differently. We must begin by thinking of the many good things that capitalism has accomplished. Marx, for example, understands that we don’t have to tear everything down; instead, we might use it in a way that’s more accessible to more people, more valuable to all of us.
Take modern medicine, for instance: we have to be grateful for medicine, for people working on cures or treatments for cancer. The problem, of course, is that in a capitalist world these medical achievements get used in a very narrow fashion; only a very few people have access to them. If we were to make these wonderful achievements available for more and more people, that could be very helpful. Spreading the benefits of such achievements would occur not out of a rejection of capitalism and modern medicine; it would occur by appropriating the benefits of capitalism. That, to me, is the real issue at the core of this discussion: rather than radically rejecting capitalism, it’s a matter of acknowledging our indebtedness and appreciating some aspects of it.
And then we ask the question: what could we do to make these things more widely useful and accessible; how could they then be appropriated? This thing cannot be done from the top down. A lot of things in capitalism have been built from the top down, as it were. Now we have to ask the question: how can the 99 percent (to use the Occupy movement’s language) help us to broaden things? Because—and this was the other thing Marx found—the accomplishments of capitalism (although a lot of that was organized from the top down) have ultimately been built by the people all along. Workers had a much more important role than we ever realized. We think of workers that do a job from nine to five, get a salary, and go back home. In terms of the production, in terms of who built this country, who built our achievements, who built modern medicine, who built our universities, very often we have to look back to what working people do.
TOJ: Your book’s subtitle is Theology of the Multitude, and one of the frequent criticisms of Marxism is that it doesn’t attend to the identity of politics and how issues of race, gender, and heterosexism are operating to further systems of domination. Is this class-focused analysis just an outdated, Eurocentric, heterosexual, white, male kind of political approach? How have you seen it at work in building coalitions across divides, whether in your writing, teaching, or political activism?
JR: If you think about how this bottom-up power manifests itself, the good news is that we don’t have to produce it; it’s always already there. The good news for people of faith is that God’s movements from the bottom up are also already there, so this is not something we have to prevent or we have to produce; we just have to pay attention. That’s the first thing I want to say here. Marx paid attention to a particular bottom-up movement in his own time. When he talked about the working class, this wasn’t something that he produced. It was not Marx’s prescription that workers have to do something; it was his observation of what was going on and then his interest in helping to organize that movement.
And here I see something in the Occupy movement: there are younger people looking at issues of work and labor but also at related issues of race, class, gender, sexuality. More of that could be done, but this is how it happens. It’s not somebody making a prescription. It’s the movements themselves and us paying attention to them. Important here is not Marx, or whatever he said, but that he helped us to look at the movements. For us, then, the next questions are what are these movements doing and how are they working together?
I’m involved in a national organization called Jobs for Justice. We have a chapter in Dallas that brings together working people that are often not organized by unions—immigrants, women, service workers, construction workers—and these workers talk about everything that is happening to them. This isn’t a generic or abstract group of working people; it’s a group of people with a variety of races, genders, ethnicities, and multicultural issues, and all of that comes together in a bottom-up movement. And these kinds of movements are at their best and their most creative when they are mindful of these diversities. The leadership in these groups is often exercised by women, many of whom are immigrants from Central America or from Asia. They are not simply the clients that we help; they are the ones actually doing the helping. They are the ones who are doing something to change the world. They are organizing, they are raising these issues, and they are raising the awareness of everybody else. And when people of faith work together with these groups, they realize how vibrant and how creative this bottom-up power really is; they begin to realize how this is really the place where God is at work. That is the amazing insight for me, as a theologian, not just to see social movements generated, but to see God at work in the way that you can see God at work in the Bible, all the way back to Moses and the burning bush.
TOJ: Could you talk about how that is playing out in your current research?
JR: I edited an in-press volume called Religion, Theology, and Class that’s by an international group of scholars, about ten of us, who are looking at the notion of class.3 In the United States we are very hesitant to talk about class because most people feel we are a classless society or because people feel that it is useless to talk about class given that we think everyone is in the middle class.
But even when people talk about class in the United States, they talk about class as stratification, as three or more different strata that are generally defined by income level. What the model of stratification lacks is the question of relationship. The classes are dealt with in isolation from each other, as independent strata. In contrast, Marx believes that classes are related to each other: we have to talk about the working class in relation to the ruling class, in relation to what might then be called the middle class. The question is not how they shape up independently, as distinct strata, but how they are related to each other and produce each other. That sounds like a very Marxist question, but it strikes me as common sense, because we live in the same world, we live in the same country, and we cannot look at each other in isolation. I think any common sense argument would understand that first.
This relates to my work on religion because relationships are at the core of any religion—the etymology of the word is “tying together” or “linking together.” Religions are interested not in denying class or in thinking about stratification but in relationship. And then, if we take one step further, in Christianity we have Jesus’s own ongoing concern for the poor. This is not something I’m making up. It is there in the Gospels. Scholars have found that there are at least two thousand references to poverty and justice in the Bible, many more than to sexuality or all the other issues we like to talk about. So then, when Jesus talks about the poor, he also talks about the poor in relation to the rest of the world, particularly to the rich. Thus, for me, this kind of approach to class can learn something from how Marx analyzed classes, but it really takes us back to something that is at the very core of our Christian conviction.
And my next book grows out of my own involvement in religion and labor, two issues that I do not think can be separated. If you think back in our Jewish heritage, God is always at work in a working person. In the book of Genesis, God makes Adam out of clay. God doesn’t tell a worker to make Adam out of clay and give the orders; God’s self does this. God’s hands, so to speak, get dirty. And as everyone knows, Jesus was born into a working family. We’d call Joseph a construction worker today. This word we often translate as carpenter is construction worker, probably a day laborer. So the labor issue is very much a part of our Christian traditions. Unfortunately, we think of religion, particularly Christianity, mostly in terms of leisure: Sunday mornings, evening meals, and meetings outside of our regular work schedule. But what happens when we bring these things back together again? The main point of my book is that we can learn something from looking other directions. We can learn something about Christianity and other religious traditions by looking from the perspective of labor, which includes organizing labor, the plight of workers, and the treatment of workers. We can also learn something about labor by really going to the depths of our religious traditions. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is a strong concern for the fair treatment of workers. But way beyond that, there is a concern for appreciating the positive contributions that workers can make. This is back to the bottom of power, understanding that this world is built in so many ways form the bottom up, rather than the top down.
TOJ: Given what you’ve said, we know you are not interested in giving a moralizing critique. It seems like you are trying to undercut the divisions between labor and religion and between labor and leisure, the divisions we establish as we organize our lives.
JR: It is a new way of appreciating labor. Labor is what people do. And that means that it is not just a necessity but that it is something much bigger than us. For people of religion, it would mean that we have to see God involved. God is laboring alongside us, with us. The relation of this discussion to Marx at this point is to not only attend to his critique of capitalism but also to consider his positive emphasis on the contributions made by the working class and the real potential for transformation. That’s an entirely different discussion than the one we are normally having. Normally we are talking about distribution, the fairness of distribution, and who gets paid what. We are not talking about production. I talk about this in one of my earlier books, No Rising Tide, where I say we have to shift the discussion to production because then we will be talking about the value of what it is that people are doing, how we are valuing that as a society.4 And then, from there, you can ask questions about how people are compensated, for instance, but in a way that takes the question beyond a simple discussion of a minimum wage or even a living wage. These questions lead to the question of how much of a positive contribution a working person makes to society and whether we should reimburse them accordingly. Is it possible that someone can work five hundred times harder than somebody else and be compensated five hundred times more? That is not a negative argument based on distribution; it’s based on production—who makes what based on their contribution? And then we can revalue labor in a positive way. Keep in mind, we are spending most of our waking hours at work. It’s not like labor is a minor issue that we have to address at some point—it’s really the single biggest issue in our lives.
TOJ: I think that when a lot of people think of God and economy, as you mentioned, they think of these matters in terms of distribution: an economy of abundance versus scarcity, an economy of gift versus debt. It sounds like you want to us to start our thinking with production and labor. Can you say more?
JR: I think this is a fresh way of looking at it because so many theologians who talk about theology and economics have talked about abundance and are still talking about abundance, and so few of us are talking about production. Shifting our thinking in this way would make us take labor and working people more seriously. This is a major shift, but it is not a shift that I’m inventing; this is a shift that I find in many of our religious traditions.
Abundance is a biblical theme; it is not something that is unimportant. Psalm 23:1 says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (NRSV), and there are themes in Christian theology throughout the ages that talk about abundance. But what is missing from most of these conversations is the question of labor, and this has led to the paradox that for years we have had conversations on theology and economics (and I have added to that with a book of my own), but we really haven’t had a conversation on religion and labor. There are some organizations that work with religion and labor—like Interfaith Worker Justice or Clergy and Laity United—but they don’t necessarily do that with a lot of theology, and so we don’t really have that next level of discussion.
What it amounts to is that although they are not aiming to proceed from a top-down perspective, a lot of the discussions about abundance end up there because this is the dominant paradigm: it has the notion of somebody providing abundance from what is, ultimately, the top, rather than something that is achieved through labor.
TOJ: It’s a gift.
JR: It’s a gift that comes to you from the outside, most likely from the top down. How do you rethink that? By looking at labor. There’s a whole group now—John Milbank, Douglas Meeks, Daniel Bell—who talk about the gift, and then some philosophers too, like Jacques Derrida and others. By not talking about labor, I think they really miss a huge opportunity to talk about how God is actually at work. If there is a gift, which I do not necessarily want to deny, how is that gift produced? Who makes it happen? Where does it come from? Is it just dropped into our lap or is somebody involved in producing it? At that point production becomes important again because we are talking about a creative activity, a positive activity; we’re talking about the difference people are making. And we are talking about how production these days is undervalued, underappreciated, and hampered. Then the issue of organizing labor, fighting some of labor’s battles, becomes much deeper than just asking how much money people make. We need to look at how their contributions ultimately feed back into the contributions God is making to this world.
I definitely want to talk about God but in a much more embodied and concrete sense. We can now talk about God at work here and in very specific forms. I think this is what the other models that we’re seeing these days are not doing for us. It becomes a little bit of wishful thinking, which leads us back to Marx, one more time. Marx understood the huge difference between idealism and materialism. Idealism is wishful thinking where you have great dreams and assume this will transform your world. Materialism for Marx is not a narrow thing that has only to do with matter; it is a reminder to idealists (and I think that includes a lot of religious people) that material processes in the world really matter and that they shape not only how we live our lives but how we think: our faith, our images of God. Where he’s getting that from, that could be a long discussion, but for Jews and Christians, if you simply read the Hebrew Bible, you get that materialist perspective. There are very few references to salvation as life after death or salvation as a dream world; salvation is always concrete, here and now, in the midst of real life; and it is produced. It is produced by identifiable people who do the work, and often these people are the least of these.
The above interview was released in the aftermath of the troubling verdict out of Florida regarding the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin (though the interview was conducted beforehand). This verdict reaffirms that although black life is subjected to the law, it is not protected by the law, or, to use the name of the infamous law, that stand your ground has a racialized and gendered correlate: stay in your place. In our conversation about economics, power, and faith, we did not focus on this problematic, though it is, I think, quite relevant. One cannot separate the criminalization of black life, especially for young black men, from the questions of class and power. It was, after all, in defense of private property and a gated townhouse community that Zimmerman initially stalked and confronted Trayvon Martin.
When Michel Foucault theorized the “disciplines” as a complex deployment and configuration of power through surveillance (and its internalization, that is, our own self-monitoring), he considered them in relation to two primary concerns: forging useful and docile bodies. These disciplinary powers, he suggested, were then no longer linked only to the individual body but also to the health of the entire species. It is worth quoting Foucault at length regarding these two poles of power:
One of these poles—the first to be formed, it seems—centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.”5
Foucault argues that the body as a machine is the body responsive to the demands of labor under the ever-changing forms of capitalism. Biopower is the self-affirmation of the bourgeois class regarding its role as exemplifying and maintaining healthy human life. That is, for the ruling class, the lives to be observed, regulated, secured, prolonged, and legally protected are the lives of those who are adjusted (docile) and valuable (useful) to the demands of labor in capitalism. As a young, black man, Trayvon Martin was a priori excluded from this life—he was burdened with what Foucault calls delinquency: a perceived social threat stemming not from specific actions but from a particular (form of) life itself. The minds and bodies of the so-called delinquents are considered improperly normalized, improperly lacking in utility and docility. Delinquency is therefore not a judgment of the law (against particular acts) but, rather, a kind of criminality apart from or before the law. It is a mode or form of life that is, in itself, considered a social threat. Accordingly, this life receives no protection by the law but is instead, in its entirety, subjected to heightened concern and surveillance and, if necessary, outright exclusion.
In speaking with Joerg Rieger about the intersection of religion and various kinds of power, it seems that this interview, in its own indirect way, is relevant to the ongoing conversation and action regarding racism in the United States. To me it seems clear that the urgent and necessary work of fighting the criminalization of black life demands an attack on the very structure of delinquency itself. To that end, the political function and utility of the very idea of delinquency has to be understood, and fought against, as part of a whole racialized and sexualized division of labor and organization of bodies. And finally, as the interview stresses, this critical effort must proceed not by reforming from the top down but by the reconfiguration of bodies and spaces from below, as they deploy their own forms of power, which they are already doing.
1. Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
2. Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1958), 178.
3. Rieger, ed., Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
4. Rieger, No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009).
5. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol, 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990), 139; italics in the original. For the account of delinquency developed below, see Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: Random House, 1977), especially Part IV.
Joerg Rieger is the Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Rieger’s most recent books include Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (2012, with Kwok Pui Lan), Traveling (2011), Grace under Pressure (2011), Globalization and Theology (2010), and No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (2009). For more of his work, see his website, www.joergrieger.com.
Timothy McGee is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Southern Methodist University. He, his wife, and his two daughters are members of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas.