Theological Dream, Theological Nightmare

This past Columbus Day, I had the privilege of gathering with hundreds of students from different local colleges and universities on the Common for an Occupy Boston Rally that kicked off a community march through the city. Flipping through photographs of the event, I notice a student who I don’t recognize holding up a sign that reads, “AMERICAN DREAM?? AMERICAN NIGHTMARE!!” Its presentation is simple and unadorned; the words are scrawled in black ink on a torn-edged square of brown cardboard. He stands out from the images because his arm doesn’t tire. As I flip through different angles and perspectives of the gathering at the gazebo, I see his red-sleeved arm, elbow bent, holding his sign up above the growing crowd.

As the Occupy movement continues to gain steam and to call attention to the contemporary conditions of human life, editorials, articles and reviews increasingly draw attention to misplaced hope in the “American Dream”—the idea that all Americans are offered the gift of equal opportunity for social and economic success. The torn-edged cardboard sign reflects one student’s outrage at the national myth’s blindness to systemic selection and oppression. While those issues are not new to those of us partial to liberation theology, the Occupy movements might still renew theological vocations of preaching, teaching and writing for social change, as we hold tightly to the hope for the full flourishing of all living beings.

But I can’t help but remind myself that although wealth (re)distribution is at the heart of what we’re fighting for, this alone isn’t enough. Reflecting on how deeply rooted the “American Dream” is in American social imaginaries, one realizes that “the market” isn’t simply a place of economic exchange. Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu teaches us that “capital” is not only an economic notion, but also one that is social, cultural, and symbolic. If these interconnected systems of exchange stand or fall together, we have to ask how our patterns of theological production participate in them. I know that as I stand on the lawn fully in support of the Occupy movements, I cannot do so under the illusion that my school and my church are not complicit in the haunting “profitability in the market” mentality.

So as we analyze theological assumptions around these events, offer theological resources for reimagining notions like “economy,” and work to draw attention to lived experiences of the divine amidst social injustice, we remember to interrogate not just our world, but our work, and ourselves.

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