International Conference on Paulo Freire 2016: Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements

I’m at a conference at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at Vancouver organized by my friend and colleague Sam Rocha (UBC). Titled the ‘International Conference on Paulo Freire,’ it has a stellar lineup of philosophers of education and other people who think about pedagogy. I usually treat these as my super-enhanced teaching workshops as I sit and learn from people who think about teaching all day in a way that is philosophically smart. The keynotes are phenomenal – Eduardo Mendieta (Penn State), Deborah Britzman (York), and Eduardo Duarte (Hofstra) – with an undercurrent of theologies of liberation carrying through all the talks and paper sessions.

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I’m happy to also be presenting this afternoon. My paper is titled: ‘Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements.’ Here’s the abstract:

Critics of Anglophone critical pedagogy have suggested that North American readings of the word conscientizaçao in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed tend to reduce the building of a liberating consciousness to a liberal ‘mechanization of Freire’s revolutionary pedagogical proposals’ (Macedo 2000: 24). These critiques also apply to activists attempting to use technical educative approaches for conscientization, mistakenly framing the use of religious overtones in such mechanized pedagogies as liberation theology while foregoing a ‘communion with the people’ that ‘is really human, empathetic, loving, communicative, and humble, in order to be liberating’ (Freire 2000: 171). However, these liberal misreadings of Freire may also be fostering the contemporary phenomenon of ‘occupy’ movements, said to be primal eruptions of a collective consciousness while also failing to actually overturn oppression before their dissipation. My case study is Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), an initiative noted for its Christian leadership that attempted to ‘conscientize’ (as its founder Benny Tai put it) the Hong Kong public through a mechanistic model of civic dialogue and ultimately failed to deliver on its promises of civil disobedience. Instead of stifling activism, the disappointment of OCLP arguably generated the protest occupations in 2014 known as the ‘Umbrella Movement,’ said to be a primal (and theological) explosion of the Hong Kong populace’s discontent with oligarchic oppression, but which ultimately met its demise due to internal dissension. I argue that OCLP’s misappropriation of conscientization as a liberal mechanistic pedagogy generated an ‘occupy’ movement that externalized the primal unconscious of the oppressed without a cognate sense of solidarity derived from the communion for which Freire actually calls. Contemporary ‘occupy’ movements may thus manifest incomplete processes of conscientization due to mechanistic readings of Freire leading to activist expressions that may even be religious, but are not truly theological in the humanizing tradition of liberation theology. Closely re-receiving Freire’s call to communion may in turn yield pedagogies of the oppressed with more primal depths, perhaps generating the ontological revolutions that can truly negate the oppressions ineffectively protested by contemporary social movements.

I’m looking forward to learning a lot this weekend. I’m also going to attend many of the Spanish- and Portuguese-language sessions, even though I am in no way competent in any of those languages, in order to broaden my horizons. Many thanks, Sam, for letting me play along!

SCMP: Religion on the Occupy Central front line puts faith into practice

Photo: Sam Tsang (SCMP)

I am very grateful for the good work that SCMP journalist Jennifer Ngo has done on religion in the Umbrella Movement protests currently in Hong Kong. She has interviewed an array of religious sources on the Occupy movement. Here were my comments:

Justin Tse, a social geographer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, conducted extensive research on the relationship of Christians to civil disobedience in Hong Kong including the “Umbrella Movement”. He said Christian influence went beyond the initial participation of believers.

“This is not to say that official church institutions are deeply involved,” he wrote in an email. “Instead, what it means is that Hong Kong people have been so deeply influenced by Christianity through a variety of civil society channels – schools, media, social services – that they are able to practice and articulate their activism in Christian terms.”

Calls made by official church bodies may be modest, while individual clergy or parishes showed more support, he said.

Bulletin for the Study of Religion: Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus

I’m happy to announce that the Bulletin for the Study of Religion has published a piece that I recently wrote in a review forum on New Testament scholar James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism.

While most of the commentators were biblical scholars, I was asked by the Bulletin‘s editor Phil Tite to comment as a human geographer on Crossley’s book. As it happens, there has indeed been some cross-polllination between biblical studies and human geography, and I knew about this because many of my biblical studies colleagues have expressed to me that their discipline is more like a secular social science than it is theology and that the field comprises people from a variety of theological orientations. In fact, in stark contrast to the high-profile biblical studies firings that we have witnessed in the evangelical world, the mainstream of biblical scholarship would maintain that Crossley’s own theological convictions are completely moot; certainly, they influence his scholarship as any positionality would, but that’s why all scholarship circulates in discplinary conversations. For the conversation between biblical studies and human geography, there has been a five-volume series titled Constructions of Space that has attempted to use the work of human geographers like Henri Lefebvre, Lily Kong, and (honorary geographer) Kim Knott to examine how biblical authors conceptualize and make places.

Crossley’s book is different. His idea of New Testament studies is not simply the study of the New Testament as a text, but also the study of the study of the New Testament. In other words, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism doesn’t look at Jesus in the New Testament text. It examines how contemporary New Testament scholars have interpreted Jesus, and it critiques them for making Jesus a proponent of the political economic ideology that has arguably taken over the world in the last forty years, neoliberalism, i.e. the ideology that the free market must be allowed to run unhindered by government intervention and that it must be protected from violent threats, which has often led to the framing of the MIddle East as an ‘oriental’ geopolitical threat.

As a geographer, I found that Crossley and I seemed to speak the same language. The geographers (and honorary geographers) he cites are similar to the ones on my reading list — Edward Said, David Harvey, Derek Gregory, for example.

As a result, I used my essay to push Crossley to come into his own right as an honorary geographer. Crossley locates New Testament scholars as diverse as John Dominic Crossan, Bruce Malina, N.T. Wright, and even the Pope Emeritus as unintentionally tied up with neoliberal ways of thinking. However, to locate someone in a train of thought is just the beginning of a geographical study, not the end. I wanted to push Crossley to show how New Testament scholars are actually creating and contesting neoliberal political regimes and everyday practices. I don’t just want to read that the historical Jesus is a neoliberal fiction; I want to see how the historical Jesus gets put to work in constructing neoliberalism, as well as challenging it from the inside-out. Indeed, Crossley has a chapter on how one pseudonymous biblio-blogger, N.T. Wrong, consistently challenges his/her/xyr colleagues on their neoliberal assumptions, and I wanted to see how these contestations actually work them out in the production of space.

The example that I gave that illustrates this dynamic is the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). Because Crossley protests against the ‘orientalizing’ practices of neoliberalism, the work of the historical Jesus in this ex-British colony and current site of a ‘one country, two systems’ experiment would be fascinating to investigate. I gave the example of the exchange between megachurch pastor Rev. Daniel Ng Chung-man and the OCLP leader Rev. Chu Yiuming as a case where the historical Jesus became a subject of intense public political debate. I also give a shoutout to my colleagues at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, such as Sam Tsang, Freeman Huen, Nathan Ng, Vincent Lau, and Andres Tang, who have been doing excellent work in public theology in Hong Kong.

This article should be of interest to all who want to understand the contemporary significance of biblical studies in the public sphere. What remains fascinating to me is how much geography is done by biblical scholars, and I am encouraged by what seems to be an exciting trend in exploring how the work of those who study the biblical text (regardless of their theological orientation) has contributed to the making of the world today. I’d like to thank the Bulletin‘s editors Phil Tite and Arlene MacDonald for this exciting opportunity to engage, as this encounter has also shaped my scholarship insofar as I am coming to understand how important it is for me as a social scientist to keep up with my social science colleagues who work in biblical studies.