Dr. Cornel West in Atlanta

October 29, 2009

culture / politics / spirituality

Yesterday, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Cornel West speak in Atlanta, at Emory University’s State of Race event. I was very late in coming to an awareness of Dr. West, as I didn’t know about him until Call and Response came out last year. But since then, hearing him say, “Remember that justice is what love looks like in public,” I have been a fan and admirer, and have learned much about him.

So when I went to see him, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and it was a great conversation. The event lasted for an hour and a half or so, and was (very) roughly divided like this: Socratic questioning, prophetic critique, and question/answer time. All of these things related in one way or another to race, but much more broadly applied and dealing with humanity, as that “which is born between urine and feces.”

During his thoughts on Socratic questioning, Dr. West spoke profoundly to our unwillingness to critically examine and question ourselves, both individually and as a culture. He spoke of Plato’s statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and led into another of Plato’s statements, that “philosophy is a meditation on and a preparation for death.”

Through this, we were led into transformation, both as individuals and as a society, because in Plato’s mind (and, in West’s view, the mind of Paul), transformation doesn’t happen without death. We must learn how to die to things. Further, for West, we must learn how love relates to all this, because in love we die as isolated selves and are reborn as selves that are entangled with another self.

It is fascinating and beautiful how all this speaks to the story of God, and yet clearly does it in a way that sidesteps the traps of overt religion, which still allows him to bring in his thoughts on Jesus, thoughts on the cross, thoughts on the spiritual traditions that were birthed in slavery and empire, and how all of these things are preserved in churches, art, and music.

So from this, he spoke to us about the Hebrew prophetic tradition, that which lived and suffered under empire – both its own, as Brueggemann tells us in The Prophetic Imagination, and under the empires that surrounded and oppressed it. He spoke of Isaiah, weeping over injustice, Amos asking for justice to roll down, and of Jeremiah. Here, he reminded us that he wasn’t speaking of Jeremiah Wright, though he does feel that they were doing some of the same things.1

That these were empires that forgot their humanity, forgot the poor and oppressed, and forgot to examine themselves, as we have done. He talked at great length about these aspects of justice, and again reminded us to “Understand that justice is what love looks like in public.” He spoke of the ways in which this has been lived out in nonviolence through the black tradition, and how it has led to the creation of arts of compassion – Negro spirituals, blues, jazz, and so on that were birthed out of suffering.

Dr. West looked back on the creation of our experiment in democracy that didn’t address slavery in the Constitution, not because it was below the ideal but because it didn’t examine itself. He reminded us that the birds came home to roost during the Civil War, and that Abraham Lincoln had supported a Constitutional amendment that would have made slavery permanent until the abolitionist movement caused him to be great. The people who sought justice rose up, and he listed many of these names, and caused Lincoln to become a great president.

In light of this, Dr. West reflected upon the end of the Reagan era in American politics, and expressed great hope that we will stop caring for the rich and strong, which he sees as a marker of that time,2 but care for the poor and weak. Not to be against the rich, but to be for the poor, and to have that place from which to look at things – that place of Matthew 25.

Finally, he spoke of Barack Obama’s election, and the fact that he has not yet shown that he will care for the weak and poor, but has continued to care for the rich and powerful. From a race perspective, he reminded us that this election is not the end of racism or beginning of a post-racial era, but a marker that white America is less racist. This is a wonderful thing we can all rejoice in, but that is all it is. Blacks, he reminded us, have looked past the color of a candidate’s skin for decades, and no one has asked if they were post-racial.

Dr. West offers a critical support to Obama and seeks to be a prophetic voice in that space, as he has since before the Iowa vote last year, and recognizes that Obama is the leader of the biggest empire in the world, and has a different calling than Dr. West does, which reminds me of Martin Luther King’s statement that the church must be the conscience of the state. As he did in his video remarks a few weeks ago, Dr. West said it will be hard to be a war president with a peace prize.

The official event ended along these lines, reminding us to bring Obama, and culture in general, to greatness and push him to care for the poor and weak. There were some questions from the audience, including one that I especially appreciated on the Israel/Palestine issue. Dr. West responded at length, reminding us that the Israelis were victimized in the heart of Europe, and still think of this even as they are victimizing Arabs. We in the United States are afraid to even have a conversation about what they are doing. The hope in this, for Dr. West, is that the Jews will begin to have love and compassion for the Arabs, and that it will be seen as a tragedy for anyone to be victimized.

So all in all, this was a profound, challenging event that taught me a great deal and filled me with any number of emotions and thoughts. Dr. West is currently on a book tour that you should see, if you can.

  1. In light of that, though Dr. West didn’t go into it, I want to look at that similarity, as I think it was profoundly missed during the discussions of Rev. Wright last year. Though there are many places where the two Jeremiahs meet, it is the most controversial that I want to look at:

    …wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme.

    Jeremiah doesn’t specifically use the words, “God damn America,” though many prophets have this essential message for oppression, but what I specifically see is that the statement, “God bless America,” is a statement of civil religion that Jeremiah Wright has turned upside down. Jeremiah the prophet does an identical thing, standing in the temple in Jerusalem:

    Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever.

    Jeremiah has taken the saying of civil religion, “this is the temple of the LORD,” and turned it against oppression. Civil religion didn’t like it, and it doesn’t like it anymore today than it did then.


  2. Though there is great disagreement with Reagan, Dr. West still rejoiced in the times when Reagan did care for the poor and oppressed, such as those in Eastern Europe under the empire of the Soviet Union. []