On Faith Editor Sally Quinn recently spoke with author, professor, critic and civil right activist Dr. Cornel West to discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement, West’s arrest at the Supreme Court, Martin Luther King Jr. and other issues of faith and politics.
Sally Quinn: Let me ask you how you got into this. What got you into Occupy Wall Street or Occupy the Supreme Court or whatever. What first dawned on you?
Cornel West: This is the kind of democratic awakening that I have been calling for and fighting for for 30 years. The idea of witnessing the resurrection of the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Dorothy Day, and Phil Berrigan, and Cesar Chavez is a sublime experience.
SQ: Was there a moment when you said, “I have to get into this”?
CW: As soon as I heard about it. I talked about it on the Martin Brashear show, and then traveled to the Midwest. I went straight down to the occupy Wall Street gathering, you know, and gave a speech there in September, went back the next day and did some interviews with television, CNN and so on. Then I traveled to Boston and spoke at Occupy Boston, traveled to L.A. and spoke at Occupy L.A. And of course when I was asked to preach at the Temple of Praise by Bishop Glen Staples in Washington, D.C. I was there with Bootsy Collins, the great fog master and artistic genius, we were there at the morning of the Occupy Washington, D.C. event ... They said that I had gone to the memorial. I actually preached at Bishop Staple’s church that morning.
SQ: What did you say that morning in your sermon? Do you have the transcript?
CW: Oh, I never write them down. But I can tell you that the subject of my sermon was ‘Which Martin, Which Jesus?’
SQ : What do you mean?
CW: Meaning that there is a deodorized Martin Luther King Jr. who is easily assimilatable to the American mainstream. I call it the Santa Clause of Martin. You turn him into Santa Clause, he’s smiling, he’s kind, he’s got a bag of toys and everybody loves him. And he’s giving out toys and making everybody feel good.
Whereas of course the Martin Luther King, Jr. who was what I call the real funky Martin, the real Martin, was a threat. He created unease, he was a challenge. He was full of love but he was always presenting a certain kind of – what’s the right word? He unnerved people with the love that he had, including the status quo.
SQ: Do you think you have a certain quality like that?
CW: I don’t think so. I think Martin was in a class of his own and he was a unique kind of personality. I tend to be more, uh, what would be the right word? I’ve got more Curtis Mayfield in me, you know. I’ve got more George Clinton and Bootsy Collins in me. I’m a different kind of black man, you know what I mean? I’m part of his legacy, and I’m very, very blessed to be part of his legacy, but I’m a very different kind of person. I’m much more closely tied to popular culture. I’m much more closely tied to the musicians than he was. I’m more a disciple of Chekhov, in terms of a profound sense of the comic in public, whereas Martin was much more serious in public, and solemn. He cracked a smile there once, but I’ve got some Richard Pryor in me, you know? It’s just who I am you know, we’re just different kind of folks. But we have the same focus, and we both – he was a Christian minister and I’m a Christian layperson. He was a revolutionary Christian and I consider myself a revolutionary Christian. So in that sense we have overlap.
SQ: How much of your religion effects what you do and how you do it in this particular movement?
CW: It’s at the core of who I am, it’s at the essence of the life I try to lead. When I got arrested, that was Christian witness for me. Very much so. In the speech that I gave, I talked about how this is a movement that embraces prophetic Mormons, prophetic Episcopalians, prophetic black Baptists like myself, progressive atheistic and agnostic brothers and sisters, and I think I may have invoked my dear brother Bill Maher.
We all focus on this corporate greed, be it in the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the corporate media multiplex, or Wall Street. They’re all connected. It’s a fundamentally Christian witness, there’s no doubt about that.
SQ So you can be a Christian witness and still be an atheist?
CW: Well, no, I think that Christian witness overlaps with the praxis of an atheist who is full of love and concerned about justice. But no, an atheist doesn’t have a Christian witness, an atheist has atheistic praxis. It can be rich and deep and full of spirituality, but that doesn’t make it Christian, though.
SQ You mentioned the deodorized version of Martin Luther King, Jr. What about the deodorized version of Christ?
CW: Oh yeah, we know that’s predominant. Yeah. Very much so. You know Bootsy Collins and I wrote a song together on his last album called When Love is a Threat . And I think in the case of both Martin as well as Jesus, when you really love at the deepest levels, you tend to be a threat to a world that is obsessed with power and status and wealth. And I think it’s no accident that they both, you know, were murdered and executed.
There’s not a lot of space in a world for deep love to be sustained over time. Especially when that love takes the form of a struggle for justice in the public sphere. That’s true in any society: communist capitalist, feudal. It goes from John Milton’s poetry to Shelley’s poetry to Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic witness, to the Catholics in communist Poland to prophetic Judaic figures in anti-Semitic Russia. It’s almost wherever you go.
SQ:I’ve heard people have different responses to going to Wall Street. Some said it was a spiritual experience for them, hearing people sing the beatitudes. Other people said it’s just a bunch of confused kids who are kind of hanging out without a focus on what they’re doing. How do you see them?
CW From the four sites that I have visited, it strikes me as Americans disproportionately young, hungry for meaning and purpose, thirsty for justice, and a healthy democracy. So there’s a spiritual dimension, there’s a political dimension but also a social dimension because there are these wonderful bonds that are being created, communities being constituted right there at those sites. It’s been a magnificent experience for me each time.
SQ: Are there similarities between this and the tea party?
CW: No, not at all. I mean, the tea party is a deeply conservative populist movement that has a tremendous animus against government, whereas this movement is probably closer to what you would have seen in the 1930s where there’s a sense of responding to not just obscene wealth inequality but also to a collapse, economic collapse, a recession near depression. And the coming together of a variety of different peoples who may not agree on some issues but find common ground on focusing on corporate greed, and also the sense of America just being lost owing to the actions of economic elites. The tea party was a backward looking movement. ‘We’re going to take America back. We want it to be what it used to be.’ So, they have a deep mistrust of elites, but it’s much more a nostalgic movement and therefore it tends to be much more conservative, if not downright reactionary. And of course in the end the tea party movement is funded by the very oligarchs who the occupy movement is highly suspicious of and critical of.
SQ: Go back to the deodorization of Jesus. What do you think about the question of ‘What would Jesus do?’ How would Jesus have responded to this movement? Who was the real Jesus in your mind?
CW: The Jesus who went into Jerusalem, straight to the temple and ran the marketeers out of the temple, said ‘you will not transform this house of prayer into a house of thieves.’ That constitutes the very deed that led toward his crucifixion. And of course the temple at that time was a combination of Wall Street, the White House, and Hollywood. All three were inextricably intertwined in those days, the economic power, the cultural power as well as the political power. He had the courage to go at all three simultaneously. Very much so.
But I’ll tell you, one way of looking at this is that at one hand I’m deeply tied to the liberation theology of James Cone and others that put a premium on the precious humanity of the ‘least of these,’ echoes of the 25th chapter of Matthew. On the other hand, I’m deeply influenced by G.K. Chesterton and his wonderful text of 1909, Orthodoxy. Where that deep sense of humor tied to a philosophy of gratitude and wonder in which Jesus is a King who serves others, especially ‘the least of these,’ but also a rebel who transgresses against the conventional morality of the day. So there’s always that sense of insurgency within the comic theological sensibility of Chesterton that I love.
And of course he’s so deeply in love with common folk that he reminds you of [Walt] Whitman, or [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, or Louie Armstrong, or somebody. He’s got a profound democratic sensibility. We don’t expect that from the British, but he actually did. So it’s a fascinating kind of creative tension between Cone and Chesterton.
Yet I think [Anton] Chekhov actually represents the highest artistic expression of it, it’s just that Chekhov a Christian in terms of his compassion but was an atheist in terms of claims about Christian consolation. No cognitive commitments to God-talk in Chekhov, you know? But he’s closer to me than most Christian theologians, actually.
SQ: Which play do you identify with the most?
CW: Well Three Sisters is his most profound, but you could take The Seagull, or the Cherry Orchard or the short stories. In the Ravine, is probably the greatest, along side The Student. Those are probably the greatest. But there’s a profound commitment to compassion wedded to a tragic comic sensibility in which what we do is to bear witness in the face of a world we don’t fully comprehend but know that it’s dominated by too much greed, too much indifference to other people, too much jealousy, too much envy, yet you always keep keeping on. Endurance. Stamina. Strive against the grain, against the odds. It’s a blues-like sensibility. And for me, I’m a blues-like Christian. Absolutely.
SQ: So what was your experience like when you went down to the Supreme Court. Did you expect to be arrested?
CW: We went to be arrested. I had said quite explicitly that I was going to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. by going to jail. I thought that was the best way of honoring King. In fact, you all published that wonderful piece about sister Susan. That was a wonderful piece. People were running up to me on the street, “did you read Susan Thistlethwaite?” And I didn’t have a computer with me so I had to hunt it down. I read that thing, and said “That’s it! She said it!” Very much so. And it’s just a small way of honoring Martin the same day he was memorialized by the others on the other side of town, you know.
SQ: How many times have you been to jail now?
CW: Oh Lord, I’ve quit counting now. Good God almighty, maybe 10 or 12.
SQ: What was your experience this time?
CW: Oh Lord, I’m getting old now. Fifty-eight years old, in jail! Oh Lord, that’s a challenge. But it was wonderful because the folk inside the jail, especially the everyday ordinary folk who were there, you know they recognized me and wanted to talk and we had some wonderful conversations. And of course the 13 brothers I went in jail with we had magnificent conversations. Of course the six sisters we could not talk to, that frustrated us. But lockdown is not a joke, I’ll tell you that. There were 24 or 25 of us in one small cell, you can hardly sit down with shackles around your ankles. Or Lord, yes. See what happened was, when they take you into the main court, and put you under in cells – it’s almost like a ware house with 25 of you all in one small cell and you’re waiting for your court appearance. We arrived at 6:30 in the morning, and the court appearance was at three. So from 6:30 in the morning you’ve got those shackles around your ankles. And when they move you from one cell to the next – I was moved to three different cells – they put the handcuffs on the front, not on the back. It’s almost like a belt of steel, you’ve got the handcuffs on the front, and the shackles on your feet and you can hardly walk. You go from cell to the next. Ooh, boy! I’m not going to do too much break dancing in here! Good God. And it gets tight around your ankles you know you can hardly feel your blood flow!
SQ: What do you actually think about Wall Street.
CW: I don’t believe in hating anybody, I don’t believe in demonizing anybody. I hate injustice, I hate greed but I hate the injustice in me. I hate the greed in me. So I don’t view myself on some radically different continuum with Wall Street people. They’re human like I am. It’s just the greed has become so much a part of the culture, especially in the last 30 years. They’ve always been concerned about profits, and they’ve always had greed running amuck. But it’s become so excessive because of the deregulation, because of the lack of any constraints and restraints. And democracy is fundamentally about mechanisms of accountability, owning to the fact that there’s greed inside all of us. I wouldn’t say that Wall Street people are evil at all. I just think that corporate greed is an odious vice; it’s almost as bad as envy, you know. I think that Dante says that envy is the worst but greed is right next to it. And gluttony is right next to it. Of course in the post-modern world would add glitz. Everywhere I go, I say the occupy movement is a love movement. It’s a love of poor people It’s a love of working people. You stand up in the face of corporate greed because it results in social arrangements that lose sight of the dignity, and as a Christian I would say the sanctity of people, including poor people and working people. It’s very much a love movement, and if it’s tied to hate, it’s a hatred of injustice, a hatred of that which hurts and dehumanizes people. It doesn’t hate people at all. At least not for me, you might find others in the movement who would use different language, but, as a Christian witness, hate is not my language at all.
SQ: Where is OWS going?
CW: It’s already triumphed in the sense that it has ensured that we must talk about wealth inequality, poverty, corporate greed and democratic accountability in our public discourse. And they had all dropped out. No serious talk about poverty, no serious talk about the wealth inequality, no serious talk about corporate greed. That had been marginalized. We had a nice little pleasant discourse about Republicans that many viewed as being mean-spirited and Democrats who many viewed as milk toast and spineless, we had to choose between the two. And then here comes the occupy movement saying: You know what? We have a passion. And we have a commitment to talking about wealth inequality, corporate greed, poverty, and the need for a more healthy democracy and getting the big money out of politics. It gives it a sense of urgency, that’s what I love about it. There is a sense of urgency. I think these issuers are matters of national security in the same way that we talk about Iraq and Afghanistan.
SQ: What is Obama’s role in all this?
CW: I think he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. I think he’s got the entrenchment on behalf of the Republicans, who tend to be highly unified, and he’s got a divided Democratic party between centrists and liberals, and few progressives. And he doesn’t have a lot of space to maneuver. But when he chose his economic team, he made it very clear that he was leaning toward Wall Street and not Main Street. All he had to do was to bring in a Paul Krugman, or bring in a Robert Kuttner, or bring in a Joseph Stiglitz to just balance it, you know? Have ]Lawrence] Summers and Krugmen in there and let them argue it out in the White House so you end up some progressive voice as opposed to the old neo-liberal voice that we got from the Clintonite years. Same with Timothy Geithner. If you’re going to have Geithner in there, then bring in someone who can balance it off. ... It was clear he [Obama] was leaning toward Wall Street. And he can’t deny it. That’s when he needed to talk about jobs, that’s when he needed to talk about investments, that’s when he needed to talk seriously about poverty. They [the economists] were talking about it, but in the [New York Times] or in the American Prospect, but not in the White House.
SQ: They say Obama is also anti-Wall Street.
CW: Well that’s at the level of gesture. They know that he’s already delivered for them, they just want more. As you know, most of the money he receives up ’till now is still from Wall Street. Wall Street’s going to play it both ways because they want to be on one side, and they figure if he wins they’re gonna shift back over to him anyway. But he’s in no way an anti-Wall Street candidate. And when he makes his gesture, people say, ‘oh my God, he sounds like Eugene Debs.’ No, you know from the Ron Suskind book, Confidence Men. We know our man in Washington is Geithner. Don’t worry about the populist speeches; Geithner is in control of policy. They’re absolutely right.
SQ: Would you vote for Obama again?
CW: Well, if I was backed into a corner, and if it looked as if there was going to be a right-wing take-over, then I would be forced to. But it would not be with enthusiasm, because he has not only disappointed but he’s betrayed so many of his progressive principles that he talked about. But yes, within a circumstance where it looked like it was so close and the future of the republic on the choice between a mean-spirited reactionary Republican candidate versus Barack Obama, I’d go with brother Barack. But we’re not at that point now; we don’t know what’s going to happen. Just like with the occupy movement. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re still in the early stages. We don’t know how it’s going to unfold. We really don’t.
SQ: Your Christianity: How strong a Christian are you? Does it really inform everything you do?
CW: Well I think so. I think my most fundamental identity is my Christian identity. And a close second is being the second son of Irene and Clifton West. So that’s about as deep as it gets I think. Very much so.
SQ: Does the sadness and greed that you see ever rock your faith?
CW: Oh sure. I think every rich faith should have a demon of doubt, as TS Eliot used to say. I think that to be a good Christian is to be a God-wrestler, like Jacob in the 32nd chapter of Genesis. You’re wrestling with God all the time. It’s not an accident that the most profound critique of Christianity was written by a Christian named Dostoyevsky. And that critique aught to be a constant companion for every Christian, even as in the end you still make the leap of faith, in the language of Kirkegaard, and hold on for dear life. I think there’s a big difference between drinking the Kool-Aid and being washed with the blood. You don’t want to drink the Kool-Aid of the world. You want to wear all the world’s statuses and titles like a loose garment. Washed in the blood means that in the end this world is not your home. You’re a pilgrim; you’re a sojourner in that regard. That strikes me as one of the distinctive marks of being a Christian. You’re tied to a love that is so overwhelming that it is a threat to the world.
SQ: Thank you so much.
Sally Quinn | Nov 10, 2011 10:52 AM