By John Rogan
In conjunction with Saint Vincent College’s Threshold Lecture Series, as well as the Ann Kinzer Clark Lecture Series, writer, philosopher, musical artist and political commentator Dr. Cornel West visited campus to speak on “The Arts as a Prophetic Witness in Times of Suffering and Despair.”
Prior to his lecture, West sat down for an interview with The Review to discuss issues in political discourse, his love of music and his musical career, and what he admires about Saint Vincent College.
“When my dear brother [Andrew Clark] asked me to speak, I said ‘yes, whatever the situation,’” West said. “Then he said it was for his mother […] that was even deeper.”
West said what also contributed to his decision was Saint Vincent’s deep tradition.
“I came to understand the history of Western Monasticism,” he said.
“Then I got a chance to meet this dear brother [Archabbot Douglas who gave] 30 years of high quality service to both the kingdom of God, as well as bearing witness – not just to Saint Vincent, but the whole tradition […] it goes back to Saint Benedict.”
West, both a Christian and a self-described “non-Marxist socialist,” spoke to the question of whether religion and politics should interact with each other.
“Every flag is under the cross. Every nation is under what that cross signifies. There is no nation that is perfect in that way,” said West. “That cross signifies, in many ways, unarmed truth and unconditional love.”
West explained that “the cross” is not reducible to any politics.
“We’re made in the image and likeness of God. The question is, how do we keep track of that humanity […] in light of a world that is so broken?” he said.
In reference to this problem, West said it’s much more important to keep track of one’s spiritual and moral witness than it is to dive directly into the polarized politics.
He said he does not think that people should ever try to separate themselves from their fellow human beings and that there’s always human connection.
Even when they discover their differing politics, West explained, that should not separate them.
“Let’s say ‘oh, this brother’s pro-Trump, and this brother’s pro-Bernie Sanders, but they still have a deep human connection as they talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers,’” he said. “They can have a serious discussion, because I’m not a relativist – you’ve got to be able to take a stand. But that shouldn't mean that their human connection is called into question at all.”
West added, “the same is true for members of our own families […] Different policies don’t in any way dictate their humanity,” West stated. “[Archabbot Douglas] and I were talking about how important free speech is, and the first word, he says – in the historic monumental rules of Benedict – ‘listen.’”
Concerning his musical output and whether it was complimentary to his political and philosophical work, West stated that music is one of the things that connects everyone as human beings and that contemporary artists in America cut across the border.
“Now, it’s true that most of the persons I work with in the studio tend to be black musicians, but within the black community, you’ve still got the political and theological variety,” he said.
“Clarence Thomas was a hip-hop artist, and he wanted to go into the studio. I said ‘come on in, Clarence. Let’s make a record together!’”
After the interview, West took time during his lecture to discuss modern issues concerning the degradation of discourse and an impending necessity for moral witness.
“I’m not a member of any political party,” said West. “I’m a Christian. I’m in the world, but not of it. I wear all of these political parties like a loose garment.”
“Oh yes, I’ve got a critical skepticism about all politicians, no matter what their rhetoric […] I believe in classical Christian hatred, where you hate the sin and still try to love the sinner. You hate whatever injustice you perceive, but you still try to stay in contact with the humanity of the person, because they're made in the likeness and image of the same God that you are, and they have the capacity to change, even if it looks like the evidence is not quickly kicking in.”
On why this connection and universal love is important, West stated that “love is not only a building up, but it’s a learning how to deal with what our Jewish brothers and sisters said in Leviticus 19: ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself."
“To love your neighbor is to be a neighbor to others, regardless of who they are […] It’s profoundly subversive; I would say it’s revolutionary! […] To be human, at its deepest level, is to spread steadfast, loving kindness to everyone, but especially the orphan, the widow, the fatherless, the motherless, the vulnerable, the weak, the oppressed, the persecuted, the marginalized; those pushed to the periphery.”
“If you don’t have ways of dealing with unruly passion and pervasive ignorance,” said West, on the importance of earnest and morally alert culture, “then it will generate despotism. It will generate autocracy, or in modern language, various forms of fascism.”
“It is no accident that it has been the artists who, in many ways, have been the vanguard of the species when it comes to [practical wisdom],” he later added.
The lecture is viewable in its entirety on the Saint Vincent College YouTube channel, and West’s books, such as Race Matters, or his latest, Black Prophetic Fire, are available on Amazon.