I’m a Christ-centered Jazz man, which means that I do try to take, quite seriously, the endless quest for unarmed truth, understanding that a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. So I don’t even think about trying to be true unless I’ve tried to enact and embody a sensitivity, even a hyper-sensitivity to the pain, the suffering, the hurts, the wounds, the scars, the bruises of people.
That deep compassion that you not only talk about, but that you embody…
Just. Bear. Witness. Be a sermon rather than give one. You don’t even need to talk about humility; just be humble. You know, a couple of months ago in the States, we had a sustained discourse on civility; and you know, I thought – why don’t you just be civil? Why do you have to have this sustained discourse? Just be respectful, that’s all.
It’s like the conclusion of a practical Aristotelian syllogism.
It’s not just a proposition. It’s not a sentence. It’s not a theory. It’s a mode of being in the world; it’s a way of life to be embodied, enacted.
But since I was young, I have been shaped by the legacy of Athens, by Socrates’s preoccupation with questioning: the unexamined life is not worth living.
That meant much to me as I was growing up on the chocolate side of Sacramento, going to the book mobile, and reading Plato and Kierkegaard for the first time.
I’d read Kierkegaard, put on some more Curtis Mayfield. I’d read Plato, and listen to Sly Stone — who actually did play organ in my church, Shiloh Baptist Church, every first Sunday. Northern California Mass choir. He grew up in Vallejo. Slyvester. Stewart. Genius that he was, and he could play that organ before he became Sly Stone.
But also the legacy of Jerusalem. And of course we want to acknowledge our precious Jewish brothers and sisters – it’s Passover tonight, the first night.
And there is for me no Christian faith, there’s no Jesus, without that prophetic Judaic tradition that deeply shaped me in a fundamental way.
The idea that each and every person has a sanctity. Not just a dignity the way the Stoics talked about, but a sanctity, a value that’s priceless. There’s actually a value that has no price — no market price…
There must be some standard that gets beyond the everyday culture, the everyday life, civilization, fleeting empires, changing regimes, to keep track of that sanctity, which is the ground of our equality… Our notions of equality somehow have to be anchored in that which cuts across the grain deeper than fleeting cultures and changing nation states and contingent civilizations and empires.
And these legacies of Athens and Jerusalem, for me have been brought together best in the black cultural expressions – the best of the black cultural expressions – that said, in the face of 244 years of white supremacist slavery, that somehow, we were going to love our way through that darkness, and not succumb to a hatred of the slave master even as we loathe the barbarity and the bestiality of slavery itself.
And that’s what those negro spirituals are about; I come from persecuted Christians in the land of religious liberty…
How do you look terror in the face, and still muster the courage to love?
Refuse to succumb to revenge, and drink from the cup of bitterness, and say, somehow, we’re going to hold on to love and justice, and not revenge and hatred. We’ve always known that hatred is the coward’s revenge against those who intimidate you. Always cowardly.
How do you learn to be courageous – and love wisdom, love justice, love neighbor, and love enemy?
And I am that kind of Christian.
I really do try to love my enemy. Not of course try to do it on my own, at home. A little too difficult, I need grace for that. It doesn’t make any sense – whatsoever – of talking about loving your enemy if you don’t have some connection to a power greater than you.
It’s the most absurd thing in the world, given the fact that our world is shot through with hatred, envy, player hating, backstabbing, domination, subjugation. These are the cycles of history –
And how, somehow do you break it? Even if you only break it in one life, in one community!
It’s got to be through love…
I was at the prison this morning, at Wagner. A brother asked me a question, it moved me so deeply. He said, “Brother West, I’m locked into bad habits, and I can’t break loose.”
And I said, “Brother, you’re not the only one. All of us are wrestling with that in some way.”
He said, “Oh not you… I saw you on television, looks like you got it together–”
I said, “No, no.”
I told you I’m a Christian. That means I’m a sinner, I’m just a redeemed sinner. I’m just trying to love my crooked neighbor with my crooked heart. That’s the best I’mma to do.
It’s true that I’ve been transformed. I was a gangster.
And after my transformation, I still have gangster proclivities, to this day. Wrestling with it all the time…
And I live in despair. Not every day, but I wrestle with it.
It’s like the 32nd chapter of Genesis. Jacob wrestling at night with the angel of death. He emerges with a new name, wounded though. God wrestler.
And a blues man and a jazz man is always a god wrestler. And I’ve got some questions that I don’t fully… grasp.
In terms of the depth of the suffering in this world.
But the fundamental ground of my life is to be faithful unto death, and to attempt to live a life of love and compassion to the best of my ability.
Dr. Cornel West’s impromptu testimony, given at Princeton University, where he is a professor of philosophy and African American studies.
To really get the full force of West’s testimony, you really have to watch him speak —
— it’s one of the most captivating monlogues of this sort that I’ve ever seen.
The entire exchange between Dr. West and Radhanath Swami is fascinating. This is part two — West’s testimony and a Q&A — but Radhanath’s part (linked here) is worth watching as well.
This exchange was titled “East Meets West: A Dialogue Between Cornel West and Radhanath Swami,” and though I have never, ever seen an inter-faith exchange that was ever worth anything, this is an exception — and better than that: it’s brimming with mutual respect, intellect, engagement with the world, and humor.