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As the American left continues to seek a coherent way to articulate its moral priorities in these days of political stalemates and widening income gaps, it might look to the most unlikely of places — the academy — for guidance and inspiration.
At elite universities and seminaries thrives a constituency of African American intellectuals who fiercely contend that the American conversation needs to stay focused on justice — specifically, for those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.”
Cornel West, who was arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest, is perhaps the most visible. But there is also James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, whom the New Yorker profiled in 2008 as an intellectual influence on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — the controversial pastor emeritus of President Obama’s church in Chicago. And there is Eddie Glaude of Princeton, who last year wrote a red-hot essay for the Huffington Post called “The Black Church is Dead.”
And there is Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union whose book, “The Universe Bends Toward Justice,” was published this month. (The title borrows from an often-used phrase by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.). In a series of interconnected essays on subjects ranging from gospel music to supply-side economics, Hendricks rails against the conventional hypocrisies in public moral and religious discourse.
According to Hendricks’s biblical exegesis, Jesus was a class warrior. Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich,” Hendricks wrote. “Wealth becomes unjust for Jesus when it is used in an unjust fashion, or for unjust ends, or when it is greedily accumulated and not shared with those in need of material assistance.”
Undergirding Hendricks’s arguments are three provocations.
→ Political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christian.
→ The Jesus of the Gospels was concerned, first and foremost, with rectifying the inequities of society where some people had too much stuff, and others had too little.
→ Anodyne religiosity, whether on the left or the right, has nothing to do with true Christianity, which is a call to action rooted in love.
“Liberals,” he told me over coffee in San Francisco this month, where we were attending a meeting of the American Academy of Religion, “have ceded the moral ground and the religious ground to the Christian conservatives who violate the very faith they purport to support.”
Hendricks knows that he and his colleagues will be labeled radicals and communists, but he doesn’t care. He is not a communist, he writes, because although he does support what he calls “distributive justice” (the distribution of material goods as well as “psycho-emotional” goods, such as stability and peace of mind), he also advocates for the private ownership of property.
Having worked on Wall Street for nearly a decade, Hendricks deals fluently with the various economic vogues of the past century. And he remains proud of his “radical” bona fides: As a young man, he was a black nationalist, a follower of Amiri Baraka, and he continues to insist on the importance of the legacy of Wright who, despite his public implosion before Obama’s election, led “an extraordinary ministry.” (One other biographical tidbit, perhaps not relevant to this piece but interesting: Hendricks was “very, very good friends” with Anita Hill in the early 1980s, when she worked for Clarence Thomas: “She would come home fuming and fussing about the sexual harassment she experienced at work,” he told me.)
What Hendricks is really saying is that the same biblical arguments that undergirded the fights against slavery and for civil rights are relevant now as arguments in opposition to a culture or a political party that would deny any of its citizens equal access to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.
The gospels, he writes, speak of a love “that must move us to struggle each and every day, each in our own way, to re-create the kind of world in which the children of our neighbors can have every good that we seek for our own.” Whoever refuses to consider the least of these lives in violation of the Golden Rule, he says.
Politicians have to be pragmatic, but preachers and professors do not. The social justice message of the black church, framed by culture’s outsiders and forged through hardship, might help guide the diffuse and disconsolate left through troubled times.