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Princeton University Professor Cornel West, left, hugs a protester while marching with Occupy Wall Street protesters to Goldman Sachs headquarters on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011, in New York.
What got you into Occupy Wall Street ? 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. 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.
2. How much of your religion effects what you do and how you do it in this particular movement?
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 [at the Temple of Praise], 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.
3. 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?
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.
4. What do you actually think about Wall Street?
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.
5. Does the sadness and greed that you see ever rock your faith?
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.
To read the full transcript of Sally Quinn’s interview with Dr. West, go to washingtonpost.com/onfaith