Sunday, August 27, 2017
Some time back a writer for the radical left-wing magazine Jacobin interviewed me for a profile he was writing of my friend and teaching partner Cornel West. In the end, none of my comments made it into his article. Here is what I told him:
What a lot of people on the left as well as the right fail to understand about Cornel West is his profound integrity. But to fail to grasp that is utterly to misunderstand who the man is and why he does what he does and says what he says. Cornel will speak the truth as he best understands it no matter what. Of course, he is not infallible, nor does he claim to be. Like the rest of us, he can err. (Unlike far too many people, though, he is always open to argument and willing to reconsider and revise his views where compelling reasons for doing so have been provided.) But where faith and reason lead him to a certain judgment, he will take his stand there and say exactly what he believes to be true—no matter whose ox is gored, and no matter the consequences for himself personally. Truth has priority for him. He will never under any circumstances sacrifice the truth or go silent about it to be “a good team player” or even to avoid being accused of giving aid and comfort to political opponents. Much less will he compromise his vocation as a truth-teller to gain or maintain influence or “access.’ People who do not understand that, do not understand him.
Of course, in this cynical and selfish age, a lot of people don’t get any of this. They assume that the truth-teller really is just one more operator, like everyone else. They suppose that he’s got some hidden agenda, that he’s motivated by some selfish or partisan interest, that he’s got some racket going. So Cornel’s critics cynically and falsely accuse him of craving attention; of carrying out some personal vendetta against, for example, President Obama or Hillary Clinton; of jealously guarding his status as the leading Black public intellectual against younger rivals who seek to displace him. But for anyone who actually knows him—who understands his heart, what makes him tick—this is utter nonsense. What explains what he does and says is the fact that he is a truth-driven radical Christian. What he is doing is trying to bear witness to the truth, as God gives him to understand the truth, and he places every gift he has been given, from his intellect to his celebrity, in the service of that vocation.
Cornel and I disagree about various things (though we also agree on many things that might surprise people): I am a moral and, in many ways, political conservative. He is a man of the left. But I love and respect him because he possesses and acts on the love of truth and commitment to truth-telling to which I myself aspire. That creates and sustains a bond between us that is far more powerful than even the most important political or policy differences dividing us. And it enables us to understand each other in ways that elude many others, including people on our respective “sides” of the ideological spectrum and even some of our oldest friends.
Throughout history and across cultures, truth tellers have never been very popular. People are fine with the truth when it squares with their preconceived notions, but not when it challenges them. They would prefer to be reinforced in what they already believe or in their wishful thinking or personal self-interest or ideological and partisan commitments. As a serious Christian, Cornel fully understands this. So he is scarcely shocked by the fact that he is misunderstood and in some circles on both the left and right and even vilified and defamed. He’s prepared for that and can live with it. It will not deflect him from his mission or cause him to soft-pedal his message. He has experienced worldly recognition and honors, and he enjoys those things; but he is not addicted to them nor does he live for them. He is no idol worshiper. If the “cost of discipleship” means giving them up, he will do that without blinking an eye. His horizon is a transcendent one, not a worldly one. He knows where his ultimate duty and allegiance lie. There’s an old hymn that always comes to my mind when I think of Cornel’s work and witness. It’s called “I’d Rather Have Jesus’:
I’d rather have Jesus, than silver and gold;
I’d rather have Him, than riches untold.
I’d rather have Jesus, than worldwide fame;
I’d rather be true, to his sacred Name.
If you understand that, then you understand the brilliant son of Clifton and Irene West.