BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
Nine months have passed since Wall Street collapsed around us, costing millions their homes, jobs and pensions. You’ve seen and heard many people on this broadcast speak to the causes of the crisis and its fallout. Economists, historians, journalists, titans of Wall Street – each has addressed one aspect or another of the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Now its time for some different voices from a different perspective. Time for the gospel truth.
CORNEL WEST: Who cares? I’m trying to live a life of love and justice before I die. I don’t care what they call that.
BILL MOYERS: Every Wednesday night for thirteen weeks over this past spring and winter…
MALE STUDENT: I just wanted to thank you personally.
BILL MOYERS: These students at Union Theological Seminary here in New York heard some very strong opinions from three very charismatic teachers.
GARY DORRIEN: Meanwhile, the U.S. is not facing up to the crisis of capitalism, because our oligarchy has immense political and economic power… so our recovery begins by bailing out Wall Street…
BILL MOYERS: Gary Dorrien’s passion is economic democracy, it’s at the core of his writing and teaching at Union as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, named for perhaps the most influential American Theologian of the last century. A past president of the American Theological Society, Dorrien has published over a dozen books including a trilogy on THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LIBERAL THEOLOGY, SOUL IN SOCIETY, THE WORD AS TRUE MYTH and this most recent, SOCIAL ETHICS IN THE MAKING. Dorrien’s been dubbed “The most rigorous theological historian of our time.”
SERENE JONES: Crisis, what does it mean today? Well, one, it’s important to see crisis, as we’ve seen time and again, as full of as much threat as it is promise.
BILL MOYERS: When Serene Jones was inaugurated president of union last November, she became the first woman to head the seminary in its 172-year-old history.
SERENE JONES: And I’m excited because tonight my father gets to hear me teaching.
BILL MOYERS: A scholar from a family of scholars, Jones came to Union after 17 years on the faculty of Yale University…
SERENE JONES: My father was a president. I grew up in the house of a president.
BILL MOYERS: Where she also held appointments at the law school and the Department of African American studies.
CORNEL WEST: Do you believe it our last class though?
BILL MOYERS: It was there that she once studied under this man.
CORNEL WEST: Hi dear sister president!!
BILL MOYERS: Cornel West.
CORNEL WEST: It’s not just a language, or rhetoric. It’s the fundamental way of being in the world. And so when we talk about this economic crisis, it’s not as if we need some new vision. Yes…
BILL MOYERS: Philosopher, professor, preacher, Cornel West is one of the most prominent public provocateurs in America.
CORNEL WEST: It’s a question of what kind of human being you want to be given your move from your mother’s womb to the tomb. What kind of virtues and values will you try to enact in your life? And you say, oh, brother West, that sounds like preaching and homiletics. No, that’s not preaching and homiletics at all. It’s just a Christian on fire.
BILL MOYERS: West, who owns and operates what The New York Times called “A ferocious moral vision,” leaped to public attention with his contemporary classic, “Race Matters.” His latest is “Hope on a Tightrope,” and he’s also produced three CDs including one of socially conscious music called “Never Forget.”
CORNEL WEST: Love is real, suffering is real, the killing is real. It’s as real as this table.
BILL MOYERS: Cornel West teaches at Princeton University, coming weekly to New York for this team-teaching course with Gary Dorrien and, Serene Jones.
SERENE JONES: I have this really impassioned sense that progressive Christianity may well just simply disappear.
BILL MOYERS: They titled their joint course Christianity and the U.S. Crisis. Not unusual for this seminary where towering theologians like Niebuhr and Paul Tillich once challenged students to engage the world. And where the young German scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer was teaching when he returned home to martyrdom trying to overthrow Adolph Hitler. Union is America’s oldest nondenominational seminary, known around the world for applying a progressive Christian critique to politics, economics, and social justice.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
CORNEL WEST: Thank you
SERENE JONES: Thank you
GARY DORRIEN: Thank you
CORNEL WEST: It’s nice to be here.
BILL MOYERS: So who presumes to speak for Christianity? I mean, James Dobson is a Christian. Rick Warren is a Christian. Barack Obama is a Christian. Jeremiah Wright is a Christian. All of you are Christian. So who presumes to speak for Christianity?
CORNEL WEST: Well, Christianity’s always had a number of different voices, a number of different streams and strands, and I think we had to keep track of prophetic strands and keep track of priestly strands. There’s always been Christians who are well-adjusted to greed, well-adjusted to fear, well-adjusted to bigotry. There’s always been Christians who are maladjusted to greed, maladjusted to bigotry, maladjusted to fear. So the question is what kind of Christian, which has to do in the end, with what kind of human being you choose to be.
SERENE JONES: There is always people who are speaking through, for the Christianity of the dominant voice, and they can weigh in and support everything that’s going on in the present culture and this way and that. But who speaks for the Christianity that stands on the margins of society, in places where there is no voice, often? I mean, that’s the really critical question of every age, because it’s those voices by which you’re going to be able to measure the true health of a society. And whether Christianity is speaking.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think mainstream America is really concerned about the margins of society as you say?
SERENE JONES: This is an interesting moment because I think suddenly, quite a number of Americans find themselves on a margin they didn’t even know existed. I think in our life course, it’s hard to find people who don’t experience themselves in moments of brokenness and marginality. Right now, the whole system’s collapsing and the margin looks like a very big space. And a Christianity that speaks to those margins can be a powerful presence in that.
BILL MOYERS: Gary Dorrien, what is the crisis, as you see it?
GARY DORRIEN: This is a society that has stoked and celebrated greed virtually to the point of self-destruction. And so, we can’t just go on saying, “If we can just patch this thing up and get back to where we were that things will be all right.” And none of us believe that, so we also have to talk about what was wrong with this system to begin with that had, you know, outcomes that you can’t really justify morally. And that do, in fact, lead to the kind of outcome that we’re dealing with right now.
CORNEL WEST: I think it has to do a lot with the profound spiritual crisis, a kind of spiritual malnutrition, an emptiness of soul, a whole culture of indifference that says, in fact, that you can possess your soul, by means of possessing commodities of thinking somehow you can conquer the world, your world, and end up losing your soul. These are old truths. These are old biblical truths.
You can be non-Christian, atheistic, agnostic and still recognize the voracity, the truth in those formulations.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the story of America right now? If you had to write that story, very briefly, what is the story that’s unfolding, as we talk?
SERENE JONES: It’s a story about sin and grace, and it’s about the brokenness of human beings and our capacity to delude ourselves, all the way into the international collapse of all that we stand for. To get caught up in fictions that we write about the ways in which we should structure our lives together. We are seeing, played out before us, that classic Protestant claim that we can be caught up in sin and not even know we are in sin.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by sin? I mean, that’s a theological term that many people have said is out of date.
SERENE JONES: Yeah. So this is one of the big debates of the course. I love sin. It is not out of date. This financial crisis should show is that it is in fashion. Sin, for me, describes the fact that we are born thrown into this world, and we are, no matter how hard we try, because of the complexity of how we’re put together, destined to make massive mistakes.
And the best we can hope for is that we’re in a community of people that continually remind us that, in fact, we don’t understand everything and we are not the center of the universe. That’s sin, the inevitability of that. And then, once one sort of gets a hold of it, you can begin to – I think it’s central to democracy. We have checks and balances.
BILL MOYERS: Checks and balances, right.
SERENE JONES: Because we know, we can go off in the wrong direction in profound ways.
GARY DORRIEN: That’s why I’m for economic democracy, because I think that economic democracy is essentially an attempt to sort of hold down, serve as a kind of a break on human greed and will to power, which are virtually universal, so I’m not talking about anything that requires some kind of idealistic idea about human nature, or what we’re capable of, or the like. My main argument for it is the same that Niebuhr, that Reinhold Niebuhr had about democracy. You know, the human capacity for goodness makes democracy possible, but it’s precisely the human capacity for evil that makes democracy utterly necessary. There are two sort of fundamental stories or ideas about a just society, what it could be, that have been operative in US American history virtually from the beginning, and that are always there. And that one is the idea of providing unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth.
And there’s a politics that goes with that. You want to hold down government. You want to hold – even democracy is not really necessarily a good word, in that conception. And then in the other idea, it’s that you want to attain as much through a democracy as you can, over society’s major institutions.
You can interpret virtually every decade of U.S. American history by the way these two different sort of conceptions of what a just society would be, end up conflicting with each other, sometimes modifying each other, sometimes changing each other.
BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting that democracy is the political antidote to what Serene described as the theological concept of original sin, that as a society, you have to have these checks and balances that restrain us?
GARY DORRIEN: Yes, although, of course, democracy is riddled with all these problems as well. It isn’t just a question of, “Well, whatever your problem is, you just need more democracy.” Democracy – this is another sort of Niebuhrian maxim – that every gain in a social justice struggle does open up new possibilities for, and even new kinds of evil. That Democratic majorities can be, if they’re selfish, if they’re xenophobic, if they’re racist, if they’re, you know, whatever, of course, can create these sort of new structures of evil that then have to be overcome.
CORNEL WEST: But both you all would acknowledge that, I mean, Thucydides understood that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, that Wole Soyinka understands the role of greed, selfishness, egoism, narcissism. Neither one of them have a notion of original sin. So we want to make space for our secular comrades in that regard. But it seems to me-
BILL MOYERS: A lot of people reject the notion of original sin.
CORNEL WEST: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Where do you come out on that?
CORNEL WEST: Well, I mean, it’s a leap of faith. The thing is, is that as a Christian, we believe, in fact, that we’re made in the image of God, and therefore, there’s a sanctity and a dignity there, which means we have the potential to do something of, that contributes to truth, contributes to justice. At the same time, we know, we are crack vessels, so the best we can do is love our crooked neighbors with our crooked hearts, the way the great W.H. Auden would put it, so that we know that there’s a difficulty, given the corruption that is shot through who we are.
I mean, Chekhov, my favorite writer’s agnostic. Right. Now, he understands greed and corruption better than most Christian thinkers. But he’s agnostic.
He’s just a quester for truth. He’s trying to understand who we really are, and truth is something that’s available to Christians and non-Christians, Muslims and non-Muslims. In the end, there is a truth, and one of those truths is, we are prone toward corruption, misuse of power, abuse of reputation and so forth and so on.
So that we’re always already going to be inadequate. As Samuel Beckett, my other dear lapsed Irish Protestant atheist comrade would say. “We fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
BILL MOYERS: In tipping your head to two non-believing writers, you remind me, of course, that this is a pluralistic world and-
CORNEL WEST: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: A pluralistic world and society, American society. In fact a recent poll suggests that the number of Americans who call themselves Christian has fallen by about 11 percent. Isn’t it presumptuous to think that the world can be arranged according to Christian doctrine?
SERENE JONES: That’s actually one of the powerful things about what I think is the belly story of America at it’s best, is the story of democracy, which is, it’s a story that allows multiple faith stories to be held within it, in ways that are respectful and pulling forth the meaning of life questions. And allowing them to intermingle and interact, in a space that is encouraging of discussion and conflict.
CORNEL WEST: Part of it has to do with trying to get beyond the labels. What we’re really talking about, I think, is a certain kind of moral clarity and a certain kind of moral courage, and a certain kind of genuine moral compassion. And it comes from a variety of different traditions, so that we don’t want to get too obscure in our discourse, and not really just put on the table something that’s very simple. How deep is your love? What is the quality of your service to others? Are you concerned about those on the margins, or do we define a catastrophe only when it relates to investment bankers and Wall Street elites, as opposed to the precious children in chocolate cities?
Or white children in Appalachia? Or red children in Navajo reservations? What are we going to do? What are we willing to risk? What costs are we willing to actually undergo? You can’t be a Christian, if you’re not willing to pick up your cross. And, in the end, be crucified on it. That’s the bottom line. The rest of it just sounding brass and tinkling symbols. How deep is your love?
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that, because that offends many people, as you know, non-believers who say, “What do you, you know, the cross-”
CORNEL WEST: I didn’t tell them-
BILL MOYERS: “The death of-the crucifixion,” that’s offensive-
CORNEL WEST: No, no.
BILL MOYERS: To a lot of people-
CORNEL WEST: The cross signifies unarmed truth and unconditional love crushed by the Roman empire, embodied in the flesh of a first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus. So that you can be a non-Christian, concerned with poor people. Sometimes some of the greatest defenders of our poor brothers and sisters have been secular and pagan and Hindus like a Gandhi, and so forth and so on.
But for me as a Christian, it means I’m looking at those in the prison industrial complex. I’m looking for the children in our dilapidated school system, in the decrepit housing, those who don’t have health care and child care. So that Tom Friedmans and others, they’re looking at the world from the vantage point of the top.
Very much like brother Obama’s economic team. They’re not looking at the world through the lens of poor people and working people. They got Wall Street elites as their buddies, their cronies, intimate ties, so the vantage point through which they look at the world is very, very different. Christians begin with the catastrophic.
BILL MOYERS: How does that connect to what Gary talks about, economic democracy, and the failure of the whole capitalist model of the last few months?
GARY DORRIEN: There’s a tendency to sort of play up the distinctiveness of the moment. I mean, we’re just, we’re in it and it’s all around us, and people are suffering from it.
BILL MOYERS: The boom and bust?
GARY DORRIEN: You get an, yes, you get an economic oligarchy, a financial elite that rigs the game and its system. And they pile up a mountain of debt and they overreach in good times. And then the whole house comes collapsing down on everybody else. And then you end up having to deal with, you know, the mess. And if you’ve got an oligarchy, which you always have in these cases, they are always very good at taking care of their own.
That’s what elites do. And so, the question becomes, are you going to let them organize the recovery on their terms? Or are you going to break the power of the oligarchy. And then maybe get or build something better than what you had before. Now what I just described is not that much different than what Russia and Argentina and Malaysia and South Korea and plenty of other places have gone through. But it’s different in this case, of course, because it’s so much bigger. It went global almost immediately. And in our case, because we are so big, we can play by different rules than all these other cases. And that’s happens, and that’s what we’re objecting to right now, is that we’ll just sort of string along and hope for a recovery. And we’ll just have the same thing that we had before.
BILL MOYERS: But, go back for a moment. Aren’t you describing the way the world works? Isn’t that the way the economics of the world run?
GARY DORRIEN: Yes. But, there’s a tendency, in so much of the literature. Tom Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat,” is just sort of a catechism on this theme, of saying, well, the politics don’t really matter anymore. And that states themselves, don’t really matter.
The electronic herd has control of the world, but it doesn’t really have control, it just does what it does. And so there is no third way in political economy anymore. There isn’t even a second way, you know. There’s only one thing that sort of runs the world, and so you either get on with that program, or you’re going to be run over.
But I think you’ve got to recognize the change, in the context of understanding that politics always mattered. I mean, that some states did way better than others, in regulating this system and even believing that you needed to regulate it. In dealing with equality and even believing that equality was an important goal to serve. And beyond all that, simply look at what happened in the world in mid-September, and then October.
CORNEL WEST: This is where the-
GARY DORRIEN: Government suddenly came up with trillions of dollars-
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.
GARY DORRIEN: To hold up this system-
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.
GARY DORRIEN: That they had built and defended to begin with-
CORNEL WEST: Why is that so? Because they don’t look at the world through the lens of poor people-
GARY DORRIEN: Right.
CORNEL WEST: And working people.
GARY DORRIEN: Right.
CORNEL WEST: The question will be for churches, you can’t have a prosperity gospel anymore. The prosperity’s gone. You can’t have a chamber of commerce – religion chamber of commerce is in crisis. You can’t have a market spirituality and an imperial religiosity because the empire’s in trouble. It’s wavering and wobbling.
And the market is no longer a model, at all. So where do we go? Transitional moment. This is a moment of the interregnum. We are looking for new ways. Think of all of our Evangelical brothers and sisters who tie their Christian faith, in part, to Bush. They’re looking for other places because they know it was a form of idolatry. And we–this is something that’s a challenge to all of us, not just our evangelical brothers and sisters.
SERENE JONES: You ask how you would define this crisis? I think it’s a crisis of value. We have misplaced, in deep ways, the ruler that we use to measure what matters most in life. And it has become completely exhausted by monetary value.
But it’s sort of the simple story of how do we think about this?
Because I’ve got in front of me a class full of people who are sitting in a Union classroom to become a minister. And so what do we tell people who are going to go out, many of them are going to work in soup kitchens, they’re going to be working in clinics, they’re going to be in churches that, you know, don’t have 3 thousand people in them, but 30.
How do we help them understand the crisis in such a way that the remaking of the fabric, which can allow our democracy to thrive, happens? And, again, I just keep thinking it’s the simple concepts. How do we get people to rediscover love?
And we truly cannot find in ourselves sustained resources for thinking about love. For thinking about affection.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t it a fantasy to think that love can tame capitalism. In fact, you talk about the religion of catastrophe.
The origins of your faith. And, yet, the prosperity gospel, the gospel that began in a lot of big American churches, saying that God wants you to be rich, is spreading like wildfire to the rest of the world. Now, there’s a different take on your faith. That is not about catastrophe, but about success.
CORNEL WEST: But that’s part of the escapism. If they define success by how the world conceives of prosperity, rather than greatness. In the biblical text the greatness says what? He or she is greatest among you be your servant. There’s a clash here. A very important clash.
But love is not a real small thing. Love is not just the key that unlocks the door to ultimate reality. But there would be no weekend if there were not a trade union movement that loved justice enough, and loved working people enough, so that bosses wouldn’t treat them like commodities to be marginalized.
There would not be racial, the racial justice that we have of Martin King and Fannie Lou Hamer and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Phil Berrigan. There wouldn’t be, without the love that you all had for justice, and the love enough for black people, to say, “Quit niggerizing these people. Quit intimidating them. Quit trying to make them so scared that they won’t stand up and fight.” Love is a serious thing. When you love your mamma, you take a bullet for her if she’s treated unjustly. That’s why justice is what love looks like in public.
SERENE JONES: But this thing about the story of love that we have the capacity for includes, within it, a recognition of the harshness and the brokenness and the darkness of our lives. And love exists in that. It doesn’t exist despite it.
CORNEL WEST: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: I’m not sure you haven’t confused love with justice.
SERENE JONES: Justice is nothing but love with legs. Justice is what love looks like when it takes social form.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s the trade union movement you talked about.
SERENE JONES: That’s what love is.
CORNEL WEST: That’s the woman’s movement. That’s the gay and lesbian movement.
SERENE JONES: You put it in policy forms.
GARY DORRIEN: It’s the love that, that’s what holds you in the struggle, you know. Even if you’re not succeeding, you know.
CORNEL WEST: Allowing you to sustain and do.
GARY DORRIEN: It’s the energy. It propels you into a struggle in which you might not be succeeding.
BILL MOYERS: You remind me that all three of you come out of what, once upon a time, was called the Social Gospel movement. The movement to apply Christian ethical principles to society. And wasn’t that a response to the first round of economic collapse in the early part of the last century?
GARY DORRIEN: There is something new that started in the 1880s with the Social Gospel. You have a sociological consciousness itself that there’s such a thing as social structure. And so, well, if there’s such a thing as social structure then now there’s something that’s just different.
That makes the equation different. That it’s not just a question of bringing people to Jesus who will then transform society. But rather salvation itself has to be conceived, not just in personal, but social-structural terms. So, with the Social Gospel movement in the 1880s, you do, for the first time, see preaching and theology in which Christian salvation is being talked about as including making movements toward the change of social structures themselves in the direction of something that’s now being called social justice.
CORNEL WEST: There’s a sense of-
GARY DORRIEN: Because even the term social justice is only coined during that very same period.
BILL MOYERS: But the Social Gospel tradition was, in itself, overwhelmed by the materialism of the last part of the 20th century and by the turbo capitalism that you were talking about enshrined in Thomas Freidman’s icon. I mean, the Social Gospel was not sufficient to sustain itself against the power of economics and, in fact, structural wealth. Right?
CORNEL WEST: Right. That’s true.
SERENE JONES: But I think we can never underestimate the crisis of desire. That it wasn’t just that there was – it didn’t have enough social strength, or a good enough analysis. That what turbo capitalism does, is it – the biggest, sort of, war zone is interior to us – where it takes over your desire. It makes you into a creature who wants to buy the commodities. So you could have a great political analysis. But what you’re doing, on the ground every day, is you’re fueling this turbo capitalism. And it’s in the churches that another kind of desire should have been being crafted. That’s where you can get people in their bones and really begin to force the question of, what is it that you want? What makes you happy? What makes your life mean? What, you know, it’s those deep questions of want.
BILL MOYERS: But most people believe in capitalism because they think it delivers them, it does deliver them, that standard of living that is at the heart of their longings.
SERENE JONES: But that’s also why we need to re-craft the story of want. We need to-and this comes back to the whole question of love. What does it mean to begin to nurture communities? And this is why I think it’s crucial for democracy to thrive. To make it matter to people as much that they respect others.
That they are engaged in a collective project together of running this world. Now, that doesn’t mean to suggest that basic economic stability is something that we can turn away from. But it means how we build the whole thing up into a house that we live in together is going to have to be a house decorated with things that are not the things we want right now.
BILL MOYERS: But you’re talking about two different realities. And that’s understandable. The reality of the human heart, which theology and religion and poetry touch. But the reality of economic structures, too. We’re not far from the church where one of the great articulators, one of the first pioneers of the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, held forth in Hell’s Kitchen here in New York for a long time. What do you think the Social Gospel would say today about the structure of the economy as it has been incarnated in Wall Street and the financial and banking industry?
GARY DORRIEN: Well, in fact, Rauschenbusch did speak to exactly this issue that Serene’s bringing up. That’s why he wanted to expand the cooperative sector. He said, “We’ve got to create structures in which,” the way he would often put it, is, “Which bad people are forced to do good things.”
That is if you set up, have structures in which cooperation is actually rewarded. Where you’re met – where you have to deal with other people. Be solicitous of what they need. What they care about. And the like. That you can actually set up reward systems that make a better society. And sometimes he’d say you can even live out – you could be a Christian without having to retire from the world. And so that, I think these two things actually were tied together quite closely.
CORNEL WEST: I think in our present moment, though, it seems to me, the major challenge has to do with the sentimentalism, on one hand, which is an escape from reality, history, memory, and mortality and the flipside, which is cynicism. Which is just preoccupation with the 11th commandment, “Though shall not get caught.”
And just read the business pages these days. What do we see? Gangster activity. Scandal after scandal. Stealing, stealing. Embezzlement, embezzlement. That is the back- this is the after effect of greed, indifference and fear.
Now we – as a Christian, I know there’ll never be paradise in space and time. There’ll never be utopia in human history. The question is: do we have the kind of conviction, commitment, courage and willingness to serve to make things better the short time that we are here to pass onto our children?
Capitalism is tamed only when those persons who are victimized, be they children or workers and others, love each other and justice enough to organize and mobilize and push capitalism into, like in the 1930s, collective bargaining rights for workers, right?
Or the 1960s. Black folk against American terrorism, Jim Crowe. They love enough. And even our elites. Our elites are not to be demonized. Elites can make choices. They’re not locked into a category. That are connected to truth and justice. But it takes courage.
BILL MOYERS: You said the age of Obama is about everyday people. And you asked the question: how do we unleash their power? What’s the evidence that that’s happening?
CORNEL WEST: Well, I think it’s a very complicated situation. Because, of course, the age of Obama actually emerges with a discredited Republican party in disarray. With a mediocre Democratic party that only had the Clinton machine at the center. And if this charismatic, brilliant, young, black brother can somehow get over the Clinton machine, he can become president.
That’s why I supported him. Critically! A Socratic, prophetic, orientation toward the brother, right? Because he becomes the initiator of a new age. We had to bring the age of Reagan to a close. The era of conservatism had to be brought to a close. Thank God it was. But then the question will be, well, is he going to focus on the poor and working people? Will he recycle neo-liberal elites from the old establishment of Wall Street – which the economic team is?
BILL MOYERS: We know the answer to that.
CORNEL WEST: We know the answer to that.
BILL MOYERS: Right after the election, you were-
CORNEL WEST: Will he recycle the same neo-imperial elites when it comes to foreign policy. I know he’s dealing with tremendous power. Wall Street. Congress. And so forth, and so on. I understand the political considerations. People have the right to organize. Lobbies have a right to bring power and pressure to bear. That’s what American democracy’s about.
But that’s not truth. That’s not the same as prophetic witness to truth. Especially as Christians, you see. So that the critique launched against Barack Obama, be it Gaza, be it Darfur, be it in Ethiopia, be it wherever. It has to be put forward. That is the calling of prophetic Christians.
GARY DORRIEN: Well, I wouldn’t even give him the out that Cornel just gave him. Because I think, in fact, he could stay in his lane and do way better than he has on the economy, and also on scaling back the military empire.
So, on those two things, to be so solicitous of Wall Street, to have treatment of the banks that’s just absurdly favorable to their interests, and refusing to clear out shareholders, and refusing to get to the bottom of it.
And also in his just utter refusal to really face up to the cost and extent of the military empire that, even though he notes in this book, “The Audacity of Hope,” is outspending the next 25 nations combined in the military. He says in the next paragraph, and he has continued on this line, that we need to expand it further. So we’ve got nothing coming on sort of pulling back on that issue as well. On the other hand, you can’t say that this has been a cautious president overall.
I mean, it’s quite amazing that he is taking on virtually everything one way or another at the same time. So he has – there’s been a fair amount of audacity in deciding that this is his moment. There’s not going to be a better moment to come along anyway.
If he’s going to do something about health care, or a number of issues. Dealing with Iran, maybe make a breakthrough with Cuba. That he’s got to put his cards on the table now and get what he can.
BILL MOYERS: You said, after the election, “We want to give him time. We want to give him room.” And my question to you is: how much room and how much time?
CORNEL WEST: Well, the first thing we want to do, we want to protect him, and he and his precious family. Second thing we want to do, we want to make sure all the criticism is fair, so it’s not ad hominids, it’s not personal. It’s not racist. It’s not whatever, you see.
At the same time, he is subject to all the same requirements of truth and justice as any other president, any color. So my criticism out of love for, not just the people, but Barack Obama himself. How my criticism help him? Give him strength? He plans to be progressive Lincoln. Fine. That’s difficult. He will be helped by more progressive Frederick Douglasses. That’s what I aspire to.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see the-
CORNEL WEST: To help him push him in a progressive direction.
BILL MOYERS: Do you hear those voices coming from his left? We know about them from the right. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh. We all know them.
CORNEL WEST: Well, the voices are there! Paul Krugman, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ben Barber and William Greider and Ron Walters. The voices are there. He’s not yet listening. That’s the difference. Lincoln listened to Douglass, Garrison. Brother Barack Obama, he is listening too much to Summers, Thurman, Geithner. We can go right down the neo liberal list. That’s dangerous if he wants to be a progressive president.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think that is?
SERENE JONES: I think one of the reasons that it happens is that we are living in a very overwhelming time. And it’s always going to be the case that a conservative familiar neo liberal agenda sounds safer.
Because it’s what we know. But the truth of the matter is what we know is what got us in trouble in the first place. So it’s one of those moments that everybody faces in their own life. We happen to be facing it structurally right now. Is everything collapses, what do we do? In the midst of that fear, do we grasp for what’s most familiar? That’s what’s happening. But the very thing you’re grasping for is the thing that got you there in the first place.
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.
SERENE JONES: It takes a little opening of spirit and an opening of intellect and courage. It’s courage.
CORNEL WEST: Absolutely. There is a reluctance of Barack Obama to step into the age of Barack Obama. We must help him do that out of love, not just for him, but for poor people and working people. That’s when the age of Obama becomes the age of what Sly Stone calls “every day people.”
GARY DORRIEN: There’s also just the political angle. I mean, it’s almost too obvious to say, and yet there it is, that he does tend to take for granted his base. And he’s always looking to move out from it. So he’s not terribly worried whether progressive Christians are going to support him. Because they’ve been there from the very beginning
CORNEL WEST: Why does he take the base for granted, do you think?
GARY DORRIEN: Oh, well much of the base is just too nice and quiet and willing to roll over for him.
CORNEL WEST: It’s a moment of euphoria! Which is blinding. But when we become more cantankerous, vociferous, noisy, in love, based on, focus on the least of these, he’s going to have to take us seriously. And we just tell the President we are coming.
BILL MOYERS: So I want to ask the three of you from your perspectives. Is it conceivable to you that, as we may be moving into a post racial society, we may be moving into a post-Christian society?
SERENE JONES: I love that term, actually because Christianity could well be its best when it gets completely undone. And Christians who are committed to prophetic presence in the world should be, in one sense, thrilled by the possibility of it being post-Christian.
Because it may mean we’re coming to the end of some structures of religiosity that were deadly. You know, in the Protestant Reformation they were calling it the end of Christendom. And what emerged on the other side of it was a completely new form.
BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that there’s a…you sense a hope, now for a new reformation?
SERENE JONES: Oh. It’s a fantastic moment to be standing at a seminary. That’s one of the reasons why I decided, after 17 years at Yale, to come to New York and be at the helm of this little school. It has a great legacy, but it’s not a huge mega university.
It’s because, and you can feel it in New York so palpably, but what is happening globally. Change in forms of technology. The breakdown and reconfiguration of the nation state. Forms of economic interaction that have never before been imagined.
And a crisis of knowledge. And a crisis of value. Parallel, in really profound ways, what was happening 500 years ago when this little guy named John Calvin got run out of Paris because he was asking the secular question. They ran him out of Paris. And he ends up in Geneva. And, in the midst of all of that, begins to listen to what’s happening in Europe. That’s the challenge right now, is for us to listen to what’s happening globally and to be able to track the emergent forms of spirit. The emergent forms of organizations. The forms of love and the forms of hope that people are finding on the ground in the midst of these changes and that is going to be sort of the spirituality that’s coming. And it’s coming fast.
BILL MOYERS: But channel the good Calvin for a moment, Serene. Who listened, as you said, and heard the rustling sounds of spring sprigs in Europe. What are you seeing and hearing right now that give you some sense of encouragement, despite the fact that everything that’s tied down is coming loose?
SERENE JONES: What I see in my students is powerful. It is a sense that, in the crumbling of all of this, what is being unleashed is an intense sense of the embodied character of faith. Call it Pentecostal. You can see it in my students now. What does it mean to call them Pentecostal? It’s not the traditional things we think of. But these are students who are coming off the set of “American Idol.” Or they’ve been on a war ship outside of Iraq.
Or they’ve been stocking shelves in Texas. And they’re coming to Union committed to social justice. And open to the power of the spirit in physical ways that give them this kind of zealousness that, for a large swath of time, the liberal left lost. They’re doing this as a whole new generation for whom tactility, thinking about the way the body lives in the world. It’s actually exciting to me. Because I think, in their own lives, we’re seeing the contestation of the power of the market to configure desire. Because they don’t want those market desires in the same way my generation did. They’re critical of them. They’re coming up with new forms of music. And they’re very committed to a sense of passion in it. To use a very scholarly term, I think we need to use it more often, I think it’s a crisis of metaphysics. These students are asking, and their liberal professors, questions about, you know, “Do you really believe that God exists?”
Now, the liberal church is sort of, you know, wanting to say, “Well, it might be a myth. It might be a symbol. We can say this about it. We can back away.” These students are saying, “I’m not going to get out there on the front line, and I’m not going to reconfigure my interior world to desire different things…” If this isn’t real, they want something real that is an alternative.
GARY DORRIEN: Certainly, from our experience of the course, this is an extraordinary generation. I mean, it’s, they are connected. They care. They’re looking for, they’re always sort of obsessing about what’s real. I mean, they’ve got radar for what’s unreal.
For what is just merely abstract, or it doesn’t really speak to their condition. What isn’t going to make a difference. What kind of learning doesn’t make any difference at all. They’ve got radar for that. But they’re very hungry for what is going to make a difference. And how it is that they can live out their faith in this world that we’re creating.
SERENE JONES: They’re not afraid of hard thinking. But they also want, they want beauty. The beauty of the thought to inspire.
CORNEL WEST: This is one of the reasons why these new forms that we’re talking about find black forms and afro-American forms so attractive.
SERENE JONES: Absolutely.
CORNEL WEST: Because here you got this leaven in this larger American loaf been sitting here all this time. These young white brothers and sisters, they want to get into hip hop. They want to be able to move their bodies. They want to have an orality that is smooth like Jay-Z. There is something about the black experience in America, at its best.
We know we got black gangsters like anybody else. At its best that speaks to these kinds of issues. You’ve got Martin as the best, in many ways, in the political sphere. You got Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin. So much of the best in the cultural sphere. Now the young folk are hungry for it. We’ll see. We’re in a new transition.
SERENE JONES: And what you’ve done so well, in this class, is remind us again and again that space of the real is not a Christianity that’s nice. It’s a Christianity in which there’s love. But mixed into it is the harshness of this. I mean, our students want that.
CORNEL WEST: It’s the funk. It’s the funk. It’s the funk of life.
SERENE JONES: It is.
CORNEL WEST: That’s what black life is about. But, in the end, that’s what human life is about. How funky is your faith.
BILL MOYERS: Serene Jones, Gary Dorrien, Cornel West, I’ve enjoyed this very much. And I thank you for being with me on the Journal.
GARY DORRIEN: Thank you.
SERENE JONES: Thank you.
CORNEL WEST: Thank you.