Well, okay. I didn’t actually even shake his hand, much less get to talk with him one-on-one. But I got to hear Cornel West speak at my university today, and I was both moved and impressed.
Impressed: because he’s got such an stirring delivery. If I tried to riff on the whole scale of emotion and power that he uses, I’d come across as a screeching, bombastic pedant. (Heck, I’m still trying to get comfy with wielding a microphone when I lecture!) But he’s got the voice and presence to pull off the sort of oratory that’s otherwise reserved for legendary preachers.
Moved: because he’s not just way smarter than me, and he’s not just a brilliant showman. He calls us to tend to our own spiritual maturity while committing ourselves to rooting out oppression. He takes Socrates’ injunction that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” mixes it with the blues, and inspires you to recommit to a better self and a better world. Actually, the better self is the bridge to that better world.
I’m not going to try to summarize all that West said. (He was giving the keynote at a conference on a founder of progressive Islam, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, a Sudanese visionary executed by his government for his beliefs, whom West grouped with Gandhi, King, and Mandela.) Instead, I’ll just share a few of the lines that I found most inspiring, yet pithy enough that I got them on paper – no small thing, because the ideas were flowing so furiously.
Indifference is the one trait that makes the very angels weep. It’s the very essence of inhumanity.
Optimism deodorizes the catastrophic. Hope allows us to confront the catastrophic.
These weren’t just eloquent yet empty phrases. While celebrating Obama’s upcoming inauguration, West called on “Brother Barack” to serve hope, not optimism. To speak out against the carnage in Gaza. To explain why he chose Rick Warren in apparent contempt of his LGBT supporters.
This, however, is the thought I’ve promised myself to repeat every day until it becomes part of my blood and bones:
Justice is what love looks like in public.
Imagine what the world might look like if that became everyone’s mantra. Imagine how different our history would be. How radiant our future.