Last night curious students packed into Lerner Cinema to see Princeton professor and celebrity Cornel West talk on “how we can engage in activism that is characterized by faith, perseverance, courage and hope” in Haiti. Bwog’s Semi-Secretly Christian Organizations correspondent Derek Huang reports that students got more consideration of spirituality than of Port-au-Prince.
In a time when American mainstream media portrays human tragedy fleetingly, the Veritas Forum and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship invited Dr. Cornel West, professor of African American Studies and Religion at Princeton University, to discuss how to positively engage in humanitarian activism. Even though the lecture was originally titled “After the Headlines: Remaining Engaged in Haiti,” West primarily spoke about the reason for engaging in humanitarian aid and offered his thoughts from a Christian perspective. The program began with a presentation from Gabrielle Apollon (CC ’09, SIPA ’10). After showing the audience a video documenting her experiences in Haiti during the earthquake, Apollon introduced the issue of faith to the discussion, talked briefly about how she viewed her experience through the lens of Christianity, and invited West to the stage.
Apollon began by asking West how he believes “people [can be] engaged in situations that seem so far away.” Here, West offered his primary point of the night: he criticized how our nation as a whole insists on essentially ignoring the plight of the suffering. West argued that the reason why large-scale, sustained public consciousness about the suffering in our world doesn’t exist in our nation is because, throughout history, America and its people have acted to “deodorize” our nation and ignore the “funk” of our past and present – that is, to consciously recolor our experiences in a way that makes it easy for us to ignore “the voices of the suffering.” West discussed the requirement of Abraham’s Covenant to the “hypersensitivity” to experiences of human suffering, and argued that America as a whole is consciously refusing this hypersensitivity.
West then asserted that Christianity is a motivator for this hypersensitivity to suffering. Citing passages from the Bible, he argued that consciousness of suffering is a requirement of Christian living. West emphasized his own background as a Christian and detailed how his life had impacted his beliefs. While West specifically mentioned how his parents, both Christian, influenced his early life, his story was compelling because he highlighted how, through decades of work in academia, he remained attached to his heritage as a Christian because of his knowledge and appreciation for the greatest critics of Christianity.
This motivation colored the rest of the discussion, as West dissected topics ranging from the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s, to the Reagan era, to the Obama administration. In particular, West was careful to emphasize that, while he supported the progress Obama has made, he still considers Obama’s administration to lie too closely with the traditional political organization, emphasizing in particular how Obama has recycled many of the advisers to the Clinton administration. Instead, West actually considers Christianity as being a primary force that can exist “outside the parochial hierarchy.” The connection to West between Christianity and being compelled to speak out against this disequilibrium seemed clear: rather than holding a more traditional view of the church as a static, stoic, and hopelessly outdated institution, West’s religion is based in Biblical law commanding him to consider those less fortunate, and, since it exists on an individual level, is immediately motivating.
Ultimately, West emphasized that while spirituality can inform our actions, personal convictions are choices. In a world where most mainstream attention to religion is given to fundamentalism and fringes, West provides a compelling argument that religion need not be viewed with such animosity as it often is. While spirituality and religion are increasingly being portrayed as “blind,” West instead argued for a core tenet of the Veritas Forum: spirituality can and should be thoughtfully approached from an intellectual standpoint. After being prompted by the final question to give advice to students wrestling with spirituality, West emphasized the need to “read voraciously” and “engage in conversation.” West’s voice is a compelling reason, if not for the ultimate adherence to faith, for actively considering the motivating force that faith can provide.