This post are some thoughts from my reading of Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism.
I have heard Cornel West speak before from recordings on the internet, and those were certainly engaging if not impressive, but admittedly, this is the first time I have read him. I found West’s writing style to be similarly engaging, smooth and impressive. In fact, his book seemed to function well as a written text, but also was organized in such a way as to stay with the reader long after the audience has left, like an oral presentation. His ability to distill concepts seemed very good on the whole and his thesis of calling for the embodiment of Socratic questioning, prophetic witness and the honest tragicomic hope certainly highlighted both his ability to distill complexities and to communicate well. It seems that the impression of the oral nature of his book, while maintaining the integrity of a text engaging with complex ideas, was in the end due to his ability to categorize the distilled complex issues into threes: three dominating and antidemocratic dogmas, three nihilisms, and three democratic actions of being – Socratic questioning, prophetic witness and tragicomic hope. On the basis of communicator alone, I have a great deal to learn from Cornel West.
I found the chapter “Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities” both interesting and informative. While the Jewish section proved to helpful, the Islamic section was certainly the more engaging of the two and with certain reason for it intersected with my Christian-Muslim dialogue class that I am also taking. In fact West quotes from Khaled Abou El-Fadl (West 133-134), who I have previously made a link between him and William Cavanaugh from reading Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Khaled Abou El-Fadl writing on the chaos within the Muslim communities, particularly in the Arab world, seems to parallel William Cavanaugh’s theopolitical interpretation of the nation-state (El-Fadl 46). El-Fadl asserts that the jealousness of the state obliterates alternative social space, having “formally dismantled the traditional institutions of civil society, and Muslims witnessed the emergence of highly centralized and despotic, and often corrupt, governments that nationalized the institutions of religious learning and brought the awqaf under state control,” for the state seeks to assert power over its citizens and justify its raison d’etat (El-Fadl 47). El-Fadl also attributes the appearance of the state and its deconstruction of “traditional institutions of religious authority” to the rise of groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The call by the state for the necessity of the state and the need for violence to ensure the state became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I actually dislike Constantinian history. From afar Constantinian history makes sense and indeed can be supported, however, upon close inspection (which I did in a paper for a McGuckin class) I found that the history is quite literally lacking – there is a void of sources. Before the McGuckin paper I was already sympathetic to Cavanaugh’s understanding of history for numerous reasons and after the paper, along with the theopolitical and theoeconomic conclusions I have found from Khaled Abou El-Fadl and Farid Esack that seem to affirm William Cavanaugh and Eugene McCarraher (“The Enchantments of Mammon: Notes Toward a Theological History of Capitalism” in Modern Theology, July 2005), I am reticent to support a Constantinian history. Not only is Constantinianism vague where clarity is needed, but it also does not speak sharply enough towards today’s evils of the nation-state functioning as savior and the market as an alternative enchantment which then in turn colonize and oppress. Interestingly, El-Fadl and Esack seem to function as liberationists within the Muslim world, however, El-Fadl and Esack criticize liberal Muslims for working within the systems that obliterate religious social space by colonizing their community. However, many liberationists I have encountered here in the states, more specifically at Union, have accepted a great deal of Niebuhr – particularly on the idea of power and the need to attain it. I find it helpful that both Muslims and some specific Christian groups (i.e. Witness Against Torture, which comes from the Catholic Worker) understand the need for liberative salvation, but also seek to pursue that as a faith community, instead from within nation-state channels.
Interestingly, the convergence of Muslim and Christian scholars can occur, not only on the issues of liberation, but also the infusion of liberation within the Cavanaugh historical reading, McCarraher economic reading and the Yoder/Hauerwas communal ecclesiology. Muslim scholars stand against the colonizing system while holding to their identity and not entirely work within the system, but also work towards both public action and social justice. The combination by Muslim scholars seems to show that both communal identity and nonviolent social action can work hand in hand. In fact this combination is already evident in Christianity in groups like Witness Against Torture that are found within the Catholic Worker, although I do anticipate some alteration and tension to occur when entire families become involved in such work, for we now live in a time where simple peace workers and protestors are being put on FBI watch lists.
I find it ironic that my solution to Cornel West’s (and one of Gary Dorrien’s in Soul in Society) critique of Hauerwas – the lack of social justice and visible, loud movement by the church into public sphere (as opposed towards only quietly subversive hospitality, care for the poor, etc.) – is for Hauerwas to leave one of the similarities between him and West which is one of the foundations for Hauerwas, and for Hauerwas to move towards a more radicalizing narrative and outwardly focused critique. In the end, while Hauerwas and West may differ on issues they previously agreed upon, I believe West would welcome the improvement of adding Hauerwas’ voice and the communal church into the visible fight for justice.