I started listening to Cornel West being interviews by Glenn Loury, and just found it rapidly unendurable. I should give the man credit, for frequently appearing onstage with conservatives to discuss free speech and civil dialogue. It is likely my problem, not his, so I won't describe what put me off. My particular frustration was with one concept, however. Loury called himself a lapsed Christian, and went on to describe that he had fallen away from the church and was rethinking all his philosophical ideas in the context of writing his memoirs, which are expected to come out in about a year.
West, who was let go from Harvard a second time recently and now teaches at Union Theological, affiliated with Columbia University, told Glenn it wasn't a problem to fall away from the church, but he couldn't let himself "fall away from the love." I went back to make sure I had heard that right, because to say that he shouldn't let himself fall away from the Lord would be unremarkable. But no, it was clearly love that he shouldn't be falling away from. He went on to say that Loury had to still use his "talents" to help "the least of these." Those are both clearly meant to have Jesus echoes, from Matthew 25. People use biblical illustrations without necessarily meaning to imply a moral or religious idea, as that literature is part of our common storehouse. In literature, when you encounter a garden, a little light should go on in the back of your head, "metaphor alert!" Yet in this case I think he is making a definite this is the important part of the Gospel statement, which he reinforced immediately, claiming that this didn't have much to do with the church or even Christianity. Well, Union Theological. Not unexpected.
I was reminded of Unknown's comment under another recent post, The Fourth Person of the Trinity, that there is a modern deification of The Poor. I think that's almost what's happening here. I think it fits more closely with the CS Lewis teaching not to use biblical language to sell secular ideas. which I referenced recently under Scottish Independence. Jesus used talents in a solidly spiritual sense, and references to "the least of these" never referred to only the least of these nor even especially the least of these, though the latter might be more defensible. He spoke in a context of people not regarding the poor as at all important. They were viewed as under God's disfavor. He did speak of reversals, of the last being first, or how hard it was for the rich to enter heaven, but these are more spiritual warnings for the rich than directions. I admit it is not far different. Because of the practical difficulties of loving the unlovable, you can go a long way subbing in the face of them for the face of Jesus, even if that also falls short in the end. We all have to sub in something we actually know in that spot, though we will have to discard even that in the end before the face of God.
But I don't think Cornel West gets even that far. If I thought he meant the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, the disfigured, the lonely and rejected, the abused, and the defeated I wouldn't object enough to put up a blog post about it. But I don't think that's what he means. I think he means black people, and secondarily, some scattered "victims of capitalism." In that context talents takes on a new meaning as well: political rather than spiritual talents. West has convinced himself that his political ideas are the actual gospel.
My first thought was that this is all too common in the black church. But I quickly wondered if this is more general, that it is a natural human response of oppressed people, whose political and spiritual lives have deep connection. I thought of some of the Romanian Baptists I met who had been deeply oppressed under communism. Some had burrowed deep into removal from this world and focus on Christ, while others were actively aware of the mistreatment they received because of their faith and how that was being allowed to happen, being made to happen. I thought of what I know of persecuted churches worldwide, and also of the actions of missionaries who go to poor countries. Doing the most good sometimes involves advocacy, even simple things like helping people write a letter or putting them in contact with the proper authorities, and sliding into making advocacy the most important piece must be difficult. We don't want to be one of those upbraided in the book of James, telling others to "be warmed and filled" without meeting their physical needs.