Cornel West on Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization
“Now, with the age of Obama, the question becomes: Can prophetic religion, in all of its various forms, mobilize people, generate levels of righteous indignation against injustice—not raw rage at persons, not ad hominem attacks—can we put pressure on President Obama?”—Cornel West
Cornel West’s essay, “Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization,” published in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, offers a defense of civil disobedience and emancipatory theology. West also calls for both secularists and believers to understand and listen to each other with greater care. In the conclusion of his piece, West examines the limits and possibilities of prophetic religion to challenge the status quo (To read excerpts from essays by the other contributors to The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere: Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler and Craig Calhoun.)
The dominant forms of religions are well-adjusted to greed and fear and bigotry. Hence well-adjusted to the indifference of the status quo toward poor and working people. Prophetic religion is an individual and collective performative praxis of maladjustment to greed, fear, and bigotry. For prophetic religion the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. Yet it is always tied to some failure—always. There are moments, like the 1960s in capitalist civilization or the 1980s in communist civilization that prophetic awaking takes place. It doesn’t last too long, because the powers-that-be are not just mighty, but they’re very clever and they dilute and incorporate in very seductive ways—or sometimes they just kill you!
In this age of Obama many of us broke our necks to bring the age of Reagan and the era of conservatism to a close. Now, with the age of Obama, the question becomes: Can prophetic religion, in all of its various forms, mobilize people, generate levels of righteous indignation against injustice—not raw rage at persons, not ad hominem attacks—can we put pressure on President Obama? He’s listening to technocratic elites in his economic team who have never had any serious concern with poor people and working people. He’s mesmerized by their braininess and seduced by their establishment status and Wall Street connections. The same is true with his neoimperial team in foreign policy. President Obama’s charismatic version of American exceptionalism promotes Keynesian neoliberalism at home and liberal neoconservatism abroad. This is confusing to some, but clear to prophetic religious and secular folk who love poor and working people.
But what’s fascinating is, he was able to mobilize based on a democratic rhetoric and ended up with technocratic policies. We’ve seen that before. He’s got progressive instincts. Will he stand up? We won’t even talk about healthcare. My God.
But, in talking about prophetic religion, we’re talking about something that is engaging, something that is risk taking, and it has everything to do with the enabling virtue, which is courage—the courage to expand empathy, expand imagination, think critically, organize, mobilize, and maybe, like Brother Martin Luther King Jr., pay the ultimate price. But it’s all in bearing witness. Bearing witness, that’s what the call is about. That’s what the vocation is about.