Another Reading of West’s Race Matters and the Christian faith

It was during my senior year in high school when Karlyn Hunter introduced me to the thinking and writings of Cornel West. I believe I have read Race Matters some 10 – 12 times since high school, and I guess 13 times if you count tonight. West, who is a self proclaimed Chekhovian Christian and Post-Modern Marxist, is committed to democratic values and social justice. He is obsessed with confronting the pervasive evil of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery in the world. Moreover, he is determined to explore the intellectual sources and existential resources that feed societal courage.West is an intellectual Marxist who realizes the merit of such a philosophy in addressing social vice and ill; however, he also realizes that Marxism cannot serve as a religion. Because of this perspective, his writings constitute a perennial struggle between his African and American identities, his democratic socialist convictions and his Christian sense of profound tragedy, his possible triumph in life and history. It was my reading of West’s prophetic pragmatism that drove me to read more about the dynamics of critical race theory, historical transformations, and to search and explore the problems of sexism, racism, classism, and other ugly adjectives that a Christian must understand in order to remove ignorance from the minds of the masses.

In my quest to do this, I found my self reading from the likes of my favorite intellectuals: DuBois, Ellison, Knowles, Thoreau, Hurston, Wright, Sartre, Rorty, and Kierkegaard, to list a few. It was my reading of such great intellectuals that allowed me to join the ranks of the Talented Tenth. There are questions that I and other Christians must constantly present and address in order to deconstruct a world lost in materialism. And, as I concluded years ago, Christians are human too. Thus I witnessed too many Christian churches segregated by race and class while growing up. This was especially true amongst some Christians living in Montgomery, Alabama who too were lost in ignorance. I am blessed that my faith has guided my intellect, thus it is my intellect that will serve as a vehicle in sharing my faith.

West’s table of contents in Race Matters reads something like this:

1. Nihilism in Black America
2. The Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning
3. The Crisis of Black Leadership
4. Demystifying the New Black Conservative
5. Beyond Affirmative Action: Equality and Identity
6. On Black-Jewish Relations
7. Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject
8. Malcolm X and Black Rage

As with most works of scholarship, this piece of literature has a distinctive point of view. I do not agree with everything presented by West; however, I do embrace the way he challenges my intellect. I have heard him speak twice thus far, once at an academic conference in Chicago and again at the University of Houston. I even met him while working in Princeton last spring. West left Harvard two years ago only to return to Princeton. He found himself engaged in a major disagreement with the now removed Larry Summers, former president of Harvard. (Click HERE to read West’s account)


16 thoughts on “Another Reading of West’s Race Matters and the Christian faith

  1. I read Race Matters in my junior year at college, in one of the toughest classes (with one of the toughest professors) I’ve ever had – even to this day. I EARNED that A, I’ll tell you that! The book is still in my collection (I ditched the bell hooks tome – I read Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics in that same class but felt like an idiot by the time I was through it. Honestly, it was the single most frustrating experience of my undergrad career; I had no idea what I was supposed to understand once I’d finished Ms. hook’s book).

    I come at these questions as neither an African American nor a Christian. I wonder if that fact leaves out important bits of background information that I need to really get underneath the issues West is addressing. Perhaps I should re-read it, now that I’ve got a bit more thinking and learning and growing under my belt…

  2. Like Chili, I am not black or a Christian, and have not read this booh. But I wonder if such a position can really united groups on matters of class, race, and ideology, oor does it drive all of us in very different directions. I have read many of your post on west and do understand why you hero worship him.

    What bugs you the most about Montgomery? You have mentioned it here before and I seem get that you do not like the place. Better yet, it seems at times that you are angry and scared of it. I might be reading too much into this.

  3. I am not familiar with West or any of his work, but he sounds like a very intelligent man.

    You bring up an interesting point about Christians and social issues. For some reason, Christianity is often associated with the right. Conservatives often state that their political beliefs are based on their religious beliefs; the old “my pastor says homosexuality is wrong and so does John McCain, so that is who I am voting for” routine.

    I, for one, moved away from Conservatism and more towards Liberalism after spending time studying the Bible for myself. Carson stated that West is “a self proclaimed Chekhovian Christian and Post-Modern Marxist” who is “obsessed with confronting the pervasive evil of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery in the world.” Upon studying the Bible, I discovered that Jesus held a very similar belief.

    Unfortunately, many Christians rely on the clergy’s interpretation of the Bible instead of their own, which can explain the reason that many Christians hold the belief that only true Conservatives can be Christians.

  4. The more I moved away from the Bible the more liberal I became… or maybe it was the other way around. They’re were probably both intertwined a bit.

    It puzzles me though how people persecuted by a church of one religion would gradually start their own race’s church of the same religion…

  5. I have found that Christianity teaches the greatest good of society: Taking care of the poor. Walker, I suspect people who start a church for reasons different than what Christ teaches are probably not really Christians. The KKK is the best example. They use the cross but do not really know what it stands for. Do you agree?

    Dillon: I have an extra copy.

  6. I really need to read Race Matters, but I just don’t have the time right now. Maybe when I’m done with all my college apps I can sit down on a nice, calm weekend and have a good read. I also need to catch up on the next few on my reading list- Plato and Gogol. I wish there were more hours in the day!

    But since everyone is telling their tale of how they came to the liberal philosophy, I shall share my account, too.
    Up to freshman year, I was quite naive and ignorant in my beliefs, and unfortunately I followed the crowd and chose to blend in with my surroundings, so naturally, living in the South, I seemed to take a more conservative approach. During freshman year, however, I started to learn about politics and the various ideologies, and I started to become interested in liberalism. The more I researched, the more and more I realized that it was what I believed. Ever since, I have come to the conclusion that a deregulated free market is a complete fairytale and one really cannot exist. Not too long ago, I familiarized myself with the democratic socialists, and now I label myself as one, too.

  7. I must admit a bit of puzzlement as to how reading the bible in it’s entirety is what led so many of you to liberalism (the completely opposite effect happened to me). Many of the staples of liberalism in America are clearly defined as wrong in the bible and yet you say that the teachings of the Bible and the teachings of Liberalism are not mutually exclusive. I don’t mean to step on anybody’s beliefs but…well here we go.

    1) Abortion = I find great irony in the fact that the most dangerous place for humans to live is in the womb. today, over 98% of all abortions are done for non-medical reasons which is about 1,000,000 babies annually. Old testament law in Exodus 21:22-23 states, “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life.” Would God have placed such requirements on the Israelites if he did not value human life while it was in the womb.

    I know, your first argument will be that Jesus is the New Testament which was given to us through the shedding of his blood. Well, there is quite a bit of indirect mention of abortion in the New Testament as well. Matthew 18:10 states, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you, that their angels in heaven continually behold the face of My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus clearly has an unspoken affinity for the little ones of the world because it is much easier to blindly follow anyone before a sense of individualism develops. Are we in agreement thus far?

    God also called out to many of his followers while they were in their mother’s womb. Luke 1:15 states about John the Baptist that, “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine or liquor; and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb.” In regards to Paul, the apostle states in Galatians 1:15 that, “But when He who had set me apart, even from my mother’s womb, and called me through His grace, was pleased.” Clearly God has a personal relationship with us before we exit the womb.

    1 Thessalonians 5:23 expresses the fact that the difference between human life and animal life is that human life has been endowed with a spirit. In the earliest of christian teachings, we learn that the spirit is the way through which we form a personal and meaningful relationship with the God that we worship. So the real question is, when is it that we begin to distinguish that life truly exists in the womb? Well, I have to agree with a biblical scholar by the name of Richard Deem on this one (who is also whom I gained much of my insight from). In his biblical basis for a Pro-Life position, Deem states:

    Even before God gave Moses the law, when He gave Noah and his family all the animals for food (in addition to the plants), He told them, “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:4). At the same time, God gave the law and penalty for murder (described as the shedding of “man’s blood”).7 Therefore, God considers blood to be the basis for life and the shedding of human blood, which results in death, to be murder. Science tells us that the heart of the human fetus begins to form 18 days after conception.8 There is a measurable heart beat 21-24 days after conception.9 Since blood is flowing at this point, it is likely that blood formation begins well before day 21 (I could find no reference for the date at which blood formation begins). Therefore, this represents the latest date at which we must consider the fetus to be human (according to biblical standards), which is only 7-10 days after a women would expect to begin her menses. Most women have cycles that can vary by this amount, and therefore do not discover they are pregnant until after this point. For all practical purposes, from a biblical perspective, abortion at any point must be considered murder by Bible-believing Christians.

    I would go into homosexuality and other religiously debatable topics but sadly I have fallen victim to time. Please give me your input on how you interpret the above. God Bless.

  8. Patrick,

    First of all, let me clarify something; I have not read the Bible in its entirety, though I am very impressed that you have.

    As far as your abortion argument goes, I completely agree with you; abortion is murder. However, governmental interference is not an effective way of reducing the number of abortions in the US. We need to make birth control available to everyone, including women of lower classes, and we need to provide information about reproduction and contraception to young women.

    If we were to pass a law outlawing abortion, women would still have unprotected sex without realizing its consequences. As opposed to having abortions, these women would give birth and put the children up for adoption. Then, the number of children up for adoption would surpass the number of people able and/or wanting to adopt children.

  9. Actually Patrick, my first argument would be that I’m not so sure that abortion is a staple of the liberal agenda. Also, I’m not thoroughly convinced that Jesus wants us to blindly follow him. I’ve always gathered those scriptures teach us more about how to treat each other than how to blindly follow someone. All that to say that I’m decidely Pro-Life, but that reading the Bible taught me to become more liberal as far as voting goes. Reading the Bible taught me to feed the hungry, take care of the sick, shelter the children, even at the expense of a little less money because of taxes. Of course, I can see how the prospect of less money would be frightening to many people since luxury SUVs and 8500 square foot houses are definitely necessities. I’ve also come to the realization that financially speaking, unless many many many church members up their donations by a great deal, there is not enough money in church and private organizations to feed the hungry, provide shelter and heal the sick. This is not to discount the money that people donate to church and non-profits; that is, of course, worthy of praise. However, it’s obviously not enough if we speak strictly in dollars and cents.

  10. I believe that reality is actually quite contrary to that belief. It took over 18 months for my aunt and uncle to receive a child through a very well known adoption agency (the name of it escapes me so you’ll just have to trust me on this one). What was odd about this though, is that they did not even specify what kind of race of child that they would like to adopt, they just wanted a baby. They eventually were given a smiley young Hispanic child and they have never been happier. What right does anyone have to take away such happiness from any family because of their own selfish desires? I believe that any child would enjoy such a chance at happiness rather than being ruthlessly chopped to pieces and sucked from the womb.

  11. Kristi – you make an excellent point. I failed to mention (although I was planning to) that abortion is not even an important issue, at least not in this election.

    Patrick – adoption is a complicated and lengthy process. I am sure that “any child would enjoy such a chance at happiness rather than being ruthlessly chopped to pieces and sucked from the womb.” However, as I mentioned earlier, we would end up with more children up for adoption than people able and/or willing to adopt them. Making abortion illegal is just not practical.

    Jon – yes, I asked Metty to use her overwhelming influence as the chair of the History department to persuade the technology staff to unblock HuffPo. Unfortunately, I think she forgot, but I will continue to bug her about it. Last time I checked, WorldNetDaily, in all of it’s right-wing and completely false glory, was unblocked. Oh well, at least Slate and Salon are available; if they block those then I will raise some serious hell.

  12. That’s so funny. I was telling my friend Walker that HuffPo and Dailykos are blocked, but WorldNetDaily isn’t.

    I also hampered Metty about it; I sure was outraged after I found out Jerome Corsi’s slime was not blocked.

  13. Dillon- Your comment that “many Christians rely on the clergy’s interpretation of the Bible” is mostly right. Many Christians say “Homosexuality is a sin” and other such things. However, Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount also denounced anger towards another, lust as a form of adultry and others which can be tied into what the 10 Commandments condemns. A nice little quote that didn’t come from Jesus but from a very smart pastor goes, “You’ve heard it said ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin. But I tell you love the sinner, hate your sin.” Many pick apart “noticable” problems such as homosexuality but the little things we take for granted like lust and anger many glaze over.

  14. Carson,

    I ordered a copy of Race Matters on Amazon and received it today. I plan to begin reading it soon; I will let you know what I think.

  15. Pingback: Thoughts on Race Matters by Dillon Sorensen « The Proletarian

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