Cornel West on American Christianity and Democracy Matters

This past week I have been reading Cornel West’s Democracy Matters, which for the most part has been an insightful read on the contemporary situation of American democracy. In one chapter, West looks at the face of American Christianity and declares that as Christians we have often capitulated to imperialism and nihilism, opting for power and wealth when we were really called to be humble and just. West calls this Constantinian Christianity, in reference to the wedding of empire and Christianity in the fourth century A.D. I have included below a direct quote from this author that I think offers some hard truths that we need to recognize about ourselves (as Christians):

“Power, might, size, status, and material possessions- all paraphernalia of the nihilism of the American empire- became major themes of American Christianity. It now sometimes seems that all Christians speak in one voice when in fact it is only that the loudness of the Constantinian element of American Christianity has so totally drowned out the prophetic voices. Imperial Christianity, market spirituality, money-obsessed churches, gospels of prosperity, prayers of let’s-make-a-deal with God or help me turn my wheel of fortune have become the prevailing voice of American Christianity. In this version of Christianity the precious blood at the foot of the cross becomes mere Kool-Aid to refresh eager upwardly mobile aspirants in the nihilistic American game of power and might. And there is hardly a word about social justice, resistance to institutional evil, or courage to confront the powers that be- with the glaring exception of abortion.” (pg. 167)

West also includes a brief sketch of contemporary views on how the church should engage in public discourse. In opposition to theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, whose position is that the church should generally stay out of the discourse and be prophetic by being a counterculture, West believes that Christians should contribute and guide the discourse by taking a stance of being-in but not-of the secular world. West points directly to Martin Luther King, JR. as someone who positioned himself in the public world but did not compromise his prophetic identity. Some really good points here, but sometimes West gets disjointed in presenting his points. Overall a good read though.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, For the Kingdom..., Social Justice

2 responses to “Cornel West on American Christianity and Democracy Matters

  1. I love that quote in the middle of the second paragraph. His voice rallying against ‘imperialist Christianity’ certain resonates.

    Just to wander a little bit… I’m curious about West’s reference to Dr. King. You and I, as white, suburban, religious Americans certainly hear Dr. King’s voice as prophetic – shaming us into loving our brothers and sisters with his corrective voice and resistance of violence. However, others from different backgrounds and perspectives have talked about hearing Dr. King as a Priestly voicing calling all of us, black and white, to a Beloved Community, representing the voice of Christ himself. Still others hear a voice who has been victimized by systems of oppression and humiliation and yet who has found the courage to speak with conviction thanks to the liberating, Exodus-freeing hand of God. I don’t know that Dr. King ever directly describes himself as a prophet, but its amazing how so many folks can see such a prominent and powerful theologian/leader from such different perspectives.

  2. Jared

    I think that Dr. King’s voice has been pulled into the arbitrary heading of “civil rights”. That language has stripped it of its prophetic offense and communal implications. When prophets like King are lumped in with a Malcom X or (God forbid) Jesse Jackson/ Al Sharpton their voices become talking points on policy decisions and not offensive poetic/prophetic discourse.

    For the church in teh US to grasp what King was saying we’ll have to abandon the false way we have understood king all these years and read him through the lens of the suffering Lord. I think that the “precious blood at the foot of the cross becomes mere Kool-Aid to refresh eager upwardly mobile aspirants in the nihilistic American game of power and might”. The remedy is not fully engaging “democratically” with the current powers, it’s placing Jesus as our rubric or hermeneutic or whatever you want to call it, over the world. Being couter culture is not good enough. Jesus redeemed everythign over which he is Lord, that includes human intercourse (i.e. culture).

    There is a need for us to immitate YHWH by hovering over the dark, lifeless waters a nd bring forth light, vitality and beauty.

    But what does that look like?

    Grace and Peace,
    Jared

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