A decade ago, urgently written during an escalating "war on terror," a warrantless surveillance program and two gigantic tax breaks for the wealthy, Cornel West's Democracy Matters: Winning The Fight Against Imperialism emerged as a manifesto for people of faith and conscience in the post-9/11 North American context. West, then a professor at Princeton and quickly becoming the most popular American public intellectual, highlighted three anti-democratic dogmas threatening to devour American society: free-market fundamentalism, escalating authoritarianism and aggressive militarism. Democracy Matters, 10 years later, in a world of whistleblowers and whittling budgets, is more important than ever.
Democracy Matters is a reminder to us all that the Republicans--proclaimers of the gospel of small government except when it depends upon big government to subsidize church leaders, ban recreational drugs, sanctify "traditional marriage," deport immigrants and militarize the globe--do not have a monopoly on anti-democratic dogmas. Indeed, in the age of Obama, with Gitmo still open for business, Edward Snowden on the run and a proliferation of drone strikes abroad and deportations on the home front, both parties are indicted in a system that remains, after centuries, allergic to genuine democratic sensibilities. As Jeffrey Stout, a close colleague of West's at Princeton, proclaims in his Obama-era Blessed Are The Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (2012):
…democracy isn’t dead, but only because it was never really alive. Our ancestors claimed to have a democratic republic, but what they really had was a system for exploiting slaves, women, and other disadvantaged groups while setting up equally effective mechanisms for dominating the peoples of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America.What side of history we are on is a question for the present, learned from the past. Dr. West prods the reader with what is really at stake and whether we are going to participate in the ideal of democracy for all or imperialist dreams. No matter how we slice it, we are either activists or inactivists.
For those of us radical disciples engaged in the struggle for church renewal and social reform, West's 5th chapter, entitled "The Crisis Of Christian Identity In America" ought to be a script re-read and rehearsed annually. It is a clear and concise analysis of the deep tension between what he calls "Constantinian" and "Prophetic" options of North American Christianity.
Drawing on the label utilized by the late Mennonite theologian & Notre Dame professor John Howard Yoder and popularized by Duke Divinity School's Stanley Hauerwas, Constantinian Christians build on the legacy of 4th century Roman emperor Constantine who strategically incorporated Christianity into his imperial program, giving Christianity unprecedented legitimacy and respectability, but as West laments "robbed it of the prophetic fervor of Jesus." As the contemporary Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains:
Most of Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence, simplicity, downward mobility, forgiveness of enemies & inclusivity, has had no strong effect on the entire history of Christianity, except on those few in every generation & every denomination who do the full journey.Or according to the anarchist French philosopher Jacques Ellul:
History bears witness that in generation after generation there has been a highly respected social class (that of priests) whose task is to make Christianity the very opposite of what it really is.Modern day Constantinians aren't just "conservative." They are part of a 100 generation legacy of "believers" whose focus on a personal relationship with Jesus and a guaranteed eternal salvation in heaven leave them content living with the socio-political status quo, perhaps with a little bit of charity and paternalism sprinkled on. These American Christians are deeply sincere, West notes, but they are caught up in a movement that justifies and supports empire:
Their understanding of American history is thin and their grasp of Christian history is spotty, which leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by Christian leaders and misinformation by imperial rulers.In the past 40 years, partly as a reaction to the civil rights gains of the 60s, far too many white Evangelical suburban churches and organizations have become caught up (somewhat ignorantly) in a political movement that Nobel prize economist Paul Krugman described last week as “an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda, meanwhile providing a support network for political and ideological loyalists.”
Abortion, gay marriage & "religious liberty" have been consistently used as "biblical" wedges used to fear-monger electoral participation from passionate Evangelicals & Catholics masses. Once in office, politicians place priorities on economic policy-making that leap-frogs poor and middle-class folks for the corporate interests that overwhelmingly fund the PACs and Super-PACs that got them into power. The 1st century Jesus of the Gospels who was sent to his execution after he overturned the tables of the monied-class has been replaced by his 21st century followers who have become obsessed with a theological and political playbook diametrically opposed to the teachings and lifestyle of their Messiah.
The tight-knit coalition of church, business and government leaders, what Yoder called "the Constintinian concubinage," is pervasive in upwardly mobile (mostly) white suburban churches. After all, who do we think funds the building projects? All we have to do is follow the money. Of course, West doesn't so much have a problem with the buildings, but with the theology that is consistently preached inside them, inherently justifying the privileged lifestyles of congregants by remaining silent on the systemic crises that bell hooks summarizes as "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy."
Prophetic Christians, on the other hand, are those with a bias towards the bottom. They place a priority on both prayers and policies that protect and provide for the most vulnerable in the world. This American Christian tradition has been highlighted by the abolitionists, the women's suffragists, the trade union movement and the civil rights freedom riders. It is the legacy of Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Phil & Daniel Berrigan, William Sloan Coffin, MLK, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin Mays & Howard Thurman.
This must be a tradition, according to West, where "imperial realities are acknowledged and prophetic legacies are revitalized." But West's work is realistic and cries out for a resurrection of an adamantly Christian commitment to truth-telling in this contest over the soul of America:
The movement led by Martin Luther King--the legacy of which has been hijacked by imperial Christians--forged the most subtle and significant democratic Christian identity of modern times. And it now lies in ruins. Can prophetic Christians make its dry bones live again?To be sure, prophetic Christian communities, defying the right-left "culture war" narrated by mainstream media, are hard to find on the North American landscape. They lack corporate money & access to mainstream (corporate-sponsored) media and most upwardly-mobile professionals reject this faith option for the respectability of Constantinian options that fill the suburbs. To add insult to impoverishment, prophetic Christians consistently take unpopular stands on socio-political issues, exposing the racism of the American criminal justice system, rallying against the fear-based economic agenda of U.S. military aggression, documenting the deception of trickle-down tax policy and free trade initiatives while standing in solidarity with all those who suffer through housing, health care and hunger issues. The prophetic Christianity narrated in Democracy Matters is performed courageously by the Open Door Community of Atlanta, the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, the Wilderness Way of Portland, Spiritus Christi Catholic of Rochester, the Romero House of Toronto, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries of Southern California, the Alternative Seminary of Philly, Jonah House of Baltimore, St. Peter's Episcopal of Detroit and the various Catholic Worker cells of hospitality all over North America, in addition to plenty of other covert operations in the most surprising of locales.
A decade before Democracy Matters was published, the activist and bible scholar Ched Myers wrote Who Will Roll Away The Stone? Discipleship Queries For First World Christians (1994), the on-the-ground theological sequel (for the imperial context) to his Binding The Strong Man: A Political Reading Of Mark's Story of Jesus (1988). In the introduction to Who Will Roll, Myers proposes 4 main reasons why so many of us are prone to "seek refuge in political ambivalence":
1. As we continue to experience worldly comfort and privilege, we become more and more insulated from those for whom ‘the system’ does not work.These forces are very difficult to identify, let alone tame. It will take a whole lot of rigorous personal inventory to have the kind of prophetic imagination that these times call for. No matter what, as West scripts in Democracy Matters, seeking refuge in political ambivalence is unfaithful to the way of Jesus who was executed for his consistent and creative confrontation with the socio-political forces of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.
2. We assume that our socio-political structures are the lesser of evils and, unfortunately, cannot think of a better alternative.
3. We figure the contemporary political issues are too complicated for the church to deal with.
4. Christian leaders have struck an ideological bargain with secular capitalism, authority over the public sphere to the State in hopes of retaining a modicum of authority over the private sphere.
West's commitment to the legacy of Martin Luther King is tremendously commendable and his courageous critique of the Obama Administration is a gift and a model for prophetic Christian communities. Now more than ever, Democracy Matters deserves to be read by Christian leaders and laity alike and it ought to be required reading in seminaries, which notoriously lack social analysis.
My wife and I first read Democracy Matters, by hearing it on audio book on a road trip to Berkeley 5 summers ago. West's apocalyptic voice cajoled and challenged us, unveiling the nihilistic forces that dehumanize and denigrate too many vulnerable souls in our world. This summer, whatever your destination, make room for West's Democracy Matters in your suitcase. I must warn you though: you won't come home the same.